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A Million Voices

Chapter Text

Sharp bits of rock crunched under my hands as I tried to push myself up from the ground. A thick layer of dust-fine dirt smoothed their path, but the motion was still scarcely more than a twitch.

It was too quiet. The noise of my own body on what felt like the floor of a derelict, long abandoned warehouse was all I heard at first, followed by a wind that seemed heavy and thick with presage.

Then the smell hit me: charred flesh. Burned hair. I knew these smells, nauseating and sickly sweet, but the knowledge of how I knew them didn't follow as it should. It was information without context. I noticed residual heat in the ground, as if a fire had just been there all around me, and suddenly realized - or was it remembered? - that most of what I was breathing in likely wasn't dust. It was ash. Remains.

My breath sucked in reflexively, shallow and short, and I inhaled too much of what was on the ground. It made me cough, which sent more spraying up into my face and lungs. I managed to get my hands under me enough to lift my shoulders and belly off the ground, and balanced on palms and hip and thigh as I slowly cracked my eyes open.

Corpses were everywhere, some piled on top of one another. Maybe thirty feet away was a long line of them, half stacked atop one another. There must have been an aisle of some sort that they had been crowded into. My stomach turned and I had to clench down on its sudden desire to empty itself.

The bodies were charred, so charred that there were no clothes, no faces, no features. Only their sizes gave clues to what gender they might have been. There appeared to be a child, though it was unusually broad. I tried to tell myself that it was better that way, better not to be able to make out too much. No staring eyes, no frozen pain or fear or shock. But that was worse somehow, as if they were denied the respect of even having really existed, as if everything they had ever been was wiped from the earth along with their lives.

I took in the scale of what looked to have been a truly massive explosion and wondered if they’d even had time to be afraid. Something in me shuddered, and I truly hoped they didn't. But the forms told a different story. Some were on their stomachs and clearly trying to escape what was the source of the. . . blast? But no. No, it hadn't been a bomb, it couldn't have been. There was enough destruction for one, but it was all wrong. Pieces of building and earth were fused together and pushing up at an angle from the epicenter in spikes. It was like this place was a pool of water and something had dropped into it, leaving straight, rigid shards of water frozen in time. Everything was charred, blackened like wood too long in a fire. The smallest of the protrusions were as big around as my waist, the largest easily fifty times that size, and most were studded with bits of glowing red that were nothing like coals holding onto old heat. It was more like someone had stuck shards of angry light inside of them, and I wondered if they were why something in the air felt so very wrong.

I looked down at myself. I was the cleanest, most in tact thing I could see, dirty from the ground and the air, but otherwise I looked like I had somehow been transplanted here. If not for the fact that I felt like I was one solid bone-deep bruise, I might have thought my presence at all was the impossibility, rather than the fact that a massive, horrifying blast had somehow skipped right over me. I noticed all of this in the same instant it took me to realize that I was completely naked. Lacerations covered my flesh from limbs to breasts to stomach, and ugly patches of blood under skin, some bigger than my head, were blooming. Something about me looked. . . off, but I couldn't quite tell why. Most concerning by far was the pink, red, purple, and black radiating from my abdomen in a spot so large that the area was almost entirely covered.

I was bleeding internally, so badly that I might be lucky to have woken up at all.

I quickly scanned over the rest of myself. My head felt cloudy, but lucid enough. If I had a concussion, it was probably minor. I didn't feel any bone injuries, at least. But that didn't mean I didn't have any. I could feel my wounds but I wasn’t overwhelmed by them, so either I was impossibly lucky and a massive amount of adrenaline was numbing the pain, or shock hadn't truly started to set in yet. Given that my extremities were starting to feel cold, I doubted that luck would hold long.

The damage to the world around me extended as far as I could see, but my view was limited to the huge sunken room I seemed to be in - all around were the blackened and broken remains of a heavy stone wall, and I could just make out the flat surface of ground at its top. I must have been in a basement or sunken room, the rest of the building now peeled back to give an unhindered view of the sky.

I hoped to god I could move well enough to get up stairs or, if they weren't still in tact, find a gentle slope of rubble to scale. If I could manage to get to my feet and move well at all, I doubted I'd be able to keep it up for long.

All I wanted to do was lay back down, but I couldn't wait here for help. I had no idea where “here” was, and couldn't see outside of the space I was in well enough to try and get a feel for what might be around me. I also didn't hear any shouting. No cries for help, no voices raised in alarm. I could have been in the middle of nowhere, or it could have been that the explosion had carried much, much farther than I could guess. I was so near the epicenter as to practically be on top of it; this would be the last place anyone would check for survivors.

If I didn't get myself out of there, I might not live through the rest of the daylight hours, which I assumed to be few - it looked like evening from the shadows and the way the light looked gold. But not quite gold. There was a green cast, a color that pricked and pulled at something in my mind--

A memory flooded me:

The world is hazy and shifting and green as jade.

Someone takes my hand and a voice speaks, rough and smooth and tired and strong and echoing in my mind like a memory. It is hollow and whole; there is no timbre, no octave, nothing that makes a voice a voice. It grates on my brain, like bugs crawling over skin.

“Little One,” it greets me, its not-voice warm and fond.

I look up to the person who is helping me to my feet among dirt and rock that appears as if it is trying to decide if it wants to be dirt and rock or change to something else. Its form is so blurred that I can’t make out more than a vague sense of its shape.

I squint at it, then look around me, assuming there is something wrong with my eyes. A sudden wind blows my hair into my face, but everything is as clear and sharp as it was a moment ago - unusually sharp, in fact. And I can see too far into the distance, to rock and land and trees all floating gently in the air and whole patches of empty nothing beyond.

All I can tell about the figure is that it is tall and human and has long, radiant golden hair. The strangest clawing ache squeezes at my chest though I can make nothing out but the person’s form - it is as if a thick film hangs in the air between us. Even its touch is unsteady, there and not there.

It is then that I notice the person is holding something in its other hand: the wrist of a woman who is lying on the ground behind it. I can make out only the pale skin and dark hair of a woman. She seems to be unconscious, and scratched and bruised, and the person before me does not seem to care. A glow comes from the hand the person is holding that matches the strange tint to the air and land.

“Everything has changed since we spoke last,” the person says. There is a strange lilt to the way it speaks. “I shan’t ruin the plot for you, so I’ll keep the instructions simple.” It is cool, but I can feel an almost manic excitement coming from it.

Its “voice” sets fear moving in an old, well-worn groove at the heart of me.

“Who ar-” I begin, and my voice warbles as if I am trying to speak through honey. The person cuts me off.

“Hush.” It is not friendly, or a request. “Now. I have taken from you. But it is in your best interest and,” here I hear a smile in its voice, “you will find that I’ve given much more than I have taken.” It turns businesslike, and here clearly begins the instruction. “At your feet are going to be laid opportunities and resources. Use them. Study, grow and, most importantly, find who you are. Not the details, those don’t matter. But the heart, that you must nurture.”

It pauses, and I can feel it studying me. “I wish I could say more, but I cannot. Not yet.

“Keep your eyes open, and that heart true. You will need both, and all the strength you possess. Keep to those, and you will do everything you-- everything we--”

It makes a noise, half growl, half laugh.

“I’ll come for you when it’s time, Little One. When you are ready. Until then. . . keep yourself safe.” It releases its hold on the wrist of the woman behind it and reaches up. Familiar as if it has done it a thousand times, it strokes my cheek. It is the warm gesture of a fond mother. “Our road will be over soon.”

It removes its hand, fingertips stroking my chin. "And your way back is nearly here." As it leans down to retrieve the woman’s wrist and twines its fingers with mine, it speaks again, its not-voice wry.

"And one last piece of advice, hmm? Don’t waste your time in search of me. You have more important things to do, and I will be as dust on the wind to your little toys. I will be lost until. . . until it is time."

Before I can manage more than a confused parting of lips, its grip turns to iron and its fingers dig into my flesh viciously. It leans in to whisper in my ear. “The pain cannot be avoided.”

Agony shoots from my hand up into my chest, down my legs, to my brain and my bones and to the very core of my being and I scream, throat shredding around the cry.

The world condenses to sharp whiteness. Time, body and mind, and the world around me all cease to exist.

What can’t be an instant later it all comes rushing back like the crush of an ocean wave. It feels as if my right hand and forearm have been thrust into the heart of a star.

The screaming has gotten worse, louder and louder, impossibly loud until I think my ear drums will rupture. It is a noise beyond sound, like cutting shards of glass and I would do anything to make it stop.

I realize it isn't me screaming - it is the woman on the ground. She is writhing and thrashing and clawing and the sounds that tear from her are no longer human, no longer possible, and I swear the make the very air shake, but the blurred person clutches her just as unerringly as it still holds onto me. Its face is turned to the woman on the ground and though I can't see its features I can feel its utter disdain, as if watching her agony carries no more impact than watching a single leaf fall to the ground in an Autumn wind as you walk by.

My stomach heaves. I realize I am sobbing uncontrollably, begging maybe, crying out for the sound to stop, for the pain to stop, clawing at the person’s hand in mine, but if it feels it, it doesn’t care.

Echoes of the sharp pain are flitting through me like bundles of white-hot razor blades and I feel my muscles twitch and spasm and contract around them and god but I would do anything to shut out the screams. They are shredding through me so mercilessly that I don’t even have room inside to realize that they mean someone is in enough pain to be making them. Someone is dying, worse than dying, and I either don’t know or can’t care.

Pins and needles begin to prick at my face and my chest and my limbs, and like clouds moving over the sun, everything sinks to black nothingness.

I came back to the world with a start, a strange buzzing in my head, and suddenly my injuries were more sharp, the ground more hard, the smell of ash and death more overpowering, as if reality had doubled over on itself and increased in size.

I heard voices now, nearby, and wondered if I had disappeared for a time while the memory took me. I heard footsteps before heads began to appear on the small horizon, cautious but numerous. They were clad in silver and crimson and they looked. . . sickly. Tired and marked and sun-worn. I could hear them talking to one another, but couldn’t make out what they were saying.

I opened my mouth and sucked in a breath to call to them, but the moment my stomach muscles clenched, my insides screamed and I started to cough. Globlets of red spattered into the ash in front of me and black crowded around my vision, covering a pain so intense I didn’t have words for it.

I looked back up and saw a woman looking right at me, eyes wide, loose strands of dull brown hair waving over her face, mouth open to shout.

I heard the yell just before I went down, too dizzy and light to hold myself up any longer. My vision blacked out and I felt my head hit the ground and bounce heavily before coming to rest, but there was no pain. There was no pain anywhere. I was so tired. . . .

Heavy footfalls echoed in my head like heat and fluttering heartbeats--

Chapter Text

“She’s just here, ser. We wanted to cover her, but thought it best not to disturb anything before you arrived.”

“Maker,” Cullen breathed when the unconscious woman came into view, every bit as bereft of clothing as reported. He could see the muted, sickly green light coming from her right hand. It was the same color, jade and unnaturally bright, as the hole in the sky and the solid, unwavering column of light that connected it to what could only be described as a rip in the air not fifteen feet off the ground. That tear was wider than he was tall, and several times that height. It jarred against him like rock scraping bone.

The woman was on the ground across from the tear, on the other side of what remained of the room’s giant central column. She was large for an elf, likely taller than most men of her kind and without the slight, waifish build typical among elven women. She appeared fit and, most surprisingly, in better health than even any noble he had ever seen. Under the dirt and tangled mess of hair and disturbing number of wounds, he could tell she must be uncommonly attractive by dint of that alone, likely fed well and free of disease since childhood. Her facial structure was unlike that of any elf he had ever seen - less angular and drawn. A prized servant, perhaps, though he hesitated to think on what would cause any patron to so dote on a beautiful subservient girl.

One healer was bent over her while another worked on getting potion after potion down her throat. There was no one else left alive for them to work on. The woman may have impossibly survived the blast, but she was worse the wear for it; she looked like she had been brutalized. Out of respect for her modesty, his soldiers had not yet begun combing this area of the ruins. There was more than enough to keep them busy elsewhere.

The healer not feeding her potions moved down her body to examine her thighs, so Cullen tugged his armor covering from the tops of his trousers and slipped out of it. He lay the soft fabric over her upper body and hips, the thick fur at its top draped across slender shoulders - slender for some human women, but quite broad for an elf.

Creaking groans Cullen was all too familiar with sounded from around the other side of the central column. Without a moment’s hesitation, his sword was out of its scabbard and he was ordering the healers to flee and calling for his men. Immediately he heard the clatter of dozens of boots headed in his direction. He would not risk being undercautious until they knew what the lights and wounds in the air meant; he knew too well what strange magic could do.

A form, slightly larger than that of a man, sickly gray and decrepit, walked around the pillar on spindly, quavering legs. Sharp nails, ripped and jagged at the ends of overlong fingers were tapping a rhythm against the stone as it moved, its eyes already locked on its prey - at the moment, the woman on the ground. It was hunched over on itself as if weak, and was half rotted and looked so frail that it could be knocked over in a strong breeze. Cullen knew better. Hunger demons had the strength of ten men, and underestimating them was deadly.

He put himself between the demon and the woman. Its eyes, little more than unnaturally hollow black pits with pinpricks of light in their depths, slid up to him. He wasn't near green enough to take the bait and leave the woman’s side to charge it. The glow in the middle of its “eyes” flared to life, indicating it had found its target and was going to attack. The demon coiled to charge, but before it could close the distance, one of Cullen’s soldiers - Rigby, a seasoned man - charged in with a shout and engaged. Cullen left him to it. His priority was and must be getting the woman to safety. There were too many questions she may be able to answer and ultimately, though it would do little good, she may be the one to face punishment for what had happened here.

A second hunger demon chuffed a dry, hoarse call as it came from nowhere and leapt high into the air to get behind Rigby. More men joined the battle as the tear in the sky swelled and flared. The mark on the woman’s hand seemed to echo it, and discomfort feathered over an otherwise peaceful expression.

She groaned in obvious pain at the same moment two more demons appeared, and this time Cullen saw where they were coming from: the tear. He cursed under his breath. Sheathing his sword in one smooth motion and gathering the woman up into his arms, he shouted at his men to hold ground as long as they could. He turned and ran, trying to keep the worst of the jouncing from the woman. Even after the work the healers had done, she looked in terrible shape. Some of the lacerations on her may never fully heal, and he had seen men die from less bleeding than she had under the skin of her abdomen.

She muttered something unintelligible, and Cullen looked down in surprise as he continued to hurry - up stairs, around a corner, down a hall, more stairs, out into the open again - but her eyes were still closed, brows pinched together. She moaned something more, half pleading, half demanding, and Cullen realized it wasn’t unintelligible - it was a foreign tongue, unlike any he had ever heard. He felt her muscles bunch and twitch in the throes of whatever dream she was having, and tears broke up some of the ash that covered her face.

“It’s alright,” Cullen murmured to her. Unconscious, she seemed more a victim than a villain, but he knew better than anyone how deceiving appearances could be. He only thanked the Maker he wasn’t the one to have to sort this out.

Cullen clenched his jaw and pushed on until he reached the small forward camp that had been hastily set up just outside what was once the entrance to the most holy building in all of Thedas. He quickly sent more soldiers to the scar and a runner to get reinforcements from Haven. At the direction of the healers who had been working on her, he moved to a small medical tent and carefully laid her on a bedroll on the ground.

 

* * * * *

 

The man, an elf dressed in humble traveling clothes and wearing a small, worn supply pack, held his hands up in supplication, but made no other move against the sword Cassandra had pointed at him. Cullen and Leliana were ready to do the same, but only one visibly so.

“Please,” Solas said, his voice calm and sincere. “I came only to help. I believe what is happening here may have a direct connection to the Fade, as I said.” He cast his eyes up to the giant swirling mass of green in the clouds, directly above the newly-made crater that was once the Temple of Sacred Ashes. “I believe what we see here may be a tear of sorts, a breach in this world that connects directly to the to the other side, and one likely to attract unwanted attention.”

“What sort of attention?” Cullen asked. A simple enough test, given that he already knew the answer.

“I cannot say for certain, but if the breach is as violent as I fear, the result could be a great many demons coming through to this side, or spirits being pulled through and warped into demons as a result of the turmoil. Not something your Chantry teaches or approves of, I understand, but that is the way of it, and the result will be the same either way. Left unchecked, it may grow worse. Larger and more violent.”

"You are an apostate," Cassandra accused. "A hedge mage?"

"That is the fate of all mages now, is it not?" His eyes softened. "I have spent my life studying the Fade. I came here of my own free will, knowing the risk of revealing myself to you, especially at a time like this. What is happening now threatens us all, mage and non-mage alike. I came only to offer my help, and my knowledge. It is at your disposal if you wish it. If you do not, I will leave as I came, and you need never see me again.”

Cassandra cast glances at Cullen and Leliana, and seeing no objection, cautiously returned her weapon to its sheath. “I suppose it is too much to hope that you know what to do about it?”

“Regrettably no. At least not yet. I can promise nothing, but with study, I may be able to find a solution, or at the very least a way to mitigate the damage or slow its growth.”

“Actually,” Cullen hedged, casting a glance to the two women in case they should object, “there is something. A woman was found at the foot of this Breach, as you call it. She appears to be the only survivor, and bears a mark in her hand that. . . reacts to it, swells and glows whenever it does. It has the same light as this Breach. . . and,” he added, tone sobering even further, “the tear underneath it that is spitting demons out as we speak. She seemed to be in pain when some of them emerged.”

“Fascinating,” Solas said, taking a small step forward, interest obvious in his eyes. The man was either up to something, or the naturally curious sort. “That mark may provide a key to all of this, or at least information that can help us figure out how to proceed. May I speak with her? Examine the mark, perhaps?”

“She is unconscious,” Cassandra said, voice stony. “She was badly wounded. Our healers are tending to her now.”

Solas nodded. “Of course. If you do not object, perhaps I can examine her mark while they do so? I know something of healing and can stay well out of their way. I would not ask, but I believe it is best to act as quickly as possible. This may grow considerably worse at any moment.”

Cassandra cast a glance behind her at the large mass in the sky, then turned back and shook her head. “I cannot. . . Commander, can you handle this? I fear I will not be objective. I will return to Haven and see to getting more men and supplies to hold us over while we figure out what to do.”

“Of course, Cassandra.” Cullen replied, seeing the weariness in her face and the deep sorrow that she hid. It was a look only people who have known too much loss can have. For she and Leliana both, what now seemed the inarguable death of the Divine had been more than simply a matter of faith.

“I will likely be of no use here, so I will return as well,” Leliana said. “Let us know when you find something. I will send agents to assist in the search.”

Cassandra pulled Cullen and Leliana aside and insisted that the apostate be watched closely, especially around the Breach and the woman. “I do not trust him,” she said, “but I also understand that we cannot afford to turn away help. Not now.”

A weary, wry grin tugged at one side of Cullen’s mouth. “I was hardly going to give him free run of the camp, Cassandra.”

“All the same. Leliana, can you spare more of your people to watch him?”

Leliana nodded. “Of course. This man may be who he says he is, but until we know what has happened, we cannot afford to trust anyone.”

“The healers likely need more time to ensure she lives through the night," Cullen said. "I’ll have him wait for one of your people and ensure he’s watched closely until then.”

Both women agreed, then gave their leave and departed.

Cullen looked up at the massive wound in the sky, the “Breach,” for a moment before addressing Solas. “I’ll leave it to the healers to decide when she's stable enough for any kind of study, but I’ll ask they not be too conservative about it. I'll speak with them now, but in the meantime, I’m afraid I must ask that you stay within the camp. I can promise your safety so long as you give us no reason to doubt you, but until we know what happened, we cannot be too cautious. I hope you can understand.”

“Of course. Caution is wise after such a tragedy. I will be ready to examine the mark as soon as possible.”

Cullen gave a nod, then entered the healing tent. Soft murmurs could be heard from inside. Murmurs to everyone but Solas, who heard every word clearly.

For his part, he looked at the entrance to the tent for a long moment until it was clear that the woman would remain blocked from view, then turned his face up to the breach. His brow creased subtly, a tightness in his eyes than no one who did not know him well would be able to see. Distant sounds of battle - the templar's soldiers, he supposed - were the only other thing to be heard. The wildlife had fled the area and even the very air was quiet.

The Breach swelled and twisted and immediately, pained screams from the tent ripped his attention away. There was a moment of shouting before the Commander darted out, his eyes going straight to Solas. "It's doing. . . something! We can barely hold her down! Can you help?"

Solas hurried forward, taking the Commander's place within the tent. The woman was thrashing, her head turned away from him, but the pain in her scent was nearly caustic, strong enough to break through the stink of the quicklings and the fire and death of this place. He dropped to his knees and gripped her hand, connecting his own magic to the mark. It was wild, fighting a home in which it didn't belong, fighting magic that didn't match his, and screaming as the Breach welled and tried to find a place of sense in a world that was no longer made to afford it.

Only one healer remained, holding her legs to try to keep her from hurting someone. Solas braced a forearm on her upper chest and gave a suitable impression of straining to hold her down. The mark in her palm tasted oddly of something foreign, but he ignored it for now in favor of the task at hand. His errant power began to settle the moment his magic came into contact with it, but he was careful to hold himself back so it would look like he was struggling. As she calmed, the healer slowly released her and sat back on his haunches, panting. Which Solas was immediately grateful for the moment he opened his eyes and saw her still face, now pointing up toward the canvas ceiling. Covered in bandages and poultices though it was, he felt nothing but shock.

By the time the healers were moving back in and the Commander was re-entering the tent, his features were schooled into a sober mask. He asked permission and began to "study" the mark, as intended, meticulously burying how personal the task had now become. This woman could change everything, the face of his every plan. He had nothing but questions. There would be time later, if only he could fix this.

He refused to hear any of the questions roiling through him - there would be time later for that, too, and right then, he needed to concentrate to ensure she would live. If there was a way to pull the mark from her and fix the Breach himself, this would all be infinitely easier. Until he sank into his work, it took all of his discipline, every bit of it hard-won, to focus.

Chapter Text

As Cassandra lead me, keeping me in her line of sight, she was beyond tense, but focused and driven to match. Heavy impacts could be heard in the distance, meteor-like green slag shooting to the earth like stars from the angry wound in the sky. So could shouting and cries. Every move the hole made, I felt a whispered echo of it in my palm. But despite all of that, with every step I took away from the town and up into the tree-lined mountain paths, every step closer to the source of all this chaos and the charred death I had woken to, I felt more calm. Because with every step, every breath, every pulse, I found I knew more and more about what was happening, beyond where I was and who I was following.

I knew I had woken in the remnants of a Conclave meant to end the civil war that was tearing apart the continent. I knew what caused that war. I knew the name and details of the town below us and the country we were in and the world we were on. I knew of the Fifth Blight and the sentient Darkspawn and the disasters in Kirkwall. I knew the world’s problems, the names of its rulers and its rivalries.

I knew what the Breach was. I knew what caused it and and how it would be closed, and I knew of the Rifts already appearing all over the continent and spewing out demons, warped spirits of their own creation. I knew the people I would meet, I knew which ones would stay close to me, and I knew what the mark on my hand would make me.

Herald.

Inquisitor.

All of it sat with the weight and familiarity of old knowledge, as if it was long-held memories I was recovering, rather than information on a world from which I knew in my bones I did not come. Not a country, not a continent. A world.

Words of the figure who welded the mark into my bone and flesh came back to me: At your feet are going to be laid opportunities and resources. Use them.

And before that: I have taken from you. But it is in your best interest and you will find that I’ve given much more than I have taken.

And whoever- whatever it had been, it had spoken in English. What the fuck was it?

Don’t waste your time in search of me. You have more important things to do, and I will be as dust on the wind to your little toys. I will be lost until. . . until it is time.

My “toys” must be the Inquisition, my companions, and Leliana’s agents. And somehow, I had no doubt that it had been telling the truth, that any search would be an utter waste of resources. Which was the term I needed to get used to thinking in, given how much I was about to be put in charge of. I wanted very much to just stop and put my head in my hand for a moment.

My stomach roiled, and it had nothing to do with any of the things that should be making me feel ill. In fact, aside from whispering coils of what I forced myself to bury in the dungeon, I felt no panic at all, only calm, hard focus. I realized - remembered - that it was a trait of mine, keeping my head in crises. It was so far the only thing I remembered about myself, and I clung to it like a child would cling to a favorite blanket, as if it could prove I existed.

Impossibly, my senses had been sharpening as memories had filled my head. I could see individual crystals in the snowbanks around us. Bugs in cracks of bark on trees. I was seeing new colors. Loud sounds were almost deafening, and I heard what I quickly realized was Cassandra’s heartbeat. If I payed attention, I could pick out heartbeats from Haven, some fifty, eighty feet below us now. And I smelled everything, frozen pitch, snow, Cassandra’s hair and the metal and leather of her armor, what I assumed was the polish she used on both. The fact that she desperately needed a bath. I smelled the sweat on her skin even as it instantly cooled in the freezing air. Air that should have me immobile by now, given that I was barefoot and my top half was essentially covered in nothing but tissue. But I wasn't cold.

More than once, I had to stop when this new sensory information threatened to overwhelm. Given how I was hunched over on myself and clutching my head, Cassandra probably thought I was in pain from the mark, and she did her best to give me a moment each time, but she made it clear that we needed to keep moving.

We passed a portcullis where, again, every set of eyes tracked my progress, and were on a wide stone bridge. I discovered that it wasn't so much that Cassandra needed a bath as it was that, apparently, no one else could smell the almost overpowering stink of body odor on themselves. I gave myself a surreptitious sniff, but smelled only my own skin and the herbal scent of the bandages and poultices all over me.

Cassandra had cut my restraints after a few more warning words, at least, and was rummaging through a chest guarded by two soldiers when another spark from the turbulent, agitated Breach fell, this one almost on top of us. It blew apart the bridge with an ear-splitting boom as if it were made of brittle paper rather than mortar and stone. We went crashing down with the rubble. I hit the side of a rock wall, bounced off, and slammed into to the hard ice below.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but try not to panic at the fact that I couldn’t draw breath. When I was finally able to suck in a lungful of air, then another, I began examining myself for serious injuries and was stunned to find none. The fall had to have been at least fifteen hard, debris-crowded feet.

Cassandra shouted something at me and I looked up and saw her, sword out, running to engage a small group of the most horrifying creatures I had ever seen.

Like an instinct or reflex, the life in the air moved around me, pushing and pulling and urging me into action. Confused, and worried over the woman taking a pounding a few dozen feet away, I rose carefully to my feet. I could do nothing but watch anxiously as she threw her shield up and absorbed a two-fisted blow from a rage demon - a hulking creature twice her height made of billowing heat and muscle and claws.

Out of nowhere I felt a blinding, white-hot pain on my back. I cried out and arched away from it reflexively. I put a foot out to catch my weight, then pivoted and turned the motion into a spin, swiveling around on the balls of my feet. As I did I threw my hand out in a slicing motion--

And the head of a despair demon, fingers moulded to claws and shining with my blood, separated from its body. Its form remained upright for a second or two before toppling sideways to the ice, where the whole of it then broke apart like sticky sand and simply. . . vanished.

Chest heaving like a bellows, staring fixedly at where it had lain on the ground, I heard Cassandra’s voice behind me. It was. . . cautious?

I blinked and turned to her. I felt confused, disoriented, like my mind wasn’t keeping up with the rest of me. Cassandra looked angry, but it was tempered by something I couldn't make out. I felt like I should be able to, but I couldn't.

We stared at one another until I realized my hand was still in the air and lowered it slowly. I knew this feeling. Coming down from adrenaline. My field of vision was widening, sounds and smells were coming back. But it was more than that. I was fuzzy, almost numbed. I realized I was shaking and that my back was. . . stinging.

I was glad Cassandra couldn’t tell me what’s wrong with it. If I had known, it would hurt more and I’d have been ginger with it. The look of worry in her eyes - the eyes of a woman who knew battle and blood - was bad enough. Better to pretend it hurt worse than it was, even as I felt the warmth of my blood already making the tunic stick to the skin of my back.

I put the pieces together much more slowly than I should have been able to. Numbed pain. Slow mental processes. Confusion. Whatever the demon had done to my back, it was severe, and my body was sparing me the pain. I prayed I wasn't going into shock, even as I knew it was a useless prayer.

Before I could feel afraid, I brushed past her and moved toward a dip in the hill bordering our tiny lake so we could get back on our way. In the part of my mind that wasn’t pretending, that could still think, I knew I needed to waste no time in getting to someone who could help me.

I winced and hissed in pain as I lifted an arm to begin climbing up the short grade. Cassandra said a soft word behind me - soft for her - and, fingertips brushing my arm since I supposed she hardly wanted to surprise me after what I’d just done, moved past to climb up first. Then she got down on her belly on the frozen ground and held a hand down to help me up. I looked from it to her face in surprise for only a moment before taking it, doing everything I could to hide the stinging, tearing pain in the flesh of my back. Involuntary tears of pain pricked at my eyes, and I quickly swallowed them back with a wet sniff.

Cassandra wasn’t fooled.

Blood was coming from my wound so quickly that even in the frigid air, it couldn’t freeze fast enough to cover its own warmth.

Chapter Text

The mark was shaped like a long, jagged tear in fabric, one that I knew would match the shapes of the Rifts we would close. Under its green glow was a gentle iridescence visible when the light hit it right, like scar tissue, but in a multitude of watered-down colors. I thought that once the rift at the foot of the Breach was closed and the glow in my hand gone, that pale, shifting rainbow would be all that was visible unless I was using the mark or was acting up. Like the Breach itself, if you ignored the consequences of its existence, it was actually quite. . . beautiful.

The mark continued to pulse and tug and grow in fits as a mirror to the Breach. I had collapsed to the ground once, unable to hold up under one of the sharp surges of pain, searing its way into my bones the way it had when the creature in the Fade had burned it into me. Balls of stone and green fire continued to drop from it like meteors and peppered the ground nearer and nearer us as we approached.

I had an odd sense of trepidation in my gut as the sounds of a battle ahead became apparent. They were audible to me for some time before Cassandra turned and gestured for me to hang back. I had no problem agreeing - I felt concerningly peaky.

At least I thought I agreed, until the moment she was out of my sight. Then it felt like there was a hook around my windpipe yanking me forward. I broke into a careful jog around a tight sigh, and when the battle came into sight my hand, as if moving on its own, made the slicing motion again and a fear demon, gaunt and tall and undulating, keening, was cut from shoulder to hip before it could dive at Cassandra’s side. It was gone from the world before it hit the ground.

She was in what looked like the old ruins of a large building, little more than indications of wall on the ground and the odd clumps of jagged boards sticking up. Varric, Solas, and a small handful of soldiers were there with her. At a glance I saw at least five of them on the ground, unmoving. One had clearly been partially. . . eaten. Another looked to have had its arm ripped from the socket. I looked away before I could really see.

Cassandra glared at me, probably in part for showing up and in part for spraying her with whatever horrid vitriol had constituted the demon's blood and innards, but I only rolled my eyes and shrugged. Nothing to be done for it now, and I was hardly going to argue with whatever force kept saving my life and guiding me in whatever improbable reality this was.

Cassandra dove back into the fight, ducking away from the swing of a towering rage demon and bashing her shield up into its oversized jaw. Bits of red- and white-hot that I thought might be pointed teeth flew away from its face. I gritted my jaw and lifted my hand to the Rift sitting feet away against the edge of a steep drop, bracing because I had no idea what this was going to feel like.

A sparking beam of light, jumping as if electric and fluid at once, joined the mark to the Rift the instant my palm raised, and along that beam I felt. . . life. The life of a world beyond the Rift, as rich and as real as whatever it was I now felt in the air around me every moment. Over what was like a paralyzing electric current tingling up my forearm, I felt the lives of the demons that had come from the Rift, tied and tethered to the other side as if by invisible cords. I realized that those cords were what made it impossible to fully close a Rift before every demon belonging to it had been dispatched.

Fast as I could think it, the mark responded to my desire and yanked the cords together into a tight bundle and, invisibly, contracted the Rift around them. As if they’d been stunned or electrocuted, every demon before it went still and limp, and I could feel their strange disorientation. I tried to release the mark’s link to the Rift, but immediately realized that the second I did so, the demons would be free to act. The strain to hold the connection already had my whole arm trembling.

“Hurry up and take them down!” I yelled, voice raw and remembering a second too late that no one could understand me.

Fortunately, no one there was a spectacular idiot; friends and soldiers alike dove in savagely to take advantage of the lull.

I changed my hold on the Rift the instant the last demon fell to a slice across the chest by a soldier and willed the frayed and snapped strings around the Rift to stitch themselves back together. It was exhausting at an alarming rate. Every muscle in my body was tensed, my back was alive with cold fire and wet with fresh blood, and I felt as if something in the center of my chest was at war with this broken piece of universe.

When at last it came closed, I felt the strands tying it to this world and the jagged, stabbing shard of crystal that appeared on this side of the Rift once it closed, the chaos of this thing in physical form. I took the strands in hand and I yanked, effectively severing them from their mooring on the other side and shattering the piece of the Fade that persisted - the crystalline form that had been at its heart, holding it up like a pillar.

I dropped to my knees instantly, hunched over and breathing so hard I was nearly sobbing, whether from exhaustion or pain or what I had no idea. Nor did I have the energy to do anything but try to wait it out. For a moment, I had felt outside of my own body. Distantly, I was aware of cheering, and a full, sweet scent filled the air, nearly wiping away a sharpness I hadn't realized had been there.

Varric said something, huffing a laugh. "המחפשאתה באמתמוצא את האנשיםהמעניינים ביותר .חרא המחפש"

"שתוק, Varric. שיקויים לך יש אחתמהפעולות בצעו?" Cassandra asked a question, and it sounds so urgent as to almost be strained.

Varric rumbled something in return and I saw a soldier shake her head as soft footsteps approached me. Cassandra crouched in front of me, near silent despite her armor, and put a strangely gentle, almost tentative hand on my shoulder.

I brace myself and look up.

And I see Solas. There is something very strange and intense in his eyes belied by his light tone when he speaks a few words to me. “אתה בסדר, lethallan?”

I shove backwards like he's a demon and not a man, falling on my ass and elbows on the ground before the last word is out of his mouth. The bottom of my wound pulls with a thud and scrape and I cry out in pain, an almost warbling sound, head snapping back. White swells in my field of vision, followed too quickly by black around the edges, and I strain to keep the rest of my back off the ground even as I think, This is it, this is where I pass out.

The next person to approach me was Cassandra, blessedly.

She held a hand out to me with an odd look to Solas. “לעמוד יכולה את?“ Her voice was uncommonly gentle when she asked me a question, and nearly all the suspicion had disappeared from her eyes.

Varric was saying something to Solas as the two of them seemed to be searching the fallen soldiers. It was some dry question or remark, and Cassandra and I ignored the conversation that ensued. I took her hand with my left and carefully got to my feet, only to stumble forward into her against a sudden swell of dizziness. My skin felt oddly cold and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath - each one was strangely shallow.

"Sorry. Sorry,” I said, my left hand - my right felt useless - gripping her arm to steady myself until, finally, I felt like I could stand on my own.

I looked around me until my eyes landed on the dwarf. “Hello, Varric,” I said, my voice soft, but like thin paper. My face was warm, though I could tell that the smile on it was pathetically weak. I felt clammy, and realized there was a cold sweat on my forehead. I dabbed my arm across it.

Varric looked at Cassandra, wry amusement on his face. “אבל .אנימוחמא ? עליי לה סיפרה-“

Cassandra cut him off with sharp words. "תהיה בשקט, Varric. אנחנו צריכים לגרום להמרפא או כל זה יהיה לחינם .יהיה זמן לשאלותמאוחר. . . . אםהיא אפילו יכולה לענות עליהן.” She put a hand on my arm and nodded to indicate we should move on.

“נראהתמהר לא אשר זו היא," Varric said something dry and grumbling, and when Cassandra looked away, he cast a worried glance at me.

Solas said something and Cassandra stopped. I kept my eyes off of him as he approached, until he held something out. I looked up and saw a staff in his hands - from one of the felled soldiers - and immediately grimaced away. The presence in the air had swelled and bristled like an angry cat at the suggestion that I touch the thing.

Solas gave me a confused look, but I just pulled another face and shook my head.

I had been avoiding even looking in his direction since I approached the fight. I knew he would be there and I knew who he was. Like the others who would be in my inner circle, I knew his temperament and his tastes and his skills. I knew he was a decent enough person. I knew he hated willful ignorance and loved the Fade in a way he would never love this world. I knew the inherent freedom of any and all sentient beings was law to him. I knew he was proud and defensive and a little arrogant and had the excitement and wonder of a child when he came across something he didn't know. I knew he mourned everything about the ancient elves. I knew he was more than what he looked like. But the rest of him, his past and his future, were as blank as new paper, as if he had sprung fully-formed from the earth, and when this was all over, his existence would stop like the edge of a wall. It was unnerving, but that alone I could have worked around.

I had known Cassandra wouldn’t hurt me in the dungeon, even though I’d had no context through which to trust the feeling. Now I had that context, and the same place inside was telling me not to trust Solas. Rely on him? Sure. Collect him as I would the other companions, know he would protect us on the battlefield? Yes. Know he wanted to close the Breach just as much as anyone else? Yes. But I knew, I knew that to really trust him would be a catastrophic mistake. The feeling was so overpowering it was like bugs crawling over every inch of my skin, and for some completely irrational reason, I could not fucking stand him. I saw arrogance in place of confidence and wisdom. I saw conniving in place of privacy and solitude. I saw malice in place of a quiet nature. The man was dangerous.

As I passed his tall, broad form, my hand gripping Cassandra’s forearm and her hovering next to me with her other hand out in case I stumbled, I glanced at him through my lashes. He was watching me. His face was impassive, groomed into a mask, and I felt like that was all I should be able to see, like that was all anyone else would see, but his eyes. . . he was looking at me as if waiting intently for something. My brows twitched together and I looked away.

He said something at length, and I stopped and turned my head over my shoulder just enough to glance at him. My brows were drawn together. ”Was that elvhen? Why in God's name would I speak elvhen, Solas?” My voice went well past confused to downright hostile at the end. I looked at him coldly and was flummoxed by the ferocity of my reaction, but all I got in return was a blank expression which, for some reason, threatened to turn my simmer up to a boil.

He muttered something smooth to the others, likely an excuse for his random trip down deadlanguage street, but I was already moving again.

 

* * * * *

 

I was half leaning on Cassandra by the time we made it to a large supply chest guarded by two alert soldiers. The Seeker shouted at them long before we got there, and one hastened to open the chest, retrieve something, and run to meet us.

With surprising care, Cassandra sat me down on a fallen log after brushing a spot free of snow. She took a small - tiny, really - opaque deep red bottle from the soldier, unstoppered it, and held it out.

Elfroot potion, I assumed. I took the vial from her and gave it a careful sniff. It had a clean, light smell, similar to my poultices but almost bland and less earthy and rich. After a moment’s hesitation, I kicked it back. The flavor almost hinted at sweetness with a cool undercurrent not unlike mint, but it was more sensation than anything. It felt heavy on my tongue, though it was thin and fluid as water. As soon as it passed my throat, a feeling that was not quite warmth radiated outward all the way down to my stomach and then out through the whole of me.

I jerked upright and whipped my head around to try and get a look at my back - it was tingling as if ants were crawling all over it, but the sensation wasn’t unpleasant, just strange. Immediately I felt less weak and drained, and my back hurt more. Counterintuitive, yes, but a good sign, I figured, especially since the new pain was already lessening - my body wasn’t spending so much energy protecting me from the hurt which, while severe, was not quite unbearable.

By the time I downed three more potions that were handed to me one after another, no more than perhaps a tablespoon or two each, I was standing and gingerly feeling the skin on my back. There were scars, but they were slight. The amount of dried blood on what remained of the back of my tunic was honestly frightening. I looked back the way we had come and saw I’d been leaving a not insubstantial trail of bright red.

More to the point, my skin was whole and healed, and I felt well-rested and strong. I looked up at Cassandra in awe, literally slack-jawed. She looked back at me like I might be unbalanced.

I felt - felt somehow - confusion from outside of me, and looked in its direction to find Solas. His face was calm, and as soon as my eyes met his, a small, warm smile twitched at his lips.

I looked away, and though I was scowling a little, I couldn’t care, not about his strangeness and not about Cassandra thinking I was unhinged. I let out an incredulous laugh, in fact. Fucking elfroot potions. Magic. I might not truly remember anything about where I had come from, but I was starting to see that vague, fuzzy shapes were there, if I looked. Enough to let me know what an impossibility my more “advanced” people would consider these tiny, common vials.

I wondered with brief interest what a lyrium potion would feel like, then remembered they were made of the blood of ancient creatures and was suddenly glad I hadn’t needed any yet.

My three companions were exchanging talking to one another, but I was largely ignoring them - I could start to learn the language later. I was bending and twisting and turning, giddy and astounded at how whole I felt, just like that. So I didn’t notice Varric approaching until he came into my line of sight. He had shrugged off his thick, heavy overcoat and was holding it out to me. His arms were. . . impressive. I gaped at them a little, then flushed and hurried to look away when he caught it and grinned.

I glanced at the coat and looked at him in question, and he made a shivering motion. I smiled immediately, grateful for his concern, but shook my head. I could play along and act like I was cold - I should be blue and frostbitten by now - but the fact was that I couldn’t be bothered. Everything that was coming was going to be hard enough without trying to hide who I was. Whatever I was. And the fact was that though I could feel the cold, it was pleasant if anything, like a sharp autumn day.

I comforted myself with the fact that Solas, dressed only slightly more warmly than me and just as barefoot, seemed to be fine, too, so at least I wouldn’t be the only one who seemed odd. Though I was likely the first such human anyone had seen. But I spoke a language no one had ever heard and had impossible Fade magic in my hand (I was the only one who knew how impossible). With that and half the shit I knew was coming, “strange” was going to be par for the course. And I didn't get the sense that I was one for coddling.

Varric gave me an “Are you sure? It’s frigid out here,” look, but I shook my head again, smile creasing the corners of my eyes. I had only just met the man, but he already felt like some sort of brother.

This was a very confusing day, indeed.

Before we left, Cassandra walked up. She pointed to herself and said her name, then did the same for Solas and Varric. Then she nodded to me, expectant.

I opened my mouth automatically to answer, then realized I had nothing to say and closed it. I pushed and plumbed my mind for that simple, most basic piece of information, but found nothing except blank space with something dancing around the edges, as hard to get ahold of as a greased slug. I made a near-silent noise of frustration and shook my head, brows knitted together and mouth pulled down with a slight, almost flippant shrug of my shoulders. My three companions exchanged looks. Solas looked as if he had come upon a challenging math problem, but Cassandra sighed sharply and turned to set us to moving again.

We carried on until we reached another portcullis and, behind it, massive stone bridge. This one, fortunately, did not get blown up.

At a tall but diminutive tent near the far end we came upon Leliana arguing with Roderick. Which was mostly Roderick arguing and Leliana looking like she'd prefer to shiv him than try to pierce his iron-clad pig-headedness. Everything about her was as I "remembered," except that her cowl was a perfect, snow-white crushed velvet, and her face was beautifully but subtly lined with age.

I watched him with silent, cool, knowing eyes, even once he tried to pull me into the conversation. I saw a flash of uncertainty in his expression, but I would have been surprised if he'd even known it was there. The argument was over fast in any case. Cassandra, Leliana, Solas, and Varric exchanged words, with more than one glance in my direction while I tried to quell the itch I had urging me to hurry along. We left the bridge, turned a bend, walked a rugged, narrow dirt trail tamped down amid the snow, and I realized I knew where we were.

Up ahead, the narrow dirt path widened and forked. To the right, it crested a long, steep hill to where I knew the remains of the temple sat. To the left, it narrowed and twisted and led, after a long climb up rough ladders, to a system of caves that pilgrims and travelers weren’t meant to enter.

Cassandra and the others were exchanging words with a trio of soldiers while I stood to one side taking in the snow and pines, the burned smell of the temple and some stringent, acrid scent that made me wrinkle my nose. I knew they were discussing which direction to go in, so I unceremoniously interrupted.

I walked up and said, “Cassandra.” When she looked over, I pointed to the soldiers. Then I put the side of a hand to my brow and made a motion as if searching the distance. I held up four fingers, then pointed to the side path.

Her eyes widened. She said something to me, incredulous and hesitant, but after giving me a long, probing look - the blatant anger and distrust were mostly gone, at least - she nodded and spoke. Her voice and face were uncertain, but her authority no less clear for it. Her strong presence was somehow soothing.

 

* * * * *

 

Our progress through the pass was quick and almost surgical. Two fights in I came to realize that what I was doing, what I had thought was magic. . . well it was magic, but it wasn't “normal.” The veiled look Solas had given me after the first fight, as if I were part wonder, part puzzle to be solved, worried me - having his interest and attention worried me. Varric had remarked something, too, wry as ever, but his voice had sounded almost amazed, and more than a little unsettled. Cassandra seemed stuck between uncertainty and suspicion.

I knew I was only using magic. I knew I had never done it before, and that despite that, it was as simple to me as breathing, as if every motion and every spell had been performed thousands of times. I also knew that I was somehow not doing it right. I wasn’t exactly casting spells - I didn’t even have to move a hand to do it - and nothing I did was tiring in the least. After a particularly intense fight against four dripping, shifting black and gray despair demons, another hulking rage demon, a handfull of shades and three rigid, diamond-solid fear demons, Solas had offered me a mana potion, but I had only shaken my head blithely as if he’d offered me a snack when I was already full. He’d looked at me as in-line as ever, but his eyebrows had been halfway to his forehead. I’d had to turn away to hide my self-conscious embarrassment.

What was more, I wasn’t really thinking or planning what I was going to do when I casted. It was as if whatever was in the air around me was me, but also not. We were one entity, moving with push and pull as though muscles in a limb. I moved and it reacted. It urged and I followed through, with as little thought as a blinking of my eyes in a gust of wind; I acted on instinct that behaved like it was well- and long-honed, and whatever I was doing did not originate from me - it seemed more to move through me, as though I were a conduit rather than a sentient creature deciding to take action.

The demons themselves seemed mindless, as if they were driven mad with pain or panic. I could think of no reason other than madness that the first thing they would do upon finding themselves here was run straight at the angry people with sharp weapons and snapping magic. Given how many of them must have been spirits before being ripped through a portal to our world against their will and warped into the worst versions of themselves, it didn’t surprise me. But it saddened their will and warped into the worst versions of themselves, it didn’t surprise me. But it saddened me, and the death of every one felt like a wound.

When necessary, my go-to attack proved to be removing heads and, in one case, slicing a demon in half when decapitation didn't kill it (Cassandra made a valiant effort to hide her disgust at the 'blood' that spattered all over her), but I found I didn’t have a taste for killing them. Knowing what they were made me feel ill about it. I preferred to stay back and keep the whole of the fight in my field of vision, bolstering and protecting and guarding my friends’ backs. When I had to kill, I did so with cold efficiency.

I was laying magic over Cassandra’s sword and shield as she faced down the last of a group of demons when the “air” surged and expanded around me, almost angry. I turned to see a remorse demon hauling back to stab an appendage into Varric’s back. I shouted a warning, hand outstretched. The presence in the air surged again and the demon was slammed to the ground. With a skin-crawling shriek it was crushed to death by an invisible force and exploded outward, pelting Varric, Solas, and the rockface of the passage we were in with the horrid, tar-like black vitriol that constituted its blood and innards. Even from where I stood, I could tell it smelled terrible.

Varric turned to say something to me, utter, droll disgust on his face. I half-grimaced an apology and despite my best efforts, couldn't entirely suppress a laugh. He didn't seem amused. With a wave of a hand the mess was gone from him. From the look on his face, I could guess what he said then amounted to, “nice trick.”

Solas, meantime, was scraping the worst of it from his face and clothes. I let him wait until the demon's "leavings" vanished the normal way. It wasn't like he'd asked for help.

 

* * * * *

 

By the time we made it to the haphazard but surprisingly organized base camp just outside what must have been the main entrance to the temple, the acrid smell was so overpowering that I had to fight not to cover my nose. I probably looked like I was eating something sour until it adjusted and the smell relented.

I heard a familiar voice like chocolate and warm citrus call out to us - Cullen. I was taking in the tents, from massive to small, the cookfires with boots laid out near their edges to dry, stocks of weapons and armor, and the fact that nearly everyone around us who was working was bandaged or otherwise injured in some way. The smell of blood was nearly as strong as the astringent smell. People were tight and afraid. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cullen’s gaze pass over me- then do a double-take. His heart rate spiked and I turned to him, a bland sort of friendly smile on my lips.

The expression dropped from my face when I saw him and shock uncoiled in my chest.

Everyone will meet attractive people in their lives. You’ll meet two or three who are so goodlooking that they catch you off-guard, and no matter what sort of person you are, you find yourself tripping over your own tongue in front of them. Beyond these people are the ones good-looking enough to be in movies and on TV, but most of us will never see someone like that in real life. They’re like kings: sure, we know they exist, but we don’t expect to bump into them. They're not "real," not like apples or smoke or cloth.

The only thought that broke through my dumb surprise at seeing that latter sort of person was that it was a good thing I knew Cullen so well, because if I hadn’t, I’d have assumed he was a complete ass by dint of his looks alone.

I didn’t even realize I was staring - gaping, really - until his cheeks started to color and some distant part of my mind wondered why.

When I realized what I was doing, I shook myself awake and gave a respectful dip of my chin then looked anywhere, god anywhere but at him.

Varric made a joke and I felt my cheeks warm. I felt another disembodied emotion, too: amusement. I turned to see Solas at its source again, nothing of the feeling on his face. I narrowed my eyes at him, half-confused, half-suspicious.

Words were exchanged. I still wouldn’t look at Cullen.

We were all given potions - I took the lyrium, but only to avoid that many more looks of oddness. We moved on, Cassandra in the lead, followed by me, then Varric and Solas. Leliana and Cullen took up the rear, leading innumerable soldiers and agents. Not one mage or templar was in their ranks.

 

* * * * *

 

I stopped at the head of a stairway going down, scree and rubble where walls had once been. All the remains, human and elf and dwarf, had been removed.

Corypheus' booming voice was rolling thunder and desert sand as it sounded from nowhere and everywhere. I was the only one who was not shocked or surprised. His words were as foreign as everyone else’s, but I knew what he was saying.

“Corypheus,” I whispered, staring at where I knew the massive projected memory would appear soon. No one seemed to hear me, but I felt a jolt of shock from just behind me and knew without looking that Solas would be there. A muscle in my jaw twitched. He walked up beside me and again his face didn’t match what I felt. He only gazed over the ruin, a slight crease between his eyes.

I furrowed my brow at his silhouette and moved on before he could turn to look back at me.

Soldiers and scouts and assassins and agents all moved as quietly as they could over the remains. Archers took up high positions on rubble and ruined walls all around the massive sunken room and bladed combatants followed behind our small group as we made the final descent. The whistle and thunk of an arrow sounded as someone took down a lone shade.

When we reached the bottom of the crater where the pillar of green light shot up from the massive, crystalline rift, the movie of what had happened before the explosion began to play out. It was. . . wrong. Whole pieces of it blurred in and out, as though a picture through a storm. The voice of the woman who I’d seen in the Fade, who had died to give me the mark, was so distorted the voice was impossible to make out.

It melted from view and questions began flying.

“Corypheus,” I said, loud enough to know I’d be heard this time. My eyes were still on the place where the vision had been, and I turned first to look at Varric, sadness in my face with a shake of my head. “He isn’t dead,” I said quietly. “You killed him but. . . .” I sighed in resignation and pantomimed toward the image. “Corypheus,” I said again. “He isn’t,” I shook my head and drew a finger across my throat, “dead.” I threw in some names to make him think I might know what I was talking about: “You, Fenris, Isabella, Carver, and Hawke killed him. But. . . he doesn’t stay dead. Not now. Not yet.”

A debate began, and eventually I let it fade from my attention and picked my way on silent feet to the massive Rift near the center of the room. It was the size of a large house. I looked through it to the prickling jade crystal at its heart, expanding and contracting at random, as chaotic and out of order as the Rift and the Breach. As I gazed at it and the swirling hole above I felt. . . something. It was almost a familiarity. All I could think was that sad as it was, dangerous as it was, wounded and wrong as it was, it was terribly beautiful.

I didn't know how, but I could feel Solas watching me as I took all of it in.

Cassandra said a single word behind me and all conversation stopped. I turned at the silence and saw all faces on me. With a sinking feeling, I realized what was going to happen next.

Solas took a single step toward me, but Varric held a hand out and said something in a pleasant roll of gravel. ""היא כנראה חושבת שאתה לירוק לתוך המרק שלה .תן לי ,מגחך." He came toward me instead.

I held a palm up and shook my head. “I already know what you want,” I sighed. “It isn’t going to work, and it’s going to be a shit end to the longest short day ever, but. . .” I sighed again, some of the hair that had come loose from my quick braid wafting on the exhale. “Well, even if I could tell you that, you’d make me do it anyway. I mean I will, it is going to help, just. . . Jesus is it going to hurt.”

I rolled my shoulders and neck and took one deep breath, then walked back to the group and gave a twitch of my hand, calling the mark to life in a swell of Fadelight as I nodded to Cassandra. She assumed a battle stance and called out a ready warning. The sliding of arrow on bow’s wood, drawstrings tensing, creaking leather and the scraping of metal armor plates was her reply, all rich, tiny sounds that would have been inaudible to me not long ago.

I stopped in front of Solas and leveled him with a look, a muscle in my jaw twitching, half from irritation and half from nerves. I pantomimed, serious and sharp, for him to stay where he was. When I closed the Rift, I was going to go flying, and I didn’t want to hit stone and earth when I came down. Landing against Cassandra or one of the soldiers would hurt as much as landing against the ground, and if I was thrown into Varric, I’d just take him down with me. The same risk was there with Solas, but that I didn’t mind so much. I had a moment of wonder at the animosity I felt toward him. It wasn’t like me.

With a shake of my head, I took a moment to cast armor over everyone on the ground and sharpened the edges of swords and the points of arrows. I planted my feet and lifted the mark to the Rift, arm braced with my left hand. I looked to Cassandra to make sure she was ready and, at a sharp nod from her, let fly the magic trapped in my palm.

If the Rift I’d closed near the ruins of the old building had been an electric shock, this was ozone and lightning straight to my center. For a moment, I don’t know how long, whoever I was disappeared completely in the intensity of it.

Until a Pride demon was pulled through, bigger than two houses stacked on top of one another. It loosed a roar that seemed to grab me by the bones, and I could tell everyone else felt it, too.

 

* * * * *

 

The fight ended in time outside of time, my thinking mind gone. An arm larger than a deep-woods tree was disappearing in soupy, charcoal-and-purple smoke. I’d severed it when one of the soldiers had been in danger of being crushed in the demon’s gargantuan hand. Solas shouted at me, but I was already swinging my arm back up to the Rift. I threw everything I had at it.

The last conscious memory I had was the noise Solas made when I was flung backwards into him.

Chapter Text

I dreamed.

 

I’m running through the woods, wet and chill and alive with green on every surface. The smell of loam and peat and rain and moss are bludgeoning here. It is his home, and I love it. I am free here.

I am running faster than should be possible even as I vault over fallen logs and duck under brush and weave between fern- and vine- and moss-covered trunks. I scatter a kaleidoscope of butterflies and the glint of light of their gem and metal wings casts bright color over every surface.

“You’re getting slow, old man!” I call around a laugh and a huge grin, my voice echoing through the wood as if I were in a temple’s chanting hall. I am rewarded with a surge of annoyance from behind me and my chaperone at last becomes my pursuer as he picks up speed to run me down. He is always so short with me - if annoying him is the only way to get any proper attention, I have less than no problem poking at him with any stick that I can get my hands on.

It is a joy to have his attention.

I am jubilant. I can feel my heartbeat in my skin, the brush of damp ferns against my legs and dew collecting on my skin, the soft sponge and shift under my feet, and my grin is manic.

I hear him catch up to me - he is on four legs, after all - and the crunch of soft loam under enormous paws followed by a silence when he propels himself into the air to pounce.

I lean back at an angle that should have me toppling, but I know my feet and every piece of myself well - I have nothing but time to master them, after all. I push back as I see the black fur of his massive underside fly overhead and can’t help the laugh that bubbles out of me. He is The Hunter, and any miss is a victory worth gloating over. Only Andruil is better, and neither of us want me anywhere near her, though his reasons are dif erent from mine. Father doesn’t want me near her, either. Not yet.

He lands and spins around far faster than anything even half his size should be able to. I don’t know what has done it, whether my persistence or my incessant laughter and delight, but he is finally joining in the game. We circle one another, his storm-blue eyes fixed on me, a low rumbling growl in his chest, and I am crouched and ready. The forest has gone still and quiet. Spirits have begun to gather among the trees. Not many but the few who are almost always wandering around. Pockets of the Fade are ever-present here. It’s one of the three reasons he made this his home.

Magic flashes about me as I augment myself - strength, armour, speed. It’s only fun if it’s a fair fight. I grin, predatory and all teeth.

He launches and I dart to the side, but he anticipated it and is already pushing of and hurling at me again. He hits low, knocking me onto my stomach and tries to put his teeth around my throat - which amounts to my whole head, given his size - to claim victory, but I plant an elbow hard into the tendon of the leg pinning my other arm. I spin onto my back before he can recover and too fast to see, jab upward into the joints of each armpit, hitting with force enough to knock a tree out of the ground those tender spots I’d wager no one else knows about, and many would pay fortunes to learn of.

He yelps involuntarily, and if he were elvhen and prone to blushing, there might be an angry flush coloring his cheeks. His weaknesses are so few, and so hidden, and he loathes that I know any of them. He loathes almost everything about me. And now, now he is serious. Now he will not hold back, not even a little bit, not even to turn this into a lesson. Now, he only wants to put me in my place.

I. Am. Exultant. I love him like this, raw and split open, and his temper is so hot it is the only way I can make him come out. It is the only time I truly see him, and I think if I can do this to him enough times, he will let me in. He will see me, he will let me be a friend. I know father wants it, but I don’t care that father wants it, because I want it. This, this alone is mine.

I want his friendship. I want his loyalty. I want someone who doesn’t want what I am, but who I am. And Pride, Pride does not care what I am. Not beyond the disdain he treats me with for it. At least it does not disgust him like it does most others.

I briefly consider letting him win, but he would know - he is too clever not to know - and such weakness is a sin to him, one of few he considers low enough for punishment and cruelty. The weak have no place with the Dread Wolf. And I am not weak.

He snaps at me but his teeth only find air - I am already up and gone. It will take him only an instant to locate me, so I am fast as I can be as I gather the distance I need, then run and crash into his ribs like a boulder. It is just enough to get him to stagger as his head whips around and again his teeth snap closed on nothing, this time with a snarl.

His eyes have gone red, and small tendrils of black smoke have begun to curl from him here and there. I feel the rush I know only when I am nearing mastery of a skill I have struggled with. I feel victory, my fingers half closed around it.

I have grabbed fistfulls of his hair and used them to swing myself to his other side. I take advantage of that single step he takes to balance himself, the slight shift of weight, and I use it to knock his legs out from under him - first the strong back hock, then all he has left, the front leg, using his limbs to propel myself from one end of him to the other.

He topples, and I am too fast for him to catch. I feel a pride beyond words as my muscles, sculpted and nimble and cultivated, move through motions they memorized hundreds of thousands of repetitions ago. I have been carved into a masterwork, and playing with this man is the only time I have ever truly enjoyed it.

He is on his side and I wrap my hand around one of his forelegs - it cannot circle halfway around, but I am strong enough to make up for it - and pull with his tumble to put him on his back as I jump atop his ribcage and cling to him with my thighs. Before the motion is done, I have a summoned blade in my hand and graceful as soft, fluid water, I use my momentum to swing it into place and press it to his throat. It is dramatically serrated to ensure that it will penetrate his thick fur, armor unto itself, and that he will feel it against his skin.

He is furious.

I am smiling.

We are both breathing hard, which speaks to how into the game we have both become. We have run together for a full day without becoming winded before.

I hold him there until I see the life, the sense start to return to his eyes. Until first the glow, then the red color disappears and the Fade magic of his coat melts away to fur, and until there is only that stormcloud blue in his eyes that I could study for decades without pause.

Finally, he breaks the tension by laughing. It is booming and it is sincere and the part of me that was braced for his anger over this loosens and uncoils slowly in my chest. A relief I hadn’t known I’d needed floods through me and my smile turns from vicious to genuine. I dismiss the blade and relax, sitting back on his ribcage and resting my hands in his coarse fur, thicker than two pillows atop one another, as I watch him and join his laugh.

Almost too fast for even me to follow, he has me on my back on the ground, one massive paw pinning me by the chest. He is not laughing, but I can feel the mirth, the approval coming from him like a physical thing. I laugh again. As much as I can - he is nearly crushing my lungs. He does not hold back. He does not treat me delicately, as a thing that may break, and he does not treat me with syrup, as a thing he wishes to use, and he does not treat me with fear, as a thing that may snap and attack.

When I am with him, I think I could understand what it means to have a pack, even if that is only one person. I have family, but it is no family. I have a people, but I am not one of them. Even most of the Spirits don’t know what to make of me. The Dread Wolf, Pride, does not care.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to have family. I wonder if this is what it feels like to love. It is one thing they have not been able to teach me.

“Well done, Little One,” he says, and I could soar into the clouds from the joy of it.

“I hate it when you call me that,” I say with a smile. “When are you going to choose a name?” It is a brash question, a foolish question, and I pay for it immediately.

His good humor dissipates and he growls. Without a word, he turns and stalks away, leaving me alone.

We have had this conversation before.

‘Why do you not give me a name?’

‘Because I do not own you.’

‘Of course you do.’

In the beginning he tried to explain it to me. In the beginning, I pretended to listen.

 

As I dreamed, there were flashes. Fits and flickers, in and out of blackness and nothing.

There were voices. Sounds.

 

Mythal-Flemeth speaks, somber. “Wild magic is always unpredictable.”

Mythal-not-Flemeth echoes the words. Her voice is honey over a blade.

A man’s voice, displeased and only just courteous. It sounds like a greeting. “Daern’thal.” I feel a sick roil at the word, but I do not know why.

The noise of war, distant, and then so close I know I am in the battle. I call out orders. I cut our The noise of war, distant, and then so close I know I am in the battle. I call out orders. I cut our people down, I cut spirits down when I must, and I feel every death like a wound. The pain is number now, but I still feel it. I hope it is what will keep me in tact, even as I feel it is robbing me of something I don’t wish to lose. I cannot remember what it is like without the numbness anymore.

“YOU WOULD BETRAY US, DREAD WOLF?” A voice practically screams, livid, incensed, mad and frantic. ”US?” I know the cutting metal of terror when I hear it.

The voice of the man who greeted someone, with disdain this time. It feels like I should know it. “I have no wish to participate in your experiments, and you know I abhor receiving one of the People as a gift. They are not things to give.” “But they are toys to play with, no?” A second voice asks, grin obvious in its voice, and I feel a ripple in myself. “Not like this,” the first voice replies. “I will enjoy them as I like, but only when they are free to choose. Where is the fun, otherwise?” I can feel him grin, a sharp thing, dangerous. “You and your people know that. It is what you are. It is the reason you went to war. It is the reason I have never sided against you.” The second voice speaks, a quiet thing but too barbed to be silk. “And what is your reason for not siding against them? They are monsters and you know it.”

Whispered words behind hands and around corners. They do not realize how well I can hear, better even than them. I was made to be better. “Abomination.” “Daughter of monsters.” “Why does he tolerate her?” “Blight.”

 

There were visions.

 

Furious eyes, like a halla so panicked it cannot be spoken to. I hate those eyes, I fear them, I resent them. I love them because I must. They have my loyalty because they did not give me the ability to choose otherwise.

He would sacrifice me in a moment, and if he did I would go gladly. But he will not sacrifice me; I am the only one left he can trust with who he is, with whatever is left of who he is, and with who he was. I think part of him needs something to remind him of that and of why he really started this. Still, I know he would sacrifice me if it was the only way. Nothing comes before the People. Nothing and no one.

Fields of blood, temples of it, slicking the stairs and choking the soil, darkening a waterfall, coating my limbs. I feel as ferocious as any beast.

I kill for what we believe in, I murder for it, I slaughter for it. He asks of me, and I give. We all do. We would do anything for him. He is the only god of the People now. The others are false, as I and he always knew they were. The others are monsters. I tolerated Mythal because he respected her.

We will free them all, even if we must break backs and shatter spines to do so. Let the cost be on our heads. Let the sins be ours so no one else ever knows what it is to stand under heel. No one believed we would get this far. They were fools. They were arrogant. We will not make their mistakes.

Chapter Text

I woke in a cold sweat. My face was wet with tears and I felt like my heart was breaking.

Before a thought could form in my head, I was gagging and fighting down nausea; it smelled like I was in the middle of a human cesspit. The dreams were fading to whispers and smoke and I could not concentrate with the smell.

I looked around, face scrunched up and arm over my nostrils - I could still smell it without breathing through my nose, how could I still smell it without breathing through my nose? - but I saw nothing that should make such a god awful, unholy stink. It was body odor and excrement and blood and things I didn’t have names for, sharp and tangy, sickly sweet, musk and acid and spice. I smelled metal and leather, animals and food and snow and even the things that should have smelled good made me want to vomit because the horrible odors bled into everything else. I may have wanted to die a little just then.

I was in a simple building, nothing but sealed wooden planks, a generous, crackling fire, stacks and bags of supplies, and odd. . . trinkets. A flower. A small pile of coins, a piece of fruit, a child’s doll, an old ring, a small book, pebbles. Lit candles were everywhere. Every surface was covered with something; it was as if I shared the space with a giant magpie.

As I concentrated on keeping the contents of my roiling stomach where they belonged, one hand holding a blanket over my nose and mouth and another pressed gently to my stomach, the smell began to fade to the background and I could have sobbed for relief. My nose was adjusting and shutting the worst of it out.

I flopped back to the mattress in relief - for I was in a bed, a soft one, under heavy blankets - and closed my eyes and breathed while my heart slowed.

I felt somehow a little more whole than I had yet. I felt more like myself. Whatever that meant.

Sounds began to filter in, sounds of Haven. I looked at the door expectantly, but the skittish elven woman who should be coming through at any moment was nowhere to be seen. I stared at the ceiling, rough but sturdy and cared-for, then enjoyed a deep breath and pushed myself up to sit. I was a little stiff, but I didn’t hurt anywhere. It was the first memory I had of not being in pain.

And god but did I have to pee.

I found what I assumed - hoped - was the chamber pot and stifled a groan of relief as I crouched over it. There’d been a cloth draped over the top, and lacking anything else to do with my. . . leavings, I replaced it. No wonder this place smelled like unholy death; I refused to think about where the pot’s contents would end up.

I abandoned the horrible, awkward sort of undergarment I’d been in. The only other thing I wore was another loose tunic, this one clean and noticeably finer than the last one. Which would make sense, considering what the people outside would already be whispering about me.

There was a clean bowl of water and a surprisingly soft-looking cloth on a small table next to the bed. The water itself was cloudy, and with a gesture as absent as scratching an itch, I twitched a finger and the liquid was pristine and gently steaming. It was. . . unsettling. So much so that I almost couldn’t appreciate the results. Almost. I was won over with a groan of pleasure the moment the hot cloth touched my neck.

I sighed softly as I wiped my face and neck and chest. I rinsed my mouth and brushed my teeth clean with the cloth, then stretched, testing and massaging muscles left too long in sleep, and made my way over to what must be the wardrobe. When I opened a door, my my brows lifted.

The only parts of the garment hanging inside that matched my expectation were the cut of the trousers, neck, and sleeves. It was crimson with deep gray paneling and gold - actual, shining gold - embroidery. Embroidery. In a matter of days. I hesitated to think of the cost of even the dyes, never mind the thread and labor. It was sturdy and thick and as soft to the touch as a puppy’s ears. The top was similar to Leliana’s: form-fitting and long enough to look something like a half skirt, but with the sides cut away.

. . . I almost wished I could have kept what I’d known to myself. The number of people who could be fed with something like this. . . . And there was a second one, thinner and finer, as well as four sets of flimsy tunics and short trousers that I assumed were meant to be worn underneath. Which was good given that I had no intention of going anywhere near those horrid undergarments again.

A breath puffed out of me and with a shake of my head, I began to change.

When I bent down to step into the trousers, I stopped. My skin was crisscrossed with fine, silvery scars. I set the pants aside and traced them with fingertips. Most were hair-thin and would have been invisible to normal eyes unless the light hit them just right. Others would be noticeable from a distance. Healing potions and poultices weren't flawless, I supposed. It made me a little sad to see them.

Until I made it up to my thighs and a heavy feeling began to settle in my gut. When I made it to a hairless groin and then the plane of my lower abdomen, I froze. Loose pieces snapped together.

My hand had looked odd when I'd woken below the Chantry. My body had looked odd when I'd woken under the Breach. My senses were overclocked, I had muscle memory I had no right to, power I’d never known, and my mouth stumbled over simple sounds that should have been well-worn. Now I knew why. I shoved the electric jolt down before it could become shock and set aside the thrum in my heart.

This wasn't my fucking body. I gave myself a pat down - the body was at once softer and more lean than what I was used to. The toned muscles underneath skin that would be flawless but for the scars, the energy and readiness, the grace I only just realized I'd been moving with, none of it was mine. I was slow, tired, sluggish. . . . But now I wasn't.

I took a breath.

"Huuhhh," I said at length. "That's. . . huh."

I realized my pat-down had stopped with my hands on my backside. Where they still were. . . .It seemed like a nice backside, at least?

I felt a little numb.

I moved to get dressed anyway.

The suit had obviously been tailored for me, and the idea that someone had taken my measurements while I lay unconscious was surreal. Somehow more surreal than the fact that I was in a new body, in a new world.

Logic was perhaps not my strong suit. More accurately, appropriate reactions were perhaps not my strong suit. Either that, or I was repressing panic and it would come back later to explode in my face to disastrous effect.

Either way, really.

There were boots next to the wardrobe just as fine as the suit, and with golden stitching along the tops for god’s sake. I hated them. They fit well, sure, but they felt like nothing more than tiny leather prisons for my feet. I couldn’t stop wiggling my toes trying to find room that wasn’t there.

I smoothed my clothing and walked to the door, let my hand pause on the latch, then gently opened it. Early morning light, cool and watercolor-pink poured in along with the crisp smell of cold and snow. That was the smell I focused on, anyway. Soft light glinted off the gold of my outfit. I saw more objects laid out against the cottage on either side of the door.

. . . Offerings. They were offerings. Gifts.

The first person to see me was a woman carrying a large basket of bread. She dropped it. She stared. “Gaped” would be more accurate. Then her companion followed her gaze and froze, which turned another person’s eye, and another, until no fewer than twenty-five people were standing in a small courtyard outside of my door and gawping.

Someone dropped to their knees and clasped their hands in supplication. I slid my eyes closed before I could see more.

It was silent and still as death for a beat, and then the whispering began. I could hear every word. I opened my eyes and looked over the faces of the assembled, and I could have drowned in the emotion I saw there.

My gaze passed over an elf, then snapped back and I went stock still. Even when he averted his eyes, I couldn’t stop staring.

He was. . . unnerving. His eyes were a breathtaking ochre, but they were too large, his face too angular, his frame too slight. He was just close enough to the appearance of a human to look disturbingly off and almost. . . sickly. Worse than that, it felt like he was missing something fundamental, like he was hollow, and it turned my stomach; even the sight of him at all made me feel ill, as if something about him was fundamentally wrong. But he was obviously as healthy and well-fed as anyone else here. As much as could be said for that; skin was sallow and marked, hair was dull and coarse, teeth were unhealthy, and people were obviously aged before their time.

My attention was ripped away as I heard an outraged shout, then an angry voice moving closer. People were shoved out of the way as someone approached.

Roderick.

He stormed toward me, bushy eyebrows drawn into a scowl. He extended a hand to grab me.

Time slowed as if ossifying. Everything came into sharp detail. I could see the pores on his face, the grains of dirt on his hand, the weave of fibers on his robe, the spin of tissue in his iris and seven hairs he had missed while shaving. I knew how much give the ground under my feet had and the direction of the wind and the chance I’d slip if I moved too fast.

Two templars flanked Roderick. The one on my right was a head taller than me and well seasoned but hid an old injury in his right knee. He was focused, but bored. The other one was green and smelled. . . uncertain. Twelve people were close enough to get to me within seconds, three were armed, and only one was likely to try to butt in. Eleven heads were turned toward us.

In the same moment I took all this in, my muscles twitched; the same way your eyes will squeeze shut when something is hurling toward your face, I felt a pull to move without thought. It played out in my brain:

He wants to grab my left upper arm.

Let him get close.

Spin away, use the momentum to hug his form and get behind him.

Sharp jab with foreknuckles locked to the back of the neck at the base of the skull between the vertebrae as I spin a high kick to the elder templar.

As Roderick falls, turn and grab the sword from the templar I kicked, forward into a spin to sweep between him and the one on the left.

Strike to the side of the weak knee. He goes down.

Pommel strike to the chin of the templar on the left, under the gap in the helmet before he can finish drawing his blade. He goes down.

Sword point to the throat of the one on the right before he can try to get up.

They have one chance to let me be.

All of this happened before Roderick’s next footfall had hit the ground, and I was so stunned that I nearly lost my footing when he practically barreled into me and clamped his hand around my upper arm.

He started barking orders at his templars. ‘Arrest her!,’ I assumed. The same greeting I would have gotten had I come upon him in the war room arguing with Cassandra

Except Cassandra wasn’t here to stop them.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the guards I’d counted earlier run off in the direction of the Chantry. The other two approached carefully. A man with gray peppered through his dark brown hair attempted to placate Roderick while his companion watched silently, eyes moving from Roderick to me to the templars. Her hand stayed near her sword, muscles tensed to draw. Most of the crowd I’d gathered, plus more that Roderick’s screeching had begun to attract was looking on with disapproving faces and unhappy mutters. But they were looking and muttering at him.

I heard “Pentagast,” from the brown-haired guard and nearly groaned at his tactical error. Like the name was a spark to dry tinder, Roderick’s face went red and he began shouting at the man, shaking my arm as if he wanted to gesticulate but forgot he was holding something. It was going to bruise.

I pinched the bridge of my nose with my free hand; I was very nearly ready to kick him in the balls.

By some miracle (or not, given how Roderic’s indignant voice would be carrying over the entire valley and waking bears from hibernation by then), Varric arrived and was able to stall the man with a placating tone until Cassandra’s glorious, commanding voice rang out. A moment later she appeared around a corner with Cullen and Leliana.

Cassandra called out again, an obvious order or demand. "אתהתשחרר אותה בזה הרגע! אין לך זכות לקחת אותה!”

Roderick shouted back. "יש לי זכות מלאה! הכופר הזה הרג האלוהי ! היא חייבת לעמוד לדין על פשעי לה!"

"ראיתי אותה לנסות,” Cassandra replied in a hard voice. “ לא, היא לא, שמור האלוהי Justinia במו עיני. היא סיכנה את חייה כדי לעשות את זה. ועכשיו היא הפסיקה את ההפרה מלגדול והצילה חיים רבים .תוכל לקחת אותה לשום מקום ,רודריק, Roderick.”

He barked back. "אתה לא יכול להאמין לשטויות כ!"

'מה שאנו מאמין האישה,” Cullen spoke, voice brooking no argument. “קנצלר ,הוא כי אתה פועל ללא סמכות ,והם לשחררה מייד ,הזו גיבור ,והוא עשה יותר עבור Thedas בימים האחרונים ממה שאתה צפוי לעשות את שארית חייך העלובים שלך."

I didn’t know how, but I suddenly knew that Solas was listening. My shoulders tensed, and I purposely did not look up to find him.

Roderick, of course, thought himself impervious and ignored the warning on Cullen’s face. "אין סמכות !אני עכשיו חבר דירוג של Chantry! ומה שלומך אבל פחדן אשר נטש את משמרתו!"

Cullen bit back anger with such visible force of will that I was impressed.

Cassandra spoke again. "ואתה פקיד מהולל !אתה לא יכול לכבד סמכות של קאלן ,אבל אתה שלי כבוד ,ואת רצונם של האלוהי Justinia, ואתה תשחרר אותה בזה הרגע! אני לא אשאל שוב."

Roderick opened his mouth and sucked in a breath to speak.

Abruptly, I had had enough.

“For fuck’s sake man, shut up!” I yelled.

I didn’t care that no one would understand; it had the desired effect, anyway. The advisers and Roderick turned to look at me as if they had forgotten I was there.

I looked down at Roderic’s hand and slid my gaze to up to meet his, a promise of fire in my eyes. He didn’t let go, but his grip slackened and I ripped my arm out of it easily enough.

“Now,” I said, taking a steadying breath. “I know you’re afraid. I also know you have no idea what I’m saying, which makes this a vanity project, but I’m not inclined to care at the moment.

“You’re not the only person who’s afraid. But you are the only one who’s looking for murder to make himself feel better, instead of addressing any, any of the actual fucking problems. Act like a child all you want, but keep it in your pants for fuck’s sake, and don’t pretend you’re trying to serve when all you’re really trying to do is make yourself feel better. Grow up.”

I walked up to Cullen and gave him a tight smile, then nodded down to his sword where it rested in his scabbard and raised my brows in request. When he didn’t immediately understand, I calmly held my hand out and looked pointedly at the weapon.

He took the measure of me for a moment, then glanced at Cassandra. She said something to me in a reassuring voice, but I only hardened my expression. The patient request dropped from my face.

I felt a swell of unexpected, pleased surprise when, after a moment, Cullen actually unsheathed his blade and held it out to me. I took the hilt, and when my hand wrapped around it I realized with visceral certainty that I had known the feel of a sword all my life. But that didn't fit with the dull, wavering outline I had of the shape of anything that had come before waking up here. It sent an odd jolt through me.

I turned back to Roderick, my face hard. His own face went slack and red when I approached. He was barking orders even as he hastily backed away. Right into the two templars, who seemed to be in no hurry to get out of his way.

I raised the sword as I neared him and he lifted an arm to protect himself, just as the templars moved out of his way. He fell on his ass and still didn’t open his eyes, braced for the blow he knew was coming. I couldn’t seem to help the roil of disdain I felt.

I whirled the blade around and held it out to him, hilt first.

When finally he dared a look from behind his arm, he looked up to me in shock. My face was steady and blank, utterly expressionless.

We had now gathered as an audience what must have been half the remaining population of Haven, easily over a hundred and fifty people. They formed a mass of bodies in a thick, wide ring all around us, silent but for a few hushed whispers. I could hear wind blowing through trees and over the roofs of buildings, doors opening and closing, hurried footsteps and excited voices, distant sounds of a blacksmith and the murmurs of animals.

Roderick didn’t take the sword. Because of course he didn’t. I pursed my lips and held it out closer to him to make my intent clear.

His look changed to confusion but buried itself under a mask of puffed up suspicion. He was like an animal trying to make itself look bigger. Climbing to his feet, he finally took the damn sword.

I gathered my hair - and was surprised to find that it went past the middle of my back. It was thicker than I was used to, as well. It had been braided for me when I had woken below the Chantry and was gently bound at my shoulder blades now, and I’d had no reason to suppose it was any different than I was used to. Chalk this one up with the nice backside, at least.

I swallowed thickly and pulled my hair away from my neck and over one shoulder, then turned my side to Roderick and crouched at his feet to preserve the knees of my suit. Silently, I bowed over and tipped my head to the side, baring my neck to him. My offer should be glass-clear: ‘If my life is owed for these crimes, then take it.’

Roderick was the sort of man who would want to eat meat but wouldn’t have the stomach to hunt. The reasons for his bluster were simple, just as they were complicated: He chased power because he felt powerless. He was defensive and clung to any perceived authority. He just hid it all under a cloak of ‘what’s best for the people.’ Everyone justifies their actions well in their own minds.

Roderick had himself convinced that he wanted what was Right - how much less fun would it be to live if you admitted to yourself that you were small and weak and afraid? He had built himself a tower of straw, and he spent every moment trying to keep it from falling. So he was, among other things, very short-sighted. My death would be a quick fix. Nevermind that it would also doom all of the world, because at least it would make things seem better right now. He wasn't a bad person, not really. But right now that didn't matter.

I could hardly talk him down, and I had no interest in him being underfoot as we tried to get things done here. This display was all I could come up with to get my point across: ‘This is not the place for talk. If that’s all you have, then fuck off.’

I kept my breath calm and a sense of peace in my heart. There was a chance, however laughable, that I was wrong about Roderick, and if I was, I would not die tense or afraid.

I waited a full thirty seconds - there had been a collective intake of breath once, and I thought he might actually do it - before I looked up at him. He was looking at me with an expression I couldn’t classify, and I wondered for a moment if I might be seeing the smallest of cracks opening up in him. Cracks in his blame, his dogma. Not that it would matter. He would bury any such opening even if it appeared.

I huffed a sigh, shook my head, and pushed up to my feet with fluid grace. I held his gaze. To his credit, he didn’t look away, and thank every god that ever was, he was finally silent. My lips pinched slightly and the look I gave him. . . I didn’t know if it was condemnation, judgement, or disappointment. It didn’t matter in the end. This was over.

I reached forward, ripped the sword out of his hand, and stepped back.

My face turned to ice and my voice went just as cold and hard and unforgiving. “Now that we’ve straightened that out, get the fuck out of Haven, Roderick. You have no place here.” I pointed to the main gate with the sword and jutted my head in the same direction so my meaning was unmistakable.

I had to hold his gaze, the stone in my face unwavering, but eventually he folded. He looked around as if someone would help him, would share his outrage or stand up for him, and when no one did - not the Chantry sisters, not the people, not his templars - he left after muttering a few barbed and deflated words. I watched his back as it was swallowed by the crowd until it disappeared down the wide stairs that led to the town’s main gate.

I took a long, long breath, and walked back over to my advisers, careful calm painted in every muscle. Every face was on me. Again my hands moved as if the blade were a part of my own body, practiced and well-known as I presented Cullen’s sword to him with both hands, hilt-first, with a bow of my head. It was a thank you, an apology, and a sign of respect. What he had done had been very stupid. And irresponsible. But he’d done it anyway, because it had been me asking. I wouldn’t forget it.

When I felt the blade gently lifted from my hands, I looked up, trying to say all of that with my face. I didn’t know if I succeed, but there was color on his cheeks - it was so slight that I was sure I was the only one who could see it. Something passed between us, and I thought that it must be the beginnings of some sort of respect.

At least I could finally be glad I didn’t speak Common. If I had, someone would have probably been yelling at me about how idiotic and dangerous that had been. They wouldn't have been wrong, but that didn't mean I wanted to hear it.

Cassandra nodded for me to follow her and the others back to the Chantry, her expression deadly serious and almost uncomfortably speculative. But what I saw on the faces of the villagers, soldiers, sisters and refugees was the germination of something like. . . awe. Uncertainty was there, and hesitation, and suspicion and confusion, but they had taken the place of hostility and accusation. It was the beginning. I didn't know how I felt about it, but it didn't matter. There was nothing to be done for any of it - belief was its own universe, and where it wanted to exist, nothing could stop it.

I paused and looked right to where I knew I’d find Solas - it was worrying that I knew - and saw him at the far end of the square. His eyes were already on me, an expression in them that made me uneasy despite the fact that I couldn’t really identify it.

I tilted my head, telling him to come with us. He nodded and turned away to take a back route, I assumed. I jogged to catch up to Cassandra and the others. I moved with such ease that it was like my legs were springs.

I rubbed my arm absently where Roderick had been wielding it as we passed into the Chantry. I was struck dumb by the beauty of the place; inside the doors was the most beautiful cathedral I had ever see-- well, the most beautiful cathedral I could imagine. It reminded me of the Chantry that had stood in Kirkwall: towering ceilings, light streaming in from every direction, divine solace in the form of a building.

There were mosaic windows, light colors and rich banners in chantry red, graceful statuary, every line of the place intentional, graceful. . . holy. I felt it in the air. It probably didn’t hurt that it smelled drastically less horrible in here than it had outside. The scent of candles and incense was its own new stink, though. Every smell was too much at first, even the good ones.

I was snapped back to reality by a chuckle, I wasn’t sure from who, and realized I’d stopped walking and that my mouth was literally hanging open, gaping up at the swooping arches and symmetry of the ceiling high above.

Cullen had a shadow of a half-grin on his face, Leliana was smiling so that she almost looked like the woman she had been ten years ago, and even Cassandra's expression was speculative and almost looked soft. With an apologetic - and embarrassed - quirk of my lips, I hurried my steps to catch up.

There was no small door at the back of the cathedral. I was lead toward the corner instead, and hidden behind an artfully draped cream-and-gold curtain was a modest but ornate door. Behind it, hallways stretched to either side, and across from it was another door, plain and simple. Solas had caught up and Cassandra tried to bar him from following, but I made it clear I wanted him to come. When she seemed uncomfortable with the idea, I arched a brow at her, lips pursed and quirked to one side. She made a truly marvelous disgusted sound and turned away. I grinned when all backs were to me.

When Cassandra and Cullen’s shoulders were out of the way - apparently I was used to being taller than I was now - I saw the war room. It was haphazard and had obviously been assembled in haste, but was much larger than I expected - a feeling I was getting used to. It was crowded with shelves of books and scrolls. Among them were two writing desks with pens and books and sheafs of paper on them, and generous seating in the far corner. The space must have been some kind of open study.

Two more tables - purloined desks formerly opposite the other two, it looked like - had been pushed together in the center of the room near the back and had what I knew would be a map of the continent spread open on them, taking up almost the whole surface. Its corners were weighted down by books. Whoever had set it up had just reached for whatever had been at hand, and no one had cleaned it up while I slept.

Josephine was waiting on the other side of the table. As soon as we entered, she greeted me with a respectful bob of the head and introduced herself, her tone graceful and calm. “Josephine-”

I smiled, eyes crinkling kindly, and finished her introduction for her. “Montillet. Yes, I know,” I said with a smile, my eyes crinkling kindly. “Good to meet you, Josie.”

She looked uncertain just for a moment, and I carried on. Best to get this out of the way. I nodded to each in turn. “Cullen Rutherford, ex templar, Commander of the Inquisition; Leliana, Left Hand of Justinia,” I held up my left hand, “Spymaster, former Bard and companion of Alaine Cousland during the Fifth Blight; Cassandra Pentagast, Seeker, Right Hand.” I held up my right. “. . .and future Divine Victoria,” I finished softly.

I felt an intense sort of focus in the air, like a flavor, right where my ears and nose told me Solas was standing, behind me and a respectful distance from my side. A muscle in my jaw jumped and I breathed out a growl too quiet for anyone to hear.

I stepped up to the table and steepled my fingers on the bare edges of the map. The writing on it was inscrutable, so there went my vain hope that our written languages might be similar. My eyes landed on Lake Calenhad and an involuntary smile quirked at my lips. “Josie,” I said, looking up and not bothering to hide the mirth in my eyes. I motioned writing and nodded at the pen in her hand. She handed it over with a slight look of elegant confusion. Apparently knowing about the alien, prescient woman and seeing her at it in person were different creatures.

I bent over the map, back straight, and rested my elbows on its surface as I followed the lines of the lake’s shores to form a rabbit, sitting up at attention. The lines were fluid and sure, and my lopsided grin stuttered for only a moment at how alien I was becoming to myself.

There was a surge in the air, a scent almost like dandelions and spice over something sweet. I glanced up to the source - Cullen, to see surprise on his face.

It was just enough for a new piece to slip into place. Was I smelling, had I been smelling. . . emotions?

I snapped my eyes back to the map and squeezed them shut. This would be over soon. This would be over soon, and then I could find somewhere quiet to scream or pace or swear or whatever I needed to do.

The rabbit was perfect as I finished it, except for the tail - that I elongated into a swooping thing with a tuft at the end to follow the lines of water on the map. I stood up and admired my work, then handed the pen back to Josephine with a small smile of gratitude. I very carefully didn’t look at Cullen. The drawing was part for him, yes, but I wasn’t doing it to get his attention. Let him be a little boosted or amused by it in his own corner while I stayed in mine.

I took a breath and tapped a finger to the map over large lettering that was in the right general area. “You want me to go to the Hinterlands,” I said.

“You want me to talk to mother Giselle,” I went on, knowing that the names would be enough. ”And Dennet while I’m there. I’ll meet Harding, get a report I can’t understand and don’t frankly need to hear, deal with warring factions indiscriminately dealing out collateral damage in the area, help refugees, try not to punch a very bitchy Dalish woman in the face, obtain agents, try not to get murdered by a dragon, gain the fealty of a doomsday cult. . . . Long vacation there, really. Lots of shore excursions. Adventure all around.”

I didn’t look up, suddenly weary. I knew what I’d see: shock, confusion, disbelief. Maybe suspicion or anger. Turmoil. And in the end, we’d head out there to do all of it anyway. The high, fitted collar of my outfit was suddenly too tight. I tugged it away from my throat uselessly.

I hadn’t looked up from the map since I’d handed Josephine’s pen back. With a wave of my hand I walked toward the sitting area and said “argue and gabble amongst yourselves. I’ll be here when you’re done.” I sat sideways on one of the couches and, wiggling my feet in the damn boots for when felt like the hundredth time since I’d first stepped outside my cabin, gave up and took the damn things off so I could put my feet up. I bent my knees to my chest, set my chin on them, and let my eyes unfocus. They were already debating.

Except Solas.

He walked up on silent feet. Again he stayed a respectful distance away, hands folded behind his back. I was watching him from the corners of my eyes; he kept his gaze off of me and spoke, so quietly that I assumed he must be talking to himself, because a normal person wouldn’t have been able to hear it. But somehow I could tell he was speaking to me.

I ignored him.

He spoke again, louder this time, nearer a regular volume. That time I recognized the cadence.

“I told you I don’t speak elvhen, Solas,” I muttered lazily, sloppily, not bothering to lift my chin off my knees. “I’m not-”

I stopped. I went very still.

'I’m not an elf,' I was going to say. But the only reason I could see that Solas would persist in trying the dead language out on anyone was his foolish belief that any elf would have a sort of intuitive understanding of the intention behind the words.

’I’m not an elf,’ I was going to say.

No.

Suddenly it was difficult to breathe.

Solas asked something. ‘Are you alright?’ I guessed from his tone.

I put my face in my hands, carefully avoiding so much as grazing my ears. I needed the world to go away, just for a minute, so I could. . . I didn’t even know what. My fingers slid up to my hairline and I gripped, pulling roughly and holding on just a little too hard, just enough to give me something physical to focus on, something real and solid. I felt like I was coming apart, and if I could only just find something to hold myself together long enough, it would stop.

“. . . તમે ખરેખર મને ખબર નથી, તમે શું, lethellan? Nuaelan?”

He spoke the words quietly, and I snapped, shoving myself up to my knees on the couch. “I told you I don’t speak elvhen, Solas!” Then I pantomimed the message to make it perfectly clear. “I don’t know what your goddamned problem is, but leave me alone! I don’t belong here, I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be a fucking elf, I’m not-- None of this is--”

Abruptly I deflated and my eyes slipped closed. The room had gone silent. I felt ashamed or embarrassed, I wasn't sure, but suddenly I was done. I didn't want to play anymore, I couldn’t be patient or understanding anymore, I was just done.

I stood up and walked on silent feet to the door. I stopped and turned to them and held up a hand. “Wait,” I said. “I just. . . I need some time.” I shook my head and left, shutting the door quietly behind me. I didn't know how I got away with it, but no one followed.

Chapter Text

It took me almost ten minutes to walk from the Chantry doors to the gates of Haven. I passed the military encampment and training grounds and, surprisingly, medical tents outside the gates. I walked across the heavily-frozen lake until I would only just be visible to the humans training outside. If people knew where I was, it was less likely someone would come looking.

I waved a hand absently at the base of a large tree, melting the snow and drying the ground. I looked down at the hand. “My” hand. “My” magic. “My” instincts and skills and. . . .

I sighed and my eyes shifted lower. I had left my boots in the makeshift war room, but I hadn’t felt the cold or the rough ground on my feet. Definitely an elf, then.

I sank down, back against the wide, gently warmed bark of the old tree, and let myself reduce to sensation. I didn’t feel my ears looking for pointed tips. I didn’t have to and I didn’t want to. But now that I was aware of them, I realized they were unusually sensitive, and tucked them under the safety of my loosely-bound hair. What other obvious things was I not noticing? I was the proverbial fish ignorant of the water it lives in.

I closed my eyes. I breathed. I stayed small and basic until all I felt, all I was, was a body and the places it touched ground and bark and itself.

Music began to play in my mind and it swelled until it was as real as if I were sitting in a concert hall. It was so real that I didn’t notice people across the lake start to go still and stare in my direction.

Slowly, blessedly, consciousness melted away and the world was wiped down to nothing.

* * * * *

“How can she possibly know any of that?” Cassandra asks, stymied. Her voice is nearly a whisper. No one wants to wake her.

As upset as the young woman had looked when she’d left, they had agreed to give her space.
They could see nothing else to do when they didn’t even know what had upset her; Solas swore
he’d only asked her how she was feeling, but said that the language he’d used had seemed to
upset her.

“Perhaps it will be enough to convince even Cullen,” Leliana says. On a less refined woman, her tone would be called arch and contentious.

“Must we revisit this again, Leliana?” Cullen asks wearily.

“How can you ask that? If the Maker sent her-” Leliana argues.

“I’m not saying He didn’t,” Cullen cuts in. “Loathe as I am to admit it, I’ve been wondering if you aren’t right, in fact. That doesn’t change the fact that we have more important things to do than stand around arguing theories. Whoever she is, what--” he stops to lower his voice, realizing it’s been steadily increasing in volume, “whatever she is, she’ll be able to tell us herself soon enough. In the meantime, we have to figure out what happened and who is to blame, stop Roderick from hauling her off to the stocks, and continue to try and find a solution to the problem that’s effectively tearing a hole in the world. Literally. Not to mention the reason the Inquisition was formed in the first place.”

I’m saying that right now it doesn’t matter. We have more pressing concerns. Whether she came from His side or a noble household or across the sea for all we know, our priorities are the same, our tasks are the same. I’d like to believe that something can come from this tragedy, but I don’t see the point in wasting time debating it when there is real work that needs to be done.”

“How can it not matter!” Leliana’s voice was raised now. “It is at the heart of all of this! A young girl who survived an impossible explosion, with physiology that no one has ever seen. She speaks a language no one has ever heard, she uses magic no one has ever seen, and now apparently she knows what we have to say before we can even say it! I could have believed her an impostor simply knowing the names of the people she does, our backgrounds, who we are. I could believe she is feigning ignorance and speaking nonsense, but the rest cannot be ignored. She bears a mark that can close the Rifts and save us. She is our only hope. She was found practically on top of the Breach, and a dozen of your own men swear that they saw the glowing form of a woman hovering over her in the Rift! There is something about her that even feels different, surely even you have noticed that much. Where else should she have come from, if not Andraste?”

“That is the Fade,” Solas said.

“What?” Cullen asked. “What do you mean, the Fade?”

“That is why she feels different, as our spymaster put it. That is why her magic is different, as well. She is not quite of this world, somehow; there is something about her that seems to negate the Veil around her. I suspect that is how she casts as she does. My own magic was stronger when she was near. I suspect any mage would say the same. Essentially, your Herald is a walking piece of the Fade.”

“Like an abomination?” Cullen asked, voice going cold. But it wasn't really a question.

“Not at all, Commander,” Solas assured. “She is no demon or spirit. She is as real and as flesh as you or I, and from what I can tell, every bit as much of this world. I detected no passengers within her. She is simply. . . different. I believe she is something this world has never seen.

Leliana looked at Cullen as if Solas had just made her point for her.

Cullen rubbed his forehead with the fingers of one hand, then said, sarcasm dripping from every word, “So the Maker and his bride killed the Divine and all but wiped out the entire Chantry structure, but saw fit to send an emissary?”

Leliana huffed a quiet, bitter laugh. “I would wish Divine Justinia alive more than perhaps anyone else. I know good people who died at the Conclave on all sides, Chantry, mages, templars and laypeople alike. But you cannot deny that the Chantry has been failing its people for some time. Sometimes it is necessary to wipe the board in order to start anew. Justinia knew that drastic change was needed, that is why we are all gathered here. Perhaps a fresh start is exactly what the Maker intended. Perhaps it is her job to guide us, to show us what it should look like and how to keep from making the same mistakes.”

“And she is to do that how, Leliana? She doesn’t speak a word of our tongue. According to Solas, she doesn’t speak a word of any tongue.”

“None I tried, but I hardly speak every modern language.”

“You speak enough,” Cullen replied drily. “My point is, if the Maker himself decided to intervene in such a drastic and devastating way, if He created this creature or sent her down from His side, surely a thing so simple as language would have been easy enough. Perhaps His hand is in all of this, I don’t pretend to know. But much as I might wish otherwise, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as you’re trying to make it.”

“The linguist from Orlais should be here in a matter of days,” Josephine said calmly. “If her tongue is related to any language in Thedas, he will be able to tell us. The teacher will be here tomorrow for her, and between the two of them, communication should not be an issue too much longer. Perhaps we can even learn something of her origins or find someone to contact on her behalf. There is a mystery here to be sure, but it is one we should be able to solve with the appropriate resources.”

“But how did she know about Mother Giselle?” Cassandra asked. ”We didn’t even know about her until yesterday. How did she know about Dennet and Harding? How did she know that we were going to ask her to go to the Hinterlands? She was asleep while we planned and gathered information, and she spoke to no one before Roderick accosted her. This is not. . . this cannot be possible. It cannot be, and yet. . . .” She trailed off and looked at Leliana.

“Exactly my argument, Cassandra. And it does matter, it must. If she is as mortal as any of us, that is one thing. But if she is of divine origin, it changes everything. It changes how we listen to her, what we will tell people, how we do certain things. It will change all of Thedas. It will change the world. Perhaps she is even the Maker's own child."

"With regard to the matter of her age," Solas said. "I believe her appearance may be deceptive."

"What do you mean?" Cassandra asked.

Solas shifted gracefully on his feet, hands clasped gently behind his back. "You yourselves have pointed out how her physiology appears unique. Age may sit differently on her than we are accustomed to, and I certainly have not seen her behave like a child. She is skilled, competent, and tempered. She showed remarkable courage and fortitude on the way to the Breach that many adults would be incapable of, and has been impressively collected given that she apparently woke alone in an alien land mere days ago."

"I took my vows and began to serve when I was eighteen," Cullen pointed out.

Solas inclined his head in acknowledgement.

The Commander sighed heavily. “Regardless, the rumor of her is out there, and that alone will change things. People are already after her, and as word spreads, she will be at greater risk. And in higher demand.”

“I have already begun circulating false reports,” Leliana assured them all. “Differing accounts of what happened, of her appearance-”

“But sooner or later we will be expected to take an official stance,” Josephine said.

“Yes. All the more reason to find a way to speak with her.”

“That should not be a problem,” Solas said. Everyone looked at him. “I can speak to her in the Fade. There is no natural language there. Any questions you wish asked, I can pose to her, and return with answers in the morning.”

Cassandra clearly did not like that idea. There were other objections, but they were much better and more diplomatically hidden.

“We do not know why she wanted your presence here today, Solas,” Cassandra said. “You have been helpful, but we do not know you well enough to trust you with something so important. Can we. . .” she paused, uncomfortable. “Can the rest of us be present when you speak with her?”

“That should not be an issue, Seeker. Non-mages enter the Fade each night when they dream. It should not be impossible to find you. Whether any of you will be receptive in your unconscious states is less assured, but I can certainly make an effort. With the four of you, I should have luck reaching at least one. That way, you can pose whatever questions you have for yourselves, and any answers obtained need not be left to doubt.”

“Thank you,” she said, and she seemed to mean it.

Solas gave her a nod.

“. . .I have to admit, I'll be curious to find out who she is,” Cullen said. “I felt certain she was related to nobility, but the way she moved outside, the way she handled my blade when she took it. . . .” He shook his head. “She knows how to fight. I'm certain of it. And well, if she is as young as she looks."

“I agree,” Cassandra said. She looked at the door through which the woman had disappeared. “But how long should we give her? It is not as if we can discuss much, but at the very least, the sooner we start teaching her even the simplest words, the better, surely.”

“I can take care of that until the tutor arrives, if you would like,” Solas said. “She would not be the first person I’ve helped to learn a new tongue.”

Cassandra nodded, but Josephine looked uncertain. Solas noticed. “Ambassador?” he asked.

“I hope you will not be offended, but from what I have seen, and reports of your journey together to the Breach, she seems perhaps. . . not as comfortable with you as she has been with others.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Cullen muttered.

“True enough,” Solas said, “but I cannot help thinking that it must be a misunderstanding of some sort. Either way, if we are to be working together, it would be wise to address it sooner rather than later, would it not? And as you said, the earlier she can begin learning our tongue, the better it will be for everyone. If she proves unreceptive to my help, I will simply stop trying and leave her be until we can discuss whatever it is that troubles her.”

Everyone took a moment, mulling it over. Cassandra broke the silence. “I have no objections, so long as you do not push her if she does not wish it.”

“Of course,” Solas said with a nod. “It would hardly be helpful to exacerbate the problem."

Cullen made a noise of agreement in his throat. “If that’s settled, then, I have other matters awaiting my attention."

“As do we all, I am sure,” Josephine said. “Then. . . I suppose we shall hope to see one another tonight,” she said, and it couldn’t be said whether she was more intrigued or uncomfortable about the idea.

“Yes,” Cullen said. Not even the dimmest of people would be left guessing how he felt about it.

“Is there anything we need to do?” She asked, looking at Solas.

“Try to feel open to the idea as you go to sleep tonight. Hold your desire to speak in the Fade in your mind as you drift off. If you can sleep deeply, that should help, as well.”

She nodded, brusque. “Until tonight, then.”

* * * * *

I heard a bark, and something in me rippled.

I whirled and saw a dog, small and wiry and running toward me on stubby, awkward little puppy legs.

The ripple again, a heartbeat within a heartbeat - I knew this dog. And from the way it was trying to climb up my shin, tail wagging so fast it was practically a blur, it knew me, too.

I knelt down and put a hand on its back, scratching and smiling and laughing as its cool, soft little tongue licked my face. It dropped to its feet and yipped at me, then spun in an excited circle. I was smiling so wide my eyes were almost slits.

The smile fell away. I knew this dog, yes, but it felt. . . something about it was. . . wrong. Off. There was a sour note inside of it.

And I was in the Fade, wasn’t I? I had fallen asleep. . . .

I stood up slowly, my face going blank. “What are you?” I asked.

It cocked its head at me and perked its ears, making an impossibly cute rumbling whine.

“What are you?” I asked again, my voice going hard.

Its shape whirled and grew in a flowing, liquid cloud that settled into neither man nor woman, but a constant, curving figure of water and candle smoke, only vaguely humanoid and somehow entrancing. It was beautiful, like a hot meal and green forests and warm arms and-

Ah. Desire. And not a Spirit of it.

“You’re quite clever,” it purred. Its voice was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, like Home in a sound. “I only wanted to give you a little taste of something you lost. A kindness. You’re so very alone, so confused. So strong. But you’re not all strength underneath, are you?” It moved closer, dancing somehow like a rearing snake. “No, you’re wonderful, remarkable, but not perfect. I don’t mind. You’re so beautiful. . . . And we can’t be strong all the time, can we? You need someone, just one person, who can see the real you. One would be enough.” Fingertips formed on an extended limb and brushed my bare arm; I realized I was in a gown, deceptively simple and made of fabric that felt as if it had sky woven into it but draped over me like water.

Desire began to circle me. “I can see inside, you know. You don’t even have to tell me anything - I already know it all. What you want, what you crave, what you need, what you fear. . . . Everything you hide. Would you like to know where you come from? Would you like to know what you are? The answer would surpr-”

”Enough,” I said. “Tempting as all of that is, I’m not an idiot, and I have no intention of trucking with a demon my first time in the Fade. Shoo.”

It laughed, a beautiful and pure and almost sexual sound. “This is not your first time in the Fade, Little One.” It sounded mocking. “You have so many secrets buried inside. It’s dangerous not to know them. Dangerous to yourself, dangerous to your friends, dangerous to the world. You won’t find my price so unbearable, I promise. I will give you,” here it leaned in to whisper in my ear, its breath like honey and butter and soft drunkenness, ”everything. And I will never lie to you.”

Its words brushed deep inside me like silk.

I craned my neck away and turned on it. I kept myself calm, but my voice was stone. “Go. Away. I do not wish to make enemies here, but I will not ask you again. I don’t want anything you have to offer.”

It laughed. “Yes you do.” Then it pouted. “But, hmm. . . well. . . that’s alright,” it purred. “I would so love to make a deal with you. But that isn’t really what I was here for. All I had to do was distract you.” A mouth appeared in its “face,” too wide and too large and it spread into a horrible grin, all sharp teeth and venom.

“Distr-”

I was cut off by dark, whisping hands extending from the ground and gripping my legs. Before I could so much as twitch, a massive form grew from the soil and I was lifted into the air and hung upside down. The creature was black as ink and stood on two long, spindly legs that ended in needle points. Its four arms were the same, save for the two that had formed hands to hold my ankles.

When my dress fell over my face, the demon ripped it away. A long tongue, far too soft, wrapped its way around my waist and hips and wended over the flat of my stomach and the valley between my breasts.

“If I couldn’t have her, neither can you,” Desire hissed.

The creature holding me rumbled, so low it was more vibration than sound. It shook even the air.

I lashed out with a frantic spell and severed the arms holding me. The creature roared and wheeled back and I ran, but more hands caught at me and I slammed forward into the ground, dazed, as more and more rose from the ground to restrain me. Something heavy sat on my back.

I struggled. I burned and froze and cut and slammed away and seared pain into flesh and even once managed to get myself to a different part of the Fade. They followed me, and every moment there were more. Demons of every kind I had faced or heard of and figures that I had never even thought to imagine and forces I couldn’t see at all. They clawed at me and held me but no matter how I fought or ran, they never actually hurt me beyond superficial scratches and bruises.

There were hundreds of them. So many that I knew I couldn’t fight my way out, and so I grabbed at the only thing I had left: I cried out for help.

I screamed, feral, as hands were pressed into my flesh, I screamed as I was held against bodies, as I was pulled to the ground, as-

I shot awake with a cry and a gasp that nearly overfilled my lungs and I flung my arm up, spell at the ready. Cullen was kneeling next to me, the hand that had been on my shoulder still extended. Several soldiers were behind him, and every one of them tensed.

It was a moment, lungs working like a bellows, before I got my bearings enough to lower my arm. I realized my face was wet and swiped a sleeve over the tears. My breath was shaking.

“אתה בסדר?” Cullen asked a question, soft and almost gentle, certainly concerned, and I saw a knowing look in his eyes. Of course. He knew demons and nightmares.

I swallowed around nothing several times trying to speak, then remembered it wouldn’t do any good, so I stood up. I straightened my tunic and brushed off my backside and gathered enough of myself to motion for Cullen to follow me. I must have looked wild and afraid and stony all at once.

I walked as fast as my legs would carry me. This could not happen again, and it would happen again - it had been no random thing. I called harshly to Cassandra as we passed the training area and stopped to collect Solas, only to find him nowhere.

“Solas?” I asked Cassandra.

She nodded toward the Chantry. He must be in the library.

The stares and whispers were not hard to ignore, doubled though they were by the look on my face. I pushed into the back hall and then to the war room as if the place were mine and, finding Solas in the large seating area with volumes spread out and open before him, went straight to one of the shelves and grabbed the first book I came to.

I flipped through it. Discarded it on a nearby table without the respect it deserved. Did the same with a second, a fifth, a tenth. These people didn’t believe in illustrations. All I needed was a picture of a demon. I remembered the rabbit over Lake Calenhad and began looking around for a pen instead. The war table had none, the ones on the desks were apparently too smart for me to figure out how to work, and I got so frustrated that I threw one at the far wall, where it broke and clattered to the floor. I clenched my fists against impotent anger.

Cullen uttered something, his voice soothing as butter on warm bread. I made a noise of frustration that was half a sob.

Cassandra and Solas exchanged words. She grew annoyed, he stayed calm. Even I wanted to hit him, and I wasn’t even the one whose nerves he was testing. Cullen joined the conversation.

And then Cassandra and Cullen left, Cullen with a backwards glance, and Cassandra with a nod.

I looked after them frantically, then to Solas, who stood regarding me with a look of calm sympathy. His hands were behind his back again, and he had that look, that same goddamned look, like he was waiting for something. I shoved away the urge to take a step back.

He started gesturing. Fingers opening and closing: talking. A fingertip to his forehead. The glow of magic in his palm. A gesture indicating both of us, then speaking again, then the magic again.

A language spell? Why the shit wouldn't he have cast it the moment I’d woken up? Or before the Breach? And why did we need to be alone for it now? He was up to something, I would have staked my every missing memory on it.

He took a step toward me and I mirrored it and gave him a warning look.

He projected calm - I felt it ripple out through the air, and annoyed as it made me, it still seeped under my skin. He repeated the “I have a language spell” motions with a look of "please" and then held his palms up as if trying to soothe a wild animal.

I let him get close. I wanted to do anything but. He gestured for me to breathe, deep and slow, and said a word. I did.

He told me to close my eyes. It took me a long moment, but I did. He repeated the word for “breathe,” his voice warm and soothing and I hated him for it but I did it anyway until long moments later, I actually began to relax.

I felt him step up, so close that I could feel his body in the air as if it vibrated. His thumb and forefinger gently gripped my chin and I jerked, but kept my eyes closed. He coaxed my jaw down until my lips parted and immediately I felt a spill of magic, cool and light as it washed over my palette and down my throat. It felt as though it was shifting and moving within itself and I dropped down into the feeling. I heard him take a long, soft inhale through his nose.

There was a scent, warm, with earth and the tang of magic, like a mountain and a green forest and the cool slither of a creek. It felt. . . known, and I wanted more of it. I inhaled deeply and tilted my chin up to let more of it in.

My lips brushed his - I hadn’t realized he was that close, but I didn’t care, the scent was. . . underneath it was a feeling, and if I could just--

His lips pressed to my bottom one, pulling it in. It was hesitant at first, so hesitant, but I didn’t want to fight it, I didn't care, I hardly felt it. When his teeth nibbled at it, just the tiniest, softest bit, I groaned and leaned into him, flush and familiar and all I knew was this strange, roiling sort of want uncoiling in my gut that felt like slipping into a boot I had worn for so long that it was perfectly formed to my shape and gait.

I don't know who pushed or pulled, but suddenly my back was against a bookcase and we were wrapped around one another, and the kiss had turned to bruising force and ragged breaths and I wanted--

Reality snapped back into place like elastic. The magic had stopped - when? I pulled my arms from around him, I let go of fistfulls of his tunic and I put my hands on his chest and I shoved him away so hard he staggered. Before either of us could blink, I snapped an arm back and punched him in the jaw and I stood there, lungs working like a bellows and glowering as if I’d love nothing more than to put a knife in his ribs. What the fuck had he done? What was that?

“Tell me you can at least understand me now after that bullshit,” I spat.

He was pulling a finger from his lip and looking at the blood on it, but he glanced up at me, breathing just as hard, and nodded curtly.

“Well thank god for small miracles," I fairly hissed. "Tell them to come back in before I do worse than hit you. What the fuck was that?”

He shook his head, nearly helpless, and lead settled in my stomach.

“You can’t. . . please tell me you can speak my language now, too.”

A muscle in his jaw twitched once, almost imperceptibly. He pursed his lips slightly and he shook his head again.

I closed my eyes before I could start swearing, and only opened them once I heard the door open and four sets of footsteps enter. I didn’t need to look - with Cullen's metal (and armor and weapon oils) and fresh air and fur and Cassandra's leather and, similar to Cullen, armor scents and her own sort of flower and spice, I smelled the birds and smoke of Leliana and the flowery perfume and ink of Josephine. She didn't reek nearly as bad as most; she smelled nearly as almost-tolerable as elves.

I opened my eyes and glared at Solas. “You stand on the other side of the fucking room unless you want a book thrown at your eyes,” I ordered.

He nodded and moved back, but I felt. . . he was repentant, sure, but he was almost amused. I clenched my fists and turned away to keep from carrying through with my threat. God but I hated him. I breathed until I felt under better control, then turned back around and spoke directly to the advisers. I tried to go slow so Stupid Bastard Asshole wouldn’t have a hard time translating. He was in for some horrifying sort of conversation when we could speak the same tongue.

“I was in the Fade,” I said. “Napping. But there were demons, hundreds of them.

". . . They were after me.”

A ripple went through the room. I pressed on. “I have no idea why. When I got there, a Desire demon. . . it said it was supposed to distract me. Then others showed up, more and more, and no matter how I ran or fought, none of them really hurt me, they just chased and held and this is obviously a problem, because I can’t not sleep, but I think it’s safe to say that whatever that was, it's going to happen again.”

Their faces were grave, but no one said anything.

“. . . Hi, by the way. Nice to meet you,” I added. No one cracked a grin.

Solas broke the silence. "זוהי השערה בלבד ,אבל אם אני נכנס Fade הראשון ,יכול להיות שאני מסוגל למצוא איפשהו בטוח הראלד לנוח עד שנוכל להבין מה גורם להם לרדוף אותה."

Still, no one spoke, they just stared, faces hard or speculative or worried or some mix of something else.

"כמה אתם ,זה יעבוד?” Cullen asked a question.

"ראיתי מקומות בטוחים שנבנו Fade לפני .זה לא אמור להיות קשה .אני יכול גם להיות מסוגל לגייס עזרה."

“איזה סוג של עזרה?” Cullen asked, doubt saturating his voice.

"סוגשלך Chantry חינוךיהיה סביר לא מסכים איתה, אבל שאני יכול להבטיח לך תביא שום ניזק מגיע הראלד או לעצמי."

"ענית על השאלה קסנדרה, Solas,” Cassandra said, voice brooking no argument.

"הם לא אותו ,דבר."

Cullen was instantly angry, and incredulous. "אתה רוצה להגן עליה מפני שדים על ידי מקבל את עזרתו של שדים יותר ?השתגעת?" He was nearly shouting by the end.

Solas' reply was calm, but sounded almost tired, and there was a note of defensiveness. "רוחות הם לא אותו הדבר כמו שדים ,מפקד .הם לא מבקשים להחזיק קוסמים ,ואת רובם אין לי רצון לבוא לעולם שלנו .וכשם שאדם יכול להיות אנוכי ,כך גם יכול היה תושב של .שדים הם הרצונות והתקוות שלנו השתבשו פגומים."

“'ומה לומר היצורים האלה שעל עזר אתה מחפש לא נדלקת לך?”

"כל רוח יכולה להפוך ,מפקד .בדיוק כפי שכל אחד מכם יכול להחליט להצטרף האויב שלנו ולעזור לו להביא את סוף העולם."

Cullen looked like he dearly wanted to argue, but underneath that, something was making him think.

“האם יש לנו ברירה?” Leliana asked quietly.

Cassandra loosed a tight breath. "אנחנו יכולים לפחות להסתכל לתוכו עד רדת הלילה ולראות אם אנחנו יכולים להיות לך אפשרויות .למרות שאני באמת לא יודע מי אנחנו עשויים לשאול .אין קוסמים סמוכים, פחות שסבירים רוצה לעזור .המבקשים נעלמו ,הטמפלרים מפוזרים, וכל Chantry חוקרישלא להשתתף בהתכנסות הם רחוקים מדי כדי להיות לעזר .ייתכן שאין לנו ברירה."

A muscle in Cullen’s jaw worked. "פיין .אבל אנחנו נבדוק את הנושא ,ואם אין לנו אופציות אחרות ,אני רוצה .שאנשים בבית שלהם להעיר אותם עם הסימן הראשון של מצוקה .אנחנו לא יכולים להסתכן הראלד”

Whatever was happening, he obviously hated it. No one else looked very pleased, either.

Solas looked at me. He pointed to a shield, then to himself, then to me, then motioned sleeping. He pointed to the shield and himself again.

“. . .I know you're a somniari. A powerful one. But you did catch the part where I said hundreds of demons, right? Solas, there were things I’ve never. . . that I would have been hard pressed to even imagine before now. Some of them were bigger than houses.”

He nodded, eyes sure and serious.

“Son of-- Fine. Fine. IF I can get to sleep, then fine. But I want someone next to both of us in case something goes wrong. If it looks like we’re having a nightmare, they’re to wake us up immediately.”

He passed my words on and Cullen gave an approving nod. He looked gratified, almost, or maybe relieved.

”This is ridiculous. . . .” I muttered to myself.

I ran through everything that was about to happen in my mind. I wanted to tell them all of it. The Seekers, red lyrium, Corypheus' origins and plans, his dragon, his manipulation of the wardens, the mages and templars, his plans in Orlais, his bargains with demons, all of it. Better to try and plan with some of the most apt minds in the world than on my own, and I knew without question that I, or at least the Inquisition, could trust them. But the only way to do that was through the only man who spoke my tongue, and I didn't feel safe putting that much sensitive information in his lap. So until I mastered Common, the direct route wasn't an option on the table. I pinched the bridge of my nose.

Time to play chess and hope to god I didn't kill us all or hand us over to an ancient, amoral megalomaniac.

Immediate problems first. ”Leliana,” I said, looking at her. “Do you know how to find Zevran?”

She glanced at Solas, then nodded at me when he finished translating.

”Good. Please get him here, as soon as possible. Tell him there's a harem waiting here for him, I don't care what you have to say. Giselle is going to tell us about a meeting of clerics in Val Royeaux and suggest we attend. I don’t know when it will be, but I want him here before then." Given how afraid and suspicious people were of us right now, we could hardly walk a small army into the city to take down Envy. But enough skilled people in my party - I figured I could count Cullen and Leliana in - should give us a chance. If I could figure out a way to get it to show itself.

“Cullen, there’s a mercenary band called the Bull’s Chargers. They'll offer up their services pretty soon anyway, but better if they're here before we go to Val Royeaux, too. They’ll be expensive, but the price you’ll get will be fair and they’ll be worth every. . . copper? Is that a currency here? No. Bronze, right? It’s bronze?”

Solas nodded as he interpreted.

“Ok." I rested my hands on my hips as I went on. "The leader of the company is a Qunari named The Iron Bull. Leliana, all his communications will need to go through you. That will make sense once you meet him - he’ll be up front about who he is. Have the wardens started going missing yet?”

A slightly disquieted nod this time.

“Fabulous," I muttered. Magister Erimond probably already had them all wrapped around his fingers, then. "An assassination now would solve a lot of problems before they happen, but I don't expect anyone to trust me that much yet. There’s one left, he goes by the name Blackwall. He won’t disappear-"

Cassandra interrupted me with a single word. When I raised my brows at her, she drew a thumb over her throat.

"Is she asking me about the assassination?" I asked Solas.

He dipped his chin. I looked from him, to Cassandra, to Leliana, then shifted on my feet.

"Unless they can promise they'll take my word on it and kill the person," I said a little uneasily, "it's best to not even mention the name. Not yet."

Words were exchanged, and eventually Solas motioned for me to go on.

"Right," I said, gratified that they weren't willing to follow me blindly, "so we need to find Blackwall. If he’s not in the Hinterlands, he will be soon. Don’t approach him, we just want to know where he is when it’s time to collect him. And do you remember Dagna? The dwarf in Orzammar who Alaine got into the Ferelden circle to study magic?”

Leliana arched an eyebrow, lips parted slightly, and gave Cassandra a look before nodding. And now I knew my second word in Common: "Yes."

Perhaps I would buy myself a cake later.

“We’ll need her soon, I recommend tracking her down immediately.” I looked down and chewed on the pad of my thumb and mumbled to myself. “What else, what else. . . .” I couldn’t do anything about Alexius - I had no proof, and even if I did, it wouldn't be enough to get anyone to lock up a magister. We might have the men to send to Emprise du Lion, but there were too many variables; if Corypheus' men hadn't started growing red lyrium there yet and we showed up, they'd just move their operation elsewhere we'd have to find it, never mind the fact that, careful as I could be, Corypheus would wonder soon enough how we knew so much more than we should about his plans. Better not to give him any bread crumbs we didn't have to.

I looked up, an idea occurring to me. "Leliana. There's a small island in the north of Emprise du Lion. Just southeast of that is a village named Sahrnia. An agent needs to be planted there, someone who will not be discovered. That's vital. When the ruler of that town, Alban Poulin starts acting strange or people start going missing, we need to be informed immediately.

“Ah, and I could use something, I don’t care what, something small and durable that can hold a flame inside. Something I can wear or carry.” I looked at Solas. “I’ll use it to keep veilfire with me - I’m mostly telling you that for your own curiosity, you don’t have to tell them if you think they won't take it well. We’ll come up against a lot of uses for it, and I don’t particularly want to have to worry about carrying a torch around. I know it won’t make sense to them anyway,” I said with a wave toward the other four. "And tell them whatever you can about your artifacts if it will help us locate them, the ones that you say strengthen the Veil and prevent Rifts from forming.

“Tell Cullen and Leliana to get themselves into fighting condition if they’re not still there already. Josephine,” I said, looking at the Ambassador, “before we leave for Val Royeaux, I’ll need an outfit appropriate to wear to a salon hosted by Vivienne de Fer. She’ll extend an invitation after the meeting. Please don't contact her unless you would have if I hadn't said anything. Ah,” I looked back to Solas, “and let Cassandra know that when we come up against Rifts, any abilities like Dispel or Spell Purge will stop demons from crossing over as they're being being pulled here by them.

I looked at Solas, "I know they won't care, but you know, right?" I asked, voice softening. "That most of them probably aren't demons before they're forced here through the Rifts?" If there was any one thing in all the world Solas and I could agree on, it would be the respect and regard spirits deserved.

He nodded, intense interest in his eyes. I looked down. "I don't want anyone hurt who doesn't have to be. And one thing you and I can agree on is that Spirits deserve at least as much consideration as any of us over here. . . . . Maybe don't tell them I said that yet, though. Best if they don't think I'm. . . I don't know, a secret abomination or something," I finished with a sigh.

I flushed at the feeling that I'd probably just showed more of my hand than I should have. Solas seemed relieved, though, immensely so. But before I'd just opened my mouth, he had probably thought himself alone in his beliefs about spirits. . . . It must be a terribly lonely life he led.

I looked down, pulling myself back and mentally searching again. “I don’t. . . I’m sure there’s more, but I didn’t exactly expect to be able to talk to people yet. I’ll give it some thought. But for now, hopefully that will be ok.”

“Corypheus,” Cassandra cut in. "אמרת שזה היה לו שראינו חורבות הישיבה הסגורה .אבל “Corypheus, מת. Varric נשבע שהוא נהרג."

I didn’t need to speak Common to know what she must be saying. I withered a little with regret at what I had to tell her.

"Varric and Hawke killed him, yes. They, Carver, Isabella, and Fenris killed him. But Corypheus doesn’t stay dead. That's the problem. There’s a way to kill him permanently, but it. . . the how is complicated, and we’re far from ready to make an attempt. A lot has to happen first.” ‘Unless any of you know a god-like dragon willing to risk its life for us,’ I thought drily.

"אֵיך--" Josephine said, stymied.

"היא הראלד של אנדרסטה," Leliana said, a mix of confidence and wonder.

"אני לא יודע איך עוד היא יכולה לדעת את כל זה," Cassandra said, her tone somewhere between Josephine’s and Leliana’s.

Cullen was silent, but looking at me with an intense gaze, as if searching for something.

"שאלתי אותך בתקווה תוכל להוות עצמכם Fade ערב," Solas said, and even he sounded a little off-balance.

”. . . I don’t know what you all are saying, but you sound like someone just knocked you upside the heads. I can relate to the feeling," I added wryly. "I’m guessing they’re asking how I know all of this or something?” I asked Solas.

"אנו מבקשים בדיוק את זה ,כן," he said with a nod.

“Right,” I said. “Yes. Well. I wish I had an answer for that.” I looked away. “I don’t know who I am," I said uneasily. It was an awfully big weakness to lay bare like this, before people who, regardless of the feeling that I knew them, were basically complete strangers. "I don’t know where I’m from, except that I’m not from Thedas. I’m from. . . well, not Thedas,” I said, unwilling to come out and say ‘another world.’ “I remember everything, everything that's going to happen. I've never been here, but I've lived through all of this. A dozen times, through different choices and different consequences and different 'what ifs,' like I can see the web of fate laid out with everything that's about to happen. I don't know everything, I'm not a god, I just. . . know a lot, I guess.

“It’s the same with the Fifth Blight and the events surrounding the Architect-"

I saw a lack of recognition in their eyes. Right. The Wardens hardly shared their business with the world.

"Oh that's. . . nevermind. That's actually a whole separate calamity," I said with a pathetically weak laugh. A calamity* I didn't even know how to begin trying to deal with. One that wouldn't be an issue if Fen'harel got his way, anyway. "What I mean is Alaine's time at Vigil's keep through the aftermath of the darkspawn attack. I know her companions, I know Anders and Justice." I felt a pang of sadness, but hid it. "I was there for the ten years of Hawke’s life that happened after she left Lothering. Her family, her friends, Fenris, the Deep Roads and the Chantry. . . . I was there for all of it. Cullen, I saw you many times, especially when the recruits were being possessed, and when Meredith. . . ." I trailed off, not wanting to drag painful memories up for him. "I could tell you--” I tried, but cut myself off again. ‘I could tell you the most personal things about yourselves, things you’ve never told anyone,’ I wanted to say. That seemed unwise.

“I don't know anything about myself, though,” I said instead, frustrated, “It’s infuriating,” I finished with a shake of my head. "I'm sorry about earlier," I added. And I really was. "It was just. . . I realized something, and suddenly, everything. . . ." I looked down at my marked palm. "It was too much."

I gave myself a shake. "It shouldn't happen again. I assume a teacher is being arranged so I can learn Common as fast as possible?” I asked, the abrupt subject change intentional.

Solas nodded, then gestured to himself.

I might have looked at him like he'd just suggested I stick my bare hand up a cow's backside. I couldn’t help it, my lip curled. “Absolutely not,” I said in no uncertain terms, appalled. "I’ll sit in the bar and eavesdrop until I start picking up words, and someone else can work with me on reading and writing until a proper teacher can be brought in.” I counted on the entirely intentional insult being considered an accident. “Speaking of which,” ‘speaking of my total and utter lack of trust in and disdain for you,’ I didn't say, “I don’t know if I have the clout to make this happen yet, but I want-” I stopped, choking back bile at what I was about to say, “I want you on the war counsel. Tell Leliana - and Solas I will check this with her the moment I speak enough of the language to do so - tell her you don’t need to be included in any sensitive information, but your knowledge and skills are too valuable to be left out of the planning of important things.

“Tell them what you want of this, but my reason for asking is that you're basically all three of them combined, plus an expert on magic, and you know more about the Fade than almost anyone alive." I leveled him with a serious look as I went on. "You could probably play the Game better than Josie, you have at least as much experience with armies and battle and strategy as Cullen, and you could give Leliana and her entire network a run for their money. How you've mastered so much in your short life is beyond me, but that's hardly important right now. I know your presence will probably be superfluous most of the time, but it will be worth it when it’s not.” Not to mention that every minute he spent with extra pairs of eyes on him was a minute I would breathe easier. “If they still want to argue the wisdom of your inclusion. . . well I can’t help with that, what with the whole language. . . thing." I gestured vaguely.

“Oh, and there is one more thing, and this is very, very important.” I looked at Leliana. “Going back to the destruction of the Conclave, any elf who has joined or wants to join us from now on needs to be triple-vetted. I’m sure I can’t imagine the cost, but I promise you, it will be more than made up for in the number of spies you catch. From day one, we have been a high-priority target of two parties, and that will only increase as the days go on. Solas. . . .”

I thought about how much to say and how to say it, then slowly and carefully told him, “Pass along as much or as little as you want of this, but I know there’s no point in vetting you." I paused and gave him a long look. "I want you with us, and I know that you’re on our side.” ‘For now,’ I didn’t say. "I do. I know you'll watch our backs in battle and that you want the Breach closed just as much as anyone, but other than that, I don’t harbor the illusion that you are anything like what you want us to believe you are. For now, I'm choosing not to care." Much. "I also know you have more secrets than probably everyone in this town put together, and I’d just as soon not waste the coin or the man hours to be told what I already know about you. Which is that we don't know anything about you. You'll choose to tell us or you won't. For now, I'll respect that.”

He gave me a long, speculative look. I held his gaze. He nodded at me in acknowledgement and, I thought, some gratitude.

It was an odd feeling, getting that from him.

I wasn't sure how to broach the subject of "I've never used magic before and I have no earthly idea what I'm doing," and I didn't especially want to deal with any more bombshells today. I'd held my own well enough on our way to the Breach, and given that Solas was a somniari - 'assuming I'm not one of those in addition to everything else,' I thought, mentally challenging the Universe - I could ask him to run me through battle scenarios in the Fade. It wasn't like we'd be sitting around and doing our nails otherwise. But there was one other thing I could do.

"Cullen," I said speculatively, "I don't especially want to die the first time I run into someone who wants to skewer me, and. . . well I got the feeling this morning that I know my way around a sword. But I don't remember. Do you think you could find someone to train me? Or at the very least, see what I can do?"

With a nod, he said something that I figured amounted to "yes."

I nodded back gratefully. "One other thing," I said, indulging the urge to fidget. "I've never. . . I don't care who does it," I looked between Cullen and Cassandra, "but I think it's probably a good idea if I know what a mana drain or spell purge or smite or whatever feels like. I don't want to be hit with something for the first time while someone's counting on my magic to, you know, not die. I don't know if there are any active templars in the Inquisition yet, but if there are, please make it clear they're not to hold back. Is that doable?"

"אני יכול להטיל כישוף טהר ,אבל אני לא לאמן את יכולות טמפלרים כלליות יותר ,לא כמו חל על זה," Cassandra said. I couldn't tell if it amounted to a 'no' or a 'maybe.'

Cullen spoke next. "הבאתי אף אחד איתי Kirkwall. ישנם שני טירונים נשארים איתנו כרגע. אני לא לא יודע את המידה או חוזק של היכולות שלהם ,אבל בהתחשב בכך שהם כל הדרך יש, הם עלולים להשתכנע לעזור .זו החלטה נבונה ,כל עוד היא יודעת שזה הולך לכאוב." He looked at me with a mix of concern and warning.

I narrowed my eyes slightly at him as I spoke to Solas. "That sounds like he's trying to mother hen me, is he trying to mother hen me?"

Solas quirked a smile but shook his head, and I huffed a relieved sigh.

"Good," I said. "Thank the Maker, or what have you. Why-" 'Why did he look like he was worried, then?' I had been about to ask. I rolled my eyes at myself. "Did he say anything important, really? Anything that's going to get me killed or horribly maimed if I don't find out?"

The quirk of Solas' lips grew into what some generous soul might have referred to as a grin. He shook his head again.

"Right. Ok then. I'd like to go and bang my forehead against a hard surface repeatedly for a while, if that's alright with everyone here?"

Solas chuckled, and to my abject disgust, the sound was downright charming. He uttered something to the others without taking his eyes off me. Given their lack of reaction, I assumed he had taken liberties with the translation. After a round of replies and a smattering of discussion, he gestured to the door, indicating I could go.

"And thank god for that," I muttered, too quiet for anyone to hear. "Oh, wait. Ehm. . . when I was on my way to the ill-fated napping spot, I saw a lot of medical tents outside the walls. If no one objects, and given I'm assuming correctly about what's in here," I nodded to the building around us, "I'd like to move into one of the small rooms in the Chantry and have my hut or whatever you want to call it used for some of the injured who really shouldn't be out in the cold. I'm assuming you're not single-handedly keeping warming runes up on all the tents out there." I finished, looking at Solas.

His brows drew together just slightly as if he were confused or speculative as he posed the request to the advisers. His eyes stayed on me almost the entire time.

Varying degrees and flavors of surprise passed over everyone's faces. Brief words were exchanged, and when Cassandra stuck her head out into the Chantry proper and, after a short discussion, was followed back in by a woman in humble robes, I assumed that was a "yes."

With a nod and a slip of a smile to almost everyone in the room - I may have pointedly ignored Solas - I followed the woman out.

Chapter Text

The room I was given wasn’t small. Which was good, because all I did for the rest of the day was hide in it and eat.

After I finished the large tray of food the woman who’d shown me to the room had brought - a sampling, it looked like, all rugged and served on a tray that was comically too good for it - I went searching for more. All it took was an eating motion to send a laysister not far from my door running. It was a little embarrassing.

Not as embarrassing as the stares, which was why I hid in my room. Most people tried to be polite about it, but it didn’t matter. I could handle them fine, really, I just. . . didn’t want to. Not now. I felt like I was missing a wall that I needed to have in order to be out there and not care about them.

For what was left of the day I sat in an overstuffed chair in front of a lit fireplace hugging my knees or a pillow and let myself go away. When I got bored, I ran my fingers over incomprehensible words in books from shelves on my wall. I listened intently to any voices that passed by my door. I did a good deal of stretching, too. I found I needed it. And I found that this body was remarkably limber - I felt like I had been flexible before, but this was some kind of borderline contortionist wizardry.

My body wanted to move, too. It was asking for something, but I couldn’t tell what, so I felt antsy and unsettled even after Solas came to tell me he was going to sleep, and I finally stripped to my underclothes and laid down atop the blankets of my bed to try and sleep. But I drifted off.

Given that aside from my field trip to the Breach, I’d basically been in a coma for a week or so, I was oddly tired.

 

* * * * *

 

Solas was waiting for me when I opened my eyes to the Fade this time. Desire had told me I’d been here before, and though I would have sworn up and down that it was wrong, there was something about it that felt familiar and known.

We were standing in a perfect replica of my bedroom, though that didn’t have anything to do with it.

“I thought it best to start somewhere familiar,” Solas said kindly.

My eyebrows shot up, and it made him smile. He really was different here. It was almost like someone had pulled the rafter out of his ass.

“There is no language in the Fade,” he explained. “There can be, if you wish it, but since we are not really here speaking to one another and since we are not truly hearing anything, language boils down to intent. The language of the ancient elves was not dissimilar. That is why I tried to speak to you in elvhen. It seemed to upset you. That was not my intent.”

“I know," I sad dismissively. "So. . . if I'm not really talking and you're not really hearing, does that mean I could speak to you with my mouth closed?”

He nodded, smiling again, probably enjoying playing the teacher. As much as I wanted to clock him, I also hated him a little less this way. Which made me want to clock him more out of nothing but confusion.

‘Fascinating,’ I thought at him, a wry, sarcastic version of his own use of the word.

“That is certainly one word for the Fade, lethallan.” He said the moniker in an oddly soft voice.

The almost-smile I’d had on my face dropped like a chunk of lead. “Don’t call me that,” I said coldly. “I’m not your lethallan. I’m not anything to you.” My tone came out even more harsh than the words, though it was unintentional.

He didn’t argue. He didn’t take offense. He just. . . looked at me. For an instant before he nodded and uttered, “My apologies. I did not mean to presume,” I saw pain and grief. I saw a sorrow so deep that I couldn’t understand it and. . . profound loneliness.

“. . . Can I talk to other people in the Fade?” I asked, voice drastically more gentle. "Find them, I mean." The idea that I could try to find Cole early had occurred to me in the evening as I sat staring at the fire. So did the idea that I could look for Anders.

His brows raised slightly, impassive mask back in place. “That is the plan for tonight, in fact.”

A look of confusion settled on my face. “Come again?” I didn’t really believe in coincidences, and that would be one the size of a cargo train if he planned to seek people out with me.

Like that. Pieces of my past came back just like that. An ocean of gray nothing, and then suddenly I remembered trains. Vaguely, but still.

“The others wish to speak with you,” Solas explained. “Cassandra, Leliana, Josephine, and the Commander. I told them it was possible in the Fade. If you feel ready, we can go to them now.”

“. . . So that’s a yes, then. How do you do it? I mean, do you have to know them to find them?”

“It is helpful if you do, yes.”

“No I mean do you have to know them. I’m not the Fade master here.”

There was a small, odd look on his face. He opened his mouth to answer, but I cut him off, reminded of Fen’harel by my phrasing. “How safe are we?” I asked almost sharply.

“Perfectly,” he assured.

“No I. . . .” I growled silently. There was no way around telling him this. “Fen’harel,” I said.

He went oddly still. Even his expression locked.

I looked down at my hand. The mark was flared to life here as it had been before I'd closed the Rift below the Breach. “This is his,” I said softly.

"The elven god of betrayal?"

"Don't play stupid, please," I said wearily and looked back up at him. "I know you know who he is. What he did. That the Creators were monsters and he was the Peoples' protector. But that’s not the point. This is his, and he can’t be happy that it’s. . . you know, seared into my flesh. I doubt he’d even care that it wasn’t my choice. I’m thinking the demons today were sent by him. I didn’t really see him as the type to hire out to demons, but I hardly--”

‘I hardly know him,’ I was going to say, but the words stuck in my throat and pieces of the dream I’d had of running through the woods with him came back to me. I put a hand to my head and groaned softly.

“. . . Herald?” Solas asked. There was something odd about his voice.

“I’m fine,” I hurried to say, wanting to preempt his concern. “There’s just. . . there are things floating around in my head, pieces, splinters, and I’m not sure what’s a dream and what’s. . . .”

I shook my head to clear it. “It doesn’t matter right now. My point is he’s probably not happy about this,” I said, holding my hand up. “And he’s. . . well I doubt the title of Lord of the Fade was ironic. Whether or not he sent the demons,” I hoped he had, because I didn’t want one more question to have to answer, “he can’t be happy about this, and keeping demons away is one thing. Keeping him away. . . .” I looked around subtly as if he was about to burst through one of the walls.

“There are rules in the Fade,” Solas assured me, “just as there are rules in the physical world. Every creature, legendary or otherwise, must abide by them. I have you well hidden. If such a creature is indeed looking for you, this will at least slow it down, and I will be able to feel it coming. I have taken precautions.”

He gave me a look I couldn’t identify. “But why do you think this magic is from him? Is it something you divined? And what do you mean when you say it wasn’t your choice to take the mark? How did you come to have it?”

“I guess you could say that, but I know it’s from him,” I corrected. I averted my eyes. “. . .I think I remember getting it. I mean, I don’t know what else it could have been. It’s the first memory I have, but it's. . . confusing. Complicated? I have a feeling that's going to be my new favorite word,” I mumbled to myself.

I had a surreal moment of realization that I knew that an ancient figure of myth was as real as I was. Or as real as Solas or Cassandra were. I didn’t know what the hell I was.

“You said the others wanted to talk?” I prompted, eager to change the subject.

He looked at me a long moment, and I could tell he wanted to ask more, but all he said was, “Yes. Are you ready?”

I nodded, and the Fade blurred and shifted.

Leliana was crouched before us in an opulent room playing with a little boy. She was younger and dressed in finery. Solas called out to her softly and she looked up. At first she was confused, but very quickly, lucidity came to her eyes and she stood up.

She cast a covert, wistful glance at the little boy but otherwise ignored him and walked up to us. “We are in the Fade, then.” She said. “It worked?”

“It did,” Solas said, a satisfied undercurrent in his voice. “We’ll go to collect Cassandra now, but the transition may be disorienting,” he cautioned her.

Prig hadn’t warned me first. Ass.

"I will be fine," Leliana said. "This is not my first time in the Fade."

We fetched Cassandra and then Josephine in similar fashion, but when we made it to Cullen, we found him having a good dream. He looked to be a little boy, playing with other children who, we found out shortly, were his siblings.

Solas took a breath to speak and break the dream.

My hand darted out reflexively and gripped his wrist. “Wait,” I said quietly. All four heads turned to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off little Cullen. His hair was a golden, pale blond, and he was smiling the way only a child can. He was happy and free. My eyes softened.

“Can we. . . is there any chance we can do this without him?” I asked, eyes still welded to him.

I assumed everyone was confused by the question, because no answer came right away. “He’s having a good dream,” I explained. ‘He has so few,’ I didn’t add.

I looked at Cassandra knowingly and she, at least, understood; comprehension spread behind her eyes. “It. . . would likely be fine,” she said. “We can report to him what we learn tomorrow, and speak like this again in the night if it is necessary. He was not entirely comfortable with the idea to begin with."

I gave her a grateful and perceptive smile.

“It is considerate of you,” she said. "How much do you know of his situation?"

"All of it," I said bluntly as I turned away. “Shall we?” I looked at Solas, not interested in traveling further down that road. At least not without Cullen's permission.

Solas took us to the war room. Unimaginative, perhaps, but appropriate.

"You said you may know how you came to have the mark," he said, getting right to it. He stood a respectful distance from my side, and the three women were before me.

I nodded, gripping the scarred palm behind my back. I didn't say anything.

". . .How?" Cassandra prompted. She had taken to the transporting quicker than anyone else. Josephine had looked like she couldn’t decide whether to be intrigued or uncomfortable, but had settled in since, and Leliana. . . Leliana had been hard to read, because she was fixated on me. It was not a comfortable feeling.

I pursed my lips and let my eyes unfocus. "I was in the Fade. Physically, I think." I refused to look up at anyone's faces, but I heard a sharp intake of breath and a soft curse.

"There was a person, someone with long blonde hair that was practically glowing, but I couldn't make out any of their features. I couldn't tell if they were a man or a woman, not even from their voice. Which wasn't a voice it was. . . I don't know, but it wasn't a voice. There was a woman, too, either an elf from clan Lavellan or a Trevelyan, I don't know which. She had dark hair, but I didn't get a look at her features.

"The blonde spoke to me. And then it grabbed my hand. The woman was the one with the mark, but I think whatever it was. . . I think it took it from her and burned it into me." I looked up. "I've never felt pain anything like that," I said emphatically, "but the woman. . . I think it killed her. I passed out, so I don't know for sure, but. . ." a heavy ball settled in my stomach. "To be honest, I would pray she didn't live through it," I said darkly.

There was a leaden silence in the room.

"Then what we saw in the vision at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. . . ." Cassandra seemed to pick over the words as she said them.

I nodded. "Whoever that woman was, she is the one who interrupted the sacrifice. I'm fairly certain I wasn't even in Thedas until after the blast."

"What do you mean?" Solas asked.

I shook my head. "I want to get to that later. One thing at a time."

"What did she-- what did it say to you?" Leliana asked after another heavy silence.

"I don't remember much, but it was nonsense. I think the pain burned too much of it away. I think--" I stopped myself. I had to be careful not to mention anything out of order, like the creature's hint that I would become Inquisitor. "It said it had taken from me, but that it had given more. It was vicious about the mark, but before that it was tender, like it knew me. It implied we had talked before, more than once I think, and it said that I shouldn't be afraid, and that I needed to find myself, my heart, and use it. It said that when it came for me, I would be ready."

"Came for you?" Cassandra asked.

I gave half a shrug. "That's what it said. 'When it's time.' But it also said not to bother looking for it, basically that nothing in heaven or earth would find it until it was time. And it knew about my 'ride' back to Thedas. That it would be there soon. . . . It said the pain was unavoidable, right before it grabbed my hand like a vice."

"Your ride?"

I nodded. "That. . . I'm almost positive I know what it was talking about, but I can't be sure. Was there a glowing figure seen above me in the Rift when I was found? A woman?"

"Yes," Leliana said. She sounded excited. "And the creature who gave you the mark. . . you said it had blonde hair. Are you certain? Could it have been a woman?" Her eyes were intense.

I gave her a flat look. "I don't speak unless I'm positive," I said a little more bluntly than I should have. "And I know what you're thinking, but it wasn't Andraste. I mean technically it could have been, but I wouldn't bet your house on it. Things in the Fade can look like whatever they want, and I doubt Andraste would have gone to such lengths to hide her appearance," if she really was a deity in the first place and not just dead like every other person who had come before us. "Almost all the momentum we have - and yes, most of the controversy too, but I know you'll turn that to our advantage - is because people think I'm her. . . I don't know, disciple or something. But the glowing woman definitely wasn't her. It was. . . an after-image of Justinia. Part her, and part spirit, I think."

Solas looked incredibly intrigued. Dare I say, fascinated.

"Justinia saved you?" Cassandra asked, incredulous. "She brought you back from the Fade?"

"There isn't a simple answer to that. I can't say no and I can't say yes; it was a piece of her, so. . . sort of?"

"By the Maker," she breathed.

Leliana looked like I'd just said 'I am one million percent positive that Andraste sent me direct and I'm totally her BFF and I know everything about her and we have slumber parties every Friday.' I pursed my lips and looked away.

"How are you so certain of all of this?" Cassandra asked, incredulous rather than suspicious.

"I have no fucking clue," I replied honestly. "I can prove that my information is good," I offered. "But you won't like how."

“Is it any stranger than anything else that has happened since the Conclave?” The she asked, sarcastic and dry at the same time.

“. . .Fair point." I looked at her for a moment until I landed on the perfect thing. A smile tugged at one corner of my mouth. "Your favorite book series is Swo-”

“She is telling the truth,” she cut sharply overtop me, voice flat and blunt as the broad side of a sword.

I had to purse my lips into a downward smile to keep a chuckle down.

“Are you saying that the only way she could possibly know what books you like is through divine sight?” Josephine asked doubtfully.

“Yes,” Cassandra replied bluntly.

Josie looked unconvinced.

“I can do Leliana next,” I offered. "There are some real gems from her time with Alaine during the Fifth Blight. There was this woman in the Pearl once, Isa--"

“I did not question it,” Leliana defended.

“. . . No,” Josie said uncertainly. “No, as impossible as it should be for you to know what you do, I am inclined to believe you.”

“How do you know what you do?” Cassandra asked. For the third time. And I had no idea why, because the woman wasn't stupid.

“No,” Leliana said. “That isn’t the important question. Who are you? Where do you come from?”

I looked between her and Cassandra; I dearly wished we could be having this entire conversation away from Solas. How delightful that the person I trusted the least was the one who had to be next to me if I wanted to talk to anyone, whether I was asleep or awake.

“That isn’t what you’re really asking me, is it?” I said softly. “You’re asking if I’m the Herald. If I was sent by the Maker and Andraste. You want me to say it.”

“Of course I do. We need the Maker's help, now more than ever,” she said emphatically.

I gave her a crooked and apologetic smile. “I can answer that, Leliana, but I’d only be giving you my opinion. And I’m guessing you have more than enough of those already.

“I don’t have any more to tell you about the rest of it than I did earlier today,” I said with a glance at the other two. “I still don’t know who I am. I still don’t know where I come from, only that it was very different from this place. From Thedas, I mean - I’m not from here at all.

“I know I existed before this,” I said, speculative, “but trying to remember anything about it is like trying to look through fog. I see shapes sometimes, blurry outlines, and the most random pieces of information will pop into my head for what seems like no reason at all but. . . that’s it.” Like the fact that I didn’t used to have this body. Where had it come from? Had the asshole who’d burned the mark into my hand had something to do with it? Were they the reason I was here, too?

’Don’t waste time looking for me,’ it had said. ’I will be as dust on the wind.’

Leliana shook her head. “But the way you are, the things you can do, the things you know. For you to appear now of all times, the Maker must have sent you,” she insisted. “A piece of Divine Justinia brought you here and watched over you from the Rift. A glowing blond figure gave you the mark and said that it knew you. You are from another world. Couldn't it be that you are not from another world, but simply another place? Andraste and the Maker do not walk Thedas. Could you not have been with them in the Maker's realm? It would explain everything, all the impossibilities about you. And if there was ever a time for Him to step in, now must be it. The Divine is gone, the faithful war among themselves, and the people suffer. Andraste had a kind heart, she would not want this to stand.”

I sighed. “Occam’s razor,” I mumbled.

People had been using gods to explain the unexplainable as long as we’d existed. Gods created everything, gods were behind the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, childbearing, disease. . . . Maybe way back behind everything else, it was a god of some kind driving everything. But even if it was, there was always a logical answer, too. A how, or a cause and effect in place of a why.

I could see how Leliana’s reasoning could make sense, but it only did so because she wanted me to fit that mould. Because her belief structure was her metaphorical bones, and she needed it to survive, or she may not. I didn’t know much, but I knew I had come from a place where other, perfectly normal people lived perfectly normal lives. I was not made from ether and I was not descended from the side of a god. The ‘Herald of Andraste’ question was purely philosophical.

At a normal volume, I hedged, “Leliana. . . .I know what the Maker means to you. Well enough to know that I probably can't know. The life you’ve had has been full of deceit and betrayal and the worst things people have to offer. One after another, you learned that what you counted on couldn’t be counted on, and who you believed in couldn’t be believed in. That nothing was as it seemed. People are fickle and the world shifts under your feet like fine sand.”

Everyone was still and silent, watching me.

“The Maker isn’t that way,” I said. “He is constant. His rules and expectations are set. He isn’t going anywhere. His intention is clear and does not change, and he knows peoples’ hearts.”

I looked at her for a long moment, eye to eye, telling her I was sorry - not that I pitied her, but that I saw her pain, and that I took it seriously.

“Justinia was beautiful,” I went on. “She did everything a child of the maker is supposed to do. She followed the rules, she was a model. And the Maker didn’t save her. He didn’t save her work or her Conclave. He allowed her to be murdered and the horrors of what is happening to continue. He allows innocent people to suffer en masse.”

Her expression had gone rigid.

“The Maker was, is a lot of things to you, I know that. I think one of those things was a safe harbor for what remained of your trust and your faith and the purity of who you used to be and what you used to believe. And you feel betrayed. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. The anger that seems almost feral.

“But the Maker isn’t a person. He isn’t so fickle, and I don’t think you feel like you have any options left. If the Maker cannot be counted on, what is there left to believe in? What good is there in anything?

“If I was sent by Andraste, then the Maker can explain himself, because an explanation is long overdue. You want to be wrong, you want there to be a bigger picture you’re not seeing, a reason, because if there isn’t, then what has been the point of everything? Of anything? What has your faith and your belief and your pain and your loyalty been for?”

A tear spilled down her cheek. She didn’t wipe it away, and I didn’t act on the urge to step forward and hug her. Which wasn’t as hard as it should have been; even in the Fade she had probably managed to strap herself with a dozen blades and poisons.

“But I’m not a god, Leliana,” I said softly. “I can’t speak for one, not really, and I don’t think the truth is as simple as you want it to be.

“If there is a higher power, it has to be something so far beyond our comprehension that we couldn’t hope to understand it. We couldn’t attribute mortal values and morals to it. But if there is one and it created us, it’s also what gave us the ability to choose. Free will and the ability to exercise it are mutually inclusive. You don’t have one without the other. If the Maker interfered so openly and clearly, what would have been the point of making us the way he did? People would just think ‘it’s alright, the Maker will take care of it.’ And they would still suffer, wondering ‘why isn’t he stepping in?,’ because one person's miracle is another person's travesty.

“If the Maker exists, and if he is something we can understand, I can’t pretend to know why he’d allow the Conclave to go so horribly wrong. Maybe it’s part of some meandering plan, a tragedy necessary to bring about a great good in the end. Maybe he's a cruel, abject bastard. Maybe as Chantry lore says, he really has turned away from man." I didn't have the faintest idea why they continued to worship him as if he was listening when their own gospel clearly said that he had left them all behind. "All any of us could do is guess, and we’d never know if we were right. Whatever I am, whatever I can do, I’m no different. But I can point to dozens of other atrocities throughout history, some far worse than this, many that predate the Chantry by thousands of years and ask you: if he didn’t interfere then, why would he now?”

“Do you not believe in the Maker?” Cassandra asked.

I considered my words. “. . . I believe in something. What that something is isn’t easily defined.

“I don’t have faith in a higher power the way any of you do. I do have faith, but it looks nothing like that. But I understand that other people do. That it means everything to you. So all I can tell you, Leliana, is that one of two things is going to happen now: you’re going to find a reason for this that fits into your faith, into your understanding of life and its meaning and the Maker. Or your faith is going to shatter, and eventually it will be replaced by something else. It happened to me once. I was a broken person, and it never came back. Something else did, though, a different sort of faith, a stronger one.

“You’re a person who needs something to believe in. It doesn’t matter what - a person, a cause, an idea - as long as it’s worthy. You’re a creature of faith. That’s a good way to be. But what you’re asking me. . . I can’t tell you what to believe. I can’t tell you why anything happens or what it means or why I’m here or you’re here, or any of it. But if I can make a suggestion?”

I waited for her to nod before going on.

“Think about the world you want to live in, and find a way to live as if it already exists. I’m not telling you to try and bring it about, to try and shape the world to your ideal, no matter how just it may be. I’m telling you to try to see that world in the one you live in here and now.” I saw the denial in her face, the resistance. I knew how impossible it would seem to her, so I didn't blame her. “All it takes in the beginning is one thing, one tiny thing, and the first step is taken. Beginnings are often very, very small. It could be as simple as one person being polite to another. Or someone staying in a world where she has no place because it's the right thing to do.”

I paused to let that sit for a moment.

"Can you return to your world, then?" Josephine asked.

I shrugged. "For all I know, stepping through a Rift would take me back. But I'm not inclined to try, what with the fact that your whole world would end if I took the mark and ran."

I turned back to Leliana. “Your mind, what you think, how you see things, it can change everything. Think of Roderick. His world is full of suspicion and schemes and threats and villains. Someone else's is full of people who are good and mean well and try when they can. Neither of those people know more than the other, they just assume differently, they see their own beliefs in the motivations and actions of everyone around them, and those assumptions color everything, so they change every experience each of them has until the world literally becomes a different place for each of them.

"You, Leliana. . . .” I looked at her seriously. “You are a person who can either save the world, or damn it. You are someone whose steps have impact. It’s your responsibility to choose which road to take, every day. If I can help you, I will. You can call on me as you would a friend. I’d like you to.

“So can you,” I said, looking at Cassandra and Josephine in turn. “So can Cullen. So can Varric, so can--” So could all the others who would be joining. “I don’t know why, really, but it’s important to me that you all believe that. I don’t know you. I only just met you. But. . . .” ‘I love you,’ I wanted to say. That felt foolish. “Well.” I looked down and absently picked at the skin between my thumb and forefinger.

“I’m sorry I can’t tell you more. I’m sorry I can’t give you the answers you need. I’m sorry I can’t. . . help.” It felt like a physical pain, not being able to soothe the wound in her.

No one said anything for a long time. Then Cassandra cleared her throat and spoke slowly. “You said that Corypheus was the creature that killed Justinia. You said it cannot die. What do you know?”

I paused, then looked down at my glowing palm for a moment. I sighed. “Corypheus was a man once, in ancient Tevinter. A decent enough man, actually, or at least not a cruel one. His name was Sethius Amladaris of House Amladaris. He was considered middling and his House unremarkable, but he felt he deserved more.

“He was the High Priest of Dumat. In his time, people were turning away from the temples and the Old Gods, and he became afraid, and so open to the suggestion of a means of restoring things to the order he was used to. Of putting power where he wanted it. People do not like the feeling of change, or of losing control. He was not different.

“Sethius heard whispered promises of godhood in his dreams from Dumat. The Old Gods were real, but, I think, not exactly what the Tevinters believed they were. It didn’t matter in the end.

“Sethius convinced the High Priests of the six other Old Gods, a group together called the Magisters Sidereal, to help him in his cause, to help him do what Dumat bade.”

A sense of dread was settling over the three women in front of me. They knew enough of this story to know where it was going. It was one of the pillars of their religion. Solas was silently rapt, almost too intense and too still.

“They cooperated,” I went on, “each intending to betray the others and take that godhood for themselves. Once they had a plan, they gathered the resources and cast the spells and together. . . they physically entered the Fade. They set foot in the Black City.”

I didn’t look up, but I felt a heavy weight settle in the air. No one moved. No one breathed.

“Corypheus’ plans now are no different than they were then,” I said. “Apotheosis, though he already believes himself a god now, and ultimate Tevinter supremacy. He has webs woven all over Ferelden, Orlais, and Tevinter to make it happen, plans laid and set in motion. Allies. For all his arrogance, he actually plans quite well.”

I paused, sighed again. “I think. . . if there ever was a Golden City, it was gone before the Sidereal entered the Fade, because it was already blackened when they got there. More likely is that the Old Gods lied about all of it - the glimmering city, the ascension - to lure the magisters there. I don’t believe it was their journey that triggered the first Blight, either. The two are connected, but its corruption would have had to begin long before their trip to the Fade. It tipped the scale somehow. In either case, the Blight wasn’t, isn’t, a punishment for man’s hubris. It was never that simple.”

“But the Chant of Light--” Leliana began.

“The Chant is wrong,” I interrupted, voice hard but kind. “The Chantry has gotten a lot wrong over the years. Not everything, but enough. You may call it a divine institution, but in the end, it is run by mankind, and mankind has never changed. There has always been ignorance and greed and arrogance mixed in with the compassion and honor and wisdom, and the worst of us fight more viciously and yell more loudly than the best of us.

“Ameridan, the first Inquisitor, was an elf. Dalish, in fact. A close friend of Emperor Drakon. But in the Chantry’s need to make their march on the elves palatable later, his identity was an acceptable sacrifice when they purged their records, as mine likely will be some day. An elf can serve, an elf can be a thief or a murderer or a heretic, but not a saviour.

“Humans were not the Maker’s second race. The Blight is not a punishment. The Maker didn’t create the Veil. Magic is not inherently dangerous and mages do not need to be caged--” I held my hands up, placating, against the arguments I could feel coming. “The way they and the system are handled right now, yes. But that’s because the system is virtually creating and priming powder kegs in the forms of people. Tranquility is reversible. But if that was known, it would hardly be the deterrent it is, would it?” They looked dazed. Stunned. Part of me wanted to stop, thinking I was being cruel. But I found I had a vicious distaste for the idea of leaving all this sludge and garbage buried, as if. . . as if I were as personally offended by it as Solas was the willful lies of the dalish. I had to shove that aside or risk feeling ill. I had no interest in relating to that man.

“Lies for the greater good," I said. "Ignorance is strength. The people cannot be trusted with themselves or with the truth. Our lies and chaos are better than theirs.” I shook my head. “I’m not saying there’s an easy answer, because there isn’t.

“The Avvar are a nomadic people thousands of years old who have a drastically different relationship with magic and spirits and the fade and mages than your people. You would consider all of it heracy, foolhardy and arrogant and dangerous, but their way has kept them safely for thousands of years. The Avvar have just as many mages as the rest of us. Magic is not kept at heel, but their society is not ruled by mages. And they do not have abominations.

“You could adopt their ways. Abolish the need for circles, the need for ‘normal’ people to fear magic. But you won’t. Because the larger problem isn’t circles or templars or the danger of magic, it’s ignorance and the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the need people have to define what is better and what is worse, and to scorn anything that doesn’t conform to their idea of the way things are supposed to be.

“And that won’t go away. It’s as old as any race and as instinctual as the need to eat and breathe. My world has been trying to destroy prejudice for hundreds of years. We forced it. Passed and enforced laws, gave protections, forced equality, re-educated new generations. But the worst of it always survives, like a blackened vein clinging to the heart. Because it is easy to blame someone else, it is easy when you can see and touch a reason that everything is wrong with the world. When you have an enemy, you don't have to look at the fact that you may be part of the problem. It's much easier to think of yourself as a hero or a victim than a villain, and most people never give in to the inclination to question themselves, the questions that whisper in their minds. Much easier to listen to the voices that shout and to give in to the easy fixes, the ones that pay off immediately." I looked down and said quietly, almost mournfully, "We're all terribly short-sighted."

More harshly than I intended, I said, “Anyone who thinks they have the answer is an utter fool, and anyone who has an answer that may actually work would be stoned to death simply for suggesting it.

“Solas knows true elven history,” I said. I glanced at him and saw attention, curiosity, wonder and appreciation and. . . warmth. Some of those were more a feeling than anything, and I turned back to the others quickly. “He speaks the ancient tongue perfectly. He knows the ways that were lost. For a year before he arrived in Haven, he tried to help the dalish, to teach them. At best he was shunned, at worst he was attacked. This from the people whose core tenet is clinging unflinchingly to what they used to be. You'd think if someone knew things that were lost from their sacred histories, they would at least consider what he had to say. But no. He was only a 'flat-ear.' The dalish are as hateful and prejudiced as any of the humans that they so deride," I said, my voice gone hard.

Solas had no patience for willful ignorance. Perhaps what I had no patience for was willful blindness.

“People cling tightly to their beliefs, and we are wired. . . er, built, so that any threat to those beliefs will get the same reaction as a threat to our lives. Aggression, denial, anger, violence. All of you have seen it enough to know exactly what I'm talking about. Look at Roderick. He's only going to get worse before all of this is over, and when people are afraid, anger and outrage are more contagious than courage and kindness.

“So yes. There are other ways, better ways, safer ways. But there’s so much more. This place, for instance,” I gestured around us. “The Fade. Spirits. They’re not demons, and they’re not dangerous. They’re safer than most people, so long as you treat them with respect. You can’t even say that much for our races.

“The Maker didn’t write the Chant with his own hand,” I said, gentling my voice. “Nor did he personally translate it as language changed and time passed and the rules and ideals of society shifted. All of that was done by people, and people make mistakes. They have prejudices even when they mean well, and no matter how careful anyone is, things get muddied over time. The dalish,” I said with a huffed laugh, half incredulity and half sympathy, “good lord, what they’ve gotten wrong, as tightly and proudly and carefully as they’ve passed on their history. . . .”

“Do you know much of them?” Solas asked.

I glowered at him. “I know that’s a hot button of yours, but is this really the time?”

“. . . Of course. Please, continue.”

This would not be the end of that subject. I could tell that. And I couldn’t blame him, not really. It was like when I'd talked about saving spirits yesterday; he was used to everyone fighting him on the simplest things when he knew he was right, and here I was, someone who not only believed as he did, but didn’t need to be told any of it in the first place.

I had sour news for him if he thought we were going to bond over any of it. I didn’t even want to be in the same room as him after what had happened in the war room.

“Right,” I said. “So. . . I’m not going to go around telling everyone all of this once I learn Common or anything. I’m not here to prosthelytize. I’m not here to convert anyone and I’m not interested in the wars that would start if the things I have to say took root. I’m telling you because it’s you. Because the truth is going to matter before all of this is over, and the ones who are going to change the world should have a better idea of what it is than their upbringings have allowed.

“Mages, what the templar order has become, the Seekers and the Chantry, how you see spirits, your narrow view of magic in general, many of the rules you have and the ideas you base them on. . . . It’s wrong. And it isn’t the way it has to be. If no one else learns that, I have no intention of hiding it from the people close to me. I don’t care if you believe me, but I would like my views to be respected, as I respect yours. What I care about at the end of the day is that we treat one another with respect. There’s never going to be a world in which everyone believes the same thing. Fortunately that isn't a requirement to be civil to one another, though too many people like to pretend it is.”

All of this was met by a long, long, heavy silence. I wondered if they felt like their heads were going to implode yet.

“Speaking of which.” I took a deep breath. “This,” I held up my right hand, “is not the only way to close Rifts. Alternatives are very rare, but they do exist. I doubt any of them could close the Breach, but that doesn't mean we can't find something helpful. There are a lot, a lot of Rifts all over Thedas that are going to need closing. Solas has already suggested recruiting the mages to bolster the mark’s power, right?”

“No,” Cassandra said, and she didn’t sound pleased. “He did not.”

“I was puzzling over the idea,” he said, sounding a little dazed, “but I did not have anything formed well enough to suggest it.”

I sighed. “Right. Yes. Ehm. . . I’m sure it’s very disorienting and it feels like I’m plucking ideas out of your minds,” I said, weary of their surprise and shock and incredulity and whatever else. “But I’m not. I don’t read minds, I just. . . I don’t know. Everything I could explain to you about what I know I already have. Pithing though it was.

“An ancient Warden named Avernus, another from the Storm Age named Sophia Dryden possessed by a powerful demon, and Alaine have all sealed Rifts.”

“You do not mean Alaine Theirin, the Queen of Ferelden?” Josephine asked.

“The very same,” I replied. “Leliana saw her do it. Given the type we’re dealing with, I don't think Alaine would be of any help even if we could reach her, and Avernus will have vanished with the other wardens. Either way, I figured it was better to know your options. I--”

I looked up and took in the faces of the women before me.

“. . . Do you want me to stop?” I asked gently. “I suppose this is a lot to take in.”

“No,” Cassandra said. She had the determination of someone who was about to eat something on a dare. “As you said, it is best we know what we are dealing with. We may need every piece of information we can get before all of this is over, and it will help to know what we are truly dealing with. Even if it is a good deal to take in.” Then she said dryly to herself, “We will have to draw straws to see who will tell Cullen all of this tomorrow.”

“I can talk with him tomorrow night, if you’d prefer,” I offered.

Cassandra looked taken aback.

I raised my brows. “Have you never worked with an elf before?” I found that impossible to believe.

She looked at me like I’d started speaking English again. “Of course. But what does that have to do with--”

“You mentioned my idea of using the mages to bolster the power of the Mark. Do you know if it will work?” Solas cut overtop of her.

I raised a brow at him, but answered. “Yes. It will. We’d be able to close the Breach by using the templars, too. Cullen was right when he said they could suppress it enough. I intend to recruit both, and," I added, voice glib, "I have a wildly impossible dream that we can talk them into working together close it.”

“That is good news,” Cassandra said seriously. “But how do we stop Corypheus? Surely a creature like him will not give up so easily. You said you knew a way.”

“Yes,” I said again, “I do. But that’s a long way off, and frankly my head is swimming from what we’ve already talked about. I imagine it's much worse for all of you. So if it’s alright, I’d like to maybe not talk about any more catastrophically dire things tonight.”

Cassandra exchanged looks with Josephine and Leliana. “Very well. Is there anything else immediate that we should know?”

“Before tomorrow night? I don’t think so. But if I remember something important tomorrow I can always grab Solas. What about learning Common?”

“A tutor will be arriving for you tomorrow," Josephine said. "Your study plan will likely be aggressive," she cautioned. "A linguist is on his way from the university in Orlais, as well. If you are truly from another world, I do not know if he will be of any help, but I do not think it could hurt."

I nodded. “I’m not afraid to push myself. The sooner I can speak and listen on my own, the better. What about my combat testing?” I asked Cassandra.

“You will likely need a break tomorrow at some point. Come out to one of the sparring areas and find Cullen or myself. We will pair you with someone or test you ourselves. You said you wanted to know what a templar’s abilities would feel like too, is that correct?”

I nodded, disproportionately encouraged to hear that Solas had translated something right. I didn’t have a reason to doubt that he would, not really, and intentionally getting something wrong would have been idiotic in the long run. Still.

"I will make sure there is time when I speak to her tutor," Josephine assured.

"Leave time for her to recover," Cassandra said. "The effects can be extreme, especially if she does not know what to expect. And we have no way to know how it will affect her odd magic."

I nodded and waited.

“I have no other questions,” Leliana said. “I. . . need some time to think.”

"You mentioned the missing Wardens yesterday," Cassandra said, "and again tonight. Do you know where they have gone?"

"Yes, I do," I said, sobering. "Nothing good will come of it. Corypheus. . . Varric told you he can influence the minds of Wardens, right?

Cassandra paled. "Are you saying he is behind their disappearance?"

I dipped my chin. "His plan with them is rather ingenious, actually. He has found a way to emulate the Calling. They believe that every one of them will die soon, leaving Thedas with no protection against future Blights. It is literally impossible to kill an archdemon without a Warden, and it has made them desperate. And desperate men. . . ." I trailed off, letting them finish the thought for themselves. "One of Corypheus' agents is in place to take full advantage. Corypheus - no, Sethius, has no army yet, but he's moving to amass one quickly, and he wants the Wardens among its numbers."

"His agent," Leliana muttered, piecing something together. "The assassination you mentioned."

I nodded and smiled a little, happy to see how fast her mind could work. "The very same."

She exchanged a look with Cassandra. "We will have to speak to Cullen about this immediately."

"Agreed," Cassandra said darkly. She looked at me. "You said there was nothing else immediate we needed to know." It was an accusation, though she had obviously capped the sharpest of its teeth.

"I also said that if you weren't willing to take my word on the assassination - completely understandable - that it was best I not tell you. We would need to move in before they had a chance to scatter or do anything else stupid, and we have more time until the issue with them comes to a head than we do with either the mages or templars. But I'm not a strategist. I would want to move to stop the Wardens immediately, but in doing so we could lose the templars or the mages or both. Even one would be deadly for us."

Casandra massaged her forehead with one hand, then shook her head. "What else?" She asked.

"The red lyrium," I said. "It will be the key to all of this - that's why I wanted to get Dagna here as soon as possible. Her mind and ideas and the research she can do on it will be invaluable. But there's nothing we can do about it before tomorrow, and if it's all the same, I'd really like to be done now," I said sincerely. The world was starting to buzz and I felt like something was clawing to get out from inside of me. I needed to stop, or I would pay for it later. I just didn't know how or what that meant.

“I have no questions,” Josephine said. “You have told us more than we could have hoped. We will be able to do a good deal with the information. I will continue to try and find out where you may be from or who your people are. We have much work ahead of us.”

"Yes," Leliana said speculatively, an intense but veiled gaze directed at me. "We do."

Chapter Text

As they left, I wondered if they felt as overwhelmed as I did. Which was a stupid question. They felt more overwhelmed. I’d been plunked into a new world and a new body; they’d had the foundation of everything they believed rattled.

I was worried about Leliana, though. She’d looked. . . shaken. If I had said something wrong to her, something that would nudge her in the wrong direction. . . .

A dark!Leliana was a deeply unsettling idea.

I wanted to ask Solas if we could stay near Cullen. If the man’s nightmares started, Solas should be able to help, and he could get decent sleep for once. But it felt like an invasion of privacy, and that wasn’t something I’d hand to someone I didn’t trust.

I wondered how I was going to keep a conversation with him from happening. I got the sense that he was about to explode from all the things he wanted to ask me, and being interrogated by him was the last thing I wanted to have to stave off. Night after night.

I glanced at him.

Through him and the war room, as if they had turned to images projected onto fog, emerged a massive, ink-black, furred face, wisps drifting from it like liquid smoke.

A paw extended, wider than my hips, followed by a leg, a lowered neck, a chest. . . .

Solas and the war room were dispersed into nothing, and in his place six eyes were fixed on me, red and glowing and held open too wide, pupils slitted like a cat’s.

My heart stuttered and then took off like a hummingbird. I took a single step back.

Solas said he couldn't get in here.

Solas was useless.

Its - who the fuck was I kidding, I knew exactly who this was - legs were stiff and ears pointed toward me, but his tail and posture were relaxed. His fur wasn’t bristled, teeth not bared, and he wasn’t growling. A little dominant, but not aggressive.

That didn’t change the fact that a “wolf” the size of a bus was six feet from my face and staring me down. I could see the crack-like grooves on his nose. I could see whiskers poking out through individual hairs on his muzzle.

I could see that same face surrounded by lush forest, with two glowing red eyes and wisps coming off of him because I’d made him angry.

He stopped and stood looking at me, unmoving.

It was a tail-wag that did it. It was tiny, no more than a twitch really, just enough to catch my eye, but a wolf’s every move has meaning. If this form really was a wolf, then that would have been like a human smiling at you.

Confusion started to mix with my fear.

And then he laid down.

The Dread Wolf, creator of the Veil and vanquisher of gods laid down in front of me, crossed his paws, and stared at me.

My throat worked. I swallowed.

“A- are you,” I stuttered dryly, then cleared my throat and tried again, “are you angry?” I asked.

He didn’t answer.

“It’s just, ehm, your eyes,” I said. “They’re red. And you have this whole. . ." I gestured at him vaguely, "smoke thing going on, and your fur isn’t like fur, it’s like someone punched a hole in the sky and doesn’t that mean you’re angry?

“. . .If it helps, I didn’t take the mark on purpose. I’m fairly certain I didn’t take it at all, and to be honest I think getting it almost killed me. You know, if that makes you feel better.”

One of his ears twitched as if a bug hand landed on it.

“. . . Are you going to, you know. . . bite my arm off?”

He curled a lip.

The only reason I could see that he would sit in silence like this while I rambled on was a fairly effective interrogation technique when in the right hands. If you know someone is afraid of you, you just stare and wait like you’re expecting something. The person on the other side of the table will spill all kinds of shit hoping to find the thing you want to hear, and you get a flood of information without lifting a finger. He’d probably done it a million times.

The idea that he was using it on me pissed me right off before I could think any better of it. It was better than terror, anyway.

“So. . . the guy you walked through. Is he ok?” I asked. My voice was an entirely different creature than it had been a moment before.

He canted his head at me ever so slightly.

“Are you playing dumb?” I snapped.

I regretted it instantly, but he answered before I could shrink in on myself and try to think of some sort of tribute or something that might keep me from being eaten.

[He is fine. I sent him away.] The voice was nothing like the grating sensation made by the words of the blonde creature I’d met here. It was clear, but it still wasn’t quite a sound.

'How wonderfully vague,' I thought drily. “Then I shouldn't be here. He would have woken himself up and gone straight to my room to wake me.”

[He has been assured of your well-being.]

“And. . . he believed you. The twelve-foot-tall, arguably - and I mean this with the utmost respect - demonic-looking Fade wolf. Was that before or after you stepped through him like he was a cloud?”

I was not nearly as afraid of him as I should be. But I realized with a start that it was because I wasn’t actually afraid of him at all. I mean, I was a little, because I wasn’t a complete idiot, but this felt. . . he felt. . . familiar. Familiar like muscle memory or a routine or a childhood friend. It was the same sensation as when my hand had gripped Cullen’s sword.

Again, I remembered the dream.

[I to-]

“Are your eyes always red?” I asked.

I interrupted the Dread fucking Wolf. And under the entirely rational fear, it felt no different than having interrupted a brother or an old friend. I felt like something hot and cold was crawling all over my skin. “And are there always six of them?”

He blinked lazily. [I can take whatever form I choose.]

“. . . Rrriight,” I said. “I know that. But if you happen to know why I’m asking then you know exactly what I’m asking, and since I have no idea who I am and all I have to go off of is what will be a really disturbing dream if it turns out to be true, I’d appreciate it if you would just. . . throw me a bone here. So to speak. Its been a really long few days.”

When he didn’t immediately answer, I went on.

“I know who you are,” I said, careful that my tone made clear that that wasn’t a threat or challenge or accusation. “Who you really are, not that garbage the dalish pass down. I know what you did in elvhenan, I know what happened to you, and I know what you want to do to the world. I know the Breach is. . . well, at least partially your fault.”

Risky phrasing? Yes.

“I met a demon here earlier today disguised as something else, and I could tell. It felt off. You don’t feel off, and given that I have your mark, I have no trouble believing you’d come after it. I have no trouble believing you wouldn’t come after it either, but. . . here you are.

“I had dream about you,” I said slowly, “and I think it might not have been a dream. But given who you are, I don’t really want to throw any clues at you that might help you lie to me, so. . . if you know what I’m asking, then you know what I’m asking. If you do, please just show me, because I could really use just one thing being even the least bit easy. My head might explode otherwise, and then where will we all be?”

Again, he regarded me. He closed his eyes in a long blink.

When he opened them, there were only two. And they were stormcloud blue.

I put a hand to my mouth and made a noise somewhere between a gasp and a sob. It felt like my chest was going to cave in.

Someone knew me.

But. . . wait. If he. . . then that meant I. . . .

“Oh,” I breathed. “Oh, my god.” I looked up at him, shock on my face. “I’m not an elf, am I?” I asked numbly.

[No, Little One,] he said gently. [You are not. You are of the People.]

My vision went blurry, but cleared when I blinked and two tears spilled over. I banished further ones and sat down heavily. We were in the woods, the same woods from my dream. A butterfly with lace wings and what looked like cut gemstones on them bobbed past my face. When had he. . . ?

“Well that’s. . .” I laughed, a little manic. “That’s a kick in the teeth, right there.”

Arlathan had fallen somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago, and I had not gotten the sense in my dream that there was a war going on in the world around us. It had been before Fen'harel's rebellion had begun.

But that couldn't be right. Because I felt what I was and where I had come from, and I was not elvhen and it was not this world.

I’d never found doubt particularly helpful, denial even less so. The truth was the truth, and flailing around refusing to believe it had yet to make it change for anyone, anywhere. Sometimes your world gets rocked. It’s an occupational hazard of being alive.

At least now I knew how I’d left the women feeling tonight. I wanted to punch myself in the teeth on their behalf.

But better in the end to skip all the ‘I can’t believe this’ crap and go right to the part where you deal with reality. It saves a lot of time.

I put my head in my hands.

[Do you remember me?] he asked. His voice was so gentle.

I took a shaky breath. I took my head out of my hands. I forced back another wave of tears and cleared my throat against them. His tone was so kind that I bit back a sarcastic reply; when I did speak, my voice wasn’t steady, but it was clear. “No. I had a dream about you, while I was passed out after closing the Rift below the Breach, and you. . . you feel familiar. Like family, like I know you and I always have. But I don’t remember anything.”

Fen’harel regarded me for a long moment, then, with a quiet sigh, slowly got to his feet and padded over to me. He moved with more grace than any canine, or any creature so large should be able to. He was massive. Too much fear had gone out of me, but I was tense; Fen'harel cared about me and he meant me no harm. I could feel it in the air like a physical thing. But he had cared about a man named Falassan, too. He had been Fen'harel's friend for a long, long time, and his agent when he woke to the modern world. Felassan had been his friend, and Fen'harel had still killed him because on one of his missions, he had started to see mortals as real people. He had begun to see the value of the "tranquil," the stunted weeds, and that thinking was too dangerous to allow. Fen'harel had murdered him mid-sentence, from behind. That Felassan had known it would be how the conversation ended didn't change anything but how peacefully he was able to greet death.

When Fen'harel reached me, he curled around my form with his side pressed to my back. When he settled, he was about a third smaller than he had been - still huge, but small enough to bend himself around me.

I closed my eyes and I couldn't fight it; something in me snapped and I let my head rest against him. I buried my fingers in his fur as if both were as natural as the sun in the sky. I knew him, and this was like getting to touch someone when you had been alone for months, years. It was like seeing cherished family when you had been in a land of strangers.

I didn’t force the tears down this time. They were silent and soft and I was so tired.

“What am I?” I whispered roughly.

Fen’harel only tucked his massive nose under my bent knees and huffed a deep breath. I realized he felt just as comforted by this as I did. It was. . . odd. No, it was surreal.

[You are Nuaelan,] he rumbled quietly. [Nua. ‘Little One’ was something you were called long ago, before you chose your name.]

A quiet settled between us. It swirled through the air as if it had a life of its own, and maybe I had been elvhen - was elvhen - because I knew I should be talking to him, asking him questions, getting answers, making plans. But though part of my mind knew ‘hurry, morning coming, window closing,’ the rest of me felt there was no hurry in all the world. That I should enjoy my. . . friend. It was odd even thinking the word.

“Does it mean something?” I asked. “Nuaelan. Like, I know Fen'harel is Dread Wolf.” Abelas is Sorrow, Elgar'nan is Spirit of Vengeance. . . .

I felt a smile from him as clearly as if it were on my own face, even though it couldn't physically be on his.

[The day you chose it, you nearly died. You were too bold, too brash, and overconfident. You knew your body well, but no one is immune to accidents.

[You fell. Into a rather dangerous river. By the time I fished you out, I was out of breath and as soaked through as you were. I tried to be cross and scolding, but by then you and I were just starting to become close, and I could not summon it.

[We were both silent for a long while as we gasped for air. Out of breath and dripping wet, I laughed dryly and remarked, “Nuaelan.” It means “You are trouble,” or "the elvhen embodiment of trouble."]

I snorted a laugh. “My name means ‘Trouble?’”

[It was well-informed, and it proved a rather apt decision as the millennia passed.]

I felt suddenly light-headed.

[What was your dream about, Nua?] He asked quietly.

He hoped the sound of my name in a familiar ‘voice’ might jog something or at least bring me some sort of comfort. It didn’t.

I cleared my throat to bring my head back to the conversation. I made a thoughtful noise. When I spoke, my voice was low and silken. Different than it had been so far, but familiar. It was an Old sound. “We were running through the woods. Your woods. Your home. I got the sense that you were like a chaperone, but you didn’t like me. No one did. But I liked you, and I wanted your attention so badly that I baited you and annoyed you until you lost your temper and started chasing me. We wrestled, and I got you so angry that your eyes glowed red and your fur turned to swirling ink. That’s why I thought you were mad earlier. And much bigger than in my dream, by the way. When it was over, I asked you something about naming me and it annoyed you so much that you just left.

“. . . I loved you,” I said absently, my mind thousands of years away. “I felt like. . .when I was with you, maybe I knew what it was like to have a family.” I huffed a laugh. “And you couldn’t stand me. There was something about me that you loathed on principal.

“. . . So why did you spend time with me?” I asked. “I got the impression that it happened often, that I basically lived with you.”

He sighed. [It is. . . complicated, and our history was a long one, even by the standards of our people.]

There went the idea that I was "only" 4,000 - 8,000 years old. I felt like I was in a dream. Then I nearly laughed when I remembered that I basically was.

I felt a heartbreaking sort of relief from Fen'harel that he could say “our people” to someone, and a thrum of disorientation to be so casually lumped in with him, with his lost world, with the mission he so worshiped.

[But eventually I pulled my head out of my backside and allowed myself to see you for who you were instead of what you were,] he said archly. [That was when we became friends. You were more insufferable afterwards.] He sounded fond when he said it.

“And we were never lovers?” It wasn’t really a question, but then, I didn’t really remember. I knew he’d had a love of taking worthy women to bed, but I had no idea what I looked like. I was more embarrassed by the question than I should have been, though. Knowing Cassandra and the others was one thing, but this. . . this was someone who knew me, too. It was a blind spot, and it caught me off guard.

[No. We became family, but we never laid together.]

“Was I unattractive by elvhen standards?” I asked, confused.

He laughed outright, and it rumbled all through his ribcage and into me. It was so beautiful it made my chest hurt.

[You have not lost your talent for subtlety, I see.]

I didn’t get the feeling that I was bad at it, not when I didn’t want to be.

[You were quite beautiful. Most elvhen were by today’s standards, but you stood out even so. I would not take you to bed in the beginning, though I will admit that part of me wanted to, and by the end you were too valuable to me. You were more than a lover could have been.]

I turned all of this over in my mind.

“You said what I was. In my dream, there were flashes of a lot of other things, and one of them was this feeling that everyone hated me because of what I was, as if I were a different creature than them. Not all elvhen were born, right? Some were made from spirits? Even if I was that way, I shouldn’t have been so. . . disgusting.”

[You were spirit-made, yes. In the beginning, long before my time, all elvhen were.]

I waited for more, but it didn’t come. “. . . Please tell me you’re not going to do that thing where you pretend to answer a question when really you haven't said anything at all. I’ll take a ‘piss off I’m not answering’ over that any day.”

I felt amusement. [Your situation was unique. The specifics of it. . . I think that is something best left for you to remember on your own.]

“Ah. Right. Have you always been this infuriating?”

[No,] he said, glib. [I used to be much worse.]

I huffed a laugh despite myself. I was surprised what a relief it was.

A thought occurred to me and I sobered. Carefully, I asked, “Will I see you again after tonight? Before the Breach is closed. I assume you’ll want to recruit me after that or. . . something.” At least I had guaranteed safety until then. The mark in my hand was the only way to fix his most recent mistake, his miscalculation, and he wasn't strong enough to take it back yet.

He paused, and I felt him deciding which part to reply to.

[I would like to take your Solas' place as your guardian, should you have no objections.]

I scowled. “He is not my anything. But yes, I would like that." Regret it? Probably. But with Fen'harel, at least I knew what his secret was. "I was starting to wonder how I was going to figure out how to use magic without telling anyone I’d never, well, that I didn’t remember ever having any before.” I less than reassured that he both knew Solas' name and that he had been acting as my "guardian." Had the two sat down for tea in the instant it took Solas to disappear? If it had been anyone but Fen'harel. . . .

[I would enjoy helping you,] he said warmly. I felt a pang in my chest as I tried to reconcile the Fen'harel before me with the Fen'harel I was, wisely, wary of. [But this Solas, I take it you do not care for him?]

My scowl deepened, but I said nothing. Somehow, I knew that I didn’t need to. I figured it was related to how I seemed to feel what he was feeling.

I froze, remembering--

But I was distracted when what I felt from him constricted until all I could detect was his presence, as if he were pulling in on himself. I waited, but he said nothing, so I tried to joke.

“Like I could stop you, anyway,” I muttered. "'Objections,'" I scoffed pathetically.

I felt him grin. [No. But I would respect your wishes.]

“So long as you felt like it, you mean?” I purred.

I felt him smile, and it was a fond thing. His feeling bloomed again and I felt an overwhelming wash of relief. [I would like to watch over you. I may be of help with your mission, as well.]

“You don’t need to justify it,” I mumbled. “I feel like. . . This is going to sound ridiculous because I only have memories going back a week or so now, but I feel like this is. . . like I haven’t felt this safe in a long time. Like I’ve missed you, as if a hand or a foot, only I didn’t realize it until now. If you weren’t so damned sneaky, I’d ask you to just join the Inquisition under a false identity so I wouldn't feel like such an alien.” Even though I knew it would be catastrophically stupid to have him there.

[We need to figure out why you are being hunted first. This will be a safe place for you, so memorize it tonight, take it in, and keep it in your mind as you go to sleep each night. You will be brought straight here. If there is a time I cannot be with you, you will still be out of danger here.]

"What if I get knocked out or something?"

[I have friends in the Fade. I will ask them to watch for you and guide you here, should you need it.]

“Thank you,” I said sincerely. "And thank them."

I went absent, my mind on the emotions I had clearly felt from Solas in the waking world. “How are elvhen different from elves?” I asked conversationally.

He hummed. [We enjoyed touch.] He picked his head up and dropped it in my lap. The weight of it collapsed my legs, and he leaned into my torso with a happy sigh. I scratched his muzzle as if doing so were automatic. [Among those we were close to. Much moreso than any modern race. We were often touching one another in some small way.] I heard a smile in his voice.

[You have no doubt found your senses far superior to others’.]

“I figured it was an elf thing. It isn’t?”

[No. It is not,] he said, an dark undercurrent entering his voice. [Modern elves are little more than shrunken humans with pointed ears. They have lost touch with everything that should be most important to them, with themselves and the world around them.] Sorrow, regret, self-recrimination, determination. . . .

[We have greater tolerance for extreme temperatures. You will find shoes utterly useless and patently uncomfortable in all but the most extreme conditions. When we encountered them in our time, we simply used spells to augment our natural resistance.]

“Tiny foot prisons,” I said. “I put on boots and they felt like tiny foot prisons.”

[An accurate enough comparison,] he said, amused again, at least on the surface. The sorrow underneath everything had not ceased since he'd come here. [Your strength and endurance will seem impossible to the people of this age. Your heart and lungs are slightly larger, and your heart beats a little more quickly. Your body will require only a fraction of the food theirs does, though you can eat more, within reason. You will need to relieve yourself far less, as a consequence,] he said with clinical detachment. [Our bodies are more efficient, so you can also carry yourself longer without food, and to a slightly lesser extent water.

[You in particular will find that you do not need much sleep, and your physical abilities were heightened beyond those of other elvhen. Not drastically, but enough to provide an edge when one was needed.] He sounded. . . proud? Smug? I wasn’t sure which.

[You have also noticed the physiological differences, I assume? Between you and other elves?]

I looked down. Shifted a little. “. . . I saw an elf today, when I woke up. He looked. . . I felt like an asshole. Looking at him made me feel. . . .”

[Ill?]

“Yes!” I cried in relief. “Like there was something horribly wrong with him, like he shouldn’t even. . . . Like he. . . .” I trailed off, the slimey trickle of horrifying recognition moving in me. ‘Like he shouldn’t even exist,’ I was going to say.

Was this how Fen’harel saw them? Was this why it was acceptable to him to do what he planned? Was it is first straw? His last?

Even picturing the elven man made my skin crawl. I knew, I knew there was nothing wrong with him. I knew he was whole. He was a person with his own thoughts and feelings and dreams. He was real, just as real as I was. I knew that. But it didn’t quiet the part of me that screamed that something like him, something so malformed and broken should not be allowed to suffer through its own existence. I knew the man wouldn’t see it that way. I knew I shouldn’t see it that way.

I wasn’t in the habit of fighting pieces of myself, especially not ones I disagreed with. All that accomplished was creating a schism within yourself and ultimately feeding the thing you were trying to avoid or deny in the first place. I embraced my bad feelings, my shameful thoughts. I treated them gently and waited to find what they had to teach me or tell me. Once they had done that, most of the time they disappeared on their own as if they had never been there at all. But this. . . I didn’t know how to begin trying to process this. I would need time alone to really look at it.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like what I found.

[I understand,] Fen'harel rumbled quietly. He sounded more saddened by it than I was. But he’d had a year travel among them, and he considered himself responsible for their fall. If I’d had to think I was responsible for a world of creatures like that man I’d seen. . . .

I shuddered involuntarily.

“What else?” I asked, eager to change the subject.

He paused just long enough to let me know he was choosing to follow my lead. [We are taller, broader, and more muscular. Curiously, our eyes are less vivid - except in the case of you and the Evanuris. They altered their appearances to seem like more than they were. Others did as well, of course, but it was not a common practice. Our ears are longer and more pointed, and incredibly sensitive to physical stimuli. We tend to be more graceful, though whether that is more from culture or physiology I could not say.]

I was silently ticking things off.

Awake for a year. Taller, broader, more muscular. Larger ears, more subdued eye color. Incredibly sensitive to magic and the Fade. Abject frustration with the bull-headed ignorance of the dalish, particularly as relates to the history of their ancestors.

“Why can I feel what you feel?” I asked lightly. “It’s so vivid I haven’t even questioned it. It’s like every part of me is as used to it as it is to breathing. Is that elvhen, too?”

He paused only an instant, and I felt an odd swirl from him, as if our connection or whatever it was was suddenly flooded with too much information to process at once.

[We call it Ara’lin. Loosely translated, our “self” or “being." At its most basic, it is an outward manifestation of our mana, or our connection to the Fade, which we called Elgar’vhenasan, literally "the place of the spirits' home." It allowed us to connect to one another in a way no mortal today could understand.]

And that was the last item I needed, along with his unusual reaction to the question.

“Fen’harel,” I began, my voice unnaturally light, “how many agents do you already have in Haven?” I knew he'd know where I was going with this. But then, I suspected he had known at least since I had asked about the Ara'lins. Point to my question aside, I knew the Inquisition would be crawling with his agents soon if it wasn’t already. He wouldn’t be without ears in the organization that was cleaning up his mess and setting the stage for another attempt to burn the world - the right way. I rolled my eyes at the thought.

[Enough to know that should I wish to place more, they should not be elves.]

He made a joke of it. Clever. But he also wasn't hiding the fact that he was totally unsurprised at the turn in conversation, and knew exactly what was coming next. I wondered why he hadn't tried to steer me away from it in the beginning. God knew there were plenty of other things to talk about.

“And Solas is one of them.” It wasn’t a question. “He is elvhen.”

He huffed a laugh. [Yes to the latter, no to the former. He is no agent of mine, but I know of him. I have spent a good deal of time searching for any elvhen who may have survived over the millennia.]

I fought the urge to comfort him at the sorrow I heard in his voice. I had to clench my hands into loose fists to avoid doing so, in fact.

I sighed heavily. That would explain Solas' interest in me, why he had volunteered to teach me Common, why he kept trying to speak to me in elvhen, and why he kept looking at me like he was waiting for. . . ah. Recognition.

I felt a little like an asshole. I felt a little bad for him. And I detested it. I also didn’t want to believe Fen’harel when he said Solas wasn’t one of his, but he had practically gone out of his way to shout the truth of it in his “Ara’lin.” Which was suspicious enough on its own.

“And how long will he remain a free agent?”

[Solas' path is his own until the Breach is closed. You know of my plans?]

I nodded, knowing he’d feel it, and then feeling the smallest bit exposed. Elvhenan was supposed to have been a place that would have made the Game look like toddlers squabbling over toys. How had anyone lied with this cloud around them?

[You do not approve.]

“. . . We’re talking about this, Fen’harel. But we’re not talking about it tonight. I don’t understand how I can be elvhen, because I feel the world I was from, and it was not full of magic and pointed ears. I was a human there.”

I felt his jolt of surprise.

“But what you’re saying makes too much sense and. . .” I shook my head. “I know you.” My fingers buried themselves in the fur of his neck and worked their way down to the skin, kneading the hard muscles underneath. His eyes slid closed and he leaned into the touch subtly.

’You’re so lonely,’ I thought, and I felt that same pain, that same urge to fix it as I had with Josephine. Perhaps I had once been a spirit of Compassion.

“Anyway, its been a long goddamned day, and that will be a very complicated conversation and right now - I know you’ll understand this - I just want to appreciate the fact that I’m not quite as alone as I thought. That somewhere in the world, I have a friend. That I have family,” I finished softly.

His agreement hummed through the air, and another long, full silence lapsed between us.

“You said you searched for elvhen,” I said eventually. “You didn’t find me?”

It was a while before he answered. [No. I did not.] His voice was unusually quiet, and I got the impression that that was a wound and I shouldn’t poke it.

He shifted a little around me as if resettling himself. [You said you dreamed of more than the chase through my home. What else?]

“A lot of things. Mythal said something about wild magic, in the past and as Flemeth. Those people hated me for what I was, I loved you before I could even imagine what love was, something about being “made,” literally. I was groomed and trained for something, taught all kinds of skills and kept in seclusion for a long time. I was. . . stunted though, somehow, on the inside. Perfectly tuned, but more like a machine than a person. I was all goal and no. . . heart.”

A memory whispered in my mind and my brows drew together. The blonde in the Fade had told me something about that. ‘Find your heart,’ or something. ‘Not the details.’ What had its words been? Come to think of it, it had called me Little One, too. Had it been elvhen? Had it known me? I remembered the boil of anger and fear and dread that it had summoned in me. Strangers didn’t elicit those feelings.

“Wars,” I said, far away. “I fought with you, didn’t I? During your rebellion. I was feral, wild and brutally deadly and I loved it. There was blood, literal fields of it, temple floors coated in it, but not from my hand, I don’t think. And. . . I wasn’t just a soldier, was I?”

[No. You were not.]

“There was victory, voices shouting at you about betrayal, a pair of eyes that made me afraid, something about an experiment, an elvhen word I don’t know, and this sense that I was. . . your partner, almost, in the war. That I was the only one you could really count on in the end, that I did something for you that the others couldn’t. I let you hold on to yourself."

It struck me as if just becoming real: we had been close. No, Close. Close in a way most people will go their whole lives without finding. It ached a little, and I wasn't sure why.

“We were fiercely loyal to you. I knew that if you had to, you would have killed even me in an instant for the cause, and I would. . . I would have gone gladly, because we all believed in it just as strongly as you did, and we had that much faith in you, in your ability to know what had to be done.” What an odd thought; I couldn’t say that I would so readily give myself over like that now.

[We succeeded because of the efforts and passion of many. We fought on different fronts, and not always with weapons and magic. It was not my rebellion alone; I was only one of many. History has simply painted my involvement with more credit than I deserve.]

I hummed. He believed what he was saying. Mostly. But the part of him that didn't was made up of less arrogance than most people would assume. “That’s news to me. I don’t imagine having a genius master strategist god at our helm really hurt the cause, though.”

[You know I am not a god, don’t you?]

“Yeah, sure. But god-like was probably still a good way to describe what you could do. You were a hell of a lot smarter and more powerful than most, weren’t you?”

[. . . You truly do not remember, do you?]

“No, I do. Yeah, I remember everything, I’ve just been playing an elaborate prank. I figured you’d get a kick out of it.”

He wormed his jaw under my legs and held them between his teeth, then bit down just enough to make his point.

So I leaned in and bit him on the ear.

He pulled back and licked me, from floor to crown. With a tongue that was literally almost as big as I was.

“. . . Are we sure I didn’t hate you?” I asked as I held slobber-soaked clothing away from my skin with a soured look on my face. “I think I might have hated you.”

He looked at me. His eyes were oddly human and I saw amusement first, but then a sudden mournful look in them, a sorrow. [Nuaelan, you can change your clothing. You are in the Fade.] It was like he was reminding a thirsty person that they could have a drink of the water that was in front of them.

“Well sure I can,” I snarked back, suddenly feeling uneasy, “but--”

I went very, very still.

“. . . That’s just something all mages can do, right? Little, simple things like that?”

He only looked back, that same sorrow in his eyes. The answer was written there.

My own eyes slid closed and my head fell back against him. Suddenly I was bone tired. Not fighting your reality when it changes around you took a good deal of energy, and I wasn’t sure I had any left.

He waited for me to speak. I knew he would wait as long as it took.

"When will I wake up?" I asked, allowing myself a detour, if only for a moment.

[I cannot say. But there is a feeling which comes before you wake that you will quickly learn to recognize. Similar to feelings of hunger or thirst or the need to relieve yourself. It is a pressure, or a tug.]

I nodded numbly. Vacation time over.

“Being immortal gave us," and how surreal was it to lump myself into that, "a lot of time to master pretty much anything we wanted, I bet. But as talented as anyone could be, you either were a somniari or you weren’t. The nobility structure was based on that, right?” Like Tevinter. More power equaled greater status.

[That was not our word for it. I've'an'virelan. A Walker of the Beyond.]

I began fidgeting with my fingers. Something to do to take some of the pressure off what I was feeling, any tiny distraction, some other place for my focus and my senses.

“So. . . let me see if I’ve been paying attention. I'm apparently extra pretty, have enhanced senses and physical abilities, and am somehow inherently different than others. I haven’t been evaluated for combat yet but somehow I know that I can fight, and I would have said that even without the dream.

“I’m not nervous about people waiting on me. That means I’m used to it. I held the attention of people who thought I was some sort of holy prophet like it was old hat. I feel no real deference toward people who should be authority figures. Now apparently I'm a somniari. I'm not even going to ask you if I'm leaving anything out, because frankly right now I don't want to know if I am.

“Fen'harel, what was I?"

He heaved a great sigh and raised his head to look me in the eyes.

[You were not like other elvhen, no. You were trained from your first day in the world, without pause. You were a prodigy, you had talent and skill and drive bourne into your every cell, and you were worked to master everything put in front of you. Combat and magic, grace and bearing, art and trades. Conversation, etiquette, charm, seduction.]

“Was I nobility?” I had to force the question out around the threat of bile. I did not have a kind opinion of elvhen nobility.

[No, you were not. Most of the world never even knew of you, and when our war began in earnest, you saw too much value in remaining a ghost, a phantom. A rumor to frighten our enemies. It. . .] he sounded. . . uncomfortable, [was not just your training, however. It was your. . . you could call it breeding. But Nua, I must ask you not to continue questioning me about this. I truly think it best for you to wait for this piece to come back to you on your own, difficult as it must be. I will not change my mind.] He sounded apologetic, but I knew he meant it, and there was nothing I could say to convince him otherwise.

I huffed a breath. “So in other words, I meet probably literally the only person who can tell me who I am, and he won’t tell me who I am.”

[A poetic irony, perhaps.]

“Yeah see you say that, but all I hear is 'My idea of what's good for you is more important than yours.'"

[Is it not the responsibility of one with more knowledge to act with prudent kindness?]

Kindness. Right. Like his plans for the world. I looked him in the eyes. "What if what you think you know is wrong?"

[It would not be the first time.] He sighed. He was perhaps every bit as frustrated about my situation as I was. More, maybe, since he knew everything I didn’t. But knowing that he felt I needed to wait to remember on my own made me dread what was waiting for me in my memories.

“Well,” I uttered, near-silent.

An idea occurred to me, and I broke the silence that had settled over us again. “Want to make it up to me?” I asked playfully.

[What did you have in mind?] Curious and a little wary. Smart man.

A grin split my face. “A field trip. I have some people I’d like to say hello to.”

Chapter Text

[Imagine him,] Fen’harel had said. [Hold him in your mind. Feel the impression he gives you, how he sits in your mind and heart. Recall a scent he gives off, the color of his eyes, the weave of his clothes, any details which stayed with you, however small. Because he is a spirit, focus on your emotional impression of him, how he makes you feel. Hold these things until you find the place within yourself where he lives, and so the part of him that is a part of you.]

I held those things, but there was clutter around them.

[Don’t fight what you are, Nua,] he said, and I wondered how much a somniari with his experience could see in the Fade, or how much of my experience as a person ended up showing in this "ara'lin." [Don’t argue with what you can do. You are tying your own feet, and this is as much a part of you as they are. You were born a Dreamer the same as you were born an elf.]

Except I wasn’t born an elf. . . . Except I was.

I gave a frustrated huff but did as I was told. I let my resentment dissolve. I let my fear bloom and scatter on the wind. I took the sustenance from my anger and bitterness and let them harden until they crystallised and crumbled away, leaving only purpose and strength behind. In the end, all that was left was the piece of Cole that was me and the piece of me that was him - his own universe inside of me.

[Feel the Fade around you.] His voice quieted to a smooth rumble. [It is a canvas. It breathes. It moves. It is as alive as you or I. It is air in your lungs. It reaches into your flesh and touches the deepest parts of you. It is a partnership; as it is a piece of you, so are you a piece of it. Hold on to the part of you that is Cole and allow the Fade to shape what you feel and thus, reflect what you are. Let it become this part of you.]

Something in my chest swelled with beautifully painful familiarity, as though he was speaking a truth I had long given up on having acknowledged. I held the Fade and myself and the part of Cole within me. I breathed. I let myself expand until I was all around us, like the "air" that already felt like a part of me.

And then I felt Cole. Unbidden, my eyes opened and turned to my left and there he was, crouched with his back to me, in his leathers and oversized hat, fiddling with something on the ground, it looked like. My breath caught in my throat. This was different than meeting Cassandra and the others. This was different than meeting the Dread Wolf.

“Pieces, patchwork, parts, for a purpose,” Cole muttered. “He tried so many times. Hurt and angry and alone, bitter, why won’t they see?” Then louder, as he rose to his feet and turned toward me, “You’re like me.  But. . . not."

"You know me," he said as if confused.  Then he gasped. "You remember me.  You know what am, everything I did, how he died.  But I don't know you. I don't know those things."  He paused.  "You don't make sense. There are too many voices.  Bright like a spirit.  But not.

"It was him they hated, not you, not really.  Fears and mistakes and ideas. You always tried so hard to be what he wanted, what they wanted. Sometimes you didn’t even exist. . . . But then he took it away. Trying, always trying, and so angry.  It hurts, all around him it hurts.  But he won't let it heal."

Cole didn’t even glance at Fen’harel, who had - considerately, I thought - shrunk so his head sat level with mine. The black was slowly leeching from his fur, leaving white behind.

“Hello, Cole,” I said softly.

“You like me,” he said, surprised and confused. "The woman who is not a woman and the man who is not a wolf.  He does not know.  Too loud, too bright, too old, you are the song that was sung before, swept off and carried here. Sleeping.  And you are hunted,” he said.

I nodded. “It seems that way. Do you know why I came to find you tonight?”

He canted his head at me. “You want me to help. You want me to help you help.”

I smiled and nodded again. “You would find us eventually for that reason, but I’d like you to come now, if you can. I think we can help more people if you come now.”

I paused, and I felt like he was listening to something. He probably was.

“Yes. You want me to sort them. To hear what they hide.  But. . . can you trust me?  I don't know what I am yet."

"That can be the nice thing, Cole.  You are what you are, even before you discover the words for it."

". . . You know what I am."

"I know what I think you are.  Everyone outside of you will have their own opinion on that, if they bother to make one.  You've seen that, haven't you?"

"Yes.  Ghost, amombination, monster, demon, spirit, liar, murderer, merciful.  They all thought something.  But only one wanted to be my friend.  Like you."

"Rhys?" I asked.  "I might know where he and Evangeline are, Cole.  Or if not, where they will be soon.  He hasn't forgotten you, you know.  I have friends who can find them.  Make sure they're safe."

“He remembers me?  . . . He wants to forgive me?” He sounded confused again. “No, that’s not right. They don’t like me.”

I smiled softly. “You know what people are like when they’re afraid, right? Or when something changes too fast, or surprises them? Anger comes up, it’s how we protect ourselves. When people are angry, they don’t think like themselves. But when the anger goes away, they come back. Rhys was like that for a little while, but I think he understands better now. Or if he doesn't, he will soon."

He considered this. “But. . . you don't do that. Hard as you are, hardened like a stone, always in sight, always watching, line on the level of the eyes, controlled so tight and in hand, afraid to look away, 'I will make a mistake and they will all hate me. They will stop pretending,'" he said as if a litany. Then, back to normal, "But they aren't pretending."

I felt a shard of painful familiarity behind my sternum, and was given another splinter of the picture of what I had been before this.

I felt Fen'harel's interest, and what was almost like scrutiny.

"I don’t want to hurt them,” Cole said eventually.

“Who, Rhys and Evangeline? I want him to have the chance to talk to you, Cole, but if that isn’t what you want, you don’t have to have anything to do with them. I can send soldiers or scouts or Leliana's agents.”

“That. . . could work. They don’t like me,” he said again.

“They were afraid of you,” I said. I felt like I was finishing a thought for him. "Confused.  They didn't understand."

“Yes. Monster, why did he lie, what did we help him do? So many dead, so many things gone wrong. Running, fleeing, must get to where they can’t find us, because of him, why didn't we realise?  But now, Evangeline is more like me and they wonder.”

“Do you know where I am, Cole? In the other world? Where to go?”

“Yes. Haven. So much hurt in Haven. Hearts halting, holding, fear and hate and hope. They hope because of you.”

I smiled, a small thing. It was for his benefit. “I intend to do my best.”

“Yes,” he said speculatively. “You will. But there are so many secrets.”

His voice firmed as he decided. “I will find you tomorrow, when you wake up.”

“Thank you, Cole,” I said emphatically.

“. . . You’re so much like me,” he repeated. “And you understand. I make sense, but they don’t. Twisted and tangled, they don’t know what words are. Feelings lost and loose, hidden like secrets tucked away. Words without thoughts, too much of nothing and everything they talk, but they don’t say anything. They don’t see anything.  You think it's on purpose, but it's not.  They're not like you.”

One side of my lips quirked. I thought people did their best, mostly. But suddenly I had the urge to be done with the conversation, and I didn’t think I had the energy to look at why. He was probably already bringing out a truth I was afraid to look at. Which, given that I didn't even remember myself, said a lot about human's - er, people's dedication to avoiding problems.

“But you see,” he said.  "You charge, you don't dance."

“. . . Wow. That really is weird,” I said with a huff of a laugh. But I couldn’t wait to get used to it. How much better it must be than having to say everything out loud, how much more clear.

“Yes. Words are hard. Sharp and blunt and broken, not enough and too much. No one else likes it when I hear what they don't say,” he said mournfully.

I laughed despite myself. “Maybe you and I can be good company, then.”

[You will enjoy elvhen,] Fen'harel rumbled in a satisfied and certain sort of way.

“Friend, she wants a friend, someone who makes sense,” Cole muttered to himself. “Yes. The ones who call themselves Anders. They are broken now, but you can help. Can I come with you?”

It would be Justice or Vengeance here in the Fade. Having a spirit with me might help. If Justice was old, he would know of Fen’harel, but if not. . . well. Cole was a spirit. At least he would speak the language.

I looked at Fen’harel. He was almost completely white now, and his eyes were a clearer shade of blue. I raised my brows at him but didn’t comment. “How do I bring someone along?”

[Compassion can follow on its own, just as I did, if it wishes.] he said, looking to Cole.

If he could be half so considerate of anyone else. But Spirits would always be family to him that no one else could be, especially now with the way the world was sundered. He would cling more tightly to any pieces of what he had lost.

“Yes. I will follow,” Cole declared.

I closed my eyes and thought of Anders. Four years had passed since he destroyed the Chantry in Kirkwall, and I had no idea how much he might have been changed since then. I held that much more tightly to him, and I tried to focus on the feel of his spirit instead of the specifics of his personality or body.

“Cats,” Cole said.

I opened my eyes and looked at him, brows up.

“He still likes cats. And he is close.”

I smiled. “Thank you, Cole,” I said and closed my eyes again.

Cats. Want and charm. Hunger, hurt, anger, so much sorrow. But underneath everything, a bright spirit, warm like the sun and electric like a star and a shock of lightning. That was Anders. But he wasn’t just Anders. Justice was clear and sharp, a hard crystal of bright purpose. Vengeance was spikes and spines, bent shards of black and red, cutting anything that graced it.

The feeling was dissonant, so I tried again.

Anders and Vengeance. No Justice. This feeling came into sharp focus, and I felt a pang of sadness and worry.

Just as I had with Cole, I knew when Anders was there. I opened my eyes and looked in front of me.

He stood facing us as if waiting. Long moments of silence passed when we only looked at one another. The corrupted spirit in him grated, like shark skin brushing the wrong way, but deep down. It was how the demons had felt when they’d come after me. Now I knew why. Demons made Dreamers physically uncomfortable.

“Hello, Vengeance,” I said quietly.

“I do not know you,” it replied. Its voice was grating shards of sound. But it was the face it wore that hurt.

Anders was emaciated and weak, hunched over. His hair was long and as dirty as the rest of him. He had a thick beard that reached his chest. The blue glow of Justice was still there, but it was deeper and an angry color, like a swarm of wasps in light.

Cole began to fidget.

“No,” I replied calmly. “You don’t. My name is Nuaelan.” I didn’t know what to say from there. Would the spirit want help? Would it want to be separated? Apparently planning ahead was not a strong suit of mine.

There was only one thing I could see to try that might not end in disaster. “May I speak to Anders?” I asked.

“Anders does not know you.”

“I know. But I know him, and I’m not angry about what he did. I don’t want to hurt him, and I don’t want to use him, and I don't want to punish him. I’m not good at talking to spirits yet - I think he might be able to understand what I have to say better. . . .I want to help.” I didn’t know why I said it, only that it felt like the right thing to say. It was like I was more myself when Cole was near, but also more like him.

Vengeance’s eyes darted to Cole. “She is right,” the young man said. "You can trust her."

Vengeance gave me another long look. Then it glanced at Fen’harel. Abruptly, the light faded from Anders.

He sucked in a breath and looked around as if he didn’t know where he was. I supposed he hadn’t been to the Fade as himself in so many years that it must be disorienting. I stifled the urge to reach a hand out and help him.

When his eyes settled on me, all he had to say was, “Well?” Hearing the familiar voice was a jolt, but not as much as hearing how broken and hoarse it was. I wondered how long it had been since he had used it. “Who are you? What do you want?” He was peevish.

Years on his own, maybe. Sick. Tired. Hunted, and hated by every side. . . . Anders wasn’t angry. Anders was wearing anger as a shield.

I closed my eyes. I felt what I wanted until it was so real in my mind I could reach out and touch it. When I opened my lids, it was to find a table from the Hanged Man spread with steaming tea.

“. . . You’re a Dreamer,” he said, some of the flint leaving his voice. "I met one, once."

I smiled gently. “Feynriel, yes," I said. “I have amnesia, but. . . well, me being one seems pretty hard to deny. This one here,” I tilted my head toward my left where Fen’harel stood just behind me, “is my chaperone while I figure out what I’m doing. You’re safe.”

"You know Feynriel?" Anders eyed Fen’harel. “It isn’t a spirit. Or a demon. But it’s powerful, and ancient. What is it?”

I smiled warmly. “He is something as unique as a mage who joined with a spirit. And no, I don't know much more about the boy you helped than you do. Will you sit?” I gestured to the table.

He looked down at it, then back up at me. “If this is a trick. . . “

“Anders you’re an experienced mage,” I said. Fen’harel scoffed silently at his words and pushed down a spike of annoyance at him. “Am I a demon?”

“No,” he said, the tang of Vengeance entering his voice.

“I can’t find you in the waking world just because I found you here, right? And I wouldn’t make the most abhorrent person in the world Tranquil. Vengeance has no doubt told you how powerful my friend is, so if I wanted to trap you or hurt you. . . well I’d be an idiot for not having done it yet. I’m here because I have something you might want, and nothing else.”

Another long, considering pause. “You know I have no way to pay you, so what exactly are you after?” He moved toward the table and sat as he spoke. He didn’t touch the tea, but his eyes widened as its smell wafted toward him.

“How did you--? Who are you?” He asked, suspicion ripe in his tone again. It was the tea he used to drink in the Hanged Man.

“She knows,” Cole said gently. “She was there, she saw everything. She wants to help. She is a good person,” he added, tone certain. If ever there was a personal endorsement you could have. . . .

Anders glanced at Cole, and I saw no question in his eyes. Vengeance knew what Cole was, so Anders did, too. I could feel them somehow, so tightly woven into one another that I honestly didn’t know if they could be separated again. Odder still were things like tiny spots of black and brown in him, both rooted and moving. They were restless and angry. I realized with a start that I must be seeing the Blight. I couldn't think what else it would be.

To give myself time to put my thoughts together I picked up a cup of tea and gave it a sniff. It reminded me of clover and honey, but there was a rich spice underneath. The taste had a hint of some sort of blossom, and was much more sweet than I'd expected.

“My name is Nua. I don’t remember much about myself, but in place of those memories are memories of you and your world. I remember the Warden-Commander and her journey to stop the Fifth Blight. I remember her finding you, your Joining, the Architect, and your fight against the Mother. I remember Hawke and her family and everything that happened between their departure from Lothering and fleeing Kirkwall after Meredith was killed. I was there for Karl, for the making of your bomb, for the final confrontation. ‘There can be no peace.’ I was there with all of you, but. . . not my body. That’s why we’re sitting at a filthy table from Varric’s tavern. I figured it would be better than your clinic.

I paused and looked down at the cup in my hands, toyed at the ceramic with my thumbnails. “. . . She doesn’t hate you, you know. Hawke. She never did. She was just hurt and angry and confused, and she thought having you there for the last fight would be wrong. Divisive. She didn't think you should be rewarded. But she never hated you.”

I didn’t look up at him. It seemed like it would be invading a private moment. I didn’t know if he had seen or heard from Hawke since that day, but I doubted it. He probably thought everyone hated him.

He didn’t say anything. I took another sip of tea to be polite, then put my cup down and looked at him.

“I’m here because. . . I want to help you.” I wanted to tell him he was a good person at heart, but I wasn’t sure how he would take that. I wasn’t sure what I could say at all that might not turn him against me, because I didn’t know how much he hated himself. A person who hates himself will be a hard sell to accept help or healing. But as despised as he was, he would likely have too thick a wall to accept an offer of penance, either.

“You’re right,” Cole said. “He won’t like it. He isn't ready.”

I looked down at my hands.

“What are you talking about?” Anders asked. He still hadn’t touched the tea, and the edge hadn’t left his voice.

I sighed. “The fact that you won't like anything I have to say. Look, if you haven't heard of me yet, you will soon, and if you change your mind--" Will one of you be able to tell if he wants to talk to me?" I turned and asked Cole and Fen'harel.

"I'll listen," Cole said. "I'll hear."

I returned to Anders. "Either way, I want you to know that I won’t want anything in return.”

“You should tell him,” Cole said. “I think you can do it. Now now, maybe,” he said speculatively, "but you can."

“Tell him what?” I asked, turning over my shoulder to look at him.

“What you want to do.” His tone was light and weighted.

I went stiff. I knew what he was talking about.

“I. . . .” I looked at Anders again. Slowly, I said, “I want to try and separate you. I guess I have strange magic, different from any other kind, and I know two people who are experts on spirits and magic and the Fade and I think that between the three of us. . . we might be able to give you back to yourself.”

Anders went very, very still. I waited, but he gave no clue which way he was going to lean.

Finally, he rose from the table, turned and took a step away, and the glow of Vengeance returned. There were so many cracks in him that he was practically a lantern.

“You will leave,” Vengeance said, tone final.

“I can help him, Vengeance. We can help him heal. Or I can help him work off--”

“No,” Cole interrupted. “We should go, he doesn’t want us. We should go, now.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could get a word out Anders and the table were gone. We were in a different part of the Fade, and Cole had vanished.

I spun on Fen’harel.

[You cannot help those who do not want it,] he said.

"You did that?" I asked. When he didn't answer, I was suddenly incenced. "Hypocrite!” I yelled. I opened my mouth to shout at him, but the words stuck in my throat. I felt like a petulant child, but I didn’t care.

I could give no admonition to Fen’harel that he wouldn’t have given himself a hundred times, and if I tried, all I would do was erect a wall that I would desperately need to tear down later on. So I closed my lips. I clenched my fists, I turned away, and I took breaths until I was under control.

“Minds need rest,” I said. My tone wasn’t soft, but it was civil. “If mages are awake in the world during the day and awake at night in the Fade, how do their minds get any quiet?”

[They set wards and sleep in the Fade,] he said. His voice was soft and I was too weary to try and read it.

“Then I’d like to sleep,” I said. “I don’t know how to set wards.”

It was stupid. I needed to ask questions. I needed to learn to use magic. I needed to learn what else I could do. But this was only the first night of a very, very long road. Trying to sprint out of the gate would be idiotic. I was tired, and I was going to fucking rest.

[No need,] he said softly. [I will protect you.]

I felt like I had hurt his feelings. It was ridiculous.

When I opened my eyes, I was in my bedroom in Haven. Fen’harel was not in sight. I prickled with unease that he knew so well the room I had only gotten yesterday, and at least half of it came from the fact that I found I couldn't be surprised.

I was sick to my stomach with worry about how to keep anything from him, whether or not I needed to, and about whether or not I had to tell the others about him. He frightened me because I knew he would do anything, and yet I felt oddly protective of him. The dichotomy was jarring.

I slammed the door on those thoughts and lay down atop the bed. I grabbed one of the pillows and hugged it to my chest, closed my eyes, and let myself drift.

 

* * * * *

 

I opened my eyes an instant later. The air was thicker and heavier and slower. It felt sedated. I was back in Thedas, then. I must not have dreamed.

A soft knock sounded on my door, and I realized that sounds of the woman's approach - I could smell her - were what had made me wake. A laysister let herself in. She carried a tray piled with an obscene amount of food and a pitcher of what I could smell was water. The tray she set on a square table near the door, and the pitcher on a smaller table next to a large ceramic bowl with a washing cloth draped over the side. She bowed low, murmured a few words, and backed out the door.

I sighed and rubbed my eyes.

It was midmorning. The air wasn’t sharp enough for pieces of night to be lingering, and the sun lent its own scent to everything. Fen'harel said I didn't need much sleep, so I must still be recovering from the Rift.

I rose, spread up the bed, stripped, and began to clean myself. My thoughts drifted to the night before.

I hadn’t truly expected Fen’harel to come for me, but I had feared it, like an itch at the back of my mind. He had done something I hadn’t expected, and that bothered me. And there was this odd sort of push and pull when I thought about him. I knew him, I felt comforted with him, but he also set worry under my skin, as if he was a wolf and I was a prey animal he was deciding to play nice with. It was like his jaws were around me, I knew they could snap closed at any moment, and yet I--

My hands stilled.

Trickster. Manipulator. Master strategist, genius. His home was the Fade, perhaps moreso than the waking world ever could be.

It would make sense to keep the bearer of the mark close, especially when she was so unusual. How hard would it have been for him to give me a dream of running through the woods?

“Son of a bitch,” I cursed softly.

But he had felt familiar, and I could tell my instincts and intuition were things I trusted.

. . . Still, he was the Dread Wolf. Underestimate him and it’s your own fault when everything goes horribly, catastrophically wrong later. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, be that stupid.

I finished washing quickly and dressed in a fresh set of underclothes, then sat down to eat, combing my fingers through my half-wet hair while I chewed. There was wine with the food, but I had turned my nose up at it and had “felt” the pitcher of water clean, then drank from it instead. I liked water.

Fen’harel had told the truth about some things - my senses, my appetite - but the best lies were based in truth. How could I possibly verify. . . ?

Unless I could find someone who had known me. It was a long shot at best, but I couldn’t think of anything else. If we had enough time before the meet in Val Royeaux, I would be taking a trip to the Arbor Wilds. There were dozens of elvhen there who had served Mythal, and she had been close with Fen’harel. If I had been a part of his life, perhaps one of them would recognize me.

For the first time in what seemed like a week, I felt hopeful instead of overwhelmed. I had a tangible goal, and apparently that made all the difference. I dressed and braided my hair quickly, and opened my door--

To find Cole standing on the other side inches from my face. I jumped and cried out in surprise.

“Hello,” he said.

I half laughed and went to return the greeting until I realized -- “You speak English?” My eyes went wide.

“Yes. You do.”

"Meaning. . . that's why you do, too?" I ventured. Spirits and Demons could see inside of people, so why should language be out of bounds? Thinking about the mechanics of it was dizzying, though. Neural pathways, muscles shaping around foreign sounds. . . .

"Yes. And yes, I will take you to Solas."

I blinked at him. It was disappointing that I found his insight disorienting. I supposed I would have liked to think that I would take to it like a newborn foal to walking - it made so much more sense than verbal communication. But I felt conditioned to be another way. It was like Cole was speaking my native language, but it had been so long since I had heard or used it, that I would have to learn it all over again, and it made me profoundly sad.

As we walked, for once I could pretend the whispers and stares were at least a little bit about something other than me.

“It’s all still about you,” he said, as if surprised I didn’t know. “They wonder about me, but then it makes them wonder about you more.”

“. . .Yay,” I said flatly.

Solas was in one of the libraries. Open books were layed out around him, and I asked Cole to wait outside. I figured he didn’t need to hear us to eavesdrop, and even if he did, he’d just be able to pick the conversations out of our minds later. But appearances can make a difference, even if people know they're ultimately hollow.

Solas rose when I started toward him.

“You’re alright?” I asked a little stiffly.

He nodded, a reassuring smile in place, and I wanted to hit him. He was ok, good, that was assured. So now why the fuck had he left me with a horrifying demon wolf?

“He said you’re not one of his. But did you know who he was?” Granted Solas couldn't have done anything against Fen'harel in the Fade, no matter how weakened he was. It was the principal of the thing.

Solas nodded, but in a tilted sort of way. I took that as a “more or less.”

I narrowed my eyes at him subtly and gripped my fingers behind my back. I looked down, trying to swallow my pride at what I had to say next.

”I’m sorry,” I finally said. The words were begrudgingly gentle. “About before. I didn’t know what you wanted from me, why you kept looking at me, and the way you were doing it.” I met his eyes, needing to see his reaction. “Why you kept speaking to me in elvhen. I get it now. And. . . I’m sorry. If you're not--" 'one of his,' I almost said, "Ehm. . . I don't imagine there's a support group for elvhen who have survived this long, and I understand now. Your loneliness." His eyes went sharp and focused. "The way you keep people away. Not just because of what you are, but because you know what you do, too. You know the lies people worship in this time. I knew, before, how alone you were because of what you believed, but this. . . this is different,” I finished uncomfortably.

He gestured to me, a question on his face.

”What? Oh, me? What about. . . are you asking 'what about me?'"

He nodded, and I waved it away. “I don't even know if I’m real, Solas. But if I am, then in whatever life came before all of this, I think I was used to being. . . very alone," I said, eyes going unfocused against a wash of what felt like very old, very deep pain. I shook myself and looked back to him. "I’m not worried yet, anyway. Confused often, and more prone to annoyance than is probably ideal, buuut. . . there are worse things.” I looked up at him, a small grin on my face. ”Besides, I haven’t had to deal with the dalish yet.”

He laughed, short but full, a smile just reaching his eyes, and it tugged at something in my chest. I hated the feeling immediately.

”Well,” I said, businesslike ”I have a new translator, so you can have the day off or whatever. Continue your love affair with. . . whatever twelve or so books you seem to be reading at once. Have you met him? Cole? Young human, very large, floppy hat.”

Solas tilted his head slightly.

I couldn’t help the anticipatory smile that spread over my face. “I’ll introduce you later. I think you’re really going to like him.” ‘Then maybe you won’t want to pester me as much,’ I thought churlishly. ”Apparently I slept in - do you know if the others have spoken to Cullen yet?”

He nodded, his face turning serious.

”. . . It went that well, did it?” I asked flatly. ”Did it seem like he needed some space?”

He made a face that I took to mean ‘maybe.’

I rolled my eyes and puffed a breath out of my lips. “Well. . . I'm going to go for a run before I find Josie. If she asks after me, will you let her know?”

He gave me a curious look, and I shrugged. ”I’ve felt stir-crazy since last night. Whatever poor bastard is set to teach me Common won't get much good out of me if I'm clawing at the walls. Maybe I have pent up energy from being passed out for three days. Go figure.” ‘Or maybe it’s the new slash old body,’ I didn’t add.

Confusion touched his features. I raised my brows at him, and he held up his index finger. But it wasn’t “wait;” he was watching me and waiting for a reaction.

”What, 'one?' One wha--” I stopped, mouth open. “No. You’re not saying I was passed out for one day? Please tell me that’s not what you’re saying.”

He gave a disgustingly elegant dip of his chin, watching me intently.

If he was telling the truth - and I saw no reason he shouldn’t be - the implications were troubling. I would need to be explicitly careful when I told people what was “going” to happen.

”Well. . . shit,” I breathed to myself, ”there went my good mood.” Then I remembered Solas had hearing as good as mine. I looked up at him and chuckled half-nervously. ”You know I figured the good senses were an elf thing. But I think I also sort of knew that it was just me, since no one else seemed to be holding in bile over the smell of pretty much everyone in this town.” The corners of his lips twitched. “It’s going to take some getting used to, knowing you can pick up everything I can.” I felt an odd swell of relief to not be alone, even in that small way. That he ellicited it was something I would never confess.

”You didn’t tell them what I was, right?” It was a confirmation more than a question. I had the inescapable sense that he considered us some sort of private club now, with separate loyalties from the Inquisition or the mission. It made me grouchy.

Solas shook his head, then gesture-asked me not to tell them about him, either. I rolled my eyes. ”I’m not an ass, Solas.”

I turned around, waved goodbye over my shoulder, and let myself out without another word. I felt confusion - no, consternation - from him through the door and growled silently. I couldn’t even get away from the man by getting away from him. What was horrifying was that it made me physically uncomfortable to put too much distance between us. I could just kick him out of the Inquisition, right? That would be fine. We didn't really need an expert on the things that were tearing the world apart, right?

I found Cole staring up at a statue in the cathedral, oblivious to the dozen or so people all staring at him.

“I will be ready,” he said absently without looking at me. ”After you run. It’s a good idea. Racing and running, dancing and pushing and remembering. You need it.”

I huffed a laugh. ”Well with an endorsement like that. . . . I think I’ll head over to get tested for combat after. Thank you, Cole.”

He didn’t say anything or look away from the statue.

I had the sudden and curious worry that I would ask too much of him without realizing it, and that he would get annoyed but not say anything until it was too late.

”Old hurts,” he said absently. ”From before. I will tell you.”

”Oh, uh. . . thanks. Again. I appreciate it.” I wondered if he knew more about my past than I did.

”It speaks to you, if you want to listen. But he took too much, he was too desperate, rushed and hurried and impatient. Had to get it right, no more chances, no more time. It was not like him. He doesn’t want you to hear. 'There is no more time for mistakes.'”

My senses honed in on him like he was a rabbit and I was starving to death. ". . .Who doesn't want me to hear, Cole?"

"The one who made you. So many pieces, so much time, 'all to save them, even though they don't deserve it. Fools to the slaughter, weak and willing and so wrong.' He put pieces of himself in, he had to. I hear him, whispered fragment singing through the blanket. But he did it all wrong, even when he finally got it right."

I thought of a conversation Varric would have with Cole about using nouns, and didn't think he could have it too soon. Cole knew something, something Fen'harel hadn't wanted to tell me, if I could just get him to speak in a way that I could understand.

"You do understand," he said, and he finally looked at me. "You just don't remember. He doesn't want you to, because it's the one part he got wrong. If you forget, you'll be perfect. You can finally do what he wanted." He paused. "But he doesn't want you to really exist. He made you, but he forgot that you exist, too. It is. . . sad."

Cole looked back up at the statue, and a shiver passed through me.

 

Chapter Text

Like everything else so far, the lake outside Haven’s gates was larger than I expected. I decided that "bigger and more intricate" would be my default assumption going forward. Notices of the formation of the Inquisition had been hammered on the gates, the Chantry doors, and some of the town's buildings since yesterday. Banners had been hung on either side of the Chantry entrance.

When I started to run around the frozen water, the physical relief I felt was immediate.

After my first lap, half-sprinting through the snow and not breathing hard, I was elated, overjoyed, laughing despite myself. I pushed myself harder and ran as fast as I could. Which was surprisingly fast. Trees blurred around me and hair whipped loose from my braid.

I remembered feeling weak. Tired and heavy, all the time. This was freedom pure, ecstatic.

After the third lap, still running outright, I started to wonder exactly how long I could go. In my dream I had remembered running for a day without getting tired. I didn’t suppose I had the spare time to test that; I couldn’t wait to get to Mythal’s temple. If the Sentinels would speak with me, I’d be able to know definitively what I could do.

On my fourth lap, a cold breeze hit my face from the direction of the town, bringing with it a scent that made me look up. My eyes found the training camp.

No one was sparring. No one was working. They were all gawping at me. I trotted to a stop and stared back. A grin spread over my face, and I decided there was no time like the present to get my assessment done. The closer I got to their area, the more of them hurried to look busy.

I found Cassandra inside the camp. Unfortunately, she was speaking with Cullen, who I was honestly nervous to see.

He said a word to me, hesitant, uncertain and uncomfortable, even a little curt, but polite enough.

“Herald,” Cole said, suddenly next to me.

The slide of two swords being drawn cut through the air as Cassandra and Cullen rounded on him. I held my hands up to them. “Friend,” I cried, “he’s a friend!” But of course they didn’t trust those words when they came translated by Cole. “Go get Solas, please,” I said to him with a sigh.

Their eyes darted around when he vanished without sight or sound, then landed back on me. I shook my head apologetically and repeated the word Cullen had said, pointing at myself. Hopefully it would distract them.

“Herald. Herald?”

“Yes,” Cassandra said. “זה טו. .אתה Herald.” Her voice was wary. “מה זה היה ?זה ילד,” She asked Cullen.

“אני יכול רק לדמיין," Cullen said darkly. "האם אנחנו בטוחים שאנחנו יכולים לסמוך, Cassandra?” He asked in a low voice. He sounded dubious.

“זמנהיגיד לעת עת ,ה איזו ברי .רה יש לנו ?הוא היחידה אשר יכול לאטום את הקרעים.”

Cullen made an “I hear you but I don’t like it” noise in his throat.

I waited silently for Solas until it drew out well past awkward. With one more look toward the gates and him nowhere in sight, I sighed. “I remembered my name,” I offered. “Nuaelan.” I pointed to myself. “Nua.”

“אתה נזכר?” Cassandra asked, eyes widening.

“הודית בשביל זה,” Cullen uttered.

Another silence stretched out, and I began to fidget. “So. . . I’m sorry,” I said, looking at Cullen. For knowing too much that was personal, too much that was difficult. He didn’t seem like the type of man who would appreciate his pain being waved out in the open. Especially not when he probably blamed himself for it. Good people tended to do that.

Contrition was a clear expression; he seemed to understand, but it only made him look uncomfortable again. I looked away to spare him.

Mercifully, Solas was approaching at that moment. Cole was with him - I could feel him, but he was nowhere to be seen. I looked to Solas in question, brows creased. “Is Cole here?”

He nodded, and my lips thinned. I looked at the place where I felt him, same as I felt the other three.

“Cole. . . please,” I said. "You translated for me before, right? That's why you said 'Herald,' because that's what Cullen said?" I couldn’t do this conversation one-sided.

To state the obvious, I got odd looks for talking to empty air. They should get used to odd, it would be better for everyone involved.

“They’re afraid of me," he said. "I don’t want to make people afraid.”

I looked at the others, but no one else seemed to have heard him

“People are always afraid of new things,” I said. ”We evolved that way to survive in a world where everything wanted us dead. They can't feel things the way you do, you have to give them time to get used to you. Some of them won’t, but enough of them will. You’ll make friends. People who will remember you. But it will help if you act more like they do. Don’t appear and disappear in front of them, for instance. Will you go appear just around the corner inside the gate, and walk toward us?”

Solas felt a quiet, humming sort of pleased pride at my words, almost like a proud parent. It made me want to hit him. When he flashed to some sort of consternation, I assumed he could feel me as I did him and resolved to figure out how to fold my “ara’lin” into impenetrable oblivion.

In answer, I felt the “air” around me compress and condense until it felt like a hard, dense shell, close and cocooning. That must be my ara’lin, then, that thing, that presence I felt around me. Which meant, given how it had all but acted for me in fights so far, I would have some help learning how to use my magic even if Fen'harel weren't an option. It would pale in comparison, but it would be something.

I felt Cole vanish. I held a finger up toward the others - "wait" - and looked to the gates expectantly. A moment later, there was Cole, thick leathers holding his form and big hat drooping over his face. A wide smile spread over mine.

“This is Cole,” I said as I watched him approach. Solas translated. I held my hands up again as Cullen and Cassandra’s went to their blades, though they didn't move to draw this time. “He’s unusual, like me. Well. . . not like me, exactly. But he’s unusual, and he’s here to help. He’ll seem strange, but you can trust him. And he’ll be able to do things that don’t seem possible, also like me. And he’s. . . well he’s different. He doesn’t understand people very well, so please be patient with him.”

My brow wrinkled. I didn’t understand people, I remembered. But I had learned how to pretend that I did.

“Herald?” Cassandra asked.

I shook myself. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m still. . . “ ‘remembering things,’ I was going to say. But that reminded me that I’d just told them my name. “Right. To answer a question you probably asked earlier, no, I haven’t really remembered anything. I’m getting pieces of my world and small things about myself, but it’s like. . .” I thought a moment. “It's like I’m reading a story and I know I'm the main character more than it's like remembering my own life.

"I met someone. . . .“ I paused. I really didn’t want to say all of this in front of Solas, since I didn’t know how much of it I bought yet, but I’d just have to do the best I could until I could speak for myself. I doubted they’d trust Cole enough yet to have him translate alone.

“I met someone last night in the Fade who knows me.” Supposedly. “He told me my name. He told me something else, too, but. . . ." I paused.

"But?" Cassandra prompted when I didn't speak. Cole translated it for me in a monotone. When she and Cullen looked at him, Cole translated Solas’ explanation to them for me just as flatly.

“Cole’s nature allows him to speak any language,” he said. “He is translating our words into her language for her.”

“Can he be trusted with it?” Cassandra asked, eyeing Cole.

“He can, Seeker,” Solas assured her. I almost snorted a laugh. Given how little I trusted him, that was hysterical. “Should you not be comfortable with the idea, I can assure you that I will know if he mistranslates anything.”

“But he won’t,” I said bluntly. ‘I trust him more than I trust any of you,’ he didn’t say.

“You can trust them,” Cole said as if surprised.

“I know, Cole.” I sighed and rubbed my temples. Having a conversation between five people in two languages with two translators, one of whom was inside my head, was proving disorienting.

”What is he?” Cassandra asked, still watching him warily.

”Don’t answer that,” I blurted. ”Just. . .” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Just one thing that’s difficult to swallow at a time, please. We can tell them about him later. Or never. Whichever comes last.”

Solas gave me a look. Well, for Solas.

“Oh Jesus I’m not serious,” I admonished. “I just don’t want to have to defend him yet to people who think he’s evil just because their church told them so. Not when they probably already think I’ve gone mad, or been hanging out with demons all night, I don’t know. Call me the untrusting sort.”

“But you aren't,” Cole interrupted as if stating the obvious. "It's why you're so careful now. Cautious, caring, can't let them see."

I scowled at him.

“You don’t trust him because you know what he can do," He went on. "You know what he wants to do. You know he killed his friend. But he's still good.”

Solas and I went oddly still. I broke the tension with a sigh and gestured helplessly to Cullen and Cassandra. “Christ on a crutch,” I muttered, “where is that language teacher.”

“Waiting for you with the woman with the clipboard,” Cole explained.

“That was a rhetorical question, Cole.” I put a hand to my forehead. “And I know he's good." 'I of all people know that,' I had the urge to say. "But sometimes being good deep down isn't enough. And until I know more--”

“It is better to protect the heart,” he interrupted.

“Something like that,” I muttered.

“His name was Felassan, Solas,” I explained in answer to his reaction. “If you know who the Dread Wolf is, and you’d goddamned well better since you seem to have let him take over for you without a fight, then you know the war he fought in elvhenan and that he’ll to do anything for the right goal. Don’t be so surprised. Felassan was one of his closest friends, and frankly someone I very much wanted to know. I’m sure it killed a piece of him to do it, but you’ll understand my caution. Whether or not I know more than you do about what comes next when Corypheus is gone,” I finished, making my skepticism clear.

“What about Corypheus?” Cole translated Cullen’s words in a monotone.

“Nothing,” I said with a wave of my hand and a shake of my head. “An aside. And at least in private, I'd prefer we call him Sethius. I don't want to play into his aspirations of godhood. So we call him Sethius, we call me Nua, can we please start hitting things now?" I had the vain hope they would forget that other something Fen'harel had revealed that I hadn't told them.

Solas helped when his lips twitched in amusement at my name.

”Yes, yes, it’s very funny,” I said sourly. ”Hilarious, appropriate, a regular riot, laugh hysterically on your own time.”

“Was she this irreverent in the Fade?” Cullen asked, exasperated.

“More or less,” Cassandra replied. “Why did you seem amused when she mentioned her name, Solas?”

“It means ‘Trouble,’” I answered for him, voice churlish. “Apparently I chose it, apparently it’s apt, can we please move on?”

”Wait,” Cullen said, “just wait a moment. If Cole,” he made the name sound as distasteful as he seemed to find the boy--

"Cullen your templar is showing," I interrupted.

"I-- what?"

"Different and mysterious doesn't always mean demon in disguise. You have a built-in demon-detector right here," I said, jabbing a thumb toward Solas.

“Yyeees," he said. "As I was saying, if the boy can translate our words into her language, can’t Solas teach her the spell to learn our tongue?”

“No!” I cry-barked, my eyes going wide, even as Solas tried to reply.

Everyone but Cole stared at me. “It. . . it's unpleasant,” I said, every bit as self-conscious as anyone would expect after the seemingly random outburst. “Besides, if it’s not going to teach me to speak it, I might as well just not bother. I can be fluent enough in Common in a month if I stop speaking and hearing English and work my ass off with the tutor. He should come with us on the road.”

”That seems ambitious,” Cassandra said, “but I will speak to Josephine about it.”

“You mentioned that this person in the Fade told you something else about yourself," Cullen said. I let my eyes slide closed. Of course. Of course he would remember. “Stuff I already knew," I lied carefully.

"Such as?" He was unamused to say the least, and there was challenge in his bearing.

My eyes sparked in reaction. His mirrored it, and my hackles went right up.

“Nua,” Solas cautioned.

“Oh don’t you even start,” I snapped at him. Wisely, he stopped translating. “He’s the one getting his goddamned panties in a twist. Yeah, your world is ending, but it isn't my world, is it? It isn't my problem, none of this is! I don’t have to be here helping - I mean I am because I'm not a complete asshole - and he's going to give me the third goddamned degree because he's all self-conscious that I know more about him than I should which, by the way," I added with a glower in his direction, "is not even my fault? I don’t have to be doing this! If he can't keep his stupid bruised ego or whatever in his stupid pants," I gestured at them sharply, eliciting an increasingly confused look from the Commander, "then he can stick his equally stupid manicured blonde head right up his miserable ass!”

". . .I probably don't want to know what she's saying, do I?" Cullen leaned in and murmured to Cassandra in an undertone.

"I highly doubt it," she replied flatly.

”To answer your question,” I said, turning back to the others, “I believe the stated differences were, as compared to other elves,” I ticked off on my fingers, “stronger, faster, more stamina, heightened senses, small appetite and decreased related. . . functions, ability to go longer without food or water, grace, larger lungs, larger and faster heart, resistance to extreme temperatures, the obvious physical differences, unless you’d like them listed out for you in detail,” I said pointedly to Cullen. To my tremendous surprise, he blushed. It threw me off, but I recovered quickly and went on, though most of the heat left my voice.

“He said I wouldn't need much sleep, and that I was trained for. . . well, for a lot. Which means I can make an educated guess about how the combat assessment is going to go. Oh, and Solas said I was only passed out for a day after closing the Rift?”

“A day and a half, to be precise,” Cassandra said.

I made an uncertain noise in my throat. “Well, then, you need to be very careful with the things I tell you about the future, because it should have been three.”

“. . .Wonderful,” Cullen said, rubbing his forehead with one hand.

“Yeah that's pretty much where I sit on all this bullshit, too. Now come on,” I said, walking toward a nearby weapon rack. “We’re annoyed at each other, let's see who can hit whom the most.” I turned around to see him looking utterly taken aback.

“. . . What? I like the direct approach to conflict resolution. We're going to be working together a lot, why should we let it fester? Oh," I added, letting a half-mocking grin spread over my face, "and for your own safety, I recommend you don't hold back."

. . . This could end horribly. I was banking on the feeling that it wouldn't, but still, if I got maimed, I'd know that I had basically asked for it.

Ignoring the hushed conversation now going on behind me, I grabbed a wooden training sword and hefted it experimentally, viciously pleased that my body seemed to know the feel of it well. I grinned to myself, and it was not the friendliest of expressions. I felt something rising in me like the crest of a wave, and was suddenly looking forward to the excuse to, as I had so eloquently put it, "hit something."

The sword was crude and awkward, but it would do. There was a rush of relief at having it in my hand, moving my arm and shifting my muscles, and something clicked into place: this helped the feeling I'd had last night, the feeling that hadn’t truly abated with my run. Fen’harel had said I was trained mercilessly - that meant discipline, repetition. I must be used to doing something with a weapon every day.

To my somewhat perverse delight, I heard not Cassandra’s, but Cullen’s footfalls approach. I felt him watch me for a moment, then lean in and pick up another of the wooden swords.

“I owe you an apology,” Cole said in his monotone as Cullen spoke. The Commander’s tone seemed halting, even begrudging, but contrite.

Cole had approached without sound or scent. It was disorienting, and begged a few questions, but it explained why he made such a prodigious rogue.

“Oh, now don’t try and butter me up,” I said with feigned lightness. Cole interpreted for me as Solas stood back with Cassandra. “You picked up the sword, it's too late now. You're stuck with me.” I turned a polite grin on him. I was still annoyed, but the way I was holding on to it in the face of what had been an obviously sincere apology, it probably wasn’t directed at him, not really. I hadn’t taken time - I hadn’t had time - to deal with the splinter-sized frustrations and nicks of stress that had been piling up, even in what only amounted to a few days. “Well I mean you can, but frankly I’m a little afraid of Cassandra so I'd rather do this with you. God, don’t tell her I said that. . . . And now I realize I've just insulted you, too. This is going so well." I sighed and put my face in my hand. "Sweet Mary and mother of Moses," I muttered to myself. I made a noise of protest when Cole started to translate it.

I looked up, startled, when Cullen chuckled. "You're doing fine," he assured me. God help me, he had that grin on his face, the half-cocked one that turns bones to porridge. I knew it was meant to reassure me, but I embarrassed myself yet again by staring dumbly at him while I tried to think of anything to say in reply.

He rescued me by going on. “I mean it. You’re right, you didn’t choose this, and you have done nothing but help us willingly. You have asked for nothing in return. I don't know many people who would insist on being moved to more modest accommodations to make room for the wounded.”

I turned my face from him, stirred to discomfort by the compliments. He noticed, but either misinterpreted, or was kind enough to pretend he didn't.

“I. . . saw you, when you were found," he went on. "Frankly I’m still amazed you lived through the night. Cassandra said that from the moment you woke below the Chantry, you didn’t fight or argue, that you did everything you could to help, despite the fact that you were obviously lost. She said you carried on long after you should have collapsed from blood loss. That even not knowing our language, you told her about the scouts in the pass that needed help.”

I shrugged self-consciously, growing more uncomfortable by the word. ”Unique physiology, I guess,” I murmured. ”I. . . .” I hated the feeling that we were ignoring the elephant in the room. So I huffed a sigh and looked at him. “Look,” I said, moving forward and lowering my voice. Cole caught on and translated quietly. “I know. . . with the the things you've seen and been through since you became a templar, I can’t imagine how. . . uncomfortable," I said carefully, hoping he'd get my meaning, “it has to be knowing that I know things you didn't give me permission to know. I'm sure it's hard for everyone, just like I'm sure they wouldn't be able to understand how much harder it is for you than it would be almost anyone else.” He stiffened subtly, glanced at Cole, then held me with an intense, watchful gaze.

“I can't apologize for that," I went on. "I don't know how. It seems like I traded everything about myself to know things about other people, instead." I shook my head and forced myself back on track. This wasn't about me. "For whatever paltry consolation it might be, I don't judge, I don’t pity, and I don’t talk about what I know." I enunciated the last part firmly. "It's not my information to give." I looked down at the sword in my hand, suddenly not wanting to meet his eyes. "I know you don't know me, and I guess technically I don't know you. But I like you." My eyes returned to his in some sort of surrender or entreaty. "I respect you.” ‘Except when you’re being a prat,’ I didn't say.

I paused and studied him. I had no way to identify the scent coming from him, and his face was nearly blank, like he himself didn't know how he felt about all of this yet, though I doubted that was the case. Solas, on the other hand, was unignorable. Something like ire and stubborn disbelief was rolling from him, though I felt him try to tuck it away.

"I guess I just hope that I can earn enough of your trust over time that we can work together. We likely have a long road ahead of us." I choked down some of the less charitable, equatable things I wanted to say; this was about getting him to start lowering his guard around me and relaxing his hackles. An idea for a modicum of revenge occurred to me, and I had to shove down a grin. "You're a very good man, you know, whether you believe that or not." I shrugged. "I'm objective. You’re remarkably strong, incredibly resilient, courageous, honorable and compassionate,” I saw an argument behind his eyes and the same discomfort I had felt when he had complimented me. I wanted to laugh and do a little dance. It was all true, of course, but that was hardly the point.

Then, I couldn't help but turn what had become a small speech into something useful by nudging his confidence down a road the rest of him was already taking, like helping him build a scaffolding: “Most impressive, though, is that you learn from your mistakes and you always try to make yourself a better man. And you are. You're better than you ever were, and if half the people in the world could care as much as you did, we likely wouldn't have this war on our hands."

He looked at me far longer than was polite, and I held his gaze. "You said 'we,'" he finally said.

"Huh?" I replied smartly.

"You said we wouldn't have a war on our hands. Cassandra and Leliana were quite clear that you didn't lump yourself in with the rest of us or this world last night."

I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it and blinked rapidly. Then, I put a grin on my face and said, "Well, who can say no to a handsome blonde Commander?" I ribbed.

Cole uttered something that caused Cullen's cheeks to flame. I looked at the spirit curiously, but he seemed to be closely examining something on the ground.

Cassandra cleared her throat. "Perhaps we can get on with the testing, Commander," she said loudly and pointedly. "The sooner we can get her learning Common, the better."

"Yes, please," I agreed in a falsely bright voice. "Before I say something embarrassing and inappropriately personal.” I lifted the blade into a stance and my muscles moved like they were made of water.

Cullen noticed, and I noticed him notice, and a grin that was not entirely friendly split my face. I was excited for this.

The world compressed and condensed into basic sensory input. Like I was drugged, the tiring, present, analyzing parts of my mind vanished. Personality and self-regulation vanished. I was honed in on Cullen, but aware that all around us, sparring was stopping, voices were muttering, soldiers were elbowing one another to get their comrades' attention, and heads were turning toward us. Within moments, almost all the sound of combat stopped.

Opponent riddled with old injuries, none severe enough to use. Fresh bruise on his head, hit it on the edge of a door or window three to four hours ago. Not painful enough to be immediately useful.

Veteran combatant, not prone to arrogance in battle. Competent, steady.

Weak and slow.

This will be over in seconds.

My grin turned feral, and with a testing jab from Cullen, the fight was on.

I turned his blade away and, faster than he could see, penetrated his guard, slashed over his ribs and whirled the blade to bring it up backhanded against his throat.

He blinked at me. To a human, the silence likely would have been deafening. The onlookers were struck dumb. Our fight had finished in two seconds.

Cullen collected himself, and if I hadn't had 100 percent of his attention before, I did now. He took up a stance. “Again,” Cole translated for him.

Cullen circled me this time. I didn’t mirror him; I just stood facing forward, affecting a relaxed posture, blade resting at my side.

He lifted his arm to come at me from behind. I didn’t question the honor of the move - he was testing me to see how I would survive in a real fight, with opponents who wouldn’t stick to a code of conduct. I was gratified he wasn't coddling me.

I whirled around him like a dancer, gripped the hand that held his blade and bringing it up to his throat and positioning my own between his legs, pressed to his inner thigh to let him know it was there.

Murmuring broke out around us.

Distantly I remembered the part of my dream like this, where battle made me feel exultant, and I knew that if Fen’harel had given me the dreams, at least this much was true. This was what I was, this was what I was made for. There was no thought, there was no care or personality, there was only the blade in my hand and the movement of my opponent. The smile was gone from my face. I wanted more.

A whisper of trepidation wafted to me from Solas, and I ignored it.

“. . .I think it’s safe to say you know how to use a sword,” Cole translated. ”Elden,” Cullen called, and an elven women approached, slight and short even for one of her kind. I followed her with my eyes and ignored that same feeling of revulsion at the sight of her.

“Don’t go easy on her,” Cullen murmured.

She gave him a curt nod, eyes already on me. “Aye, Commander.”

Cullen got me a pair of live blades and I saw him give me an odd look from the corner of my eye when he handed them to me. I was still fixated on Elden. The daggers were flimsy and didn't smell of blood; they were only meant for beginners in practice. Cullen stood back and crossed his arms to watch with everyone else. Our audience had grown, swelling with townspeople. It only made me feel more predatory.

I smelled Leliana and Varric among the crowd. I smelled the woman who had brought me breakfast and the one who had shown me to my room last night. I smelled people from the smithy and the tavern and the kitchens and the bakery, the general goods dealer, the quartermaster, the healing tents and stables and chantry and small makeshift orphanage. I felt Solas’ interest, far too focused for a simple bout of sparring. A hum of energy was in the air from the collection of people - I could feel their excitement and unease. Some of them were making wagers. I wanted to laugh at the notion that anyone was stupid enough to think I would lose.

Elden drew twin daggers from her hip, beautifully curved things and sharp as a fine razor. She stood, seemingly loose and relaxed, watching me calmly. I smelled her readiness, I felt her attention, I saw muscles coiled under the surface of her skin. She was good, but her hips gave her intentions away. Still, she was born to fight, and I would bet she was one of Cullen's best.

A grin crept into my eyes. She saw, and mirrored it.

I liked this woman.

Time stretched on, and most people would have prompted us to start by now, but the tension in the air was pulled tight as catgut on a bow. Cullen watched, trained eyes taking in more from our stillness than most people would from the rest of the fight.

And then Elden vanished. It was impressive, I would give her - she was gone even to my eyes. But her heart still beat, she still breathed and carried a scent, and her feet, however deft, still had to touch the earth.

She didn’t come up behind me, which I appreciated - that would have been obvious. She moved to hit low and from the side.

By the time she came back into sight, I had her disarmed, her weapon belt slashed from her waist, slashes in her fabric over the bottles of poison she carried under her clothes - we weren't drawing blood, after all - and the point of one of my daggers hovering half an inch from her right eye. The other was at her gullet. I watched her with a flat expression, then canted my head at her.

Cole was muttering something. I ignored it.

Elden looked up at me, wide-eyed. Cole was kind enough to translate when she breathed “Holy shit.”

I let one corner of my mouth quirk up.

Cullen was nearly a statue. “Get her a bow,” he said tightly.

A soldier hurried forward and held his out to me. There was disbelief and awe in his face, and I could practically hear what he was thinking: ‘They were right about her, Maker, they were right, there’s no other explanation.’

The bow was as weak as the daggers had been. I plucked the string experimentally, then walked to where I knew - from that preternatural stock my senses had taken of the “battlefield” earlier - the practice arrows sat several paces from the targets. I pulled two, then turned and walked away. I stopped when I was at what I knew would be the bow’s limit. I drew back experimentally again and adjusted my distance.

I nocked an arrow, angled the bow, and fired. Before the string had even fully recoiled I had the second arrow placed and was firing again with its vibration, moving with it like it was a tide for me to follow.

I walked back and went straight to the practice arrows. I didn’t have to check the targets to know that the arrows were dead-center. I would have known even if every face collected wasn’t looking at me, stunned and, in the place of the mistrust from people who wisely doubted my divine heritage, incredulous. I pulled two more arrows and put one in my teeth. As quickly as I had before, I loosed first one arrow, then the other. Both hit their targets and split the shafts of the arrows already there down their dead centers.

A piece of trivia: That was how, absently, I remembered the story of Robin Hood.

I itched for more, I begged for it, but I knew my trials were over and so, grudgingly, I started to come back to myself. I walked up to the man who had given me the bow and returned it, then stepped away and looked at Cullen. As Solas came forward to translate, I took a final, deep breath, and I was back in my body.

“If you put any weapon in my hand, I think I could use it. I also think I'd be more deadly with my bare hands," I glanced down at them, "than any of your soldiers fully armed.” That was a lie - I knew I could.

I gave Cullen space to absorb what I'd said. For my part, I didn't seem to need to. It was like I had just remembered that I could grip things with my fingers.

“. . . Maker help us if your people ever decide to invade.” Cullen finally said, and it was like he had dropped a boulder into my stomach. I consoled myself with the hope that I was much, much better trained than other elvhen.

There was a new respect in Cullen's eyes, and most of it was positive. I would take it. “I think it’s safe to say you’ll be fine in the field.”

“. . . That’s good to know.” The whispered murmurs around us suddenly came into sharp focus, and the weight of so many stares was pressing. “So," I said. "Uh. . . Smite?” I said.

Cullen looked at me a long moment, then barked at everyone to get back to what they were supposed to be doing. He looked into the dispersing crowd at his right and motioned for someone to come forward, then approached me. A large man in simple armor separated from the crowd and moved to join us. Cassandra, Solas, and Varric remained to watch. Cole was just behind me, staring into the departing bodies.

“Templars and mages have been trickling in in small numbers since the Conclave. This is Kerry. I served with him for a short time in Kirkwall before he was reassigned elsewhere. He knows what he’s doing. Kerry, I don’t imagine I need to introduce you after that,” he said to the big man in a wry tone.

“I shouldn’t think so, no, Ser,” he said, eyeing me. The same sort of disbelief that was blooming into something dangerously like faith was in his eyes as it had been in so many others before Cullen had shooed them away. His, though, was tempered by years, careful skepticism and, I could see, too much experience. I imagined he was like Cullen; he was good enough, and life had put him through too much of the ugliness people could offer.

“Start with a mana drain," Cullen said. "Hold back on the first one.”

He and Kerry stepped back, and I widened my stance. I felt something come at me through Kerry, but the “air,” the connection to the Fade around me absorbed it completely and swallowed it away. I blinked and looked around, feeling like I must have missed something. I looked back to Kerry. The man looked stymied.

”Everything you have, then,” Cole translated for Cullen.

Again, I felt the thing fly from him, bigger this time, like a storm through the air to loop around me and sink in, and again, it was swallowed.

“Is it supposed to be doing that?” I asked, confused. I was referring to the air, not Kerry's "attack."

“It. . . .” Kerry looked at Cullen. “I don’t understand it. It's hitting her fine, but nothing’s happening.”

“Let me try a Spell Purge,” Cassandra said, walking to stand next to me. ”Call up a flame,” she said to me.

A ball of warm, golden, gentle fire came to life in front of my chest. I hadn’t moved to call it and Kerry’s eyes looked like they were going to bulge out of his head. Cullen looked disquieted to say the least. I ignored both of them and did my best impression of 'that was a totally normal thing that happens all the time for everyone always.' It certainly felt normal. Natural. Solas felt that way about seeing me do it, but it was all cocktailed together with pain and bittersweet gratitude. I dearly wanted to tell him to put that thing - his ara'lin - away, but doing it now would just be unkind. Well, more unkind than necessary.

It occurred to me that asking him to put it away at all, when god knew how many centuries it had been since he'd been around another elvhen, would be cruel. Which meant I couldn't do it. Which cast a decided shadow over my mood.

Cassandra and I readied ourselves; she took a wide stance, then jerked an arm downward. I felt something similar to what had come from Kerry, but more concentrated and sharp. It came crashing down from above as if a deluge of water from a great height.

“I felt something that time,” I offered. “It was almost like. . . a brush of something, maybe?”

"Maker have mercy," Cole helpfully translated for Kerry's breath of a plea.

Cassandra looked utterly nonplussed, and I let the flame snuff out.

“It must be her connection to the Fade,” Solas said. Everyone turned to him, and he looked at me. Cullen quickly excused Kerry, who put his fist to his chest and dipped his head and, with a last uneasy glance at me, he hurried off. When he was out of earshot, Solas went on.

“I explained to the others yesterday that something about you seems to negate the existence of the Veil.” My brows shot up. "It can be seen as a sort of vibration that separates our world from the Fade, and something about you cancels it out. It shouldn't be possible. It isn't a breach or a tear like the Rifts; there has been no indication that it will pull spirits or demons through to this side, and it appears stable." Excitement crept into his voice, then. "Rather, a pocket of the world around you seems to exist as it would have before the Veil. Naturally, as it was intended. In a way, the only place in all the world that is whole is in your immediate vicinity. I would very much like to study it. But that phenomenon must be what is stopping these abilities from working as intended.”

When no one spoke, he went on.

“A normal mage has a pool of mana,” he explained. ”They are connected to the Fade, but because of the Veil, that connection is limited, strangled. That is why mana is a resource that must be managed and takes time to recharge. This is not the case with Nua. Her pool is essentially limitless, thus any abilities meant to interfere with it would be entirely useless.”

I looked down at my hand. "Let me ask you something," I ventured, speculative. "The air around you, does it feel. . . alive? Like it moves and breathes, like it's there to help you if you need it?"

"That is not the norm for any mage, no," he said, and I understood his omission as much as what he'd said.

"Might it be the norm for anyone?" I asked.

"Not since the Veil separated our two worlds, no."

I felt certain that the others must realize we were having a hidden conversation. “. . . Huh,” I said at length. “That. . . actually that explains a lot.”

"I'm glad someone thinks so," Cullen grumbled. "All I'm getting from this is a headache." He muttered something else to himself that Cole didn’t bother to translate.

I turned to the spirit. “So. . . level with me. How afraid of me is he right now?” I asked with a slight jut of my chin toward Cullen.

“He isn’t, not afraid of you,” Cole said, eyes unfocused. “He is afraid of himself. Bad choices bad judgement, trust misplaced, foolish decisions, naive and blind, supposed to help but can't even see the nose on my face,” he uttered quickly. Then back to normal, “He thinks he can’t be trusted. He thinks no one can be, not anymore, but him least of all. You might be hope. But you can't be. You are impossible, not real, too good to be true. 'I'm missing something, time will tell me what.'”

I sighed. “Well. . . I suppose that's fair,” I said, keeping the majority of my sadness about his pain to myself.

“He doesn’t like it when we talk and he can’t understand,” Cole said.

I huffed a laugh. “Shocking. Well. . . he can stuff it. And don't translate that. He gets to talk with everyone in a language I can't understand all the time. Sometimes a girl needs privacy, and I'll appreciate it while I have it.”

“Not a girl,” Cole muttered, “a woman, the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen, skin perfect, full lips, beautiful face, so strong and so soft even under the pain, Maker how can I notice this now, long legs, breasts--”

“Cole!” I cried, throwing my arms up and waving at him like I could physically bar the words. “Private thoughts, those are private thoughts! God in heaven someone has got to help you work on your filter,” I effused.

I finally made the connection between Cullen saying he’d seen me in the beginning and the blush that had grazed his face. I felt my own cheeks heat and turned away to hide it.

“It doesn’t show,” Cole said helpfully.

Thank god for that. “Would it matter how many people hit me with abilities like that?” I asked Solas pointedly, eager to change the subject.

“Not in theory.” To his credit, he actually was doing his best to keep what I thought was a disproportionate amount of amusement to himself. Underneath that was a buried possessiveness I refused to look at. It was only because I was his kind and a woman. I couldn't blame him for that much, so long as he kept it in his pants, so to speak.

“‘Not in theory.’ A rousing endorsement if ever I heard one. I suppose the first time we fight a pack of templars, I'll just cross my fingers.” I said sarcastically.

I waited for someone to say something until the silence grew well into awkward.

“. . . Alright. Well then. Now that I've rent everyone's worldview and entire belief structure, I'll just go and find Josie now. See what damage I can do there, too.” I turned and walked toward Haven without waiting for an answer.

Chapter Text

9:41 Dragon

4 Wintermarch/Verimensis (January)

I managed to pantomime to Jo. that I wanted a blank book and something to write with. Then my Common teacher, a stodgy man who made the rafter up S’s ass look like a nano-splinter, had me ask in what I assume was scandalously butchered Common.

S. told me the month - the common-use one (WM), not the original Tevinter one, because national pride, or fuck those guys or whatever, idk. Anyway, it's January. 4th. I wish that meant something to me. Not that it would make this any LESS weird if it was the same month where I come from. Maybe it would just make me sad, I don’t know. At least "this many fingers" is the same in any language.

I've been barred from any translating so I learn the language faster. It's obnoxious, but I 100% agree. Exceptions for emergencies, obvs. In the meantime, I’m teaching the “team” a few simple phrases in English for stealthy combat communication. You know, like ‘duck’ and ‘behind you’ and ‘watch where you’re flinging your ice, you bald-headed twat.’

He’s not bald actually, which I expected. He just shaves his head like any mere mortal (haha). His hair is dark, and for a reason I cannot begin to understand, I really seem to like that. I saw him this morning with more than his usual shadow of stubble and there was. . . a FEELING. A. . . you know, body-type feeling. I felt filthy. . . . Alliteration!

In all honesty, this little team is really something to see. Like ‘holy shit’ something.

I double-checked that S. couldn't read English by writing the filthiest, most lewd thing I could think of on a piece of paper (It involved the “c” word *shudder* Which one, you ask? Think of one and it was probably in there.) and shoving it in his face at random. No reaction. This whole 'hearing heartbeats and smelling emotions' thing is kind of the shit now that I’m getting used to them. I feel a little like a superhero, AND now I have built-in lie detection! Heart stutters? Increased respiration or sweat? Dilating pupils? Micro-expressions? Etc etc I have that shit COVERED.

At least judging people later (. . .-_-) will be. . . well, harder to fuck up, at least.

Cole can probably read all of this, but to be fair, he could also just pick it out of my head. I just asked him to promise not to pass it on to anyone and tried to explain the concept of privacy and why we care about it. I told him this will help me sort through things, and that if I’m worried other people will find it, I won’t be able to be as honest with myself. He seemed to get it.

Anyway, I have first and second watch tonight. Everyone else is asleep and the fire is out (easier to see things at a distance and makes us less visible. I promised I’d relight it before I wake up the soldier who has third watch tonight. Idt Co. sleeps, but no no one has mentioned him taking a watch by himself. Which is probably wise, because. . . Co. <3) and JESUS the STARS. Billions of them, and they aren’t just white - they’re blue, yellow, orange, pink,champagne and gold, purple, and two of the new colors I’ve been seeing that I haven’t named. I don’t know any of the constellations, but I can see the edge of the goddamned galaxy right now.

And the MOONS. I can’t understand why anyone would need a fire at all when they’re both out. I mean. . . you know, figuratively speaking.

I think I’ll take these watches every night. I get time to myself, the world is so still and quiet, and I’d like to make a pact with myself to never again miss a single opportunity to look at these stars.

 

 

Heard something. Just an animal.

Anyway the teacher. Yeah, he lasted until the third time he hit my knuckles with a stick for getting something wrong. The first time I was surprised. The second time I gave him what I trusted was a universal expression for “do that again and I will fucking kill you.” So the third time he went to do it, I grabbed the stick out of the air and pinned his hand to the desk with it.

I imagine the procedure to remove it went well. I was careful to only do soft tissue damage, and it didn’t splinter much when it hit the desk..

The odd thing? The fact that it doesn’t bother me that I did it doesn’t bother me. If it turns into a psychotic streak later, I can deal with it then. Right now it just feels. . . I feel like I’ve been let out of prison on the inside. Like I was bound and chained before all of this. I think I’m a little high from the “I’m so much stronger and better and smarter and faster and freer than I was,” but you know. . . I don’t want to deny myself that. I have the strangest feeling that I’ve fucking earned it. And that it should be appreciated while I have it.

Anyway, Jackass’s assistant took over after the flesh wound, at my insistence. I had no interest in waiting for someone else to get here, and the only alternative was apparently bald-o.

Eddard. We like Eddard. Honestly. . . he reminds me of Felassan, actually, which is sad and keeps putting this goddamned lump in my throat. He’s just so peculiar, and random, and unflappable.

I’m betting he’ll be hilarious when I can understand what he's saying, too. I think he keeps making jokes, but everyone just sort of tries to pretend they didn’t hear them. In a *cringe that is the worst/lamest thing I have ever heard* way.

His bosshole kept me in a room with books and shit. Ed., the first thing he did was take me for a walk among the people and started pointing simple things out to me, having me repeat them, then asking me to recall the word later by pointing to the same thing somewhere else.

"Man, woman." "Sitting, walking, eating, drinking, laughing," stuff like that. Then later, short phrases like “he is tall, she is talking.” And I think he has enchanted pockets or something, because when I do something especially well, he gives me candy, which he seems to be constantly eating himself, and he NEVER SEEMS TO RUN OUT. If I didn't have a super metabolism, I think I’d put on a pound for every 1% of the language I learn.

Like I said, we love Ed.

He keeps up with the pace at which I want to learn, too. Which is impressive, because short of sleeping (him, not me. Turns out I sleep about three hours a night and omg Ed. is NOT A MORNING PERSON. Adorable bed hair and surly, incomprehensible muttering and all), we are at it 24/7.

He drills me while we eat and while I train. I think he likes working me while I’m preoccupied, which is super smart. Ca. is using me to spar and Elden, who is apparently here to guard Ed. (I am dubious), always watches. She spends more time watching me than she does him, in fact. I think she’s studying. It’s. . . odd. But also not odd? (Sometimes. . . it’s like I have two personalities in my head. I’m trying to encourage the good one.)

F.H. Last night, he gave me his own sort of combat/skill assessment, and we have a rough plan laid out for my time in the Fade. Three hours there should be enough, but if I want to put in O.T. or just give my mind a rest, it’s not like I won’t have earned some extra watch shifts off now and again.

Everyone assumes S. is still watching me. Ca. asked about it this morning, actually. S. covered for me. He lied. The few reasons he would do that are so divergent that just thinking about them gives me a gd headache.

So F.H. Last night he couldn’t seem to teach me (remind me of?) new things fast enough. Which is to say. . . all he had to do was tell me, and I could do it. It’s like my memories - it’s there when something calls it up, just not any other time. Not when I ask for it just because.

We both seem to like the fast pace, if for different reasons.

He taught me some katas that I apparently used to enjoy, and my body seemed to agree when I went through them today/night.. They’re like Tai Chi, but for killing people. Which technically you could probably do with Tai Chi since it’s a martial art, except it’s supposed to be for defence. This. . . this is not as much for defence. And usually there are weapons involved.

The katas are slow and graceful and trying - they relax me even while I can feel them working my muscles, and when I did them tonight, off on my own in the woods. . . it was like meditation. I felt my ara’lin, my mana, my energy, anything you want to call it, moving around me and through me like blood through veins, in time with the movements. I think it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had, and it was like someone had taken a hundred pounds off my shoulders. Honestly I almost started crying for sheer joy and relief the moment I started.

Great in another way is my stretching. The others do not agree, which is why it’s great.

When we’re at Haven, I can do that sort of thing in private, but out here? If I’m not moving, I’m stretching. A lot of stretching involves legs. A lot of leg-stretching involves things that would be on the V.I.P. menu at brothels.

I honestly didn’t think V. could blush. To be fair, I caught him off guard.

Seriously though? Cirque du Soleil shit.

I could kiss whoever trained me.

. . .Except I get the feeling that I shouldn’t want to thank them for anything.

The stars move across the sky. . . . I feel like I can hear them speaking.

The other thing I seem to need, much as I don’t like it, is to be around other elvhen. At this point I think I’m only going to the Arbor Wilds for the principal of the thing, because being away from either S. or F.H. for too long is comparable to physical pain. It’s RIDICULOUS.

These people. . . we? had some serious social ties bred into them. Which explains how they were able to war so ferociously. I don’t know what F.H.’s ultimate goal is, but one of these days I want him to explain to me exactly how he plans to make a society so designed for prejudice and classism. . . not horrible.

One of these days. I’m not in a hurry for it, and he’s not exactly pressing the issue, either. It has only been two nights, though.

We left for the H.lands yesterday (the day of my combat assessment.). I insisted. People had to scramble a bit to make it happen, but what are bosses [even when no one else knows they're bosses yet] for but to add shit to an already overfull pile and ask for it to be done yesterday?

I don’t like the feeling of making work for other people and then standing around doing nothing. It feels. . . slimy. I don’t mind being more or less in charge, but standing around while other people are working. . . it’s like someone’s poking me with a sharp stick to get me moving.

I suppose my work will be harder in its way, and it’s going to look different from theirs. And I’ve only just started; knowing what I do, I should calm the fuck down and try to enjoy this slow pace while it’s here.

I learned this lesson before I left (Sort of. Indirectly. A little, maybe.)

Everyone else was scrambling to get us ready, (men, horses, food, etc) and I had to. . . pack an outfit and some underclothes. And this book and pen. That took all of two minutes.

I put on a cloak and grabbed a bite in a corner of the tavern. Figured I could soak up the language.

When that got old, I nosed in on a bunch of men who were moving a shipment of crates to the smithy. Once I was sure everything was going to the same place, (and the men were all around the corner otw to deliver them), I picked one up to help out. I can move crates too, right? Language barrier-approved.

It was empty. And I don’t know, made of bird-bone-like wood or something. So I stepped back and watched again, but they kept going to the same place.

I figured the soldiers were just pacing themselves. I don’t have to do that, my ass is going to be on a horse for the next week. Muscle-wise, hat’s all lower body and core. So I stacked three and followed the trail.

It’s amazing how fast a person can tell they’ve done something wrong/out of the norm. It really only takes one look from one person.

Apparently I'd forgotten, or at least GROSSLY underestimated how much stronger I am than the. . . ugh, "quicklings."

So I set the boxes down and carried one at a time like a good normal(ish) girl, but the damage was done. Between that and the combat assessment. . .I’ll be fueling rumors for weeks to come. Well. . .more than I already would have. *slow facepalm*

By the time we get back, I’m sure I’ll have given them new and more ridiculous things to talk about.

What can I say, I aim high. -_-

So if “memory” serves, it’s about 180 miles to where we're going, and our horses will make about 24 miles/day at a reasonable (for them) pace. So about a week there, a week back.

Yeah, speaking of horses? I ASSUME it's 24 miles/day, because that's what a horse would make at a healthy pace. But these things? They are horse-LIKE. They have long, thick tails for balance, short-haired like the rest of them, but for a big tuft at the end so apparently they can still swat bugs? with a short, shaggy happytrail on the underside leading to them. They have cloven hooves, are a little more muscular (or that’s just the sort these people like, idk), and apparently they’re omnivores, because these fuckers have FANGS. Canines sure, whatever, but they are long, and they are POINTY. But apparently they still have that little toothless place in the back where you can stick your thumb if they don’t want to take their bit.

And that is the shit I am talking about.

The sky is almost purple. I assume means I'm seeing into the ultraviolet spectrum now.

Birds are bird-LIKE (four wings, long and almost serpentine at the back, and they don’t move like dinosaurs). Plants and flowers grow. Food is still food: meat, dairy, root vegetables, spices, grains, and dried things so far, but it isn't carrots or potatoes or thyme or bay leaves, it's things I've never had. And god help me, they eat BUGS.

I know that’s cool in some cultures. I did not grow up in one of those cultures.

It's almost a little lonely, everything being so close to what I know ("know" -_-), but just. . . not quite there. It’s not quite different enough to be novel, to be an adventure, and it’s not same enough to be what’s familiar.

Otherwise, it’s maybe odd how well I’m taking all of this. Maybe it’s because I’m in a body I don’t remember and a world that isn’t mine, so this all seems like. . . a vacation or something, idk. A departure. Except I have this memory. . . someone died, and it was the sort of someone I was supposed to be just. . . decimated over. People talked, I remember, about why I didn’t cry more or why I didn’t seem more sad. There were a few reasons for it, but mostly I think I wasn’t as sad as them because death didn’t mean the same thing to me that it did to them.

Maybe this is the same. I feel like my brain has always. . . or at least in the last world, has always worked a little differently.

Physics is still physics here, obvs ( universal law).

Evolution still seems to apply in that there's a purpose behind every shape and color and structure.

The world is still plants, herbivores, omnivores, carnivores, scavengers, and decomposers. There are bugs and invertebrates. Trees, vines, grasses, flowers, fungus.

Everything follows the same biological blueprint, in one end, out the other, eyes and ears and whiskers and heads above legs, invertebrates, bugs. It's like the OUTLINES, the rough shapes are all the same, but someone just picked a different color palette for some of the details.

But it’s so RANDOM. Humans are identical from what I can see (probably shorter, but I’ve no frame of reference). Facial expressions and body language seem to be identical - I haven’t even noticed any cultural differences yet, but I err on the side of polite.

Chess exists here. Chess. Identical board, identical pieces, identical rules. Cards. Books. Tables and chairs. Everything manmade is built around the rectangle shape. The wheel. Food has to be cooked, water purified.

There must be some sort of connection between this world and the one I'm from - which means there are probably connections to a countless number of other "worlds," because no way would it just be the two. Maybe each dreams of the other. Maybe when we cast our minds or spirits around to imagine things, sometimes they come to places like this.

What else. . . .

We have a team of soldiers and builders with us to head off the request for watchtowers from Bron. They watch sparring unless Ca. yells at them. More often she yells at them to stop asking me for lessons, though. I want Dennet with us ASAP. We HAVE the horse things, yes, but even if they’re the best the world has to offer (DOUBTFUL), we’re going to need a lot more soon.

Bull is supposed to meet up with us if he gets to Haven before we get back, and I hope and pray that Z. will be waiting for us there, too. I asked Jo. to have a shipment of Bull’s Qunari drink and a supply of Tevinter red stocked in the tavern, and I wanted to have a Dawnstone weapon made for him, but apparently that’s way out of our budget right now, and I’m sure as shit not sending people off to become fertilizer for the GD red lyr. just so he can have a pretty pink thing to hit people with. He’ll get it when Lel. gets reports that madame mayor has started making moral compromises to keep the templars playing nice.

 

* * * * *

 

5 WM/Veri

V. is making it his mission, his ENTHUSIASTIC mission, to teach me every swear word/phrase he can conceive of.  He even got the soldiers helping.  We were bonding!

(I was surprised - honestly I thought he was either a little afraid of me or just didn't know what do with me.  Thrilled to be wrong.  Or have him want to fake it for now.  Either way.)

And then Ca. got back from gathering wood and one look had them cowed and retreating.  V. kept going, bless his heart.  The more she scowled "covertly," griped, and made general sounds of displeasure, the more fun it seemed to be for him.

It was so, so hard to be Switzerland (sort of, I mean I wasn't exactly telling him no) and not laugh.

Holding myself back in combat is like a physical goddamned pain. By some questionable, dubious miracle the only opponents we’ve come across are from rifts, and I do make an exception to cover any spawning demons. There’s no reason to lose a single spirit if we don’t have to, same as I’ve asked that, when we do meet enemy combatants, mercenaries be left to last when safe and given a chance to boot..

I’m relegating myself to support (to El.’s apparent chagrin) - barriers, pretty much just barriers - and that helps me not try to do much. It’s fucking infuriating, it’s like watching a kindergartener slowly and carefully take five minutes to do something that you could do in about two seconds.

I’m going to have to figure out a way to get the frustration out (haha insert sex joke).

 

* * * * *

 

6 WM/Vir 

I think the other horses are jealous of my horse. Not actually.  But I hardly ever ride the thing.  I just don’t get tired. I walk along with the others, then I get distracted and run off to look at shit, too.  I think Varric teased me the first time I stared at a flower for at least five minutes.  

Co. whispered in my ear, ‘You’d think she’d never seen a flower before.’  But I hadn’t.  Not like these.  Everything is new, and apparently I LOVE new.

A couple more days, anyway, and I doubt Ca. and V. will even look at me like I’m an alien anymore.  Ed. is fine.  Oddly, El. is too.  She kind of. . . well I don’t want to talk about it.  Ed., I think the sky could fall around his head and he’d just look up and go “well fancy that.  Ok, what’s for brunch?”

I might have snuck off with some of the dried herbs we use for tea and rubbed them all over myself.  I don't think it will do any good - it's not the SMELL that makes him gag - but. . . but.  I’m drinking the stuff like a fish, too.  An innocent, strategically-directed puff of air to “cool it off” elicits the most delightful face from S., even when he’s trying to be polite and hide it.

I need to be c areful, though.  I know damn well his good humor, the consideration that’s miles beyond what he’d give anyone else, won’t last forever.  And that man. . . I do not want to get into a catfight with him. 

I would LOSE.

So back to my overland adventures.

I'm like a mountain goat and a cat and a monkey and idk what else all rolled into one.  

I don’t have to bathe, I just magic myself clean.  Same with brushing my teeth.  And drying my clothes after I wash them.  I figure that stuff isn’t so fancy that I have to hide it.  They all know my magic is strange anyway; as long as we stay away from "horrifyingly dangerous," I should be good.  

A team favorite has been my consideration, on hot days, of putting cooling runes (THANK GOD I DO NOT HAVE TO LEARN THEM AGAIN, I would set something on fire.  On purpose.  Probably also on accident.) on their waterskins.  That earned me points.  So does starting the fire every night and reheating beverages, though that one I’m picky about because I’m not a goddamned kitchen appliance.  I also call up a little breeze when we’re sweating, but no one besides S. knows.  I’ll probably have to stop when the other mages join. I should ask. F.H.

 . . I haven’t found anything yet that my ara’lin doesn’t give me when I want it.

F. told me I've earned points with "the men" by insisting on taking two watches every night, too.  But A) I am literally only doing it for selfish reasons.  Well mostly.  Sort of?  The selfish reasons are a nice side benefit, at least.  And B) I'm not going to sleep anyway, so it's not like I'm going out of my way.  But that, and that I help set up and take down. . . .  He had to point out that to them, I would look like some weird elven noble before I got what the big deal was.  I'm a noble, maybe a god?  (GOD -_-) but not lazy.  I could see how that would get points.

I don't necessarily want that sort, but that one I need to suck up. 

Part of me is going to miss not speaking Common.  I laze around the campfire in the evenings (and GOD in the mornings *swoon*) and listen to everyone else talk, but I know I don’t have to respond or pretend I’m paying attention.  It’s kind of awesome - I can be around them, but I don’t have to be WITH them.  Maybe I am part cat.  Maybe I’m like a Frankenstein’s Monster of awesome stuff.

When I think about not having to care, about just BEING. . . .  I think that in my old life, that was not the case.

The more parts I get of the picture of what I was, the more I get the feeling that I should do everything I can to never remember. 

 

* * * * *

 

"So, I had a thought."

[Hm?]

He was curled around me and we were watching ribbons of the Borealis trail through the night sky. “Well. . . I don't remember elvhenan. All my memories seem to be physical ones - combat, magic, my ara’lin’s familiarity with you - except for memories of the life I came from.”

[The one in which you were a human,] he said, and I could tell he was suppressing a laugh.

I elbowed him hard in the ribs. "My point is. . . what if I'm not her? What if I’m not your friend?" It was a testament to how damnably comfortable I already was with him that I wasn't afraid of suggesting this. I could fight the feeling, but it was like trying not to see anything when someone had your eyelids pried open. "What if I'm whoever I was before, the person I remember being, and I just sort of. . . stole her body? What if whoever gave me the mark just plunked me in here?"

[A reasonable theory,] he said, eyes still following the colors that spanned the sky above us. [But for your ara'lin. They are unique to each elvhen, and as we change, so do they. You are different, but your soul is the same.. You are Nuaelan. If you were not, you would not feel as you do.]

". . . And that's foolproof, is it?"

[Yes.] There was not a shard of doubt anywhere in him.

My brows drew together. "Well that's weird. Because I haven't noticed any difference between you and asshat."

Something stirred under his calm, like a whale moving to breach the surface of the ocean only to change its mind at the last possible second. [. . . Perhaps that is because you have met no other elvhen. When you do, you will see the difference. Solas and I may also be very similar.]

I snorted. "Yeah, ok. And I'm Vivienne's twin sister." I didn't miss the fact that he had said "when" I met other elvhen, not "if." But he didn’t know about my plan to go to the Sentinels. I hadn’t told a soul, so there was no way he could.

Which probably meant he knew every detail.

[Who is Vivienne?]

I waved a hand dismissively. "We haven't met her yet. Pray you never do, because if you are anything like Solas, you’re going to want to flay her."

He was quiet for so long that I settled back into the comfort of him.

[Why do you dislike him so?]

I made a disgusted, exasperated sound. "Why does it matter?"

[You do not know him, but you clearly did not care for him from the beginning. What has he done? Does he remind you of someone, or of something?] Again that strange stir in him.

"Perfect gentleman," I deadpanned, counting on him to cede to the utter disdain I felt for the topic.

[Is it something you 'remember' of the future? Something he has yet to do?]

I leaned forward to look into one huge, sky-blue eye. Since that first night in the Fade, he had stayed snow-white and his eyes a rich, saturated light blue.  "Why do you care? Do you want us to be BFFs once your plans swing into motion or something? Do you have a crush on him and you want me to put in a good word? Because if you do I will tell you right now, I refuse to be your best man."

[You know you’re using terms I do not understand.]

“And you know you talk like a stodgy old person. BFF is best friends forever, a crush is romantic interest, and best man is a position of honor that a groom, who is a man who is getting married, gives to their best and most trusted friend, counting on them to help in any way needed up to and through the marriage ceremony and after-party. The joke is that the best man is, wait for it, typically a man.”

He flicked an ear but otherwise gave no reply. Then his eye swiveled up to meet mine, then turned away.

[It. . . is something I do not understand.] he said, answering my question about why he cared what I thought of Solas.

That was something I could understand.

"I don't either,” I admitted. “Leastwise, not in a way I could explain in under an hour. The very short version is that he sets something off under my skin and every time I see him, I pretty much just want to hit him. But I feel bad, too, because I know how alone he must be. And his past and future are such blank spots, and he’s the only one like that, so maybe it's like being annoyed at a puzzle I can't solve when I'm used to finding them easy. I don't know."

It was an incomplete answer, which he read from me but, thank every god that ever was, he let it drop.

[You have not told me of how you came upon the mark.]

I snorted again. "Fen'harel please, my first night here you knew what the bedroom I had gotten hours before looked like. You've either stuffed half the Inquisition with your agents or you spend a questionable amount of time watching spirits reenact every mundane detail of Inquisition business. You could probably recommend a better beauty regimen to me.” Had I one to begin with, anyway. I planned on getting products when I could. “I’m not sure whether to be condescendingly appreciative, or annoyed that you pretend you don't already know.” Of course I chose appreciative because it made me feel much better about him. It was ultimately foolish, but sometimes foolish decisions were necessary for the sake of sanity.

He chuckled. Apparently wry humor was not a new trait of mine. There was something comforting about that.

My hand stilled in his fur.

[Little One?]

". . . If you know that much, then. . . ." Then there was no point in trying to keep anything from him. Which meant there was no reason to keep his eye away from my people.

"Do you think we could start spending our nights near someone? My Commander is prone to nightmares, and if he's sleep deprived, it won't do anyone any favors. I figure we can stay close enough to make sure his dreams are calm, but far enough away that we can still do what we want in our own space. Would that be doable?"

[Certainly.]

"And it wouldn't make him a target? What with, you know, my fan club?"

[Your what?]

“M*ther f*cking idioms,” I cursed under my breath. “The demons that are after me,” I said.

He prompted me silently to take us there as he answered, and I did so. [We are essentially a blank spot in the Fade. Invisible. He will be fine.]

"Shit! I cried, jumping to my feet. Cullen was dreaming of torture at the hands of demons, so horrific that I had to look away. His cries had me doubling over.

Fen'harel stood, almost as “small” as a normal wolf, and pressed himself into my side. [Calm yourself,] he admonished, kindly but firmly.

He was right. This was the Fade, and I knew better than to go flinging panic into the ether like bait.

[Reshape it for him.]

"I don't. . . how?!" I caught myself that time and closed my eyes, letting the worst of the panic shake to the surface and drop away like old skin. "How?" I asked, tight and urgent, but controlled.

[Good,] he rumbled, and radiated approval. [Feel the nightmare, the flavor and shape of it.]

Right. Then find the part of it that is me and reshape that part to what I wanted.

[Exactly,] he rumbled, calm and steady, but encouraging.

In seconds, the nightmare was gone, and Cullen was standing on the dock near his childhood home. He looked bewildered, but I extended to him a sense of calm and certain safety, the same sort of random, undeniable feeling you'd get in a proper dream.

When I saw him calm, I drew a relieved breath and sank down with my shoulder against Fen'harel’s foreleg.

[You care for him,] he said in a tone I couldn't read.

"I care about all of them, Fen. I know them intimately. I love them."

‘But this one is different,’ he felt but didn’t say. He felt disdain and concern. Before I could address it, he said, [Except Solas.]

"Oh my god what. Do you have a crush on him or something? Do you want me to introduce you? Because really, Jesus, man. And before you get all worried that I’m attached to them, may I remind you, I was one."

But this was too close to the conversation I didn’t want to have. So I urged him to summon me an opponent - his were still infinitely more skilled than mine - and though I felt the piece of him, a hair louder each time, that wanted to talk about what was coming, he obliged.

"I'm debating how much of my power to show to the others," I said as I ducked under a swinging arm and tried to get around behind the phantom elvhen."

[If you can talk, you're not working hard enough.]

"Maybe I'm just that good," I quipped.

The phantom warrior instantly became about three times stronger and four times faster. I had to pay attention then.

I came away from the fight with a few cuts - I insisted on realistic practice - but won in the end and turned back to him. I was literally becoming the equivalent of a mortal army unto myself. I caught whiffs sometimes that it worried him. I leaned on the sword I was holding. "On the one hand, it would make everything infinitely easier.

"On the other hand, I'm worried it will disrupt something. Sethius is going to come looking for me, and it would probably be better if he underestimated me when he did so.” Too much of a display would make me a bigger target, and I wanted him as predictable as possible. After Haven, that might change. I might even be able to end things then and there. If I could just figure out whether that was the right thing to do.

[. . . What is your question, exactly?] 'You seem like you just answered it yourself,' he didn't have to say.

". . . Huh. None, I guess." I stood and swung the sword up to rest on my shoulder and walked toward where he lay, as majestic as any of his statues. "I think it's just nice having someone I can talk these things out with. You’re not scared of me, or leaning toward forming a cult around me. With you, I’m just a person,” I said simply.

He wanted to make a joke, but with everything he'd been through and fought for, I didn't blame him for abstaining.

"I guess I'm not used to people who are so. . . primitive? Their science is so basic compared to where I come from, their understanding of the world so small, that they just jump so quickly to the mystic for explanations. That's not bad, I just. . . don't know how to work around it, I guess.

“I don't want to hold myself in. I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not. I don't want to do less good than I can, but. . . god I feel like I'm walking on a line of eggshells and if any of them crack, a glass floor will shatter, and the stupid world with it. I have power and magic they don’t understand, tied to a force of destruction they don’t understand, and so of course the logical answer must be that I’m god-sent. Did you know some of them were saying that I was the literal daughter of their God even before I left Haven?" Rhetorical question. Of course he did.

I had wondered at first that it had even been possible for elvhen to war with one another when everyone could so perfectly understand everyone else. But really, rather than promoting compassion, it would have just exacerbated any differences that were there. All we did, mortal or immortal, was look for reasons to get pissed off and indignant at anything “other,” it seemed.

[Do not underestimate the power of faith,] he cautioned.

“Oh, I don’t,” I said darkly. “And that’s exactly why I know how much of a problem this is.”

[Better you be the focus of it than many others.] He paused. [You are less likely to forget yourself.]

“. . .Is that why it meant so much to you to have me around in the end? I mean, I know how powerful it can be to have someone near who knew you when you were younger, but was that all it was? Or were you worried you would turn out like them in the end?”

[I would have been foolish not to consider it possible. I loved power just as much as they, for a time. I saw the People as just as inconsequential.]

“. . . Did you really? Or is it just easier if you simplify things that much? I don’t think you’re lying, mind. With what I ‘remember’ of you, you would have been a grade-A asshole. But the urge to see people as equals, to do good, doesn’t come from nowhere. So where you a monster who was reformed, or were you a good person who allowed himself to be blind? Social norms are a powerful influence, even to someone with a rebellious and contrary nature.” I had the bitter taste in my mouth of feeling that I was speaking from experience.

[What difference is there in the end?]

I considered. “In the end, none. In what history will say, none. But in the making and the execution and so, dear friend, in the future, in choices? That difference is everything. Motivation matters in the present. Motivation is what makes the people whose actions end up black and white in the history books.”

[I cannot pretend to have a grasp of how the consequences of our actions can end up changing the world,] he said quietly.

And yet here he was, gearing up for round three of what he knew would change everything. I wondered what the magic number would be, how many world-shattering mistakes it would take for him to stop trying to fuck everything up and hope the ash settled into a shape he found acceptable. I wasn’t sure that limit existed. Not for him. He was the furred embodiment of hubris.

We sat together in silence for a long time. I just turned my face into his dense coat and rested my forehead against him. I listened to him breathe, I followed his heartbeat, until I felt like I was with a piece of myself, rather than another person. This was the sort of bond elvhen were capable of. This was the sort of bond he had overcome to help the people beneath him. Some day, I would ask him what exactly he had thought the outcome was going to be when he literally split the world in two.

Something tugged at my attention - another nightmare was taking Cullen - and I looked up.

Saints take me, this time it was me.

My image towered above him, warped and beautiful and furious and golden, and it pointed down at him, damning.

"You have been judged,” it declared in a reverberating voice, Cullen Stanton Rutherford, and--"

I cut the vision off there. When he looked around, confused again, and sweating, an idea occurred to me and on impulse, I went with it.

I returned the vision of me as it had been before, but normal-sized and gentle, rather than terrifying and warped.

It walked forward on bare feet, white robe billowing ridiculously in a nonexistent wind, and gently put both hands to Cullen's face, pausing for a moment when he flinched away in fear.

“Wait,” I breathed, wide-eyed as it moved, “is that what I actually look like?”

[You don’t know?] Fen asked in surprise.

“I’m not a narcissist” I hissed in a whisper, “I don’t go looking for shiny surfaces, so no.”

[For someone claiming to have a new body, I would have thought you curious,] he said, far too noble to actually be arch and sarcastic. Except that it was arch and sarcastic.  [That is what you look like, yes.]

“. . .Jesus,” I breathed. Suddenly some of the stares I got made more sense. They weren’t all the right kind of curiosity or speculation or watchfulness for a maybe-herald. People stared at me because I, because this, that woman, the one standing in front of Cullen? She didn’t look real. She looked like she had just stepped down from a palace in the clouds, in the heavens.

[Without the golden aura, of course. And your complexion and hair could use some tending to.]

“Right,” I said, and human ears wouldn’t have heard it. The pieces of conversation our first night about me being “made” wafted around in my head like passing bubbles. Made like this, trained as Fen’harel said I was, and he didn’t want to be the one to tell me about what I had been. There were few reasons I would need to deliberately have the skills and build I did, and every one of them was troubling.

The specter of myself pulled me back to the world when, still gently cupping Cullen’s face, she spoke in a beatific, melodic voice. "And I would tell you I forgive you. But there is nothing to forgive," she said softly. Her thumbs gently stroked his cheeks, and I realized, really realized for the first time, the danger of a Dreamer, because I made the feeling of what she was saying sink down as truth, past his bones to the very center of what he was. And I hoped, prayed, that I was doing the right thing.

"You have made mistakes, as every man must,” she said. “But you have done your best at every turn, and you have paid for your mistakes. Do not torment yourself. Please,” she supplicated. “You are a good man, and I am honored to know you," she finished softly. Then she leaned forward, angled her jaw, and pressed a long, soft kiss to his forehead.

Silent tears were streaming down Cullen's face, and I wrapped my arms around Fen'harel's foreleg and held on against a swell of emotion. Somehow, it felt as if she had been talking to me, too, and dark things swirled the the depths of me.

Cullen and the phantom looked at one another, the truth, needed and so long overdue, passing between them. I knew the power that just one person forgiving you could have, and when that person had seen the darkest places in you, the parts you feared the most, and still said those words? It could change everything.

Cullen put his hands to her face and, as if she were the most precious, fragile thing in all of creation, leaned in and kissed her full on the lips.

I went stiff and wide-eyed.

I sputtered when the kiss deepened and he pulled her into him and wrapped her in his large frame.

When they began undressing one another, slow and gentle, breaths coming heavy and hungry and fast, I made some sort of inhuman, high-pitched noise and moved us to another part of the Fade.

". . . I think he'll be good on his own for the rest of the night," I said, beyond dazed.

What the ever-loving shit had I just. . . . That had just been because he was grateful. Dreams were metaphors. He was. . . he was embracing her because she was the representation of the message.

Even the part of myself I was trying to lie to knew that was bullshit. It was true, sure, but that had not been all that was there.

Maybe it had just been a really long time since he’d had sex.

Maybe true. Still bullshit.

[It seems your affections are mutual,] Fen'harel said, entirely too smug. There was a knife underneath that I filed away, but ignored.

"Oh you shut your stupid furred face, you asshole. This is not funny," I hissed.

There was no world in which he would approve of a quickling aspiring to have an elvhen.  It would be tantamount to cardinal sin.  A disaster a hundred times worse than Felassan, and he would guard me with particular ferocity.  I felt sometimes like I was all that was left of him.  Not the General, but the man.  Like he was using me to hold on to something he didn't want to lose, and I was afraid it was the last of the piece of humanity he allowed himself.

He knew the quicklings were Real.  If he didn't, he wouldn't have to guard so ferociously against the idea, and act so unforgivably if it took root.

[On the contrary, I think it's hilarious.]

"Bullshit you think it's hilarious. Thank god I'm on the road and I don't have to look him in the face tomorrow. I might literally die on the spot. Now shut up and give me something to hit."

[No, your magic needs more work.]

“Then give me something to hit with magic!”

 

* * * * *

 

7 WM/Veri (morning)

. . . I had a dream about Cul. Well no, he had a dream about me. I. . . .

That is all I will be saying on the matter. It was a dream, it was a dream, it was a dream, and I will say that as many times as it takes for me to believe it. Sweet Mary mother of god.

So anyway.

That frustration I mentioned? Not really an issue anymore.

F. has me create opponents for myself in the Fade and fight them to re-familiarize myself with what I can do. He’s trying to cycle me through every type of opponent, fight, trick, and thing that could possibly go wrong, including ones I won’t find in this world/time. I pretend not to know why he’s doing it.

So I get to give it everything I have in the Fade every night, and that seems to be enough. For now.

To be honest, though, my power. . . . it's. . . .

. . . Staggering.

I’m keeping it from everyone. The only way to keep a secret is to ensure that only one person knows it. I trust F. with it, but I won’t take chances with the others. Knowing what’s at stake, I even let myself not feel bad about it. Aware, but not bad. They’ll be pissed at me later, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is the right decision.

I hear too much of F.H.’s reasoning in that.

So far my combat style is: fast, efficient, no frills. No wasted movement. Get them disabled and downed as fast and simply as possible so you can move on to the next one. It is immensely gratifying, satisfying. . . .

F.H. has started helping me link certain smells to certain emotions, too. I feel like a have a fast-track tutor, and it’s awesome, and I’m afraid some sort of accrued debt is going to be implied somewhere along the line.

So far, though, I think he’s just getting me ready.

 

Not morning!

I suggested to F. that we use me as bait.

Hoards of demons are after me in the fade, it wouldn’t take long to find one. And whoever is after me would have them split up into ones, twos, or threes, who call to the others when they find me. I have literally the best body guard a person could in the Fade. So I said let me wander around, you stay close, and when one of them comes for me, you nab it and we ask questions. Because apparently he’s been looking into it every night, and he can’t find shit, which is just a whole new level of troubling.

He was, shall we say, recalcitrant. He basically told me "I'll keep that in my back pocket," but it was only to shut me up. I can't figure out if he thinks I'm stupid, or just a pushover. He wouldn't tell me WHY he didn't like the idea, but I didn't even have to ask, nor do I intend to let this go.

See. . . there seem to be two F.H.s. One is the one who lives in my head. The strategist, the General, the hardened man who lives under a mask and exists only for the mission. This man will do anything it takes and betray anyone.

The other is a PERSON, and I didn’t expect that. He’s the one I keep seeing every night, and it’s really screwing with me, because I know that the F.H. in my head exists just as much as the F.H. who I spend time with every night. He’s keeping back because he knows I don't remember.

It’s where the line blurs between the two that I’m having a problem. If I side against him after Seth., he’ll fight me as sure as he would anyone else, if I make him. I know that. But if I side WITH him, what’s going to be left when this is all over? Will any of the man survive the cost of millions of lives, of destroying two worlds?

There's so much he won't tell me, but aside from that, it's like. . . the only wall is one of courtesy, only just flavored by caution. He WANTS to be closer. But I am so afraid of him, and I don't know why.

. . . But I'm not AFRAID of him. I'm afraid of my heart getting hurt by him. Because I don't know. . . . I don't know.

So we, dare I say, "snuggle" with one another while he shows me pieces of elvhenan. Sometimes I show him things I remember of my world. We train, in magic or combat or Dreaming. We discuss lore and history.

. . . Somewhere, in a corner of my heart that I really don't want to look at, I love him. And that is terrifying. Because I know what's coming.

 

* * * * *

 

He was showing me one of Elvhenan's larger cities at night. Felassan’s lit streets were there, striking patterns softly lit to show you your way. Every plant was manicured, every light a wonder. The water of every fountain was crystal pure - some some clear, some golden, some warm like sun or silvery like moonlight, some shifting. Spirits of every conceivable size and shape moved as freely as the elvhen, some humanoid, some animal-like, some nowhere near either. Its beauty was so pressing, I couldn’t speak for a long time.

No one was homeless. No one begged, no one was sick or in need. But it wasn’t all perfect. The vallaslin were there. Slaves were more numerous than citizens. But no matter station, they all looked at once alien and familiar, and it was a warm familiarity, a comfort. They were taller than humans, powerful and exquisite and so graceful that just seeing them stand was like watching a perfect dance.

Just like Thedas, just like the world I had come from, elvhenan ran the spectrum of good and cruel. All Fen’harel wanted to do was trade one set of benefits and costs, one set of compromises, for another. I was perhaps the most receptive audience he would ever get - aside from like-minded elvhen - because of the way I saw life, energy, and the world.

This was another night we would not discuss it.  There was time.  A few months, at the very least.

“If I asked, would you tell me if you were in the Inquisition?”

To his credit, he actually thought about his answer. [Not at the moment.]

I nodded as we walked past a pavilion. It sat tall as five stories, four broad pillars and the graceful ogee arches so prevalent in elvhen architecture holding up a domed ceiling. A single statue of a graceful woman, face and one hand raised to the heavens in supplication, stood in the center. Hung above her from the dome were numerous strands of what looked like warm, delicate stars, and graceful off-white flowers. She was so realistic that I could see each gently curved eyelash.  We moved silently through the streets and walkways, unseen by the spectres of the past.

[Why do you ask?]

“You know so much about it that you shouldn’t. No spy should have been able to show you what my room looked like, for instance. And if you want to dream the history of a thing, don’t you have to physically be there?” I walked with my hands clasped comfortably behind my back. It seemed to amuse him, like an inside joke that I didn't remember.

[Not if you are powerful enough.]

"Ah," I nodded indulgently, "I see. And are you powerful enough?” I asked with false lightness.

He laughed, pleased, and I couldn’t help my answering smile.

“We called them ‘fairy lies’ where I come from," I explained. "Lies that aren’t technically lies, but that no idiot would call the truth, either. Partial answers, misdirection, saying one thing but meaning or referring to another.”

[You were quite skilled at it in elvhenan.]

“More, training, I suppose?”

[We made the mortals’ “Game” look like children quibbling over broken toys.]  'Elvhen' we, not he and I we.

“A horrifying picture if ever I heard one. How did people lie, though, with the ara’lins, and the sense of smell? I’ve been wondering that for a while.”

[We did not have your sense of smell. You can detect the smallest nuance in feeling. The rest of us were relegated to the stronger emotions - fear, hatred lust.  Nothing you couldn't see plainly, or suss out, had you the skill. And there are ways to lie with an ara'lin, just as there are ways to lie without lying in speech. To do it well and believably took natural talent and an immense amount of skill and practice, however. There were strict rules of etiquette about ara'lins, and mastering a polite amount of control was something every child or newly-made learned quickly. Only the Evanuris kept theirs tight around themselves at all times.] His tone turned derisive. [They claimed it was because they were too powerful for anyone else to perceive. Generally speaking, however, it would have been tantamount to cutting off an arm. They were simply as natural to us as eyesight. Why would you gouge out your eyes?]

“Graphic comparison, but effective. And a convenient lie on the part of the 'gods,'” I said appreciatively. “I’ve been wondering about that, too, though.”

We entered into a large, round botanical garden and I had to stop moving. Flowers bloomed like gemstones, plants grew naturally into abstract shapes and definite forms, pictures, and the air was lit with tiny, glowing bugs. A three-tiered fountain in the center gently flowed with what looked like stardust. The closer I looked, the more detail I saw: even the veins in the leaves grew in graceful swirls and patterns. My breath caught.

Fen’harel gently rested his jaw on my shoulder, and I was too absorbed to lean into him.

After a time, I don’t know how long, the cold of his nose brushing my cheek pulled me back. It took me a couple breathless tries to speak properly, my eyes still glued to the miracle around us.

“The elvhen were immortal," I said, tearing myself away but still sounding distracted. "If the evanuris had lived today, I could understand them transitioning people over the generations to believe they were literal gods.  But how exactly did they manage that when what I assume was a large percent of the population had literally been alive the the evanuris were just like them?  And they didn't all come to power at once.  June and Ghilan'nain came later.”

He laid down on the softly glowing tile of the ground and silently invited me to join him. Its colors played against his white fur, filtering through the parts on the ground like it was a gauzy curtain.  I took up my spot leaning against his ribs, and he draped his tail over me like a blanket.  The tile was surprisingly soft and comfortable and welcoming.

[The Evanuris were very old, and they did not fall into their positions. They were won, purchased, and stolen over many tens of thousands of years.] I shivered a little at the reality of the number. These people - our people? - had lived to see ages.  Not ages of man, but ages of the <i>Earth.</i> [Elvhen are immortal, but we are not made of stone.  We change, like any race today, just much, much more slowly. That is how their godhood was shaped. FIrst as an idea, then as a whisper, then as a hint, then a movement, a doctrine, and eventually as dogmatic law, both spoken and unspoken.

[What do you know of the Forgotten Ones?]

“Nothing. I have an idea about them, but I don’t, you know ‘remember’ anything,” I said with air quotes.

[What is your idea?]

I considered my words. “Well, the Dalish legends, from a certain angle, aren’t wrong.” I felt his ire rise, but continued speaking before it could boil. “If you take everything they say backwards, and the rest as thick metaphor. You were the evil betrayer of their ancestors,” I said with sarcastic drama, “the evanuris were the benevolent saviors. Things like that.

“So I thought of the Forgotten Ones. . . well, you were on terms with them comparable to the terms you were on with the Evanuris, that seems reasonable enough. You were never evil, no matter how fickle or frightening or punishing you could be, so I didn’t see you hanging out with them if they were as nasty as the stories say. You could have, sure, to keep them close, but given how the stories tend to exaggerate things and how staunchly dogmatic they are. . . well, and with a small piece of writing attributed to one of the Forgotten Ones about refusing to bow to the lie of the gods - parts of which I very much like, by the way - it seemed more reasonable to me that they were nothing more or less than enemies of the evanuris, and that, even more, they were people who refused to buy into the story and worship them.  Not stepping in line with the lie seems to be  all it took to make someone a villain in the dalish tales.”

[Just so, Little One.] His voice was quiet and fond. Proud, even. He thought some of my memories must be leaking through whether I realized it or not. Aside from acknowledging the possibility, I didn’t believe that.  When my mind even touched the idea of the world I had come from, I felt a sense of familiarity, no matter how vague.  I had no such feelings about elvhenan.

[Do you remember the writing?]

“Sure.”

He wanted me to tell him.

I shifted against him. “‘. . . There are no gods. There is only the subject and the object, the actor and the acted upon. Those with will to earn dominance over others gain title not by nature but by deed.

I am Gelgauran, and I refuse those who would exert will upon me. Let Andruil’s bow crack, let June’s fire grow cold. Let them build temples and lure the faithful with promises. Their pride will consume them, and I, forgotten, will claim power of my own, apart from them until I strike in mastery.’”

[. . . And what is it you agree with in those words?]

It was a test. I just didn’t know of what kind. Fen’harel was fond of his tests and, as ever, the only way to truly pass one was if the correct answer was also an honest and genuine one. I gave him a look to let him know that I knew exactly what he was doing before I answered. “The part about there being only the subject and the object.  And to a lesser extent the acted and the acted upon.” I couldn’t say the words without mangling them, the very idea of trying to speak them negating the meaning, so I only felt. I felt what amounted to: ‘I think that is the nature of the universe. It is the Truth.  It is God.  It is everything and all of us.’

“I doubt that was what he meant, given the context,” I said, “but I can’t pretend to know.”

[. . . You have truly changed.]  His soft voice was quiet, but thick and loaded with something I couldn't begin to identify.

It wasn’t a criticism and it wasn’t a compliment. But somehow it left me feeling uneasy.

 

* * * * *

 

“How much of what I can do will be undetectable by normal mages? I mean, how much can I hide from them?”

[In theory, any work of magic advanced enough would be something they would not be able to understand. After a certain point, they would not even be able to detect the presence of it.  Finding that threshold would require trial and error, however. Better to err on the side of caution.]

I tilted my head back far enough to see his face, upside down. “Did I learn that from you? Because it’s like my credo sometimes. 'Better safe.' 'Better safe than sorry,' but 'Better safe' for short.”

[You learned from many sources. Who can say?]

“Evasive asshole,” I muttered under my breath.

All I got in reply was fond amusement.

 

* * * * *

 

8 WM/Vir

I earned more points tonight.

There was a river. I went wandering around when camp work was done and everyone was digesting their food, and I made what looked like a natural pool. With convenient natural seating. A real gift of nature, you know? Then I put down two runes: heating on the inflow and cooling on the outflow to set the water back to its natural temperature so as not to dick with the ecosystem.  I felt like a mad genius.

I showed Ca. & El. and our one female soldier first. The way El. looks at me is starting to. . . well. Whatever. We soaked. It was. . . fuck it was glorious. I need to find out if these people have massage.

It’s so simple. You dunk yourself into hot water. And yet it is practically ORGASMIC. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to the others. Ca. at the very least is conditioned to a physical life, but four days on the road will do it to anyone. Sitting on a horse is surprisingly tiring.

Or so I hear. :D  Remember.  Or so I remember.

Ed. has been focusing me on things I’m likely to hear or need to say given where we’re going, but I'm just bracing myself to more or less come off like a cave person.

Good thing I’m pretty! :D

-__-

One of the taller men dropped a log on my foot.  It was the corner that got me.  I could tell it was going to bruise badly, maybe a bone bruise, but it didn't hurt that bad.  I mentioned it to F. and apparently when he was telling me about myself?  Yeah he left some things out.

A muted pain response is one.

Apparently I can also expect hunger, thirst, tiredness and need for sleep, and the need to relieve myself to be muted.  So basically I need to figure out what my minimum requirements in all of those areas are, or I will literally kill myself on accident.  No problem. SINCE I'M IN A BODY I KNOW SO WELL.

We had words.

And I don't believe for a second that he "forgot" to tell me.

If he's smart, he'll pay attention to how exponentially less amused I'm getting with each one of these little tests or surprises or whatever the hell it is he's doings. . . es.

 

* * * * *

 

I had been expecting bandits and knaves every twenty feet or so, but we were almost to the Hinterlands and all we had seen were six rifts and a mess of refugees. I gave away my bedroll and most of my food. I’d have given more if I’d had it.  I saw a couple of soldiers follow suit later when they thought no one would see.  I asked V. their names, and I'll remember them.

I had smelled humans and felt mages away from the trails and packed-earth roads along the way, but if they were bandits they left us well alone. Not that I could blame them. Cassandra rode like a human fortress and we had twelve fully-armored soldiers with us, four for each watchtower. I had almost gotten adjusted to the smell of body odor and bad breath when I learned what eleven men and one very large woman sweating on horseback in full suits of armor could smell like after five days in the sun. I found flowers or pungent herbs in the mornings and tucked them away, then rubbed them on the skin under my nose regularly. It helped.

We were stopped for the afternoon to let men and horses rest and eat. Cassandra and Varric had gone to find water. Solas selflessly abstained from joining them to hover nearby and just out of my line of sight. There was a strong breeze, and I carefully kept it between me and the rest of our party. Elden ate near me and Eddard was sitting with the soldiers, laughing at something and making the others look distinctly uncomfortable.

The wind changed. It smelled of humans and elves. Dirty, tired, underfed, long-stressed and desperate. It smelled of adrenaline and fear and aggression and anticipation, metal and old blood. It was coming from the direction Cassandra and Varric had gone in.

”Shit!” I uttered tightly, and before anyone could blink, I was off and running through the forest fast as a horse over a smooth field. They jumped up to the clatter of dishes and gear and supplies and followed, but they were slow, so slow, too slow.

I hurtled over logs and brush and rocks and slapped branches out of my way. When the underbrush was too dense, I took to the trees. It was old growth; I jumped from branch to branch on single feet and swung myself with strong hands.

They were in an open field, and the first thing I saw was two men pinning Varric down and one driving a dagger down toward his sternum.  It would go right through his armor and nick his heart. It was an inch from his chest.  Cassandra was holding two withered but still huge men back with her shield and swinging her sword around to deflect a blow from a two-handed mallet coming at her from behind.  The angle was wrong - it would slide down her blade sending her cross-guard into her fingers.  It would break at least two of them, and likely her wrist. The mallet's path would take it to the bottom of her ribcage, and the breaking bone would nick a lung and puncture her liver.

There were no thoughts, in moments like those. There was only action, a revealing of who you were. In an instant, seventeen people, dirty and underfed and desperate, were turned to stone.  One of them hadn't hit puberty a year ago.  Another, a man, had carried the smell of tears and an infant.

I froze, horrified.

I was standing on a branch in a tree. I considered just turning and disappearing, not present of mind enough to realize why that wouldn’t do me any good. But Cassandra’s practiced eyes were already sweeping the area, and they found me. My jarred and horrified expression would be confession enough.

I dropped lightly from the tree, eyes sweeping the frozen forms, looking at their faces, just as Varric had carefully inched himself out from under the point of the stone dagger. He couldn’t get out from under the statues pinning him, though.  He called for help.

I turned them all to dust so fine that it was swallowed by the afternoon air. Cassandra and Varric I could trust to keep this a secret. The dozen or so others trying to follow my path through the woods, not as much.

The field empty, I suddenly realized what I had just done.

I put a hand to my mouth. I sat down heavily. I stared, wide-eyed, at nothing, as it settled in my bones like piles of weights, heavier with each second.  My skin was tingling.

I heard the first sounds of our people at my back as Varric and Cassandra slowly made their way up to me.

“Herald?” Cassandra asked, unsure and concerned.

"Holy shit, צרות, what עשו you do?" Varric asked in a stunned, subdued voice.

My eyes darted aside toward the sounds of our peoples’ approach.

I looked up at them. “No talk,” I said, my voice pathetic but firm.  I nodded to the field behind them to make it clear what I meant. “This. No talk.” I repeated, vehement, looking both of them in the eyes.

They nodded, Varric slowly and Cassandra after a pause.

"Promise,” I demanded.

Again they nodded. “אנחנו promise, צרים,” Varric assured.  He sounded like he was trying to talk someone into handing over a loaded gun.

The sounds of approach were growing louder. I had maybe two minutes before they got here.

“I need,” I said slowly, casting for a word that would fit what I wanted to say. “Walk.” My voice was not steady.

“מה this your ראשון להרוג?” Cassandra asked. Her voice was so gentle I knew exactly what she must be asking.  I did not have the starch left to answer.

I opened my mouth to speak. Closed it.  Tears threatened to spill over despite myself.  “I need walk.  Big,” I said again, and got up and jogged off over the nearest hill.

 

* * * * *

 

9 WM/Ver

First blood.

I'm taking all three watches tonight.  

. . .I can't see him right now.

Chapter Text

I sat in the middle of the field through twilight, watching as colors shifted and spilled onto the clouds and grasses and wildlife. I listened to creatures foraging, hunting, bedding down for the night. I lived through everything that happened again, letting myself feel, understand.

I'd had no choice. I knew that. I also knew that eventually I would have had to kill. I knew it likely wouldn’t be easy. I just didn’t expect to be caught off guard by it, not the first time.

I stayed back. I protected, I watched the field. This had happened in an instant. I didn’t regret it. But that didn’t mean that it wasn’t heavy, it wasn’t Big, that it didn’t hurt.

Seventeen people were gone. I had probably orphaned at least one child. Taken husbands and lovers and sons and brothers. Invariably at least one of them would have been a total prick, but these were times people clung to their tribes; each person lost would be sorely missed by someone. People may die without the return of one of the men I had killed.

But I wasn’t god; I was a small creature, acting in small ways, and if I stood back and did nothing, refused to press forward, refused to force the world, and so refused to kill. . . what, exactly? The world would carry on. Even if I fixed it, eventually it would tear itself apart again. It was a cycle every society went through, and it was a cycle that would never stop. If I forced a solution now, it would still crumble later. People would rebuild from the rubble stronger than they had been before.

Ah, but if I did nothing now, there wouldn’t be a world left to rebuild.

That meant pressing forward against opposition was Right Action. At least the decision could be easy.

So people were going to die. If I could mitigate the consequences or make reparations later, then I could. Outside of that, if I thought of it, if I allowed my mind to follow the tracks and lives down every fork they might have taken, I would lose myself. I was not the type to lose myself.

So. I had killed people. It was done. It would happen again. It hurt, I was sad, but I would acknowledge that sadness, honor it, and let it rest here with the men who had taken this innocence from me.

I would walk on, and continue trying to keep my eyes open. I would do the best I knew how in every moment, and in the life of a single person, that would be enough. Because it had to be.

Because every alternative was worse.

When the last of the sun had been eaten by the horizon, I took the trail back to camp. I could see almost as well as I did in full sun.

 

* * * * *

 

The moment people began to wake and leave their tents in the morning, I tied up my bedroll, laid out in the open as I liked it by someone last night, and wandered off. I wasn’t keen on getting caught any sooner than I had to.

As soon as the hour would excuse it, I began tending to the horses. Provided I chased away the men whose duty it was to ready them this morning, it was something that could keep me occupied until it was time for us to go. The system of halter and reins, and saddle and stirrups was all the same in concept as what I knew, and early on one of the soldiers had walked me through take-down, grooming, and saddling, with Elden along to help with words.

Between them, the soldiers and companions had shown me the how of almost everything they did. Even if they couldn't or wouldn't walk me through it, they still let me watch. I was curious about anything and everything they would indulge which, given who I was, tended to be anything I asked for; I was careful not to get in anyone's way. My apparently boundless curiosity was to Solas’ infernal approval, which tended to lead to my surly annoyance.

The party as a whole seemed happy enough to indulge me, especially once they figured out that I took the new information running. It was fair to help out, and surprising that they didn’t expect me to even carry my own weight. In Haven I could understand, but on the road and in the field? No wonder everyone hated nobles. No wonder even other nobles hated nobles.

Cole had vanished days ago without a word, and at the moment I was not sad for his absence. I didn’t want to be comforted; I just wanted to process until it was time to move on. I figured he would come back when he thought we needed him.

I didn’t eat breakfast - the others couldn't wrap their head around the fact that I just didn't need to and kept dishing me up single bites as if that was some sort of compromise - and no one bothered me as I worked, but I knew from the small number watching me that Cassandra and Varric had kept their word about the specifics of what had happened yesterday. Aside from the extra attention from the core group, however, everyone respected my desire to be alone. Even Eddard gave me space, and it was literally the first time he had payed me that consideration. He had tried to follow me out to bath the first time I’d gone like it was the most natural thing in the world. Cassandra had glowered him away.

The worst that morning Solas. I could tell what the others were doing from sound and smell, but I could feel him fixated on me. He was trying to leave me alone, but he couldn’t hide the fact that his attention was on me even if the rest of him was pretending to focus on something else. He was worried. And under that, he was curious, like a scientist watching an experiment, or someone waiting to see if a dud firework was still going to go off.

By the time most of the tents had been taken down and packed - I retrieved gear and secured it to the mounts as it was ready - I had had enough.

“Solas,” I said, openly annoyed. Cassandra and Varric, Elden, and Eddard all stilled by different degrees. “Put it away,” I barked in humorless English. After that, I got no more from him than I did from anyone else.

The absence of his presence was as much an ache as it was a relief. I used the pain to help me focus.

I got the soldiers’ looks throughout the morning. Some of it would be them figuring out that I’d taken all three watches. Some of it would be my continued denial of food. Likely they had heard some of what had happened the day before. But I got the most when I calmly mounted my horse with a practiced motion. I had ridden part of the day we left Haven, but not once since.

The novelty wore off quickly for them, but Eddard kept to my side. I imagined today would be something of a relief for his mount - the poor thing had been keeping pace with the other horses and following me on all my meanderings so Eddard could keep up his steady barrage of words and prompts. He knew the name of every plant and creature I stopped to examine. The green had been steadily increasing as we traveled; there had been plenty to see.

I cooled waterskins and armor and boots as the sun moved overhead and did my best to listen to the bits of chatter from my place at the head of the column, but my mind kept wandering. I had tried to start the day behind the soldiers, but it had been clear I was expected to lead, and it didn’t take long before I moved just to avoid a discussion.

Just as our shadows were disappearing under us, we reached the Inquisition base at the outskirts of the Hinterlands. Gray and deep crimson mulled everywhere, bodies rushing from duty to duty, standing and crouching in work or brief conversation. People came forward to take our horses.

I was not the diplomat I should have been. I tried. I smiled politely, nodded, gave out the simple greetings I had been taught, but there was no life behind any of it, and it was obvious that others noticed. I should be doing better; these were the first people outside of Haven that I was making an impression upon, it was too important to be. . . moping. But I couldn’t put myself together enough to pretend better. Not in the middle of so many people. It was too much, and the feelings I had dealt with the night before had not had enough time to settle and melt away. The pain now was metallic and clenching.

This would be the story of my life over the coming months. I knew I had to do better. But I would allow myself this one, just this one.

We passed a station of messenger ravens and I stopped. There were three of them resting on a wide perch; they were surprisingly large, streamlined things, the first birds I had seen that looked like actual birds, and in design much like I had expected. Inky feathers, semi-serrated beaks, livid red eyes, and I saw a striking intelligence - almost an awareness - looking back at me. One of them cocked its head to the side and blinked at me.

“Cassandra,” I said.

She stopped and turned to me, a hesitantly hopeful look on her face, like she was eager to encourage any sign of life.

I nodded to the ravens. The curious one was hopping closer to me. “I need. . . talk. Leliana.” I pantomimed sleeping, pointed to the raven, and said, “Ask.”

She glanced from me to the bird, then nodded and moved off to speak with the handler. I pretended not to notice the veiled look of concern that flashed over her face. She would have seen people go through this before; it would pass. So would my mood. Something in me rebelled at the idea of brushing it off so easily, and I hoped I wasn’t missing something, some pain I had yet to acknowledge. They festered like splinters buried deep in your ribs.

In only a moment, the raven handler was scribbling a short message onto a miniscule piece of parchment, tucking it into a black tube that sat in a small harness resting under the birds' feathers and matched them perfectly, and it was sent off. I watched as it grew smaller until Eddard gently placed fingertips on my back to urge me forward. The touch was brief, but I realized it was the first time anyone had touched me outside of the Fade, or Solas in the war room.

When we met Harding for her report, I managed a polite nod and a slightly larger forced smile than I had with the soldiers and scouts. She didn’t seem to find anything odd about my behavior, and I attributed it to the rumor that I was noble. I was starting to understand Blackwall's vitriol toward them.

I listened blandly as Harding spoke, picking up the odd word here and there - I could tell Eddard had asked her to speak slowly and use simple words - my eyes glassing over with my thoughts. Images of the faces of the men I had killed and the fragments of story I had picked up from their clothing and scents. There was a twist in my stomach, chased up by confusion.

When Varric started to say something that sounded amused and pleasantly surprised, I whispered to myself “Harding in High Town” in time with him. It was a good joke. So was Cassandra’s passionate noise of disgust. Even without his ara’lin, Solas’ abrupt surprise at my words was obvious. I supposed even having heard some of what I knew, seeing it in action must be a very different thing.

Like a changing breeze carrying a hint of scent, I suddenly felt something - the same way I felt my ara’lin, and the same way I felt magic. I straightened to attention and life, interest, presence of mind went into my eyes as they tracked the feeling. For the first time all day, I genuinely cared about something. The others noticed.

I couldn’t help myself, rude as it was - I walked away from the conversation, following it like a woman possessed. As I passed scout Harding, my eyes far away and brows creased in concentration, she stopped talking.

“Herald?” Solas and Cassandra asked at nearly the same instant. Solas let his ara’lin out; weak and stuttering as it was, it was like someone taking covers off their ears when it’s suddenly vital that they hear. He felt more solid and real the moment I could feel it again.

I came to a stop at the gently pointed edge of a steep cliff. A short, ancient fence sat at its edge like safety against the seventy foot fall done in lip service.

”Do you feel that?” I asked when Solas came up behind me. I was dazed, and far beyond caring about the integrity of my linguistic training.

‘No,’ his ara’lin said. ‘I’m concerned,’ it said.

I craned my neck, trying to see around an escarpment and into a massive copse of spring-green trees where the feeling started to get stronger, like scent as it neared its source. My periphery vision told me the slope below me was varied and littered with loose stones, nearly sheer most of the way down but broken up by small flats and gentler slopes of grass.

Cassandra was talking. I wasn’t even pretending to listen.

”Trust your body,” a voice, not my own, whispered through me, and I knew it was true like I knew too much heat would burn and gravity pulled down.

”I’ll meet you all down there, I said absently, then gracefully stepped off the edge and dropped from their sight.

I heard them cry out and the rush of feet as they moved to peer over the side, but I was already twenty feet down, maneuvering in controlled slides and quick descents as nimbly as any mountain goat. Cassandra barked at Solas, what sounded like an order.

I landed gently on my feet at the bottom on a carpet of silken-soft grasses, and without pausing, without a backwards glance, walked steadily toward the source of the pull.

Harding made what sounded like a droll, amused comment. Cassandra barked out quick orders and her, Varric, Solas, and Elden’s feet hurried away. There was the creak of leather and the smell of horses, then fast hoofbeats moved down a trail.

Before they caught up to me, they had to abandon their mounts to get into a dense tangle of trees and underbrush, long ago overgrown with vines. They called out to me. When I didn’t pause, Cassandra took my upper arm in a firm grip, pulling to get me to stop. Solas casted something at me, but my ara’lin brushed his magic away and I walked right out of Cassandra’s bruising hold.

Elden darted into my path, blocking me. I stopped and looked up at her determined face calmly.

“Herald--” Solas began.

My eyes darted toward him and back to Elden. “Move,” I said, still speaking English. Her determination hardened. I canted my head at her.

“I feel something,” I said simply. “I want to follow it.”

“What את you מרגישה?” Solas asked. “Magic?”

I glanced in his direction, but not at him, and gestured to my ara’lin. That was what I felt. I didn’t have the brain power or patience to spare to try and explain further.

“In my ניסיון ,כאשר you go lookאת מוזרה ,חזקה magic כי מתקשר you, אליולא נגמר טוב,” Varric said. “Magic. Go. Bad.”

A muscle in my jaw twitched and I silently urged them to hurry it the hell up.

“Solas, what מה she talkהי א?” Cassandra asked.

“I אנילא בטוח. She כמובןמרגיש a למשוך ,כלפי משהו אבל it ייתכן שיהיה צורך do with her האופי ייחודי. I לא מרגיש כלום.”

My patience was being whittled with every word. Elden watched as I leaned out to look around her, my eyes too intent. She stepped to the side to block my line of sight again and held her hands out - 'Wait. Please.'

My face hardened and my ara’lin swelled in warning like an angry cat. Blood drained from her face and her heart was racing, but she stood her ground.

“Herald,” Cassandra said in a deliberately calm tone. “Please talk כדי us. What הוא you לאחר?”

I weighed forcing my way through - comically simple, but with consequences - against wasting more time trying to explain.

Easy decision, in the end.

I cocked my head to the side and grinned at Elden. Faster than she could follow, I spun around her and was on my way again. I was still walking, still letting them keep up so they wouldn’t make this more difficult later, but I put up with no more attempts to stop me, darting away from outstretched hands and blocking bodies and eventually even tripping feet. At an order, Solas expelled an intentionally weak bit of magic at me, but it was turned to nothing by my ara’lin.

Murmured words this time, then I heard Varric unstrap Bianca quietly and picked up the smell of a sedative. The tiny bolt shattered against my ara’lin.

The smell of them feeling disturbed, laced with growing worry and fear, was enough to drown out the smells of loam and decay and growth.

”Stop,” I said, half to myself for all the attention I had to spare them. ”I’m fine. I just need to know what this is.” It was mostly true; I doubted any force in heaven or on earth would have stopped me at that point.

The others whispered among themselves and eventually fell into a coiled silence as they kept pace.

When I finally came to a stop, I realized I had been jogging. I wasn’t sure when I had even started speeding up. The others were all sweating and winded when they reached me, except for Solas, who was doing a convincing job of faking the latter.

A clearing, no bigger than the size of a desk or small table, sat in a shaft of light, and at its center was a statue, life-sized, of a fox. Its surface was rough, its detail worn smooth over many, many years, and it sang.

I walked up to it while the others exchanged whispers again, and crouched down. It sat, calmly at attention, tail curled around its feet as if hiding something there. A piece of myself was reaching out to it, as though whatever was in the statue was literally a piece of me.

I cocked my head to the side, hands resting on the ground between my knees as if I were some sort of animal, too, and in a way I was - reduced to senses and instincts with no room for anything else.

It sang and sang and sang to me, until the forest fell away and the voices of the others vanished.

Two words broke through, though, as I slowly reached out and felt its magic explode toward me when my fingertips neared.

Solas, calling out. “Herald, stop!”

I touched the cool, rough stone; everything went white, then black.

 

* * * * *

 

I woke on a dark, hard, pleasantly warm floor that was polished to a mirror shine. With a fed up, almost tantrum-like groan, I got my hands under myself and carefully pushed up to stand. I felt tightly bloated and like I didn’t fit in my own body.

I was in a large square room near a wall on my right hand, bare but for a truly massive fireplace on the wall behind me, the flames inside shaping themselves in a myriad of cool, shifting colors and soft shapes. In the center of the room sat a white throne made of some sort of rock or mineral, draped with black furs atop a dais in the very center of the room. It faded in a flawless gradient from the deep, almost black color of the floor at its base to the snowy white of the throne, creating a stark contrast and undeniable focal point. The walls were painted with mosaics of elvhen and. . . wolves. Black and white.

A chill went through me, and that was how, through the feeling of too much pressure in my skin, I realized that everything felt different. It was the way my ara’lin felt, but magnified a hundred times over, a thousand, more, and it was everywhere.

A feeling of dread wrapped its way up my spine and into my throat.

And then I heard a heartbeat. Steady, thick, calm, and close nearby.

I turned my head to the corner of the room directly ahead of me to see a man, dressed in an artfully lazy way, come through a door-shaped hole in the wall that I hadn’t heard open. He held an icosahedron made of rich wood and glowing with runes on every surface. He stared down at it, engrossed as if reading.

He was humongous. Taller and broader than any man I had ever seen, but lean and fit. His hair was long and straight, thick and gloriously deep brown, shaved on one side of his head, revealing a long, pointed ear. The rest was draped over his shoulder and tied loosely near the ends, groomed but almost wild-looking. Loose trousers that draped heavily sat low on his hips, plain but for the fact that they looked to be spun of muted, soft moonlight. A thick fur stole hung loose and wide open over his otherwise bare shoulders, a little reminiscent of the one Cullen wore, and long strands of it teased away from the rest, brushing over the lithe, sculpted muscles of his torso. His wrists were clad in wide cuffs and something long hung around his neck, a small sort of charm at its apex: a long, glowing blue surrounded by what looked like curling silver, but more radiant.

He was so different - even his face, in a dozen subtle ways - that I didn't even realize I knew him. The vallaslin of Mythal, branches sprawling over his brow in palest gold didn't help, either.

Solas.

I went cold, and a tremor vibrated over me, there and gone in an instant.

If the setting, if the magic, if the air had not been enough, he was the damning last piece of the picture, and it wiped my mind clean until it was nothing more than sand waiting for the tide to come in.

This man, this Solas, was different from himself but for a few key features. He looked like the elvhen I had seen in the ancient city Fen’harel had shown me, and he was clearly younger, and wild. Predatory and apex. A weight was gone from his features, and they were smoother, easier and more open. The scar on his brow was missing, but the same nobility I knew wasn't - it just sat alongside arrogance, announced rather than contained. “My” Solas’ quiet, understated confidence was cockiness on this man, almost swagger. The teeth he hid but was not afraid to use were here bared for anyone to see, and they were as apparent as the now vivid blue of his eyes and the perfect hairlessness of one side of his scalp.

I was dangerously close to loathing Solas. But this man? I would want to choke this man within seconds. The fact that he was undeniably handsome and inarguably alien only made me more angry and put me even more on the defensive.

His tongue toyed at the tip of an impressively sharp canine as he studied. . . whatever it was he had in his hand.

Then his brow wrinkled and he sniffed at the air absently.

He looked up and stopped. He arched a brow as his eyes darted over me from hair to toes.

I swallowed. “. . . Hi?” I tried. There was disbelief, futile hope, and a heavy amount of caution in my voice.

He was not surprised to see me. Bored and annoyed, but not surprised.

That man, that fucking man knew me. I was not a stranger to him now, which meant that when I had met him, he had known exactly who I was the whole time.

My temper flared and with it, my ara’lin lit like a fire in an oxygen tank. I had never felt anything like it, and it was immediately wiped away because all my attention went to the struggle to reign it in.

Solas rolled his eyes to himself and went back to his toy. “તમારું નિયંત્રણ, તે બંધ કઠણ કરતાં વધુ સારી છે. અને જો તમે તમારી જાતને નાના મને રમૂજ પમાડવા કરશે બનાવવા વિચાર્યું, તમે ખોટું હતા.”

I stared him, managing to look struck dumb and annoyed at the same time.

He glanced up again, took in my bewildered expression, and said something else. It was clearly amused and, if I had to guess, not entirely kind.

He looked back to his toy again and went on in a bored tone. “તમે અહીં હશે તેવું માનવામાં કરી રહ્યાં નથી. મને ખબર છે તમે નવા છો, પરંતુ હું ભાગ્યે જ વિચાર્યું હતું કે તમે મૂર્ખ હતા. તમારા સૂચનો સરળ હતા. બહાર જા.”

It was perfect, fluid elvhen. I remembered shouting at him that I didn’t speak it.

“Yeah I. . . I have no idea what you’re saying, Solas. And for the record, you’re a giant asshole," I added with happy impunity. "I'm clinging to the ridiculous hope that this is an impossibly elaborate dream,” I added, looking up and around. “Maybe there was some crazy hallucinogen on that statue." My eyes landed on the ‘throne’ and I sighed heavily. “But I know that’s not the case. I’ve just had a long day. I've had a long two weeks, actually. I'm tired of weird shit, I'm tired of being asked to deal with weird shit, and this," I laughed a little in an unhinged sort of way, "takes the fucking cake. You have no idea what I'm saying, but if you did, I'd tell you that that's really something.” I finished blithely, taking in the room again as an excuse to keep my eyes off of him.

He finally looked up at me properly. His own eyes swept the area around me as if he could see my ara’lin, and he arched that same damn brow. “તમે એક વિસ્તાર તમે મને એક નવી જીભ દર્શાવે કહીને હેઠળ હશે તેવું માનવામાં કરી રહ્યાં છો જાતે મદદ કરી? મામૂલી નથી. પ્રકૃતિથી વિપરીત જઇને જેથી.” An understanding and veiled attention had sparked to life under his veneer, and his eyes grew fractionally more sharp. Anyone who wasn’t me or didn’t know him well probably would have missed it - it was well concealed. But Solas was starting to pay attention.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” I over-enunciated, as if he was being an idiot. I knew what had to be going on - there was one logical, if completely "impossible" possibility. I just sorely, dearly wanted to be wrong.

He looked at me like I was an uncooperative toddler, and with a bored wave of one hand, a citrus-and-sunshine orange light shot out of me, blazed across the room, and went into him.

He opened and closed his mouth as if tasting something he didn’t care for. “What is this language?” He asked. I don’t care for it. It’s cumbersome and. . . stodgy.” He wrinkled his nose when he said it.

I was too nonplussed to appreciate how hilarious that should be.

“But I'll play. Now,” he purred, and in a blink he was standing in front of me, herded my back to the wall, and planted one hand on it next to my head. He leaned in, cat-like, and I craned my neck back until it, too, was stopped by the wall.

“What has happened to you, da’lan, hmm?” He hummed, warm breath washing over my face. His eyes were molten and if you could intentionally produce pheromones, he was doing it. My mind went immediately to our kiss in the Chantry - but he wouldn’t know about that. He was only doing this now to toy with me, to manipulate me, and thus I watched the last of a lit fuze in my head burn down past the lip of its bomb.

My face contorted and I hit him with a force spell like a cinder block to the gut. He grunted and staggered back, and I slammed my fist into his nose. It broke with a satisfying crunch.

One of his hands went to his middle and the other to his nose, a grin spreading on his face. When he looked up at me, blood on his gently probing fingertips, he was smiling.

I hit him and I broke his nose and it made him happy.

“. . . Are you a masochist?” I asked, incredulous, one lip half-curled.

“On my better days,” he said, voice low. He gave a twitch of fingers and a cool red light flared and died over the places I had hit him. His nose was perfect and bloodless after it had gone. “I might like this new side of you.” He hummed.

He swept my ara’lin again where it swelled around me, still massive. I half expected it to break apart and disappear, but it was stronger for its size, not flimsier. “Provided you don’t try to adopt it permanently just because I said that,” he added condescendingly, eyes sliding back to my face and his smile going so cocky and arrogant that my temper exploded outward until it felt like I was filling most of the cavernous room.

His pupils contracted and his nostrils flared. The rest of him locked down to hide any reaction, but I had seen it: white, paling shock.

He took it in with a slow sweep, and then looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time. That hint of sharpness in his eyes turned to knives, and I saw a whole universe behind his pupils. He took in my face, my expression. "How is it you carry my scent, da'lan? I certainly have not marked you." 

“Stop calling me that,” I snapped.

“. . . There is something different about you,” he said speculatively with a cant of his head, as if he hadn't already implied as much three or so times.

“I changed my hair,” I said flatly.

He hummed into a smile, wide and toothy. “No. You didn’t.”

He took a step back toward me and I flung up a barrier. It went up like a spark to alcohol-soaked tinder, and I had to scramble to pull it back from cutting through the walls and ceiling. Using magic here was like running over an open field when the only way you had moved before was through neck-deep mud.

“You come with a new language, a small form, and new tricks,” he said as if pleased. I couldn’t tell if he was. This was chess-playing Solas, so everything I saw was likely a mask. “It’s impressive. I think even I would have to concentrate to break it. For a moment or two, anyway,” he added, cocky. He cast a glance as if he could see it, too, and I felt it shudder, a tingle going down my back.

“Knock yourself out,” I said, voice cold. “Personally, I hope you do get through. There’s a prize waiting for you on this side.”

His ara’lin unfurled just enough to ask the question for him.

“Your broken jaw,” I provided darkly. "Besides, you won't crack it," I bluffed. I might pay for it later. I was out of my element, and Solas was in his prime.

He was still looking up and around at the invisible wall. “We shall see.”

I watched as he studied my spell, apparently content to do so in silence for the foreseeable future - an elvhen in the time of the elvhen. He approached and brushed his fingertips over the surface. I felt tiny pricks and tugs and testing prods. His face remained a neutral mask, but focused. Because I knew him, I could see the interest there, too. In any time, Solas would have loved something like this: new magic, a puzzle, a question. He must be terribly easy to bait if you knew what you were doing.

Whether it was to distract him or myself, I finally asked. “Where are we?”

“My home,” he answered simply, absorbed in his task.

I hid my surprise. But... actually, that would explain a lot. If Solas had been a follower of Fen'harel. But from his face, he wasn't. Maybe he just had it bad for wolves, but I doubted it.

I meant in the broader sense,” I deadpanned.

“Near the north sea, just east of the borderlands.”

I gave him a ‘hello, keep going,’ look until it made him glance up.

“. . .In Elvhenan,” he said as if I were mentally deficient.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach and a choking lump formed in my chest.

I slid my eyes closed.

He looked at me fully. I could feel it like I could feel his ara’lin. Rather, I could feel it through his ara’lin. “Are you broken, little toy?” He asked in that condescending tone. “Do we need to take you back to Daern’thal?”

"Do I look like a fucking toy?" I snapped, entirely suicidal challenge in my eyes. I scowled at him until something pricked at my memory. I had heard that word, ‘Daern’thal.’ It had been in the dreams I’d had after calming the Breach, one of the details I had lost as I woke.

“. . . Is that a place or a person?” I asked, tone deceptively calm.

He half-tilted his head at me. “A person?” It wasn’t a question. “I had hoped to not have to see him for at least a few hundred years yet, but something is obviously wrong with you.” He looked me up and down like I was a defective piece of equipment or a hideous piece of art.

I bit back an angry reply and instead asked, “And Daern’thal. He. . . made me.” I had to force the last words out. I prayed, prayed, he would say no.

Finally, he gave up on any pretense that I was playing. He sobered utterly, and I got his full attention. “Yes,” he answered simply. Something about the word and his expression was probing. He had changed, and it was like he was talking to someone completely new now.

I let my eyes slide closed again, and my ara’lin rushed in like a protective shell.

Daern’thal was the name of one of the Forgotten Ones. This Solas had no reason to lie about it. I had been created by a Forgotten One, and it was obviously not so simple as ‘here, spirit, here is this body I made for you. Come, live among us.’

And now I knew that if not now, then at some point Solas and Fen’harel had close ties in Elvhenan. So close that not only did Fen allow Solas to know about me, but to act as some kind of caretaker. And for some reason, it was important to both of them that I not know they had been - were - connected.

I had known they were both lying to me. I wasn’t stupid. But it hurt finding proof that Fen'harel had been.

As I thought about the two of them, this collusion and the secrets being kept from me and the possible reasons for all of it, something in my mind swirled and started coming tog--

A sharp pain lanced through my head like a screaming, deafening sound, so loud that I couldn’t hear my own involuntary cry until it started to subside. My hands were clutching my head, and I struggled to stay on my feet.

Solas had hurried forward and put a hand on my elbow - I didn’t know when my barrier had dropped. I wrenched away from him and stepped back, and breathed carefully until the last of the pain subsided.

“What happened?” He asked sharply, and at least for the moment, all of his masks seemed to be gone.

“I don’t know,” I managed. But I did know. It was a mental block, a wall, and something about Solas and Fen’harel had triggered it. What could it be about them that--

A half-strangled cry that I bit down on immediately tore from me as pain lanced through my forehead.

“Da’lan,” Solas said firmly, scolding. Like he had a right to be scolding.

“I told you not to call me that,” I snapped. I held a restraining hand out. “I’m not your fucking da’lan, or da’len, or whatever, Solas, and you sure as shit aren’t any hahren of mine. I’m not anything to you, get that through your stupid, idiot head right now.” I would tell him that as many times as I needed to in as many times as I needed to. “Besides, I've finally figured out what cause it. I’ll be fine.”

His ara’lin uncurled as if a big cat opening its eyes and looking at a trespasser. “. . . Who are you?”  He asked. It was a serious question, but not a threat. Not yet.

I looked at him, brows drawn together. “What do you mean, who am I? I’m the fucking tooth fairy, who do you think? Do you want to pretend you don’t know me now? Mr. 'time to take you back to the store because you're acting funny?' Of course I'm acting funny. I'm not supposed to be here.”

I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t especially interested in handing him - in the future or right now - anything. Especially not after this round of bullshit revelations.

There was everything I knew, and there was everything I had realized in the last ten minutes or so. My favorite was realizing that Solas hadn’t needed to cast that language spell on me in Haven. He had spoken English for thousands of years before the Conclave.

I could buy the idea that time wasn’t a loop and that my trip here hadn’t happened for the Solas of my present, but for the way he had watched me when we had "met." Waiting for me to recognize him.

Charming as he had been in this time, perhaps he had been waiting for the punch to the throat he felt certain must be coming. 

If nothing else, there was the fact that it was Solas, and if there was a fucked-up secret to hide, he was hiding it. Or there was the fact that now I knew the language spell was so simple it should be able to be cast just fine in Thedas by someone of his skill, and it sure as shit didn’t require close proximity or open mouths or physical contact.

“No,” he said speculatively. “I know you are. . . Little One,” he said carefully, obviously stopping himself from saying ‘da’lan’ again. This must be a time before I had chosen my name. “But you are also very obviously not. તમે પણ લોકોની ભાષા નથી બોલતા.”

I scrunched my brow up at him in annoyance.

He liked this me. He liked her much, much better than whoever I was in this time, in fact.

Too much better. An interest was sparking many deep layers down from the surface, and that depth of interest from him was a death sentence.

I nearly snarled at him in reaction. My ara’lin didn’t have as much control. I was not upset by that.

He huffed a laugh and held out a hand to me as if he was extending a great boon. Like he expected me to run to him with stars in my eyes. I looked at his outstretched hand like it was made of rotting sludge, and him like he was absolutely mad. I had never been so glad to not remember my past, because apparently in this time, I had practically worshipped him. H--

A warning sting lanced through my forehead and I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth against it. When it subsided, I couldn’t recall what I had been thinking that had triggered it.

He saw it flash through my ara’lin, and he saw it leave. He looked at me a long moment, and then Solas grinned, feral.

With no warning, something pulled inward at my gut. I looked up at him in accusation, but his face had gone slack with surprise. He let the still-glowing object in his hand drop to the ground with a clatter and leaned sharply forward as if either to run or fade-step toward me, mouth open to yell something. I didn't get to hear what.

The world flashed out, Fade-green, like the Anchor but flaring over everything.

The light cut out sharply, abruptly, and I was lying on my back on the forest floor, gasping, limbs shivering, pain lancing through my forehead and looking up at a blue sky and overstuffed clouds. I shot up – or tried to. A hand held me pressed to the ground.

Solas leaned over me. “You צריך stay down, Herald,” he said firmly. Worried, it sounded like. One of his hands was over my gut and a gentle glow from his palm was just fading. The glare of the Anchor was livid even through the gloves I had taken to wearing to hide it. The fox statue sat opposite Solas, as un-magical as any other piece of stone.

I shoved his hand away, chest heaving, limbs shivering, and rocketed to my feet, both hands wrapping around his throat and bringing him with me. ”You lying son of a bitch!” I roared. He was strong, I knew that now; his neck wouldn’t snap, and I was livid.

The others started shouting, and I distantly felt hands trying to pry me away from him. They were like leaves brushing against me.

”Can’t speak my language?” I yelled. "Have to use a spell to understand it? Why the fuck did you kiss me?” I bellowed.

The others wouldn’t stop yelling.

”Tell them to shut up!”  I ordered.

He hesitated. I squeezed harder and bared my teeth. When his voice came out hoarse, I eased my grip on his vocal cords.

His words had only a momentary affect, but my ara’lin took care of the rest. It was wide and angry as a stormfront, and the others began to back away from me, though they would have little idea why.

”I had to push you,"  Solas croaked, and I felt sharp, satisfying vindication hearing English from him. ”You weren’t responding any other way, I needed to know how much you remembered.”

I felt sick at the implication even as a fresh wave of anger hit me. "Stop lying to me!"  I cried, inadvertently tightening my grip on his windpipe. His face was going deep red. He wasn’t fighting back, and that felt right; I allowed his feet to touch the ground again.

‘I can’t answer if I can’t breathe.’

I bared my teeth at him and let his face start to turn purple before I dropped him with a disgusted shove away.

”If you talk to me like I’m stupid one more time, Solas, I swear to god. . . .”  I shook my head, unable to finish the threat. It was clear enough. My voice was quieted, but it was lake ice cracking underfoot.

For the first time, I could believe I had existed in elvhenan, and not just logically. Because this woman? She was not me, and she was not who I had been. She was someone who had wanted to crush human guards for being weak, who had commanded an army.

“I don’t know what you remember.”

“Which means you want to know how much you can safely continue to hide from me. Fuck this. Fuck you. All these games. . . . I have had it.”

As I turned, a bloom of orange shot from Varric and into me. It really was a simple spell after all, as it turned out. He looked understandably alarmed.

It took only a moment for my mind to adjust to the new information, and one more for the muscles of my mouth and throat to adapt. “That was a language spell. Completely harmless, I promise.”

“. . . Well that’s reassuring,” he said at length. He did not sound reassured.

Cassandra’s eyes were wide. Elden looked wary. I was only vaguely aware of Solas getting up behind me. His ara’lin was held in like a dog tucking its tail between its legs. I liked to think that, anyway. The reality probably wasn’t so simple.

“I’m sure you need a bit of that after my flawless impression of a psychopath,” I answered. “I’m sorry I scared you. Before, too, with the whole cliff-jumping and wandering through the forest thing. I’m fine, though. Whatever was in the statue was calling to me. It didn’t hurt me, it just showed me a piece of my past. More or less. That’s how I knew the language spell when I woke up.”

“So you’re done with the whole eye-glowing, terrifying possessed mage thing?” Varric asked. “I had a bad experience with that a few years ago.”

“Eye-glowing?”

“Yes,” Cassandra said, voice distant and wary. “When you were attacking Solas.” Her eyes darted to him behind me, and her question was plain.

I blinked. I wanted to point out in a darkly reassuring manner that I had not been attacking Solas, but that took a back seat. To the back of bus. “. . . What color?”

“What?”

“My eyes. What color were they when they glowed?”

“Yeah, because that’s the important question here,” Varric said.

It might be. “Humor me.”

“A few,” Elden offered. “It was like they couldn’t decide what to be. Gold and white and purple and green, I think some orange, maybe blue.” I looked at her, and she still had that same wary mask on.

“What color blue?” I asked, dread washing through me. “Light?””

“Uh. . . more like middle, or deep.” Elden said.

I closed my eyes, relieved. Not red and Mythal-blue. Those were the only colors I knew to be afraid of, and it had been a long shot that it would have been either, but I felt better all the same.

“Right. Ok. So then next would be ‘why did you fly into a fit of rage and try to kill our resident apostate, Nua,’ right?”

“That would be a good place to start,” Cassandra said.

“Well. . . . There isn’t a simple answer to that,” I said. And it was all I intended to say.

“More importantly, your spirit was pulled from your body,” Solas supplied quietly, ‘helping me out’ while he moved around me at a respectful distance. He was a little hoarse. “You appeared to have died the instant you touched the statue.” There were so many questions in his eyes, and something new, something that reminded me of that expectant look he had worn around me for so long.

My jaw twitched.

“He’s telling the truth. You dropped like a boulder the second you touched the thing.” Varric nodded to the statue. “What is it with cursed magical shit?”

“I found a trace of you and called it back. It is anchored firmly within you now, and should prevent any such thing from happening again.” Solas said, almost sounding shaky. Almost.

I carefully, carefully reigned in my emotions. The fact that I needed to keep him close hadn’t changed. My level of disgust had just intensified. And now I had more questions, because if he felt like this might happen again, enough to go through the trouble of ‘anchoring my spirit,’. . . well, then for him, it probably had. I remembered the interest he had taken in me in the past and had to clamp down on a shudder. Best not to walk that mental road.

“Well,” I said. “Now that everyone is back and not actively murderous, how about we get to camp? If someone can get me a map of the Hinterlands, I’ll chart out everything that needs to be done while you all discuss whether or not to start dragging me around in full-body chains. Then we can figure out what comes first and what we can delegate.”

“Chains sound like a lot of work to me. And that’s on top of the fact that I’m getting the impression you could bend metal like it was cheese, Trouble.”

Cassandra started to say something at the same time I asked, brow scrunching, “What did you call me?”

“You said that’s what your name means, right? Seemed pretty fitting,” he said wryly. That he felt he could joke around me was a good sign; he, at least, wasn’t completely put off.

“You called her that before she told us her name, Tethras,” Elden said. “The mage had such a coughing fit that you thought he'd swallowed a beetle.”

“. . . Yeah. Thanks for pointing that out, newbie.” He gave me a covert glance.

I smiled at him. The man had a knack for cutting through tension like butter, and for limiting his idea of importance to things that actually were important. “You’re a talented man, Varric, you know that? What am I saying, of course you do.

“Which reminds me,” I went on, walking past him. The moment Cassandra’s face was out of view of everyone, including me, I said, “I’m a big fan of Swords and Shields. You think you could start writing those again in your off time? I have a lucrative tip in trade.”

He gave me a look. “You’re from another world and until about two minutes ago you didn’t understand a word of our language. How exactly are you a fan of my least popular serial? I mean,” he chuckled, “who am I to say no to a fan? By which of course I mean a lucrative tip from the Prophet of the Maker herself. But. . . you know I write much better stuff than Swords and Shields, right? Even I thought it was garbage, and I wrote it,” He said in an undertone. “It’s not exactly some of my best work.”

I blinked at the “Prophet” comment, but didn’t have the presence of mind to go anywhere near it. “What can I say, Varric, the heart wants what it wants. Now in payment, you should contact your publisher.”

“Not exactly my favorite past time. The man’s a crook.”

The sound of cracking stone reverberated from behind us, and only then did I realize Solas had fallen behind. I imagined there wouldn’t be much left of the fox statue now, should I care to go back and look. I thought it was sloppy; if I hadn’t thought he had something to hide before, I sure would now.

“Literally,” I said without missing a beat. See, your books are wildly popular among the Orlesian nobility. You’re a celebrity over there, and I’m guessing the several fat royalty checks you’re due have all mysteriously been lost in the mail. You’ll be coming with me to a ball in Val Royeaux, by the way, to charm those very same nobles in the name of the Inquisition.”

“A ball?”

I hummed agreement. “Not for months though, no need to worry. You may also be interested to know that since 9:36, Hard in Hightown is the the most widely read book in Thedas, outside of Tevinter,” I said lightly. “Well, and Seheron, I assume. It even passed Genetivi’s Travels of a Chantry Scholar. So if you haven't been paid for that either, there you go Oh, and has The Re-Punchening already surfaced?”

“How the shit. . . No offense, your Holiness, but that is seriously creepy.”

I laughed nervously to cover the fact that, for some reason, that actually hurt. “Right. Yes, well, sorry. I’ll just keep the name of the person who’s behind it to myself so as not to freak you out. Team dynamics are important, after all.”

“Now don't be so hasty! Some of my closest friends are creepy. You know Broody, right? Sticks his hands right through people’s chests! The shit I saw him do. . . .”

“What is ‘The Re-Punchening?’” Cassandra asked like we were talking about manure.

“A fake sequel to Master Tethras’ best-selling series,” I replied formally. “And Varric you’re so sweet, trying to make me feel better. But it’s ok, really, I don’t mind. Your opinion is important to me, and I’ll make every effort not to disturb you in such a way again. Consider all my insider information about you lidded. Finding him or her the old fashioned way won’t cost too big a fortune, and with Leliana’s help? It should only take. . . I don’t know, six to eight months to track them down. Cake!”

“. . . What if I promise to have the next installment of Swords and Shields finished by the end of the month?”

“Worthy,” I surrendered immediately.

“Perfect. Now who is it?”

“No, that’s who it is. Worthy. From Kirkwall. He blames you for the fact that he lost all of Hawke’s business to Sandal. And I’d take care of it soon, because he’s about to kill a magistrate and frame you for it. Then a comte. Then it just gets weirder from there.”

“. . . Have you ever thought about betting on nug racing? You could really clean up.”

”Varric,” Cassandra warned.

“Whaaat, I’m only thinking of the Inquisition, Seeker! Think of all the poor, starving refugees we could help if we had information like that! Ooo, or I have contacts in Orzammar who could get us some bets in on the Provings. There’s big money there.”

I expected some sort of reaction from Solas, but he was so distracted by his own thoughts that we could have all turned into dragons and he probably wouldn’t have noticed.

My attempt to suppress a laugh at Varric came out as a loud, spewed snigger, but before I could say anything, Cassandra was speaking again. “Prophet,” she said.

There was that word again. My brows drew together. Where was ‘Herald?’ I stopped and turned to her. “How long have people been calling me that?”

“Since you woke after the Breach.”

“Wait. What? What about ‘Herald?’”

“What herald?” Varric asked.

“No, I mean. . . you’ve been calling me Prophet, not Herald? Not the Herald of Andraste?”

“Is that what you are?” Cassandra asked seriously.

I opened my mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. Then I just resumed walking with a shake of my head and a dumbfounded look on my face. Bizarrely, I suddenly felt alone. “What were you going to ask, Cassandra?” I prompted.

She, Elden, and Varric gave me looks, but I just waited.

“We do not wish to restrain you. But we would like to understand what happened. You acted like a woman possessed. You could not be reasoned with.” ‘Or restrained,’ she didn’t have to say.

I wondered what she thought of me staying in shackles that first day on the dungeon floor now. I didn’t feel like I’d had my strength back then, but she didn’t know that.

I sighed, and for a minute, the only sounds were of our feet crushing plantlife, and animals and bugs moving in the trees and through the undergrowth. I heard what I thought must be some sort of earthworm.

“You have to understand,” I began, “all of this is new to me. Being what I am. Being who I am. Doing what I can do, knowing what I know. My body knows what it’s doing, but my mind. . . . I have to take a lot of things on faith. Instinct, intuition, whatever you want to call it. All I knew was that something was calling to me and I had to get to it. When I did, it was like someone had scooped a piece of me out and put it into that rock, and reaching for it,” I paused, looking for the right words. “It was like reaching for water when you’re literally dying of thirst. I knew what it looked like, I knew that I was scaring you, but I didn’t have time to stop and explain. I just had to get to it.”

“And it held a memory of your past?” Cassandra asked.

I hesitated. “Not exactly.”

Solas joined the conversation with a sharp, vicious jab of attention. I felt a warning from him, and returned a warning of my own.

“Then what was it?”

“Well,” I hedged, “. . . here’s the thing. I touched it, I got a memory. Are the mechanics really so important?”

Her look answered for her.

“Cass - sorry, Cassandra, you’re really not going to like it,” I cautioned.

“What happened to giving us all of the information?” She asked.

“You know, Seeker, when the Prophet seer of the Maker himself tells you you’re not going to like something,” Varric said, “you might want to just listen. Difficult as I know that would be for you.”

I looked at Cassandra; there was no give in her eyes. I sighed. “Okay. Well then, do we trust Elden with inner-circle information? Because I don’t know anything about her.” I leaned out to look around Cassandra. “Hi, by the way, Elden. Nice to meet you,” I said with a dry but honest smile. “Points for the brass balls, by the way. I sure as hell would have moved out of my way.”

“Cullen sent her specifically to protect you,” Cassandra said. “He would not have done so if she was not trustworthy.”

“Wait. I thought she was guarding Eddard.”

“The apprentice?” Elden scoffed.

“Well why do I need a guard? You were all there at my assessment, I was a damn machine! I kicked everyone’s asses! Uh, no offense,” I added to Elden.

“None taken,” she said with a puckish shrug. “Most enjoyable ass-kicking I’ve ever gotten.”

“You did not speak our language or know our customs, and you were in a foreign land. It was prudent,” Cassandra defended.

I looked at her, then let it go with half-disgruntled noise. It did make a certain amount of sense. “If Cullen thought it was a smart play, I won't argue. He’s not stupid; I trust him.”

Annoyance stabbed through Solas.

“Will you stop it,” I snapped, turning my head over my shoulder at him. ”Jesus Christ.”

“What was that?” Varric asked.

“What?”

“What you just said.”

“Oh. A blaspheming curse of the highest order where I come from.”

“Say it again?”

I chuffed a laugh and repeated it slowly. “You know,” I said, “between the lot of us, we can have you cursing in no less than five languages by the time this is over.”

“Much as I would appreciate that, it might be a little lost on me. Now if Isabella was here. . . .” He looked up at me, and I thought maybe it was a little sort of test, which seemed silly at this point, but I was already grinning appreciatively anyway.

“Or Hawke," I added. "Don’t pretend she wouldn’t enjoy it.”

“Maker’s ass,” he breathed.

Cassandra sent him a world-class scowl.

“So, the statue." I braced myself. "I seem to have gone back in time. Rather a long way, actually.”

Cassandra stopped, and I was the only one with reflexes fast enough not to pass her.

“But. . . how. . . .” She tried.

“. . . I think what you means is ‘holy fucking shit,’” Varric said.

I shrugged, inclined to counter their tension. “Time magic isn’t unheard of. It’s just rare and the highest order of stupid idiot lunacy. This, though. . . this wasn’t time magic. At least not like the kind I know of. In either case,” I said, and Solas would hear the buried ire enter my tone, “Solas said he anchored my spirit, so it shouldn’t happen again. No more memories for me! Because god knows how unhelpful those would be. I saved us at least three weeks of me bumbling around not understanding what anyone is saying, at least."

They gawped, some in a much more dignified way than others.

“. . . Take the victory where you can get it, people,” I muttered and resumed walking without waiting for a reply. My tone belied how vulnerable I felt at the reaction. Peoples' faces were going to get stuck that way if any of them spent too much time around me. Being looked at like an alien on a regular basis was a fabulous life experience.

I knew this must be jarring for them. I knew every time they turned around, I shoved a new unsettling thing right into their faces. I knew I had a broader perspective of all of this. But it wasn't like this wasn't weird for me, too. And unlike them, I was going through it alone.

A mute person has a personality, but give that person the ability to speak fluently, and it becomes a specific personality, fleshed out, less open to interpretation. The only difference for me now was that everything had just gotten much easier. For them, they were basically meeting a new person. Or rather, a collection of world-altering impossibilities in the form of a person who was probably much too insensitive most of the time.

“I guess time-travel is a good way to help you get over your first kill,” Elden said with false lightness. Cassandra and Varric tensed.

It was a moment before I answered. “Elden, you’ve seen me fight. That wasn’t my first kill. It was just the first one I remember. Brass balls again, though.”

I pressed on ahead.

Chapter Text

We sent two of the watchtower teams out with extra soldiers and warnings about what they might face. The third had to wait until we’d closed a Rift near their goal. Two soldiers accompanied our party so we could let the last watchtower team know when it was safe.

I sat making a map of everything we needed to cover while everyone else had lunch.  Until Varric "suggested" he let me work, Eddard kept trying to get me to eat a single piece of dried meat, babbling the whole time about apparently every thought that entered his mind, after he had finished asking me every conceivable question about the language spell I'd used.

”Do we have a lot of soldiers equipped to fight demons?” I asked at one point. “I mean, the average one isn’t, right?”

“How do you have near omniscience and not know that?” Varric asked.

“I don’t have near omniscience, I told you-- Or, oh I guess I didn’t tell you.  I’m not omniscient.  I just. . . remember things.  Some of them are happening right now, some of them haven’t happened yet.  But I did tell you I’m not from here.  If not for magic, I wouldn’t even be capable of basic hygiene or skincare without detailed instruction.”

“Maker forbid your skin not be luminous, Prophet.”

I shot a glare at him for the name.  “Ok look. If you like to look at pretty women, don’t complain about the methods.  Pretty takes work.  I don't complain about you singing your chest hair to sleep or brushing it one hundred times every day or whatever.”

Elden cut in before he could shoot back.  “So you’re not new to time travel, then,” she said around a small mouthful of some kind of berry she’d found on our way back to camp. I tried one; they were bright orange, tart and crisp and filled with wetness. She said they were good for headaches.

“No.  I mean yes. That was my first time as far as I know.  I have no explanation for how I ‘remember’ things that haven’t happened, but that’s hardly the strangest thing that’s happened in the last two weeks.

“Anyway I ask because there are. . .four? Yyyyes. Four. Four demons that aren’t Rift-related in the area, and I wanted to know if we need to take care of them personally so people don’t, you know, die.  Well, four that I know of.  Everything in Thedas so far is what I expect, just bigger and more intricate.  Plus I'm not omniscient so. . . you know.  Safety disclaimer.”

“What sort of demons?” Cassandra asked.  She was getting used to weird and impossible shit coming from my mouth faster than. . . well, just Varric.  It was nice.  They had all adjusted to the way I could tend to ramble, too.  Also nice.

“Uh, there’s a greater terror, we should take care of that one.” My eyes swept over the map as I tried to remember all the details of this place. “There’s a rage demon, a shade, and then a lesser terror that we’ll be getting for Dennet’s wife.  Its taken control of a pack of wolves near the farms.”

“A prepared unit should be able to handle the rage demon and the shade,” Cassandra said.

I nodded and returned to my work, making a note on a second map.

 

* * * * *

 

I left the map I'd filled in with Harding. I’d circled things we’d be taking care of personally: Rifts, enchanted Tranquil skulls (which I insisted on dismantling and bringing with us for proper burial - Varric was delighted), future camp areas that needed to be cleared of danger, bases for the more aggressive templar and apostate groups, agents to be acquired (which I wanted to do personally), and the other urgent points. We picked the most efficient route through everything, given mission priorities. The rest I left to her to hand out to soldiers and scouts in safe areas following our progress.

We took care of the crossroads first - Cole reappeared as we were getting into position to go in.

I insisted that any mercenaries in enemy parties be left until last if safe to do so and given a chance to surrender and leave, and Cole told us of anyone he could hear who might want to join us, or of decent people who just wanted to be done with the fighting. There were very few.

My barriers were stronger than Solas’, and magical multitasking at this level was effortless, so I kept up party defense, but I no longer shied away from killing like I had.  It hurt; something in me, some tiny shard, died with every heart stopped or head rent.  This would be my life now; there was no point in putting it off, and the sooner it hurt, the sooner it could stop hurting.

I could mourn them when I had time to myself; I was not stupid enough to pretend I could kill without emotional consequences, and I wasn’t the type to give such a thing opportunity to fester.

We skirted mother Giselle against Cassandra’s protest, and the refugees against everyone else’s, and went straight for a large Doomsday Cult in the ruins of an old fort, Winterwatch Tower.  Once I had proven myself to them, I took care of all the mission points there and told their leader to take blankets, medicine, clothing, and food to the appropriate parties at the Crossroads.  They were to tell people that the supplies were compliments of the Inquisition.  I would have said “the Inquisition and the Prophet,” but where I had been resigned to the title of ‘Herald,’ ‘Prophet’ wasn’t yet an idea I could sit with.

The cultists would keep up a steady supply for the refugees, foraging where safe, and using the aid as an excuse to spread word of the Inquisition and gather any useful information.  I loathed to my very core telling them to make sure to give the Inquisition credit for the aid - it was the antithesis of a good deed - but this had to be about building our organization’s reputation as much as it was helping starving, deposed people.  It was the laughable least of the evils I would have to order before all of this was over.

I’d brought the blank map I'd made notes on with us.  I would fill it in when we stopped for the day - I hadn’t wanted to waste the sunlight on a second one at camp.  It led us to the den of controlled wolves.  Much to everyone’s displeasure, I insisted that I was going in alone.  A ‘discussion’ ensued.

When Cassandra and Elden were in round three of tripping over each other to tell me what a stupid idea it was, I lost my patience and shouted, “I don’t want to kill all of them!  We don’t need to, not if we just take care of the demon that’s controlling them, but if all of you go tromping in there, we won’t be able to avoid it.  I can get in without being seen.

“In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not a fan of killing as a first resort.  They did nothing wrong, they don’t deserve to be murdered just because the world is screwed up and some stupid demon got spat out by a Rift and did what demons do.  Plus, ecosystemic integrity is a lot more important than you might guess."

I figured I knew how Solas would feel about my insistence, but fortunately, I didn’t have to know.  As if a polite gesture, he seemed to be keeping his ara’lin to himself.  I got the feeling it was costing him, and for some reason which only made me more angry, I felt guilty for being the cause.  I was furious with him, but the more angry I got and the longer I held on to it, the more it felt like I was kicking a puppy.  Which then just made me angry and confused, and so angrier still all over again, and I was getting more and more tightly wound.

“They’re just wolves,” Elden argued, confused.

“And you’re just a knife-ear!” I barked back.

One of Elden’s hands twitched reflexively in the direction of her dagger. Everyone else had gone rigid.

“Hey, now, Trou--” Varric began, but I cut overtop of him, staring at Elden.

“Do you get my point?” I asked, exasperated.  She didn’t answer, so I went on.  “It’s perspective, Elden.  I like you.  You’re smart and sharp and badass and you get up every time you’re knocked down.  Some idiot human would look at you or me without knowing a thing about us and see a worthless piece of gutter trash.  I’m convinced I’m right.  So is the human.  So who actually is?  Who decides who is?

“That bandit with the beard and red hair in the last party we killed? He was a stranger, right? A nameless, random person who wanted to rob or kill us, who would keep hurting people if we didn’t stop him."

"Yes," Cole said.  "They all would have."

"Yes, thank you, Cole.  But that guy?  He had a three year-old son, Elden, and another who was seven."

"No h--" I slapped a hand over Cole's mouth and said over his muffled words, "Thank you, sweet spirit, please leave this one to me."

"Spirit?"  Cassandra asked, taken aback.

"A term of endearment," I said dismissively.  "Anyway, the boy was the bandit's nephew, who was staying with him while his parents left on their own, trusting their boy was safe, to salvage what they could from their old home. They were killed trying to flee, caught in the crossfire of a battle between two groups of mages.  He was raising his younger sister for a similar reason.

“He owed four crowns to one of the guys he left back at camp, cooked a mean nug stew, prayed every night before he went to bed, and was the only person an infirmed aunt had to take care of her. That was what drove him to start attacking travelers, in fact.  Want to guess how many of those people are going to have a smooth life now that he’s dead?  Want to guess how many are going to survive?”

". . . Andraste's Ass, kid, that's worse than most of the shit I write," Varric said.

I almost laughed at being called 'kid.'  ". . . I can't think of a good quote about reality and fiction right now, but thank you for ruining the moment, Tethras.

I looked at everyone in turn.  ”Perspective,” I repeated emphatically. “Everything in this world is alive. That doesn’t change just because it doesn’t talk how you do or live by the same rules you do or care about the same things you do. Those wolves have as much value to me as any person we’ve met so far. The animals we’ve been killing for fur and meat do, too. The plants we harvest for potions and tea. The things we trample to put down tents, the wood we take for fires, that biting insect I swatted earlier. I can feel the life in things, and a rock, even the dirt in the treads of your boots, Varric, has just as much as any one of us.  We're not better just because we move and talk and cook food, and build houses, and are smart enough to enslave and murder each other for ideological differences.”

I looked at them. Elden’s ears were still a little red, but she was trying to listen. Cassandra was listening, Varric looked like he thought I was several pages short of a book, and I ignored Solas’ attention as completely as I had been since the statue.

“I don’t expect anyone to believe the way I do. I don’t expect you to make any drastic changes. But at least while I’m here, while I’m de facto in charge,” it was to my surprise that no one went tense with objection, “understand that killing will be our last choice, regardless of whether or not it’s more convenient,” I said scathingly, “than others.  Sometimes killing is the right thing to do.  I get that. But those times are rare.”

I looked at each of them in turn, again omitting Solas. “So.  Can I please go so we can get shit done before it gets too dark for you half-blind idiots to put up your tents?”

Cassandra pursed her lips, but only said, “At least take Varric or Elden with you.  How do you intend to keep yourself out of sight?”

I gave her a flat ‘really?’ look.

She made a near-inaudible growling, exasperated noise. “Right. Fine. But take someone to help you should you need it. Wandering off alone is asking for trouble.”

"So many jokes in that name," Varric said.

"Shut it, dwarf," Cassandra bit back with a glower.  He held his hands up in surrender.

I gave Cassandra another look, this one unamused and decidedly more private. She knew damn well I didn’t need the help.

“Prophet-”

“Jesus H. would you not call me that?” I practically shouted, squirming inside. “Look--” I forced myself to stop, take a deep breath, and calm down. My voice was a much more reasonable volume when I went on. “I get it if that’s what the rest of the world has to call me or whatever. I get it if you have to call me that in front of other people, but when it’s just us. . . Nua. Please, please just call me Nua. I can’t. . . the ‘Prophet’ thing, Cassandra? I just can’t. I’m sorry. I’ll try, ok, I really will, but I’m just not there yet. It was less than two weeks ago for me that I fell out of a hole into a new world and everything, everything has changed and I’ve gone from being absolutely no one to someone who’s supposed to save the goddamned world. Please, give me some time, ok?” I finished, strained but gentle.

“Now,” I went on, “if it’s that important to you, Varric or Elden can come with me, but whoever it is had better stealth like they have never stealthed before, because if either of you,” I looked at the rogues, “gives us up and we end up having to kill one of those demon-’possessed’ furballs after all of this, I am going to be seriously pissed off.”

“. . . I think that means you get to take this one, newbie,” Varric said to Elden.

“I’m no more ‘new’ than you are, Tethras.” She scoffed and muttered “sissy” under her breath. She gave me a crisp nod, and we were off.  Elden stealthed herself, and I vanished on my own. She nearly keeled over.

“How the fuck--”

I shrugged, then remembered she wouldn’t see it. “Weird, impossible shit is my purview, apparently. Weren’t you briefed before we left?”

“No, I was, just. . . hearing you can do the impossible and seeing it are two different things.  I've never heard of a spell like you just cast.”

"Maybe it's a first.  But I doubt it."

Once we were out of earshot of the others but not quite to the den entrance, Elden began in whisper, “Just curious, your worshi--”

I shot a death glare at her and let it ripple outside of me.

“Nua,” she corrected hastily. “Right. Maker, how you do that. . . .” She huffed a laugh too quiet for most to hear. “That tale you told about the bandit. If both the parents of that kid were killed, how did he find out how they’d died?”

I suppressed a smile. “Who’s to say no one was with them?”

“You. You said they went on their own.”

It was getting considerably easier to like this woman as the days went on.

“People meet people on the road, Elden. Or maybe someone found their bodies."

"Yes, but your boy--"

"Cole?"

"Yes. Sounded like he might want to argue with your story."

"Cole is known to be seemingly random. And maybe I just divined it, Elden. I hear that’s my thing.” I said, mockingly arch. “Don’t I know everything?”

“Not according to what you said this afternoon when Varric accused you of it.”

I snorted a quiet laugh. “Ok, ok, the story was complete bullshit. I guess that was obvious, but still. Points for having the balls to ask.

“The man smelled of piss and rage and an ocean of hard alcohol,” I went on. “Now, he may still have been important to someone, or a good enough person. Odds are that he wasn’t, but who’s to say? The story just helped me make my point. Now shut up and don’t argue with your demi-god.”

“Aye, Messere,” she said, and I could hear the laugh she was burying in her voice.

“Are you a ‘Marcher?” I asked, curious about her use of the honorific.

She didn’t answer for a moment. “Can’t you divine it?” She asked, tongue-in-cheek.

I snorted. “I knew I liked you.” I’d like her more if her eyes weren’t always on me like. . . like she was waiting for something to learn.

 

* * * * *

 

It was simple enough to sneak into the den, though it took some time to make sure we gave every wolf a wide berth. Fortunately, most of them we sleeping through the evening hours, but it was a large pack, twenty-five at least, and they were on the ground and above us on the natural stone platforms and walkways.

Killing the demon was easier than blowing out a candle flame.  Its death agitated the wolves at first, but we watched from a corner as they started coming back to themselves. I insisted on waiting until we could be sure they were back to normal, then I stepped out and came into sight with a loud yell, waving my arms above my head. Each of the wolves near us jumped in surprise and ran several feet away, wary and cautious. I took that as a good enough indication, and we were back out within minutes.

“Maker, woman, you are out of your mind,” Elden proclaimed as we were nearing the others. 

Cassandra looked from her to me and back again. “I don’t want to know, do I,” she asked flatly.

“Sure you do!” I gushed. “We won. It’s a happy day! Another demon dead, puppies are back to normal - there were, by the way. Four of them. Cutest damn things. And now. . . now we get horses,” I said with an excited gleam in my eye.

“You really have a thing for animals, don’t you?” Varric asked.

I shrugged. “I guess so. . . .No, now that you mention it, I think you’re right.”

I smelled something from him that I short-handed as an emotional eye-roll.

“My condolences,” Cassandra said drily.

“Hey now, Seeker, I should think you’d be used to me being right. Any good author has to have an eye for characters. Princess Perfect here is your typical goody-two-shoes hero of legend and - no offense, Trouble - probably tragedy.” He looked at me. “I’m still surprised that raven back at camp didn’t jump on your shoulder and ask to travel with you. A few more seconds and it might have.”

“Is it also a writer’s talent to make something awesome sound like it’s supposed to be a bad thing? Who couldn’t use an army of birds swooping down and clawing people’s eyes out when you need a good distraction?”

“You know it’s disturbing how fast you came up with that.”

I shrugged. “Maybe I was an author. And also your face is disturbing.” More than one person groaned. “Which is what I’d like to say, but you’re ruggedly handsome and we both know it.” Cassandra made an utterly appalled sound.

“Pay no attention to her,” Varric said of Cassandra. “The Seeker just has a thing against obvious truths. Kind of ironic if you think about it.”

“Your horses are cool,” I rushed to say before Cassandra could reply. “The ones where I’m from don’t look exactly like yours, and they’re not quite as smart, either. All they eat is plants. I saw yours kill some kind of rodent and eat it this morning, Varric. Eat it. It was. . . surreal,” I said, a little dazed even at the memory. “Honestly, almost everything is different here. The birds have gotten better though, since we came out of the mountains. More bird-like.”

“That sounds very lonely,” Solas said quietly.

A muscle in my jaw twitched. “You are still on probation, you gaping asshole. Mope vicariously on your own time.”

And god damnit, but it almost felt cruel.

It did feel a little lonely. But I wasn’t about to admit that in front of him, and I wasn’t one to wallow, anyway.

“Must mind the fine line,” Cole said.  “Dangerous if you tip, topple, lean too far. Balance, always balance or you fall." It made something in my stomach twist with nervous discomfort.  "He misses you so much, but. . . this you, not the one you were before.”  The twist that time was almost nausea.  Which 'him' was Cole talking about?

We closed one last Rift as the sky grew livid with color, just off of the ruins of a tower where I wanted us to spend the night.  I knew Solas would love to sleep in them, and had the gratification of him saying as much while we were setting up camp and the others were speculating on the first ocularum shard we’d just found.  I let them without butting in.

“Goody for you,” I said coldly to Solas, “because we’re sleeping here.  Tell all the ghosts I said ‘hi.’”

His ara’lin uncurled experimentally, just the tiniest bit, but mine fairly snarled itself frothy in reaction, so it curled right back up. Even after so short a time, I was getting used to not having the feel of him around. In a way, without the extra presence of him or Fen'harel, I felt more like myself. Either Solas was doing something sketchy, or contact between ara’lins was like a drug. I favored the latter idea - it would explain a lot I had noticed about him, myself, and Fen’harel, and matched my ‘ara’lins made the elvhen even bigger assholes to one another’ theory.

 

* * * * *

 

The others were eating and I was gathering obscene amounts of elfroot - the tower was practically overgrown with them, and Solas could make them into potions, it turned out - when two guards rode up on horseback under the light of torches. One dismounted, sketched a quick salute, and held out a tiny slip of paper to Cassandra.  She took it with thanks, he saluted again, and they were off.

I looked at her curiously as she unfolded the paper, glanced at it, then held it out to me. On it was scratched two runes. I looked at her in question.

“Can you not read it?” She asked in surprise.

I shook my head. “Oral language only, I guess.  I'll still have to learn to read and write the old-fashioned way.”

“It is from Leliana, an answer to your request,” she said, and my eyebrows shot up.  With travel time from the nearest camp for the soldiers, it couldn’t have been a six-hour turnaround for Leliana’s birds to get to Haven, deliver the message, and carry a reply back.

“It says ‘yes.’”

I nodded and muttered an absent “Thanks,” looking back down at the paper, tracing the runes with my eyes, seeing the miniscule spiderlegs of ink, the tiny catches of the pen or quill over the texture of the paper, the rough edges, the small fibers standing up. I carefully folded it and tucked it into one of my more secure pockets. It was the first word I could read.

 

* * * * *

 

It was well into third watch when I heard the soft rustle of a body getting up, pushing away the top of a bed roll - a primitive sleeping bag, basically - then a tent flap being opened. It was Solas. My eyes slid closed and I turned away from him subtly. There was no moon and the night was clouded, but he found his way with as little trouble as I would.

“May I?” He asked quietly when he stood next to me.  From the corners of my eyes, I saw him gesture to the squat remains of a stone wall I was leaning against.

“Aren’t you supposed to be on your date with spirits of the past?”

“Date?"

"It's. . . ugh, nevermind."

"Hm.  Spirits of the Fade only reflect the past," he said, happy as ever to bring out his inner professor, "they are not--”

“I know,” I interrupted peevishly. “I was being blithe.  Jocular.”

“Ah, my mistake," he said with small mirth in his voice.  "I found I could not sleep.”

I nearly snorted. ‘Couldn’t sleep,’ my ass.

I waited so long it was just to the right side of polite, then looked in his direction without moving my head and dipped my chin, a shallow, mostly token gesture.  As he sat, I sighed quietly and looked up at the stars where they peeked between the clouds, and at the way their light shone through behind them in gentle yellows, oranges, reds, pinks, greens. . . any color I could name, and some I still couldn’t.  I supposed I could always ask Fen'harel what they were called, but there was something nice about not knowing.  It wasn't like I'd need to refer to them in conversation.

“If I am not mistaken, Elden should be on watch, should she not? You have not been sleeping.”

“Knew you were sharp.  What are you, my mother?” I felt a stab of alienness. I hadn’t actually had a mother, had I.

“. . .If I told you I was sorry for keeping the truth from you, would you believe me?” He asked quietly.

I considered my answer, because it wasn’t a simple one. I knew he regretted it, just like Fen’harel regretted all the shitty things he had done. But he still did them. And he would do them again. I just said, “Ask me that again when you’re not still lying.  It's wasted lip service otherwise.”

He turned to look at me, and though his face was a mask of neutrality, I could feel his eyes burning through me.

“Don't do that,” I said.

“What?”

I rolled my eyes. “That Game bullshit. If you want to know something, just ask. That way I can say no like a normal person and save myself the extra headache and annoyance.”

“Such subtlety is a skill you are likely to need before this is over,” he said, quiet and instructive, ever the teacher, the coach, the "guide." Ever the man at the wheel.

“Ok first of all, I didn’t ask jack shit for your advice, and second. . . you don't fucking say,” I finished, scathing.

If he was affected by my profanity, he masked it flawlessly. “The Inquisition is a fledgeling organization, as you know. It has a great many people yet to convince, and will need every ally it can get before this is over. Before it can end.”

“He says to the woman who literally knows the future. Solas, you can pretend to fear spirits and hate the Fade and believe the bullcrap the Dalish spout, right?”

His brows came together delicately.

I looked at him for the first time, pushing for him to answer.

“I suppose I could, yes. If I had to.”

I almost snorted. He ‘supposed’ he could.

“Right,” I said. “But you don't, because why the fuck would you? But you could. That doesn't mean you want to spend any more time doing it than necessary. I'll play the Game when it's time, when I have to, and not a single moment more. I loathe things like that.”

His ara’lin didn’t need to be out for me to feel the shock and disquiet pass through him. It reminded me of Fen’harel saying I had really changed; I supposed the woman I had been in Solas’ time would not have said what I had.

I looked away with a slight curl of my lip. I wanted to ask him questions about the past. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

He let me sit in the quiet for only a few moments. “You do not care for me.”

It was a casual observation, simple, obvious, and he spoke with no malice. Still, I gritted my teeth.

“Why? What have I done?” He asked, polite and gentle. More polite than I deserved. But there was something about his tone that was incredibly personal.

I closed my eyes and leaned back into the wall, letting my head fall back to rest on it.

“Let me ask you something, Solas,” I said, and suddenly I was so tired. “Do we fight well together?”

It was a moment before he answered. “Yes, we do. Your style is fluid and adaptable; few would be able to say otherwise.”

Kissass.

. . . It was true so far, but still. “And are we able to work together smoothly, short of garbage like this afternoon? Do we communicate well enough?”

He caught on to where I was going. “I am not speaking of our professional relationship. You dislike me personally.”

And there it was. I gave a tight exhale and turned to look up at him. “Why does it matter? If we can work together without any problems, why does my personal opinion matter?”

It was a moment, a long moment of him looking at me before he answered. “You remind me of the past. You know that now. You are a piece of a home and a people I may never see again.”

That sobered me. “Such as the village in the north?” I asked, bitterness leaking into my voice.

“Among others, yes,” he answered seriously.

I growled at his thrice-damned evasiveness, audible only because of what he was. “I can’t be the only one you have something in common with, Solas. You're not the last elvhen in the world, and I must hardly qualify as one. There are others, and I know you must believe that, even if you haven't sought any out yet.

"Cullen has been to war as a soldier and a commander. Josephine understands diplomacy and politics and the Game. She knows polished refinement. Cole is literally from the Fade. Someone is coming who will be a book hound and open-minded and magically experimental. Or are you the cat, trying to pick at the person who least wants your attention? Why are you stirring the pot?”

“. . . You know why, Nuaelan,” he said quietly, and he actually sounded sincere. But there was something else underneath. I almost exploded - he went on before I could. “If you prefer I not make this personal, I could point out that animosity will affect our working relationship sooner or later. Do you want to take the chance that it will come to a head at the worst possible moment? Such things cause carelessness, and I do not truly believe you foolish enough to think otherwise.

"Perhaps I simply wish to know what it is I have done that so offends you, what it is about me, particularly when you know nothing of your past. Without your memories, I should have been a stranger to you the first time you saw me, but you behaved as if you could not stand the sight of me. If you would allow yourself the chance to get to know me, you may find-”

I cut him off with a growl loud enough for anyone to hear and whirled on him. He was so calm. It was infuriating. “I do know you!” I shout-whispered. “I just don’t like you! Are you the fucking prom queen or something? Does everyone have to like you?” I felt a little jab of guilt for that. The reality was that deep, deep down, he wanted anyone to like him. The real him. But he wouldn’t allow it, even if they wanted to, even if he was capable of showing who he really was, and so he twisted tighter into a cocoon of his own making with every move.

“Do I have to remember not liking you thousands of years ago to not like you now? Because from what I saw today, you were just as much of an asshole then as you are now, but at least back then you didn’t pretend you weren’t!"

He looked down, brows twitching together.

“I know you. You’re curious and artistic and creative and passionate. You value knowledge, you love to learn, and you cherish any chance to teach. Seeing anyone else who genuinely wants to learn makes you look like a kid at Christmas, even if you don't let that cool mask you wear slip. You’re sad and heartbroken and so lonely that it's practically a cloud of leaden pain that follows you around, and even I  hurt from it sometimes.

"You love to help when you think people deserve it, and you hate to see anyone suffer, except the few you choose to really, truly hate, but it takes a lot to get you there. You don’t complain about problems of your own making, and you’re solution-minded and forward-thinking, even though you love the past, our past, more than just about anything. Except the Fade. The Fade will always be a home to you that this world can never be, and you stay well away from anything that will dampen your connection to it.” A warning bank of mental fog blew in, but I shook it off and forced myself on. An odd look shone behind his eyes as it came and went.

"What was that?" He asked.

I ignored his question. “You appreciate the underdog. The closest you come to a belief system is the value you put on the inherent freedom of the individual and the fact that nothing is as simple as it seems.  That so much of the world comes down to moral gray area. You hate yourself, but you don't want to.  You're 'a clever man who wonders what he could do if pushed,' right?"

His eyes widened.

"The problem is what you would do."  I paused before going on.  "You can have a beautiful sense of humor and mischief when you want to. You’re patient and tempered. You’re ten, a hundred times more clever than you let on, about two tiers above genius, you’re a walking set of encyclopedias, more gifted and talented than anyone I think I’ve ever known, you can be unspeakably kind, and you would fight past the death for what you believe in. Honestly, aside from a few things that would make me want to hit you from time to time, I should adore you."

Something was welling up in him that he was fighting hard to keep to himself.

“But you’re intractable," I went on. "You're arrogant, god you're arrogant, and you're just as blind as anyone else, because you only really ask yourself questions that fit into the worldview you already have.  You are fatally subjective, which is frightening because of the potential you have to change everything.

"You’re quick to pass judgement, you’re opinionated, you can be a serious dick when you want to, and you have a buried superior streak a mile wide. You're defensive - although that one I can understand. You hide behind so many layers of masks that I’d be surprised if you even know who you are anymore, and you have so many secrets that I’m also surprised you don’t just blow away in the wind sometimes.

"But the worst thing, the worst thing about you, Solas, is that you will make a horrible, closed-off decision with full knowledge that you're doing it. You're dangerous, because everything big you do is chosen consciously, meticulously, whether it's right or wrong, and you're so goddamned smart that you circle any argument from outside yourself and put it to death before it can even fully form. You remind me of him, actually. Fen'har--" I had to squeeze my eyes and shake my head against a jab in my forehead. Whatever diminished pain response I had didn't seem to apply here. Either that or my brain was literally liquefying from the inside, and given that I was still cognizant. . . well.  It was going to get seriously old.

I went on with a deep breath before he could pretend to fuss. "You justify your actions with no room for argument. In that way, you have no business trying to live with other people, no business as part of any society, because you refuse to hear others.  I don't think you should be without the company of others, but you need to get your shit straight. You also make your own problems and do nothing about them even while they are killing you."

I paused, breathing hard despite myself. I had turned to face him, and I wasn't sure when.

“I know why your bad qualities exist. I know some of them are personality traits, things you haven’t overcome or grown out of. Maybe you don't want to. I know most of them are reactions to past pains and hardships. Half the shit about you that annoys me boils down to a shell that’s even thicker than mine.” The muscles around my eyes twitched involuntarily - another realisation about myself. “And I’ll be honest, if you were anyone else, I don’t think I’d be judging you so harshly. I probably wouldn't be as impatient. I’ll admit that my reaction to you is. . . odd. Probably unfair. But just like something pulled me to that statue today, something screams at me that you are not good news." His head tilted back slightly to look down at me.  "Which is weird because there's this part of me that I can't pretend to understand, that is at complete odds with everything else, that wants to like you.  It's tiny.  And rare.  And easy to shut up.

“I do know you. I know your tastes,” I said, again lowering my voice again so as not to wake anyone. Besides, the more flustered I got, the calmer he would get, and I refused to give him that high ground. “I know your personality and your character the same as I do with everyone else.” I paused, abruptly uncomfortable. “. . .But your past, your future. . . they don’t exist. You don’t exist. And it’s unsettling.  You came from nowhere and that's where you disappear back to.  But I know you're a person. I know you're real, at least as real as I am which, to be fair, may not be saying much.

“That alone wouldn’t be enough, I’m not that small, but. . . .” I paused for a long moment, searching his face and finding only his attention and the fact that there was much more underneath that I couldn’t identify. “I don’t trust you.” I said it almost kindly, almost apologetically. Because though it was true, I didn’t know why. “I told you that I know you have secrets. I don't know what they are, but I know they’re the sort of secrets that could tear the world apart some day. I feel ill with it every time I look at you, I feel the sense of something coming, something that will shred me, and something in me screams not to trust you, not to let you near anyone or anything I care about. There’s something I want to like about you, Solas. I see it, and it pisses me the hell off, because it makes it harder to hate you, and because I just. . . can’t,” I finished, honest and helpless. “And I don’t know why.”

’Now how the hell are we supposed to work together? If you don’t just pack up and leave tonight,’ I thought.

Solas regarded me for a long time. Then, his manner unfairly calm and professional, simply offered, “What would you like to know?” He was the counterpoint to my agitation, and it crept under my skin like a delayed burn. Partly because I knew I did the exact same thing to other people. But there was an intense sort of longing in him, too.

For a moment, only a moment, I was nonplussed, but I didn’t let it show on my face.

I answered, smug at being able to call his bluff. “What you’re hiding. What your secrets are.”

“Would you like them alphabetically?” He asked, dry and just a bit arch. I was asking a lot. I didn’t care. If he wanted my trust, this was the price. If he didn’t want to pay, he could drop it and back the hell off.

My eyes narrowed, my voice stayed cool. This was a game now, a game of seeming unaffected. We both knew I was going to lose because he was already well under my skin, but damn if I wouldn’t play first. “How about you start with the biggest and work your way down?” I said in a condescending voice.

He looked at me for only a moment, utterly expressionless, before answering in an almost aggressively detached voice. “Very well. I am Fen’harel.”

I blinked dumbly at him until he just started talking again, but he had gone distant. A defense mechanism.

“I have been spending nights with you in the Fade, teaching you. I created the Veil, costing us our connection to the Fade, our immortality, our world, and made our eventual dismantling by ancient Tevinter not only possible, but unavoidable. I am the death of everything we were. Since I woke from Uthenera, I have sought to fix my mistake by taking down the Veil and restoring the world of our time, at the cost of the lives of everyone else in this world.”

There was no sound but crickets. I might have laughed under any other circumstance.

It was a long time before I found my voice.  “. . . You are a goddamned asshole, Solas.  I hope he sees this and bites your face off."

Surprise and consternation tinted his features.

With a tight, angry exhale I pushed to my feet and left without a backwards glance. “I’m going for a walk,” I said, disgusted. Let him take over the watch. I was an idiot for thinking his offer had been serious. I'd held a hand out - resentful and aggressive, sure, but it had been there - and he had bitten it. That was no one's fault but my own. Solas had secrets, he didn’t share them.

Of course he knew Fen’harel’s story.  Aside from being elvhen, he and Fen were probably still close.  But to claim that story as his own?  What could he possibly hope to-- I felt a jab in my forehead and put a hand to it, growling loudly in frustration. Arrogant, overconfident bastard.

I knew Fen’harel, and better than Solas did or could, in connection if not memory. I felt a stab of jealous possessiveness over it, in fact. I knew his pain and his past and his struggles. I was his friend. Solas made a good show of being the mysterious, wise apostate, and I knew he had secrets of his own, sure. But Solas was no Fen’harel, and he never would be.

Luckily, I knew how to blow off steam: by doing something incredibly, recklessly stupid.

 

* * * * *

 

“Boss. What are you doing?” Elden asked from behind me. Like she thought she’d snuck up on me. It was almost cute.

“How’d you get past Solas?” I asked, voice hushed.

She followed my gaze and lowered her own voice dramatically.  “I told him I had to piss. I drank a lot before bed so it’d be easier to wake up for my watch. Thanks for that, by the way.”

“Ah. That’ll do it.  And you’re welcome, she says with equal sarcasm.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Let me run something by you. How long were you with your clan?”

“Until about ten years ago.  Most of my life,” she said, taking a seat by me. I was laying on my belly and watching a Rift below us. Three demons were roaming near it, but I felt five strands coming from the tear.  I had my gloves on and my right hand buried between my stomach and the ground in case the anchor decided to act up and announce me.  Us.

“And dalish look at demons and spirits as sort of just. . . different kinds of people, right?  Instead of beings that are good and evil? Or, evil and more evil.”

“More or less, sure.”

“You get into Andrastianism at all?”

She shrugged. “Not really. Does this have to do with why you’re sightseeing in the middle of the night? And the fact that we didn’t close this thing when it was a hundred feet from where we were going to be sleeping?”

“Yes and yes. I’d like you to listen to something with an open mind. It might go against your beliefs, so I’m asking you to suspend them. Not change them or anything just sort of. . . set them aside for a minute to listen objectively.”

“. . .Yeah, sure. Sounds simple,” she said flatly.

“Shut up and listen," I quipped. "So, spirits are the manifestations of people’s emotions and qualities. Demons are those emotions and qualities gone wrong. For instance, pride can be a very healthy, necessary thing. But take too much of it, and you turn into a complete asshole, right? It’s about balance.  Everything in moderation.  With me so far?”

She nodded and hummed quiet agreement.

“Ok. So, since spirits and demons are reflections of people, it makes sense if their most basic operating system reflects ours, too: they’re driven by their natures. By things that move too fast for the brain to monitor or keep up with. By emotion.  Instinct, if you prefer.  The difference is that I guess you could say spirits are, compared to us, two-dimensional in a way.”

“Two dimensional?”

“Uh. . . less fleshed-out.  More simplistic.  Like. . . hunger is hunger.  It isn’t also kindness and impatience and urgency and so forth.”

“Ok.”

“If you could have a polite conversation with a spirit, a demon would be its own custom flavor of a frothing, uncontrollable warpath, right?  Have you ever seen a person get so mad that they sort of just. . . go away?  You literally watch them disappear from their own face, something behind their eyes vanish, and there’s nothing there but a mask of rage and fury?”

“Yes,” she said, and even if her tone hadn’t said it, it would have been obvious there was a story there.  Anyone who's seen something like that has a story.  Chalk another mark for the "I maybe shouldn't try to recover my past" argument.

“Right. Well say that’s a rage demon.  You would have as much chance of reasoning with it as you would that person who’s blackout angry, which is to say, none.  A rage demon is like a person forever trapped in that state, boiled down until there is nothing else to them but that fury. There’s no reasoning with it, no distracting it from its anger, and there’s was nothing else in it to try and call to the surface and break through that madness."

"Shouldn't you be talking to Solas about this?"

I curled my lip and gave her a dirty look.  “Right," I went on pointedly.  "So every demon is like a person in the grip of the most primal, uncontrollable parts of ourselves, but with no way out.

“Now here’s my problem.  Most of the demons around the Rifts?  They probably started out as spirits.  I don't know what the demon to spirit ratio in the Fade is, but it's sure as shit not overrun with as many demons as it would have to be to fuel the number that every single Rift spits out.  They - the Rifts - are screwing things up in the Fade just like they’re screwing things up here. Spirits get pulled through against their will, and it’s so jarring, so traumatizing, that they’re warped into something against their natures.  It would be like turning people to abominations against their will and in the most horrifying way possible.”

She went still as I spoke.

“You know my obsession with ‘death only when necessary.’ Well, I kind of hate the idea that spirits are getting hideously tortured, warped, and disfigured, and all we can do for them in the end is kill them.  I have this theory.

“If any spirit can get warped into a demon, if all of them, by their natures, carry that seed in them, if every good trait can be taken too far and turned ugly, why wouldn’t the opposite be true? Why wouldn’t a seed of their nature’s pure form be in every demon?”

“Nua, that’s. . . “ ‘a really horrible idea,’ her tone said.

“Yeah I know," I said dismissively. "Dangerous and stupid and all that. It’s not like I think they can be reasoned with or anything. I’m not an idiot. But that doesn’t mean helping them is completely outside the realm of possibility. And before you horned in, I was just going to sort of. . . feel it out.”

“Feel it out,” she replied, flat and dubious.

“Does repeating it like that help it make more sense?”

“Not really.”

“Yeah.  Now you know why I came out here alone.  If this goes horribly wrong which, let’s be honest, it totally might, I can protect myself.  Anyone else is a distraction, and frankly, you might get in the way.”

“. . . So. . . when something does go horribly wrong, you’re planning on killing three demons by yourself?”

“Five.”

“What?”

“There are five. I don’t know where the other two are.  There are like. . . strings coming from the. . . you know what, never mind.  I’ll be fine.”

“You do see that we’re looking at a desire demon and a greater despair demon in addition to your rage demon, right? None of those are pushovers.  I know you can take them out” not ‘kill,’ I noticed, “pretty easily, but this is the definition of ‘asking for trouble.’”

I listened to the odd thrums and sliding and humming and crackling that came from far below us as the demons moved.  Maybe spoke.  They didn't seem to fly off the handle when the only other 'people' around were other demons.  After a pause, I asked, “Elden, what did Cassandra and Varric tell you about what happened yesterday?  After I went tearing off through the woods after them.”

“They were ambushed, it wasn’t going well, you stepped in and saved them, and it resulted in your first blood.”

“Mmhm. And what did you make of the fact that there were no bodies?”

“They were supposed to have been out of sight with nothing worth claiming.”

‘Supposed’ to have been.

“And?” I prompted.

“. . . And there was obviously something they weren’t telling us.”

God I liked her sometimes.  “Right. So when I tell you I’ll be fine, you can trust me.  As a general rule, that's something you should be doing.  If I tell you I can handle something, I one hundred percent can, and while I appreciate you worrying and, given how few fights we've been in together I can understand your caution, I need to know that when I tell you something when it <i>matters,</i> you're going to listen and trust that I know what I'm talking about.  If I didn't, I wouldn't be talking.  That's how I am.  I don't half-ass and I don't bullshit.

". . . If it makes you feel any better, dawn is, what, an hour away? If I’m not back by then, come in, guns blazing.”

“Guns?”

“Uh. . . weapons drawn. Anyway my point is, this is kind of an obsessive idea of mine.  It’s going to happen.  So it can happen now, with you as a safety net, oooor. . . .”

“Or you can sneak off alone and do it later when no one knows what's happening.”

“Bingo.  I knew you were smart.”

“. . . Half an hour.”

“What?”

“You have half an hour. I’d feel better with five minutes.”

I turned to look at her. “How are you arguing with your Prophet?”

“I thought you hated being called that.  And I told you I'm not Andrastian.”

“Only when it’s not to my strategic advantage in an argument, and you have been watching me over the last week like you were waiting for sunlight to come out of my eyeballs.”

She narrowed her eyes but shifted subtly, uncomfortable.  “Are we arguing?”

“Fine, ‘discussion.’ I can work with half an hour. You’re right, it probably is markedly less suicidal, and it’d be stupid to go out trying to rescue a handful of demons and doom millions of people in trade.”

“What do you know, she can be reasonable.”  She added at a volume I wasn't meant to hear, "When she feels like it.

I sniggered silently. “Ok. Now shoo. I’ve got important science to conduct.”

“. . . Creators and Maker forgive me if she dies out here tonight,” she muttered to herself as she walked away.

When I couldn’t hear her any more, I turned my attention back to the demons below. A fourth one, a simple wraith, had returned.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this, so I started with what Fen’harel had taught me: feel things.  Cautiously, I let my essence uncurl from myself and extend its reach. It was a stretch to get it down near the Rift, as if glass hardening the further it got from its heat source, but it made it to Despair.  The demon stopped when I brushed up against it, and I pulled back immediately. When it returned to what it was doing, I tried again. It stopped again. But it didn’t look up at me, so slowly, I let myself out to meet it.

This was different than anything in the Fade. It was like molasses in a hard shell. But I could feel it there, and for a moment, despair itself flooded me, and it was a struggle to separate myself from the overwhelming emotion.  This one was grayed desperation and writhing and sharp, acid heartache.  Mourning, I thought.

What was opposite despair or mourning?  It was the absence of. . . ah.  Hope.  Carefully and slowly, watching for any reaction from the demon, I sifted through the small universe it occupied in my ara'lin and looked for a miniscule, buried spark of hope. But the harder I looked, the further it felt like I was getting buried by something, wrapped and tied up and turned around. I pulled back and reset myself, started over.  But the second I started looking, the same thing happened.

I was doing something wrong.  What that might be was beyond my ken.  Maybe more than one thing opposed Despair or Mourning.  Maybe Mourning wasn't its particular specialty.  Maybe I needed to be in the Fade. Maybe I was just plain doing something wrong, or messing with something too far above my pay grade.  Maybe I was looking for the impossible.

Asking Elden to keep this from the others could get too messy.  Then again, if I closed it myself, there was no way to keep its disappearance from her, which would lead to questions, if she really could be trusted.

I decided to just go back to camp and start breakfast for the others. I could make up a lie easily enough about why I hadn’t had us close it the night before. I did trust Elden to keep the rest to herself.  For now.

When I made it back to camp, she had beaten me to breakfast, and Solas was working at some of the elfroot I had gathered the night before.  The rogue looked up at me curiously, and I gave a fractional shake of my head and went to tend to the horses.

Chapter Text

Cassandra pulled her horse up next to mine. Billowing, lumpy, tall clouds dominated the sky, flat on the bottoms as if they were all pressed against an invisible ceiling. The morning was pleasantly cool. Or as Varric put it, “colder than my editor’s shriveled black heart.” I may have had a small pocket of warmth follow him after that.

“I was thinking of the night we conversed in the Fade,” Cassandra began. I waited patiently for her to go on. “How did you find us?”

I sat lazily, reins loose against my horse’s neck and trying not to squirm in the god-forsaken saddle. “I didn’t. Solas did. But I have learned how to do it since. I found Cole later that same night. I can explain it if you like, but I’m guessing Fade theory isn’t the point of your question.”

“No, it is not. I simply wondered. . . could you find others in the same manner?”

“Sure. If I know them. Well, you know, ‘know’ them,” I said with air quotes. Which I then had to explain. “If it’s someone I don’t know, I’d have to ask my teacher about it.”

“Your teacher? Do you mean this friend of yours in the Fade?” She asked dubiously. “You have not spoken of him. I will admit to being curious,” she said, her tone not limited to simple curiosity.

Solas kicked his horse forward.

“The very same,” I replied happily, as if I hadn’t heard the wariness.

Bald-o landed on Cassandra’s other side with perfect timing to white-night away any possible questions about Fen’harel. How I had ever believed that the two of them weren’t connected was beyond me. Maybe they were twins. God, that would be traumatizing. Suddenly I pictured Fen’harel with a round, shiny bald spot on the top of his head.

“A Dreamer of sufficient skill can find anyone in the Fade,” Solas told Cassandra, “provided a few details.”

“I see. And do you believe Nuaelan possess sufficient skill?”

“She does,” he replied, noble and scholarly. He had been ignoring me all morning, but it felt more a polite allowance than a catty game. It had been heaven.

I wanted to ask how he would know about my skill, but that would mean breaking this perfect bubble I was in.

Cassandra looked down, thoughtful, and didn’t speak again for some time. “Do you think you could find Hawke?”

“Absolutely,” I replied readily, voice bright.

I could practically hear Varric stiffen. Well. . . and literally hear it in the creak of leather and cloth, the rise of tension in his scent.

“Her help could be invaluable to our cause. We searched for her for years before the Conclave. But I suppose you know that.” For the first time from anyone, it was more an allowance than a challenge.

An uncomfortable beat passed before I replied, “I said I could find her, Cassandra. I didn’t say I would.”

“What? Why wouldn’t you?” She asked, surprised.

I had to keep from looking over my shoulder at Varric. “Well. . . don’t you think she’s earned a break? Not that I imagine she’s taking one, because I don’t think she ever met a problem she could say ‘no’ to. We’ll get by just fine without her help. We would have needed her for information after we found out that Corypheus really was Corypheus, but I already know everything she would have told us. We don’t ‘need’ her. Provided I don’t screw things up spectacularly.” It wasn’t a joke.

“I would have really liked to meet Fenris, though,” I said absently. “Right up until he took one look at me and started squeezing my organs from the inside,” I muttered to myself.

“How would we have located her?” Cassandra asked, hopeful, I thought.

“With a little faith, luck, and pixie dust.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Never mind. It was a joke.”

“Wait wait wait,” Varric said, kicking his horse forward. “What was that about Corypheus?” I felt Elden stiffen behind us. I looked to Cassandra, question on my face as I darted my eyes in Elden’s direction. She nodded.

Very much ‘if you say so, but I think it’s a risk,’ I said “Cliff Notes version again? Yes, ancient Tevinter magister darkspawn, really did set foot in the black city with six others because giant fucking idiots, which of course is an oversimplification but seriously. We know who he was before he went Fade-walking, Old Gods are real, the Blight isn’t a punishment for man’s hubris, but it may be a biproduct all the same, blah blah. And we’re calling him Sethius, that’s his human name.

"He survived death by body-snatching Larius, which, by the way, is why the Wardens didn’t mention him when you interviewed them, Cassandra. He was long gone. And then things got weird. That’s how he survives. Like an archdemon, he will--” I sputtered to a stop, realizing I was about to give away one of the Wardens’ Big Secrets.

“What?” Cassandra asked urgently. “He will what?”

“Sorry, I misspoke. It wasn’t my secret to tell. But like I said, he can’t be killed except by a means we’re not equipped for just yet. A Gray Warden might be able to end him, given the right circumstances. Convenient that they’ve all disappeared, no?”

“Except for the one you mentioned to Leliana.”

“I did say that, didn’t I.” I wanted to mention the other surviving magisters from Sethius’ doomed expedition into the Fade, but I figured they had more than enough to process already. I wanted to think I was underestimating them, but had to “remind” myself that other people weren’t as good at processing as much as I was. One world-ending ancient darkspawn magister was probably enough.

“. . . I think I’m going to stop asking you to explain things,” Varric said. “Or being in the room when you talk. Ever.”

“My feelings, Varric. Ow.” I replied. “No but seriously, I’ll try to ease up around you if you want. Wouldn’t want to upset the Viscount.”

“Viscount?” He laughed incredulously, then abruptly sobered. “You’re not saying. . . no. I’d never be that stupid.”

“Yeah,” I said blithely. “I’m probably just screwing with you anyway. I mean, who would vote you in?” I finished with a laugh.

He chuckled back obligingly, but really only looked disturbed.

Cassandra made a disgusted noise and urged her horse forward with a shake of her head.

“Hey, Trouble,” Varric said quietly, leaning in once she was far enough ahead. “What you said about Hawke. . . thank you.”

“For what? Denying the request or not giving you away?” I asked with a knowing, brattish grin.

“. . . Both, I guess,” he said uneasily.

I answered by turning a small grin and a conspiratorial wink on him.

A beat of silence passed, then I said, “If you ever want me to get a message to her, I can. Quick as going to sleep. Well, as long as she’s asleep at the same time.”

“. . . Will do, kid. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go re-examine some life choices.”

 

* * * * *

 

I journaled while we rode in silence, one leg tucked under me on the saddle, other foot dangling out of the stirrup. It was effortless balancing that way, but still more fun than sitting like a lump while the sun tracked across the sky. The Crossroads was our next stop, and if I walked in with everyone else on horseback, people would think I was a page or something, especially given my ears. I buried them in my hair before I braided it back - an enterprise that was testing my patience more every time. It was either too smooth or too fine to submit to simple binding for any length of time. But I was only careful to keep my ears concealed around strangers, and it was distracting. They were so sensitive, it was like having someone scratching and poking you all over your body and teasing you sexually while trying to carry on a serious conversation. I figured it was good exercise. When I could tolerate it.

“What do you write in there, anyway, Trouble?” Varric asked. Cassandra had been kind enough to take the lead so my horse could follow aimlessly. “Your neurotic tutor and I had a bet going.”

“What does a person write by themselves in a private book on a daily basis? Hard to say,” I ventured. And which one of them had been dumb enough to bet against journaling? “Obviously I’ve been waxing poetic about what a cute couple you and Cassandra would make.”

He choked on a mouthful of bread. “Excuse me?” he laughed in disbelief.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “You’re an author, you should know. Two desirable people, passionate and beautiful and in their primes, constantly at each other’s throats, picking at one another like children with crushes.” I said as if dreamy. “People eat that up. That whole passionate sexual tension thing-- oh my god I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” I laughed; Cassandra had turned around in her saddle, and the restraint of her faith was clearly threatening to buckle under a building urge to hurt me. “I mean, scientifically speaking, anger and lust are-- Completely far apart!” I backpedaled at the look on her face. “Totally not the same at all. Besides I mean, you two would kill each other.

“. . .I wasn’t being sarcastic,” I added when no one said anything. “You’d kill each other. More or less.” ‘More’ being Cassandra literally murdering him in a fit of rage, ‘less’ being the fact that it would be the result of years of snipes and humorous jibes on the part of Varric.

 

* * * * *

 

Solas kept his eyes off Nua as they neared the Crossroads, but his attention was not truly on anything else. It had become an unfruitful habit.

Inquisition livery had been fastened to their mounts’ saddles when they last stopped. It draped across the animals’ chests and over their hindquarters, announcing the party. The small town was recovering with impressive speed, thanks no doubt in part to the “Prophet’s” foresight.

Her demeanor changed as they neared the area. Subtle at first, and most of it beyond her notice. She realized what she was doing, of course - adjusting her clothing, ensuring her face was clean, tidying her hair, straightening her posture - but she did not know why she was doing it, not truly, not at first. Not even when she pulled her neck straight and set her jaw to a confident, relaxed angle as the first of the soldiers and townspeople came into view.

She was balanced, self-possessed, regal and commanding, and perfectly aware of her surroundings, as she was trained to be. For all she seemed to remember nothing of the past, for all so much of her was so very different, Solas had yet to see any of her training fail her. He had not seen such grace as she displayed during her combat assessment since the time of their people. It still caused a sharp ache in him that she should not remember it. Her of all people.

The inspiration of her decision not a day earlier to leave the refugees to the care of the cult in the ruins to the northeast showed abundantly. Humans and elves alike, refugees, townspeople, soldiers, all whispered to one another as their party walked the roads. Word traveled fast, especially in such times as these.

From what he gathered listening in, the cultists had appeared as if by magic, coming with an abundance of supplies, many of which the people had only just realized were desperately needed. They stayed to help anyone who required aid, from providing an escort to a neighboring town to watching over a group of children so their parents could work. Even now they were mixed in with onlookers at the sides of the road, their heads bowed, fists clasped to their chests as Nua passed. Even her horse, normally a tired thing, seemed to hold itself taller and to walk with more grace and pride. It was unsurprising.

One scout near the eastern road out of the swollen town had mentioned a desire for blankets not an hour before Nua’s people delivered dozens, along with boots and warm clothing. The cultists had been well stocked and claimed a number of wealthy humans among their ranks, so supplies were readily available, and none hesitated to give them up at their herald's order. She displayed her kindness for those in need, as always. But despite her instructions, which Solas did not doubt were followed, word had gotten out that she was behind their miraculous appearance.

Putting her new followers to the task had also allowed for the party’s impressive progress closing rifts and lessening the scourge of bandits, templars, and bands of mages, which likewise did not escape the people’s notice. Refugees poured in hourly, nearly all of them bearing tales of Inquisition rescue, aid and heroism, improving conditions, and on one occasion, a battle with demons and the closing of a Rift. The teller swore a golden halo surrounded Nua as she closed it. An obvious embellishment, but a popular one. For Solas, concerning. There was too much unknown about her, and so how readily or enthusiastically she might take to power. If she regained herself at the head of a potentially powerful organization and decided to, for some reason, oppose his plans. . . . That was the last scenario he would care to live.

Along with the rumors of Nua’s abilities, her foreknowledge, her strange beauty and stranger magic, her alien tongue, the mystery of her appearance, the affect of her ara'lin on creatures ignorant of its existence, and now the fact that she seemed to want to help everyone in need but not to receive any credit, much of what met the party was hushed and fervent whispers, more hopes than fears. People spoke of the Maker’s Prophet, delivered to the world by Andraste herself. People spoke in hushed tones of the Maker’s own Daughter. It was not only the cultists or Inquisition soldiers who clasped fists to their breasts and bowed their heads in respect. It was astounding. And yet one more thing that was troubling. Nua and the Seeker's people had only just begun.

“Inquisition!” A low voice called.

A Qunari, Solas noticed with distaste. First from him was the flush of faint arousal, same as any other male when first they saw her. He did not bear the markings common among Tal-Vashoth, but neither did he have the composure and reserve or the spiced smell, undercut with jungle or musk or arid desert, of the few faithful that Solas had encountered. He sat with invisible, wary caution, watching the man with a mask of benign curiosity.

Nua’s ara’lin came alive when she saw the giant - with recognition, joy, anticipation, love. Trust. Another would-be companion, then. Solas felt a stab of annoyance at how easily she welcomed strangers when she all but loathed him. He sighed quietly.

The man, massive even for one of his kind, raised a hand in greeting as he came forward and introduced himself. The Iron Bull, leader of the group of mercenaries Nua had requested the Commander hire. His troop must have been nearby for the man to have met up with their party so soon. Another curiosity, perhaps.

As The Iron Bull neared, Nua stuttered with disbelief, most of it concealed. She was appalled at his size - mounted on her horse, she sat at eye-level with him. His bicep was larger around than her waist. She would have had to crane her neck to meet his gaze were she on her feet. Solas nudged his horse to the side so he could see her face.

“Hissrad,” she greeted quietly, so much warmth and love in her voice. . . . It was the greeting Solas should have gotten. She was physically restraining herself from reaching out and wrapping her arms around the man’s neck. A neck which was nearly twice as large as her thigh. Solas felt an unwelcome heave of something oddly like jealousy. Everything about her was throwing him into chaos. He had not felt such a thing since his youth, and rarely over her. He had become so fixated on the puzzle and mystery of her that it was causing him to become possessive.

At the name she spoke, Solas felt only shock: this man was a spy for his people, which explained his odd state and why he had been so nearby. Nua knew this, and yet she embraced him into their ranks. Solas detected to ulterior motives from her; there was a healthy restraint, a wariness, but he had seen her react to no one thus far with so much warmth and welcome.

‘The Iron Bull’ clearly shared Solas’ surprise. “Uhhhh. . . huh. So I see where the rumors of that whole ‘oracle’ thing come from,” he rumbled expressively.

Nua laughed, and Solas’ chest constricted at the sound. “Oracle?” she asked incredulously, smile wrapping its way around her eyes.

“But not so much the part about you not speaking the language.”

“Oh, I didn’t,” she said, smile in her voice. “I learned.”

“Nah, supposedly you spoke a language no one had even heard of. Didn't understand a word of Common.”

”Yes,” she said in her tongue, mischief entering her tone. ”It was inconvenient and obnoxious. I learned, like I said. Through a spell, but I don’t imagine you want to know that part. Not a big fan of weird magical stuff, your people.”

“That’s sure as shit not like anything I’ve ever heard.” Solas saw through Nua changes in the man that should have been invisible - would have, had she not known to look for them. She was rapidly changing in the Qunari’s estimation. “But from reports. . . well how long have you been awake? Supposedly you got found under one of those creepy green demon-holes when the Conclave went south.”

“Awake?" She paused, thinking. "A week and a couple of days. In this world for about two weeks total, as far as I know. ” She shrugged, hiding mirth behind her eyes. “They got me a tutor. It’s English, by the way. My language,” she provided, and had he not known better, Solas would have sworn it was love on her face as she spoke to the man. Something roiled angrily in his chest and a muscle in his jaw twitched. This was beyond ridiculous. But she could not avoid sleep much longer; perhaps he could find some clarity as Fen’harel. She did not loathe his company.

She had become puzzles within puzzles.

Iron Bull’s brows shot up. He repeated the word, “English,” butchering its pronunciation. She found it endearing. “Huh. So you really are from another world? In any case, I take it I have you to thank for the hire? I had this whole speech ready about the Ben-Hassrath, but it seems like you don’t need to hear it so much.”

Solas was unsure what to make of his honesty. If he was loyal to the Qun, it was likely a mask he wore in order to do his job, whatever that ultimately was. Hiding in plain sight could be difficult, but unrivaled in its advantages. Nua’s insight was impressive, but not flawless. The man may have come as an assassin if word of her abilities had already spread as far as Par Vollen. An assassin or a kidnapper. Solas’ lips twitched at the surprise Iron Bull would be in for if he tried. Still, there was no way to know how prepared or informed he may be.

Nua’s smile widened, wrapping around her eyes. She practically glowed, and Solas would have been shocked if she even realized what she was doing to those around her. Elden already looked on her nearly as if a deity when she thought no one else saw. The sentiment clung to nearly everyone they encountered in the field and was spreading to those in the town who her ara’lin reached.

“Yes,” she said, “technically, but it wasn’t my coin or my permission, just my request, and no. No, I don’t. I know your story well enough.” She laughed, a musical, crystalline sound. Anyone who wasn’t already watching the exchange and was within the field of her ara’lin, which was sprawled like a cat happily laying in the sun, turned to look. “Your communications will all have to go through our spymaster, of course.” ‘Not that I think for a moment you couldn’t find a way to get something out in secret if you needed to,’ was the gist of what she didn't say. “And thank you in advance for sharing the pieces of intelligence from your own reports.”

“. . .Ok, that’s gonna take some serious getting used to. She always say weird shit like that out of the blue?” he asked, looking at Cassandra and Solas. "The Iron Bull, by the way. Pleasure to meet you."

“That’s nothing, Tiny,” the dwarf answered in their place.

“Great,” the Qunari said, eyeing Nua. “That’s great. Should make everything easier, eh?” He boomed, as if making a joke of it. How much of his joviality was sincere, Solas suspected was another matter.

Nua smiled in answer. “Where are the Chargers?”

“Sent ‘em ahead to Haven. We were nearby when one of your scouts found us. She didn’t even blink when I told her our price, just said she was ‘authorized to pay' whatever was required.”

“I may have sold the worth of your band rather enthusiastically. So,” she said, tone and demeanor turning more serious, “I have to go meet a nun, and you’re going to need a horse before we can do much of anything - assuming you’re ready to travel?”

He gave a nod. “Yeah. But what’s a nun?”

“Oh, uh. . . she’s a. . . Chantry lady. A Mother. Thick accent. Big lips. Not as judgey as most of them, actually in it to help people. It shouldn’t take long.” She looked back at us. “Would the rest of you take Bull back to camp, get him up to speed, and see if we have a horse that won’t literally be crushed to death by him? And get him any supplies he needs. Cassandra and I can handle this on our own.”

She was hiding something, but hiding it well. After last night, he still thought his best course of action was to stay back. Either she would tire of the distance and try to close it - unlikely, given her opinion of him - or at the very least it would ease tensions and give him an opportunity to sit back and watch. He was still waiting for his memories of their second meeting to vanish, but either time was not so straightforward as he hoped, or it was still to take place despite his efforts to anchor her in the present. Everything between them would have been so much simpler if it had never taken place.

He did not acknowledge her order - or how easily she already gave them - just as she had not looked at him when she gave it. He simply cast one last surreptitious look in her direction and turned his horse to follow the others, cloaked tightly in his ara’lin. The Qunari kept pace without a problem. The camp was nearby, and he was unlikely to tire, given that he was apparently used to traveling on foot. He and the dwarf were soon chatting as if old friends. Elden, true to nature, stayed out of it and kept close watch. She was obviously unhappy about being separated from Nua, and suspicious of the new party member. Solas would have one ally in this, at least.

 

* * * * *

 

“What was that you called the Qunari?” Cassandra asked when the others were out of sight. “Was it a name?”

“Hissrad. Under the Qun, it’s his name and title. He’s a spy for the Ben Hassrath.”

“A spy?” Cassandra asked, alarmed. “A Qunari spy? And you are letting him into the Inquisition?”

I nodded calmly, but noted her choice of word: “letting.” Not “requesting.”

“He makes no secret of who or what he is,” I said. “It’s really rather clever, actually. Had he come to us, he would have told us about it immediately. All he’s ordered to do right now, or would have been ordered to do, was keep watch on the situation and make reports. The Qunari aren’t stupid - they know they Breach is a danger to everyone, not just southerners.

“We’ll get information from his people in exchange, and his company may lead to an alliance with them down the road, but don’t hold your breath. The circumstances surrounding it are tenuous at best. In any event, you can trust him as much as anyone else I’ll keep close to me.”

“He is another person you ‘know,’ then?”

“As well Cullen or Varric or Leliana,” I said calmly.

“Or me.”

I pursed my lips uncomfortably. I had specifically neglected to lump her into the ‘I know everything about you’ group. “Or you,” I agreed.

“But you do not know Elden?”

“Not one bit.”

“Hm.” She paused. “I wish to thank you for being considerate yesterday. But I would appreciate it if you would not interfere in my personal matters.”

I looked over at her in surprise, hiding a sting of hurt. “Come again?”

“You asked Varric to resume writing a certain book series,” she said tersely, neglecting to mention the name even when no one she knew was near.

I snorted a laugh. “Who said that was for you?”

She gave me an odd look. “In the Fade, you started to mention it.”

“If I wear pink will you assume I’m trying to flirt with you?”

“I. . . what? No! I simply assumed. . . .”

“Noted,” I said, already thinking about how to “accidentally” leave the books somewhere she’d find them as Varric wrote them. “I’ll try not to butt in without invitation.”

“Thank you,” she said, a little uncomfortably, I thought. “The things you know. . . do you know of Regalyan?”

I sobered. “Only by reference. I knew who he was and how he passed. I know he was important to you.”

“Was it. . . do you know if he suffered?”

I was quiet, the sounds of whispers and bird calls, insects, heartbeats and digesting food and. . . . I didn’t know the answer. But that blast. . . . “I think it was instant, Cassandra. For everyone.”

“But you do not know?”

“Not like I know some things. But the shape the temple was left in. . . that would have been done by an immensely powerful force. I don’t think anyone in there felt a thing.” Except the Divine, and whoever had suffered to give me the Anchor.

“. . . Thank you.”

I waited just long enough to be polite before speaking again. “So. . . I mean Varric is already going to be writing the books, should I just burn them as I’m done reading them?” God help me if I actually had to read one of those monsters.

“No!” She cried, but immediately seemed to realize her slip. “I may not care for him, but if he is going to do the work, he should publish them and be paid.”

“He doesn’t like the serial, Cassandra. He’s only doing it for me.”

“I. . . still, I think it would be unfair. The series had fans, if not as many as Hard In Hightown,” she said with derision.

“Ah. Ok, well maybe I’ll find someone somewhere along the way who can help me figure out what to do with them, then. Thanks for the advice,” I said brightly.

I could see Giselle in the distance, and I had no idea when I might get Cassandra alone like this again. I nudged my horse closer to hers and lowered my voice. “Listen, Cassandra. I’m going to speak to Leliana tonight, but I need you to do something for me.”

“What is it?”

“I need you to give her a message. I don’t trust it by raven, and I don’t want it spoken of outside of you and the advisors. There will be a message Josephine needs to get as soon as possible, too. I was hoping to have you there when we talked, and then to leave you with her so the two of you could discuss what I have to say. Assuming that’s even possible. You’ll have to get me alone in the morning to tell me if it works.”

“Of course.”

I nodded. I told her about the contract against Josephine’s family with the House of Repose and who had ordered it.

“I don’t know if she has the political pull to do what she needs to get it removed yet, but if she doesn’t now, the Inquisition will in a matter of months. I just didn’t want her to waste the lives or the sleepless nights in the meantime.”

“I will tell her,” Cassandra assured me. “What is the other matter?”

I pursed my lips. This one made me uneasy just thinking about it. “When we’re done here, I need to go somewhere, if there’s time. There are some circumstances. . . . I need Leliana to find an ironclad reason why Solas, and I don’t care who else, has to go somewhere away from Haven and do something for about six weeks, assuming I have that long before the meeting in Val Royeaux.” We had at least three days left in the Hinterlands to accomplish the bare essentials, and it would take three weeks to get to the Arbor Wilds from here. “Better if he has to depart before we’re even done here. I need him out of the loop until my trip is over.”

“Solas? Why? You insisted he be added to the war council.”

“Yes I did, and I stand by that decision. But until I get this out of the way, there are a lot of things I can’t tell any of you, and this is one of them. There are hoops I have to jump through. I have questions of my own, and where I want to go, I might be able to find answers. Until then, there’s too much up in the air, and I need Solas in a place where he can’t possibly know what I’m doing or where I’m going until it’s done.”

“Where do you wish to go?”

I lowered my voice further. “The Arbor Wilds. There’s a temple there I need to visit.”

“. . . You aren’t going to tell me any more about this, are you?” She asked flatly.

“Until I go, there’s not much of anything I can tell anyone. I’d prefer to get out of that phase as soon as possible, because a lot is coming, and frankly there are some big decisions I don’t want to have to make alone.”

“. . . Very well. I will ensure Leliana gets the message.”

 

* * * * *

 

The meeting with Giselle went as expected. Until she told us the clerics would convene in Val Royeaux in less than a month.

“News of the Conclave traveled quickly,” the Mother explained, “and with the Chantry in such disarray, only enough time was given to ensure attendance for those who could leave immediately.”

It was stupid. As gutted as the Chantry was, they would need everyone they could get at the meeting. With Thedas in such disarray, it was unreasonable to expect that many could just pick up and leave for months at a moment’s notice. For the same reasons, it would have been impossible to push the meeting back any more than absolutely necessary.

We thanked her for her time and consideration despite the more unflattering rumors about me, and extended an invitation to Haven for her and her people. We ensured she had any supplies she needed - not necessary, it turned out, as the cult had a representative at the Crossroads already seeing to such things - and left to meet the others at the nearby Inquisition camp.

I insisted on walking, and didn’t say a word the whole way. Three weeks from here to the Arbor Wilds. A good two weeks from there to Val Royeaux. Maybe there was a way to cover that distance more quickly. Unfortunately, the only two people I could ask were also the only two people who couldn’t know.

 

* * * * *

 

To save us time, I split us into two teams. Solas, Cassandra, and Elden would take care of non-mark-related grunt work, and Bull, Varric and I would cycle through the Rifts. Cole would go wherever he wanted. In three days, we would meet up at Dennet’s farm. I was looking forward to the break; Varric and Bull both paid attention, but it was in different, more veiled ways than Solas or Elden. They were also unlikely to ask the sort of questions Cassandra might.

When we set camp that evening, I asked Varric to take a walk with me. When we’d gone far enough that Solas wouldn’t have been able to overhear - I didn’t know how good Quinari senses were - I stopped and turned to him.

“You know how I know things I’m not supposed to know.”

“Kind of hard to miss, your magic oracleness.”

“Yeah. Thanks for that. Anyway, I know I’m going to have to make a lot of shitty decisions for a lot of other people before this is over, but I’d rather not start until I have to and. . . well, this one just seemed too personal.”

“Is this going to be another one of those conversations I wish I wasn’t here for?” He asked warily.

“Honestly? Probably yes. But it’s Bianca. The woman, not the crossbow,” I clarified.

Shock registered on his face, but I also saw the Varric that ran a spy network fall into place. I felt bad for him, only because I couldn’t imagine how it felt to be surprised time and again by the evidence of someone who knew ‘everything’ really, actually knowing things they had no right to know.

“You have a choice to make,” I said. “There’s a red lyrium mining operation going on here in the Hinterlands--” Varric swore soundly, and I paused to let him finish. “The natural progression of this situation would be that months from now, Bianca would show up to bring it to our attention and, for her own reasons, come with us to take care of it.

“You’d get to see her. We would travel with her here, take care of it, travel back. You’d be with her for at least three weeks, probably more like four or five. The downside is that the lyrium would be mined in the intervening months.”

It was a moment before he answered. “Look,” he said uneasily, “I appreciate you thinking about me, but there’s no choice, here. Red lyrium is bad shit. If we have a chance to destroy some of it and stop it from spreading, we take it. There’s no question.”

I looked at him, trying to figure out if I should tell him what else he would have learned from Bianca when she came to us. Me, I was easy; I always wanted to know the truth, no exceptions, no matter how ugly it was. Other people weren’t so simple.

Varric was like anyone else: he had a tendency to shy away from difficult, painful things. Bianca was hardly a part of his life, and knowing the person who inadvertently tipped Sethius off to red lyrium didn’t change anything. Would he want to know the truth she would have admitted to him once she knew she couldn’t hide it any more? Or would he want her memory protected?

“Varric do you prefer hard truths or beautiful lies?” I asked suddenly.

“Me? I’m an author, kid. And a compulsive liar. What do you think?”

I smiled. “Fair enough. Now let’s get back before The Iron Bull thinks we’re doing more than making out.”

Varric laughed. “Hey, I’m a one crossbow kind of man, Prophet.”

I stifled a growl, but it rumbled silently in my chest. Time was past I start getting used to hearing it.

“Don’t worry,” I assured lightly. “If it comes up, I’ll tell him your barrel grip is even bigger up close.”

 

* * * * *

 

“You know that’s the first time I’ve seen you eat since we met,” Varric said as I worked at a bowl of meat-and-water stew. I had a packet of herbs from Haven to add, and Bull had something he said would thicken it up. I didn’t know if it was my heightened sense of taste, but the stuff was “food” by only the most technical definition.

“I’ve eaten,” I said around a mouthful. “I ate as much as a druffalow the night I woke up.

“Ah,” he said, feigning lightness. “So that’s one meal in, what, a week and a half?”

“Wait, you don’t eat?” Bull asked. “How do you not eat?”

“Different physiology,” I said, trying to loose a piece of meat stuck between what I had found to be unusually sharp canines. Bull looked at the tips appreciatively. “And I ate a little the next morning too, Varric. My body doesn’t talk to me very well, though, so I could literally starve to death on accident. Since I don’t have any memories, I don’t know how often I’m supposed to eat, so I figure once a week or so should be good, and if my weight changes I can go from there.”

“I thought you were just an elf,” Bull said.

“Yeah so did I. But I don’t really look like an elf, do I?” I asked with the wry arch of a brow, spreading my arms to invite inspection.

“I figured you for a halfling until I saw your ears. I would have said human, but you’ve got those bright eyes, and there’s something willowy about you, even through the curves.”

I nodded. “I’m not small like elves are. I’m not built like elves are.” I suppressed a shudder at the thought of modern elves. I was going to have to find a way around my aversion to them, quickly. “On the inside. . . all the more.”

“She’s hungry,” Cole said, looking out into the dark beyond the ring of firelight. “Mouths to feed, too many missed hunts, weak and wasting, tired, smells so good. . . .”

I followed his gaze and my ears told me the rest. I tipped my bowl over the cooking pot and drained as much of the liquid as I could, leaving several chunks of meat behind. I held the bowl out to him, and he looked from it up to my face.

“I need the bowl back so I can drink the rest of my dinner, but give this to her.”

“Thank you,” he said emphatically, though he seemed beyond surprised.

Cole went over to the Fennec who, unafraid of him, took the meat. “She cares,” I heard him say quietly to the animal as it ate.

Bull looked at Varric.

“Don’t ask me, Tiny. They do weird shit all the time. Every time you think you’re getting used to it, she does something weirder.”

“Next time I’m not telling you about the hot tub,” I said petulantly.

“You don’t think I’d get tipped off by everyone else talked about it?”

“Fine. Then next time I won’t make one at all just to spite you.”

“Has anyone ever told you you have a mean streak?”

“How would I know?”

“So wait,” Bull said, “how many rumors about you aren’t true?”

“Honestly,” I said, reclining on the ground and watching Cole’s back, “at this point I’d put my money on the rumors underselling said weird shit.”

Bull gave me a look.

“No, she’s right. And I’ve only been around her for a week. You want to see something really impressive, spar with her some time. No magic.”

“Yeah I don’t think it would go over well if a Qunari heathen snapped the Maker’s Chosen in half like a dry stick.”

I snorted and Varric laughed. “Remind me to put money down on it first, then. In fact, how about ten crowns on a round of arm wrestling right now?”

“Only if I get fifty percent,” I said without missing a beat.

“Fifty. . . that’s highway robbery!”

“I’m pretty sure that fifty percent of ten crowns is a lot more than the zero percent of zero crowns you’ll get when I refuse to cooperate because you didn’t give me what I wanted.”

“. . . You should meet my editor. You two would love each other,” he said drily.

“No, your editor sounds terrifying, thank you.” I looked over at Bull. “What about it? Want to play?” I asked with a flirtatious raise of my brows.

“I think I must be missing something. What are you going to do, hit some pressure points or something, paralyze my arm?”

I laughed. “No. No tricks. Just all this. . . raw power and muscle,” I said, gesturing sardonically to my arms. I rolled onto my stomach in the dirt and held a hand out, propped up on my elbow and ready to go, eyebrows raised in challenge.

He looked at me dubiously.

“Come on,” I cajoled. “I’m honestly a little curious about this, myself. Can’t break me like a stick just by arm wrestling, can you?”

He looked at me another moment then shook his head and, with a heaved breath, lowered himself to the ground opposite me. “This is ridiculous, you know,” he muttered as he put his hand in mine. It looked like a child’s next to his. A small child’s.

I had been struck all day not only by how truly massive he was - much, much bigger than I had expected - but by how alien. He wasn’t just a big man with gray skin and horns. Even more than elves, he was genuinely different. Other. I thought I could sit and stare at him for an hour, easy.

“Going to break her hand,” Bull muttered to himself.

My lips turned down in a suppressed grin.

Cole wandered back and put my bowl where I had been sitting as Varric came to stand over us. “Standard rules,” he said officially, “no cheating.”

“What standard rules?” I asked. “I’ve never arm wrestled before. . . .I think.”

“Just push his hand until it hits the ground, Trouble, and try not to lose me my ten crowns.Or break his sword arm.”

“So much faith.”

“Hey, I heard about the mineral crate incident.”

“Those things were full of ore?”

“Why did you think most of them were being carried by two burly men?”

“Honestly I thought I just. . . got there when only empty boxes were left. They seemed awfully light, though.”

Bull was looking between me and Varric curiously. He knew what he was hearing, but didn’t believe it, I figured. Maybe he thought we were trying to hustle him. But of course he couldn’t figure out how, since how could he lose to a woman whose upper arm was smaller than his wrist?

Varric chuckled, made sure we were ready, then gave us the go.

I felt light pressure on my hand, and when it didn’t move, Bull’s eyes snapped up to mine to find a satisfied, predatory sort of grin on my face.

Carefully, testingly, he increased the force. Then again. I saw the moment he turned serious and put his weight behind it. His muscles popped to life as they engaged.

I wasn’t sure how this experience could have not surprised me, but everything about it was a revelation. That I withstood him was a revelation. That he was able to push my hand at all to the side was a revelation. That my body was unworried about the humongous opponent was a revelation.

I imagined that if I had a normal body, arm-wrestling a teenaged version of myself would have gone something like this. Did I have to try? Yes. Was there any way he could win so long as I really did try? No. This had to have looked like some kind of parody to anyone watching - it looked like a parody to me - and yet here I was, holding off a man with muscles that didn’t look real half the time.

I watched his face contort and then strain, listened to his heart speed and smelled as he started to sweat and flood with adrenaline. I didn’t let him push my arm more than three inches past center before I slammed his into the ground so hard that it disturbed the fine, dry soil. It wasn’t effortless, but it certainly wasn’t the hardest thing I’d ever done. I wondered if Solas could win, too - how much stronger was I than other elvhen?

Bull stared down at his hand in shock. He looked up at me in shock. He looked at Varric and then Cole in shock.

“What the hell are you?” he roared, jumping to his feet, very much like a six year-old girl who had just seen a unicorn show up to her birthday party, only much more manly.

“That is the question of the hour,” I said, pushing up with a grin on my face and dusting myself off.

“Shit, I wanna do that again! That was incredible! Can you wrestle? Do you know what we could do with people like you in Tevinter? Is there anyone else like you? Do you know anything about where you’re from? What do you know about the Qun?”

It went on like this for a while, his mind spinning off into a dozen applications for someone of my ability, and suddenly he wanted to know everything about me. He probably had before because of his job, but as if beating him at arm-wrestling had forged some sort of “bro” bond, he was no longer playing at polite and not just asking.

I was glad. A little knocked off-balance at first, but glad.

“Hey, Trouble, you sleeping tonight?” Varric eventually asked.

“Wait wait wait,” Bull said, waving his hands in front of himself. “You don’t sleep either?”

“No, I do,” I said, a little halting with discomfort. “I just. . . haven’t. It’s complicated. I have a chaperone in the Fade, and I haven’t wanted to talk to him the last couple nights. I only need about three hours of sleep, and I feel fine even though I haven’t. Slept, I mean. My body tends to tamp down on anything that will slow me down, though, so I don’t know if tiredness falls under that umbrella.”

“It will hurt if he makes you look,” Cole said. “But if you do, you can let go. You make it better. Let the dead lay. They don't hurt any more.”

I wanted to ask if he had let go of the people he’d killed when he was to the world. But he still didn’t remember any of that.

“I killed some people on the way here,” I explained soberly to Bull. “A few days ago. I’m sure they weren’t my first, logically, but they’re the first I remember. I’ve been taking time as I could to deal with it, and I haven’t held back in fights since, just. . . I don’t know, something about it got stuck in my throat.”

Bull's face turned serious. “The Qunari are pretty fatalistic about life and death. They teach us about it if we get chosen for a role under the Qun that’s probably going to involve a lot of killing. But you already know about that, right?”

“Some of it,” I said with a shrug, completely ignoring what may or may not have been a test. “I know how you’re conceived, born, raised, the basic tenets you live by, the structure of your society, what some of the roles within it do.”

Cole muttered something I didn’t understand, and then vanished.

Bull couldn’t help it: “What’s with the kid? He’s kind of. . . .”

“Cole is a spirit of compassion,” I said.

Varric froze, and Bull growled incredulously, “You bound a demon?”

“Did I say demon?” I replied a little too peevishly. “He isn’t a demon any more than I’m a nematode.” Much more gently, I added, “He’s not like Anders, Varric. Don’t worry.”

“You sure about that?” He asked uneasily.

“Positive. Zero percent like Anders. Completely different situation.”

“Who’s Anders? Another creepy friend of yours?”

“You heard about the Chantry in Kirkwall getting blown up?” Varric asked. “That was Anders.” His distaste was clear.

“Shit. You know that guy?”

“No. I haven’t seen him in four years. And I’m not sure anybody ever knew Anders. I’m not sure there was an Anders by the time I met him.” Varric picked up a stick from the ground nearby and began breaking pieces off, absently throwing them into the fire.

We were all quiet. I looked down at my hands. “Was it hard the first time? For either of you, when you killed someone?”

“Sure,” Bull said. “But it’s like anything else in life. You build up callouses over time. People say ‘it gets easier’ too much, but in this case, it really will. The volume of feeling will go down. It’s never going to be just plain easy, but that doesn't mean every time will feel like the first.”

It was oddly gratifying hearing this from someone who was so good at dealing out death. Who did it so often and with such seeming readiness. But then Bull, like everyone else, wasn’t what he first appeared to be.

“Just don’t try to push it down,” he went on. He leaned back onto an elbow and turned his head to the side to look at me, propping it on one of his horns. “Deal with it, or it’ll hollow a piece of you out that you probably don’t want to lose. Some people pray, some people have rituals to honor the dead, some people drink or have sex or get into fights. Some people do more than one. You just find what works for you.”

“Is that what you were doing when you ran off?” Varric asked me. “After it happened, I mean.”

I raised my brows at him a little. “What makes you think that?”

He shrugged. “You’re the thoughtful sort--”

“How do you figure?” I interrupted incredulously. “All I do is run my mouth, boss people around, pester everyone for tutorials, and wander aimlessly.”

“No you don’t,” he said with a chuckle. “Well, ok, you do get in extra miles, and you’re not afraid to take charge. The tutorials thing? Nobody blames you for that, Trouble, and you’re not a pest about it. Most of the time. But running your mouth? Nah. You ramble when you’re nervous, sure. You tell people when you’re pissed at them, you speak up when you have something to say, but you sure as shit don’t ‘run your mouth.’ Plus, half of what comes out of it is a study on the profound nature of life and the universe,” he said in an exaggerated tone. “You don’t get that way unless you do a lot of thinking, and watching, and listening. I would know.”

I snorted, and he had the grace to look mildly offended before he went on pointedly. “I was going to say how nice you were - to most people - but now I think I’ll skip that part. Anyway, the Qunari is right. However you deal with shit - yelling at elven apostates, hitting elven apostates, strangling elvhen apostates--”

“Varric!”

He went on like I hadn’t interrupted. “Writing, that weird sword dancing contortionist shit you do, wandering off into the woods for hours at a time and leaving everyone to wonder if you’ve been eaten by a bear. . . . Just make sure you deal with it. I hear it helps when it’s for the right reason. Seems plausible, buuut I have my doubts. The first is always brutal, no matter who you are. Unless you’re a psychopath.”

“Contortionist shit?” Bull asked.

“Like a damn circus performer. She’s not shy about it, either.”

“Well it’s not like I can retire to my private room for the evening and do it where it won’t scandalize anyone.”

“Don’t worry on my count, Boss,” Bull half-purred jocularly.

“So accommodating, this one,” I said.

“I like to be helpful.”

“Yeah speaking of, I have a request. But not for tonight. Just help me remember it tomorrow. Tonight, you two need to go to bed. Varric, I need to talk to Leliana, so you take third watch. The Iron Bull, don’t worry, I’ll be sure to protect you from the scary, socially awkward teenage boy while you sleep.”

“Sure, Trouble.”

“You’re hilarious,” Bull said flatly.

“With less than two days speaking the local language, I can already say I’ve been called worse.”

Cole materialized next to me and held out a blade and a large stick.

“For your hands,” he said.

I beamed up at him, chest threatening to overflow.

“Two days?” Bull asked. “I thought--”

“Goodnight, vicious, terrifying Qunari friend,” I cut pointedly over top him as I cut into the stick and started whittling aimlessly.

As soon as both men were in their tents, I willed the fire out.

“Boss?” Bull asked, wary.

“Yeah, sorry The Iron Bull, that was me,” I said. “Easier to see without the fire. Makes us less visible, too. It’s always out when I’m on watch. Forgot to mention it.”

“No problem. But didn’t you say you were meeting someone later?”

“Yeah. In the Fade.”

“In the. . . .” He made a disgruntled noise. “I’m going to sleep.”

I chuckled to myself.

Chapter Text

I held Fen’harel’s forest in my mind as I drifted off. He was waiting for me when I woke to the Fade, sitting and facing me, the tip of his tail twitching now and again as if he were a giant cat.

[Da’lan.] He was like a parent and a friend and a lover, all greeting someone they hadn’t seen in years. His voice was so warm.

I looked down. “. . .I killed someone,” I whispered. “Seventeen of them, all at once. Varric and Cassandra were going to die, I only had an instant to act, and I just. . . did.

“I know I have before. And I’ve done it again since. But I don’t remember and I couldn’t. . . I didn’t want to. . . . I needed time,” I sighed. “I don’t know why. You’re the only one who knows this part of me, and coming here. . . . Everything is just happening so fast. It was fine when it was ideas and walking around and helping and telling people where to cram it. The blood made it real.” I huffed a laugh. “And there wasn’t even any blood.”

[You had done it many times before you came to me. Something inside of you would take control when you fought. You were ferocity and grace embodied. When you came back to yourself once it was finished, you set it all aside.]

“How?”

[I cannot pretend to know. Everyone deals with it differently. But there is no one who it does not affect.]

“So I hear.” I paused, shifted on my feet. “Fen’harel. . . why did you lie about Solas?”

[Lie?]

The answer took me right back to my argument with Solas the day before. Perhaps they were comparing notes. Perhaps they had already met to discuss what had happened.

“You’re asking which lie I’m referring to, then?” I snapped. I shook my head in disbelief. Why I thought my friend, my “friend” would tell me the truth when confronted. . . .

“Forget it,” I said. “I won’t get answers from you anyway. I have people I need to see tonight, can you make yourself a normal size?

[Nua--]

“No,” I said harshly. “I am so fucking sick of being lied to, and it doesn’t matter if I can piece together why, I guess I just wanted one person, one fucking person who knew what I did and wouldn’t lie through their teeth every time they opened their mouth. Christ, even I’m lying to me.” I shook my head. “I’m glad I didn’t come here.”

With a flash of inspiration, I used my anger as an excuse to close myself off from him, as if retreating to another room.

“Is there a way to quickly travel great distances?” I asked, frustration and anger obvious in my voice.

[Perhaps.]

I shot him an exasperated and warning look.

He shook his head and stood to pace nearer to me. [What I mean is, yes, there is, but I do not know if it will work, not even with your connection to the Fade.]

“. . .Deets, please,” I urged, annoyed, when he didn’t speak.

He looked at me blankly and I rolled my eyes. “Details, Fen’harel. Please explain what you mean.”

He was circling around me so close that the coarse tips of his fur tickled against the bare parts of my skin. It was testing. I allowed it, but only just.

[It is a modified Fade Step. Have you used the ability?] His voice was subdued, but aloof. I hated it.

“Not that I know of.”

He nodded without nodding, then suddenly he was several yards away.

[It will look like that in the waking world. Do you need to see it again?]

I soaked the magic in and, in answer, stepped to follow him, appearing feet from his face. [Guess not,] I answered, glib.

He didn’t take the bait. Stupid goddamned wolf.

[Exactly like that, but will yourself further. I would recommend trying it over slowly increasing distances, and only where you can see your destination. Since the Fade travels with you and is not present in the world overall, your results may be unpredictable. It may not work at all.]

I sniffed and nodded, and, not wanting to give him an opening, moved us to the pocket of the Fade occupied by Leliana’s dreaming mind. I roused her gently and told her we’d be collecting Cassandra, too.

“But what is that?” She asked, looking to Fen’harel who, despite my anger, was glued to my side, “normal”-sized. Though his eyes remained blue, they had darkened considerably and his fur had returned to black.

“The demon-repellent chaperone I mentioned. You can call him Fen,” I said with a snide note. He would hate it.

I felt a prick of annoyance from him and gave him one right back. In answer, the asshole was amused. I practically seethed, but reeled my ara’lin back in tight to deny him the satisfaction of knowing it.

[You always did have a temper,] he allowed with cool detachment.

“And were you always a lying shit?” I hissed back.

[Yes.]

“Are you talking to the. . . Fen?” Leliana asked uncertainly.

“We’ve had a bit of a spat, you’ll have to excuse me.”

To my surprise, she smiled. “You seem familiar with him. You said he knows you - you are friends? I would be glad to hear that you are not so alone.”

A pang, well-subdued, went through me - and another went through him. For a moment, my temper sputtered like fire doused with too much water.

“That's under debate at the moment. I only have a few hours here tonight, so let’s go and get Cassandra.”

“Cullen wishes to join us, too,” she said.

I looked at her, surprised. “Really? I figured he would have been relieved not to be involved.”

“He is not comfortable with the idea, but though he can be quite rigid, he sometimes manages to be open-minded.” Fen’harel scoffed silently. “Truthfully,” she said as if amused and conspiratorial, “I think he is curious. About you as well.”

I was taken aback, and I let it show on my face. Until I shot a glare down to Fen’harel for the silent, low growl.

“If you’re not going to behave, put it away,” I hissed quietly at him. “You’re as bad as Solas.”

That time he growled at me. Out loud.

“Oh, cram it,” I snapped and took a step away from him.

Leliana arched a brow, hands clasped behind her back.

“Sorry. Spat, like I said.”

“Does he - do you not have a human form, Fen?”

He looked at her disdainfully.

“Probably,” I answered for him. “But he’s the secretive sort. He hasn’t even shown me.”

He felt a small bit of remorse at that, at least.

Leliana eyed him. She cast a glance at me and she was trying to tell me something, but I could only guess that it was some sort of advisory for caution. More visibly, she gave a lithe shrug. “As I was saying, Cullen is the only one of us who has not heard you speak or express yourself. And with all you had to say the last time we met like this, can you blame him?”

I smiled despite myself, brows drawn a little together. “I guess not. I’ll try to make it easy on him.” I paused, then added, “You seem well tonight.”

“I have not been at my best since the Conclave, but I am recovering, thank you. What you said. . .” she cast a glance at Fen’harel. “Can we speak freely?”

I gave a half shrug. “Might as well. No life-altering secrets, though. To be safe.”

Another jab of annoyance, and this time I growled, too quiet for Leliana to hear.

She nodded. “I cannot pretend to understand all of what you told me the last time we spoke, or to believe it. But I am grateful for the guidance.” She said this with the ease of speaking to someone who had an inherent right to give her guidance. It shot my hopes of seeming like a person to her all through with buckshot. “If nothing else, it has given me something to occupy my thoughts. Reports of your progress have also helped.”

I nodded. “I’m hoping to be done in the Hinterlands within three or four days. We talked to Giselle today, and the meet will be in less than a month.”

“Cassandra sent me a report this evening. The timing makes sense, but it is hardly convenient. Chancellor Roderick has already returned to Haven,” she said darkly.

“Your ravens are incredible,” I said with a huffed laugh. “Good segue though, Roderick is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. Before we do, has anything noteworthy happened with Agent Butler yet?”

“Butler?” She asked surprised. “No, he has been on an assignment for some time. Why, is he in trouble?”

I shook my head. “Just, if something happens with him, talk to me before you decide what to do. Please. It’s important.”

“. . .As you wish, Prophet.”

I hid a cringe. “Let’s go collect our friends, shall we?”

“Of course.”

Cassandra was in a frilly dress that looked like it should belong to a six year-old girl. An older, puffed-up nobleman with a Nevarran accent sat at the head of a massive dining table. He wore a vase, complete with flowers, upside down on his head, and had what looked like an undead mabari sitting in his lap as if it was no bigger than a kitten. The man was lecturing her on her declining marriageability as he pet the dog’s head. And he kept saying something about pheasants. It sounded very urgent.

When I had given Cassandra better clothes and her mortification had started to subside, we went to Cullen who, of course, was having a nightmare.

I cursed and waved a hand. The dream vanished like fog.

“That is remarkable,” Cassandra said in wonder.

Leliana, shrewd as ever, asked, “Have you perhaps been keeping an eye on the Commander? He mentioned he has been sleeping unusually well, and you showed interest in preserving his good dream last time we were met like this.”

I looked a little guiltily from her to Cassandra. I could “feel” Fen’harel roll his eyes in disdain.

“Jesus you are as bad as Solas,” I accused under my breath, looking down at him. Then, to the women, said, “I. . . might have been keeping an eye on him. I don’t watch his dreams or anything,” I hurried to say, “I’ve just sort of been staying nearby, and when he has a nightmare, I find out and I make it stop.” My voice was perhaps more sheepish by the end than I would have liked. “ Sleep is important," I added in a small voice. "Is it a terrible invasion of privacy? Is it creepy?”

Leliana looked deeply amused. “I won’t say anything if Cassandra doesn’t. He has been in a much better mood, and those terrible bags under his eyes have even started to look a little better. His men feared his temper less toward the end of last week, too. He has been more tired the last two days, however.”

"Ah, yeah, I. . . I didn't sleep the last two nights. Sorry about that."

She raised her brows.

Cassandra looked from Cullen, around whom a new dream was already coalescing, to me. “You said you do not watch his dreams. How do you know when there is a nightmare?”

“I just sort of ask it to tell me if he’s having one. When he is, I step in. If it’s especially bad, sometimes I put him somewhere familiar or comforting, but usually I just leave him be.”

“. . . I do not see a problem with it, then. We may wish to keep it between us, however. I doubt the Commander would appreciate the interference.”

“I had the same feeling,” I said.

I looked to the man in question and remembered telling Leliana I would try to make this easy on him. A picture came to mind, and immediately we were in a green, open field in the dead of night, tiny lights flashing all around us, so dense it seemed like we stood in a field of stars.

“What is this?” Leliana asked in wonder.

“Do you not have them here?” I asked. “Little flashing bugs? We called them fireflies or lightning bugs. They would come out in numbers like this during the summer in some places. It’s their mating call. The light, I mean.”

“No,” Cassandra said, just as struck as Leliana. Even Fen’harel was appreciative. “There are small cave-dwelling creatures and fungi that glow, but nothing like this.” God help me, the woman had wonder in her eyes. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. “Are you remembering, then?”

“No,” I said, pensive. “Nothing comes back when I ask for it, but contextually it’s always there when something else calls it up. I think I would be able to answer just about any question about my past even though I don’t remember any of it. General things, anyway. I’ve been getting the impression I shouldn’t want to remember more than that.”

That earned me looks from all three, but I just turned to Cullen and smoothed an absent hand over the cloth at my stomach nervously before calling him, putting a will behind the word to not just get his attention, but to help him wake up.

“Maker,” he breathed when he took in our surroundings. “Am I still dreaming?”

“No,” I said with a warm smile. “Leliana told me you wanted to be here when we talked tonight. I thought you might appreciate a good view your first time. The raw fade is kind of. . . weird. This is something from my world. I’m guessing it’s a memory, but I couldn’t say for certain.”

“You can manipulate the Fade?”

“Apparently,” I said with half a shrug. “Fen,” I made the word into a slight jab, “here has been teaching me.”

“And this is your. . .friend? The one you mentioned?” Cullen asked dubiously, looking at Fen’harel.

A silent growl rumbled through him. I shot him a warning look, which he ignored, and just said “Yes.”

“So. . . where are we, exactly?” Cullen asked. “What are these lights?”

“Little bugs,” Leliana said with a laugh. Crickets sang around us. “The Prophet--” Cassandra’s eyes darted to my face, “said this is how they attract mates. Like birdsong, or colorful flowers.”

I gave them a moment to appreciate the view before speaking. I wasn’t sure how much time I had left. Fen’harel had told me that time in the Fade is a fluid thing, but that as a Dreamer, I could will it to more or less follow time as I was used to it. I typically gave myself a watch or pocket-sized clock to track the time, but I had forgotten tonight.

“Speaking of creatures trying to advertise their alleged superiority, I want to talk about Roderick.”

“Leliana told you he’s back, I take it?” Cullen asked drily.

I hummed a half-amused agreement. “I knew he would be, I just wasn’t sure when. He’s to die in a few months, but so are a lot of other people, and if I can stop it, I’m going to. Sadly, that will mean our good Chancellor may have a great many years to continue harassing us needlessly.”

That sobered everyone immediately.

“I can’t give you a lot of details, and like too many other things, it’s still very much up in the air, but I wanted to find out how much you in particular, Leliana, know about subversive psychology.”

“Only a little. It has not been my area of expertise,” she said. “I can infiltrate, spy, intimidate, and extract information. I know my way around the Game, which involves very little but toying with other people in secret, but you are talking about affecting the way someone thinks, are you not?”

I nodded. “In the right hands, it can be useful.”

[Or you can end up with another Qunari society,] Fen’harel said, and everyone obviously heard him this time.

“The wolf. . . speaks?” Cassandra asked.

“Nothing is what it seems in the Fade,” Cullen said darkly. "I would wager that's no wolf."

“True enough,” I said, “but this nothing happens to be what keeps me from getting swallowed alive by a monstrous horde of demons. So all things in perspective, maybe?” Fen felt a vicious stab of satisfaction at my "defending" him. He was unusually expressive tonight, and I wondered if it was because of our spat or because we had company, or something else I couldn’t think to guess at.

“He’s spent every night training me. You know, helping me not die in the real world, too. He’s a person just like you or I.” Fen scoffed. “This is just his preferred--” A dizzying lance went through my forehead and Fen’harel swelled in size, stepping between me and the others to brace me as I fell forward. A shiver ran over the whole of me.

“Prophet?” Cullen asked, concerned. I looked up to find he had a hand on my arm, and that Fen’harel - whose head was out of Cullen’s line of sight - had the tips of his teeth bared.

[Do not touch her, templar,] he said, his voice warning and quiet.

Cullen’s grip on me tightened and he finally looked down and saw Fen’harel’s expression.

“Prophet. . . .” Cullen began, his tone very much ‘move toward me slowly.’

I Fade Stepped back several feet away from both of them to diffuse the situation, though it nearly had me stumbling again.

“Nua is fine,” I said sharply. “Cullen is a considerate gentleman and Fen is protective. Misunderstanding fixed, everyone back to their corners, please. I’m fine, really.” ‘I think.’ “I’ve found some sort of mental block. That happens when I come up too hard against it. Whatever triggered it gets wiped away.”

Cullen and Fen’harel were still eyeing each other. The barest wisps of black were easing off of his fur near the ground. Cullen's eyes honed in on it like a laser, and I saw a minuscule twitch in his sword hand.

”Enough,” I yelled, letting my voice vibrate as if in a cathedral. “I am on the clock here, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to all of you like this again. Please, calm the hell down and step away so I can talk. This is important."

Everyone was tensed. I sighed and wiped away the scene I had created so we stood in the raw Fade, jade and fuzzy and unreal. That was jarring enough to get everyone's attention. I walked forward and gestured for Fen’harel, then sat down and leaned into his side. We were both tense; it soothed him and, annoyingly, it soothed me, too.

Cullen's eyes were still on Fen'harel. "Can't we simply tell you what you were talking about when it happened? Help you piece it together, perhaps?"

"Only if you want me to experience more lances of agonizing pain," I replied, casual and dry. "That's obviously not my first choice."

Fen'harel rumbled silently and tensed.

“Since I don’t know how much time I have left tonight," I went on, changing the subject, "there’s something more important than Roderick: the meeting in Val Royeaux. Something bad is going to happen there. The barest details are this: people should be planted in the city who can blend in so they can be part of the crowd that day. The Chargers should be good for this, maybe a few soldiers too, but only ones who can act.

“On a signal, they need to start herding people out of the square and behind the gates as surreptitiously as possible. There will be a fight, and it’s going to be a bad one. That was why I wanted as many bodies there as we could get - Cullen, Leliana, that includes you. The Iron Bull met up with us today, so he’ll be there, and if Zevran comes and he’s fit for it, I want him, too. With the uncertain position of the Inquisition, we can hardly march soldiers to a peaceful talk in the seat of the Chantry, but as I said, it will not be an easy fight.”

“What is it?” Cullen asked.

I looked at him, then shifted, and thought for a moment. “. . .Do you believe the future is mutable?” I asked, looking at him.

[. . .You believe you will change something if you say too much,] Fen’harel guessed.

“Err on the side of caution,” I replied wryly.

“. . . As much as I wish to know, so long as we have everything we need to be prepared, it may be best if you did not tell us,” Leliana said.

“But if the future changes, will you not simply see the new course it is to take?” Cassandra asked.

'Simply,' she said. I almost laughed. Almost.

“I know one timeline, Cassandra. One. I know a lot of the possibilities in that timeline, but to be honest, I might have already changed things, if they can be changed. I’m counting on the major points staying where they are, so long as we maneuver properly. There are things I’ll need to talk with all of you about, decisions I’ll want help making. This is your world, after all, and I may not be one of the people who ends up having to live with the consequences of what we do.”

“Then there is no choice,” Cassandra said. “You do not tell us any more than we need to know.”

“Agreed,” Cullen said. “Right now, your foresight is an unheard of advantage. Losing that could be disastrous. Can you tell us anything about these deaths you said were coming?”

I shook my head and glanced at Cassandra. To anyone else, it would look like I was including her in the conversation. But she would know what I was leaving unsaid. “Not yet. Hopefully soon. If nothing else, Val Royeaux will tell us a lot. I only hope this isn’t a mistake,” I said, rubbing my forehead with my fingers.

[Can you tell me?] Fen’harel asked seriously.

I looked at him. “. . .Actually. . . that might not be a bad idea.” I looked back to the others. “He won’t be directly involved, and he has a brilliant strategic mind. If nothing else, I’d feel a lot better not having this on my shoulders alone.”

“And you’re certain you can trust him with that kind of information?” Cullen asked, eyeing him.

Fen’harel only turned to the side and rested his head on my shoulder, closing his eyes as if in pleasure.

I gave him a silent warning and felt only smug amusement in return. A muscle in my jaw twitched.

I looked up at Cullen with a half-apologetic smile. “No. But. . . I think I can. There’s not much he could do with it even if he wanted to, and I'm rarely certain about anything. I seem to take the word literally. . . .Actually, I seem to take a lot of words literally.”

“We will leave it to your judgement,” Cassandra said. “Is there anything else you can tell us before we discuss Roderick?”

“. . .Nnnnoo. There will be a lot more to do after Val Royeaux, so enjoy the ‘slow’ pace while it lasts. Here’s the plan for Roderick, and I figure we can use this to help with public opinion, too. . . .”

 

* * * * *

 

That had been the morning I learned I could force myself awake from the Fade. Angry avoidance could be a strong motivator, apparently. Or perhaps Fen'harel just hadn't wanted me to know how to get away from him should I really want to. 

I was off some way doing a kata as Varric and Bull had breakfast. They were talking in low voices they obviously thought I couldn't hear.

“She can be kind of protective, especially of the kid,” I heard Varric say. “And she's loyal. On the way here. . . well, let's just say you can take it on good authority that if you're with her, she'll protect you. If it helps any, Cole seems like a good enough kid. A little weird, sure, and not so good with people. But I guess now I know why. Honestly sometimes I think she relates to him better than she does to anyone else, like they both speak the same language of ‘weird mystical shit.’ But it seems like she can’t be beat when it comes to judging someone’s character. I mean, she seems to like me ok, and I’m fantastic. Plus she knows all of us inside and out.”

"Say what?"

"Yeah, that's part of her foresight. She knows a lot of people before she meets them, and some of us, mostly the ones she plans on traveling with, she knows like the back of her hand. Well. . . if she knew the back of her hand."

"That doesn't make sense," Bull said uncertainly. "She was happy when she met me. If she knew everything about me--" he made a considering noise. "I'm not sure I would have expected that kind of reception. I've done some pretty bad shit."

"We all have, Tiny. You know what she said to me once? 'No one who comes to us is clean, Varric. Not to us.' 'Ominous' was an understatement. But if I'm being honest, she's probably right. Everybody has a story. She laid out most of my biggest secrets in one afternoon. In private, mind, but still. But it's easy to forget she's so weird. Because she's so normal. She's just this good-natured, sweet, curious kid. Right up until someone pisses her off."

"It's good she keeps the private things private, at least. Still, I'm not sure I know how to deal with someone I've never met knowing every tiny thing about me. Not outside of the Tamassrans, anyway. I mean what is she, seventeen? Nineteen, maybe?"

I scowled as I bent one of my legs up to rest my foot on the back of my head and leaned forward to balance on the toes of the other foot. I hadn't looked seventeen when I'd seen myself in Cullen's dream, and I knew I was not a teenager.  . . .The same way I knew I wasn't an elf.

"Eahhh, I don't know. But then again, neither does she," he said with an amused puff. There was a pause and the sound of moving or packing. "It's pretty easy to forget who she is, what she can do, what she knows. Of course," he said with another huff of a laugh, "she does weird shit at least three times a day, and that's just when we're traveling. But most of the time it's like she doesn't even know it's weird shit. Like it's just normal. Like she doesn't realize just how batshit crazy it is until after she does it and people start staring at her. Makes it easier to let it go after a while, you know, once it stops making it more weird. I mean where does she have to be from for. . . ." He trailed off. "Anyway, you watch her and it's like she's just someone from a different country, not some weird. . . whatever from Maker knows where.

"Hell, she argued with the Seeker and her bodyguard for ten minutes because she didn't want to kill a pack of demon-controlled wolves. I had a friend in Kirkwall I think she'd get along great with, her name was Daisy. Didn't have her head on quite as straight as the Prophet, but she'd haul you back if you were about to so much as step on a pretty flower. Anyway my point is, it's easy to forget that she knows everything she does about you. She's simple, but in a good way, do you know what I mean?"

“She doesn't seem that simple to me," Bull said dubiously. "What’s it like, then? Traveling with her, seeing all that shit she can do firsthand. I still can’t get over last night.”

“It's exciting, unbelievable, terrifying and mildly traumatic from time to time. . . . Between you and me, Tiny, I don’t think even the Prophet knows everything she can do. Seems like every time we turn around she's finding some new trick she didn't know she had.”

“Do you believe that? The whole Maker’s Chosen thing. When I first saw your group at the Crossroads, I thought it had to be a load of crap. No offense.”

"None taken. Why?"

"She's too hot to be some holy figure. I mean, in Par Vollen, pretty much everyone's hot. But down here? No. People are either important or hot. You get someone with both, they could take over a country.  

". . .Hm, come to think of it, maybe there's something to that."

“I’m not much of a believer one way or another, and I recognize that she's attractive, in a human kind of way, but she's not really my type, so I guess I never thought about it. Just pegged it as some romantic notion she had going in her favor. I mean, Andraste was supposedly beautiful too, right?"

"They're always beautiful in the stories."

"That's true. I’ve seen Trouble do impossible more times than should be possible, and the days I've been with her are still in the single digits. Wherever she’s from, whatever she can do? Shit, I feel sorry for Sethius.”

“Who?”

“The bastard who blew a hole in the sky. Ancient Tevinter magister darkspawn with god-like powers my left ass cheek. He has no idea what’s coming for him.”

“Wait. What? That asshole is a 'Vint? Of course. Of course it's a fucking 'Vint trying to end the fucking world with some forbidden magical shit. Again." He made a disgusted sound.

I grinned and tuned them out.

 

* * * * *

 

“I don’t like it,” Cullen said.

“That is hardly surprising, Commander.” Leliana replied, clasping her hands gracefully behind her back.

“I mean it. Someone needs to look out for her!"

"Her friend seems to have that in hand."

"No. If she’s from another world, how is it that the creature, who won’t show us his face - won’t even show her while claiming to be an ‘old friend’ - who is nowhere to be found in the real world, supposedly knows her? Whatever force was behind that demon attack could be behind this.”

“I suppose that is possible,” Leliana allowed. “Whoever it is could be trying a new tactic. But if this Fen is with them and the demons wanted to capture her, why would he be helping her to get stronger? It would only make her more difficult to subdue, and there are other ways to gain her trust.”

“Maybe he’s with someone else. We still don’t know who put the mark in her hand, we don’t know how she got here, how she can do the things she can. It’s ironic given that our titular head is prescient, but I feel like we’re stumbling around in the dark.”

“There is the matter of Solas, as well,” Josephine pointed out. “The Prophet insisted he be part of the war counsel, but now wants any knowledge of her journey to this temple kept from him.”

Leliana looked down, thoughtful. “For now, we will just have to hope that she truly can tell us more after her trip.”

“And pray,” Cullen said, dour.

“I have already sent for accommodations for some of our people to arrive in Val Royeaux two days before the meeting of the Clerics,” Josephine said. She was seated straight-backed, with her ever-present scribe tablet on her lap.  “It will allow them time to blend in, as requested. The rest will work their way into the crowd early that day. Have you gotten word back from your friend in the Crows yet, Leliana?”

She frowned. “Yes. He turned down the offer, even after I tripled the price.”

“Did he say why?” Cullen asked, surprised.

“Not really. Only that he was ‘content with his humble life of killing people for money’ and that saving the world once was enough for him. Zevran and I have not been in close contact for many years, but knowing him, it is likely not so simple.” She paused, sighed. “Then again, knowing him, it may be exactly that simple.”

“And reports from Cassandra and Elden?” Cullen asked.

“Continue to be good. Cassandra reports that the size of the mercenary captain must be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, he is Hissrad, a masterful spy among the Ben Hassrath. Apparently the Prophet is willing to vouch for him, and is insistent he join us."

Cullen's lips turned downward.

"My thoughts exactly. Cassandra also says combat is more 'enjoyable' now that they have split up--"

"Enjoyable?" Cullen parroted.

Leliana nodded, a stately motion. "Demons at rifts stay immobilized until they are slain, and any trying to come through to this side are stopped before they can. She also has yet to see one of the Prophet's barriers break, no matter what kind of abuse it takes. Apparently they simply do not run out."

"Maker, what we could have done with her in Kirkwall."

"It is something I am growing concerned about," Leliana said seriously. "If I did not know how capable she was of protecting herself, I would insist she had guards, both visible and hidden, at all times. When word gets out about what she can do, people will come for her."

"They can try," Cullen said grimly.

"My thoughts, exactly. All the same, I would like to test her more thoroughly. Find out how easily she is distracted, or how she reacts to an ambush, or an attack in a familiar place. It would be useful to know the limits of her enhanced senses, if nothing else."

"I don't know how I feel about that," Cullen hedged.

"I can see the value in it, but there must be some way to test her without leaving so much potential for her to feel. . . well, attacked," Josephine said.

"That is the point, no? She is a smart woman, surely she would see the value in it. Regardless, we can put it off until her return. She is in capable hands until then.

"As I was saying, the Prophet has, perhaps unsurprisingly, shown great foresight in their dealings in the Hinterlands. People continue to receive the help they need, the region grows more safe by the day, and we already have three new agents under our command, not to mention the cult the Prophet found. Cassandra says their help has been invaluable, and they seem fanatic in their loyalty,” she said with a sardonic edge. “Some of Mother Giselle’s people are on their way to Haven with more to follow later, and word of the Inquisition is almost spreading faster than we can follow. There are a great many skeptics, but it seems that skepticism largely dies out once anyone has been in her presence.”

“You can hardly blame them,” Cullen said, almost soft.

“No, indeed we cannot,” Josephine said. “But Solas claimed she has such an affect on people merely because of her connection to the Fade, did he not?” Josephine asked.

Leliana shifted her weight between feet. “Now more than ever, we do not know how much of what Solas says can be trusted. And regardless, does the how truly make the what any less remarkable?”

“. . .I suppose it does not,” Josephine replied eventually, voice thoughtful.

“I’ll try to have Roderick dealt with before her return,” Cullen said. “Lest he find he has the spine to act this time if she chooses to offer herself up again.”

“Do you think she will?” Leliana asked with a small quirk of lips. “I am not so certain.”

“Based on what?”

“The reports, for one thing. Cassandra, and Elden in particular, claim she is remarkably adaptable, aware of the needs of any given situation or audience, and willing to play any part when necessary. Calling Roderick’s bluff was foolish, but if she is able to read a person’s character or knows a good deal about them, perhaps it was not so much foolish as inspired and informed. Frankly, I would look forward to seeing how she dealt with the chancellor a second time. If anyone could put him in his place, it may be her.”

“Ever the optimist, aren’t you?” Cullen asked wryly.

“It is not an easy trait to kill, perhaps.” One corner of her lips quirked.

 

* * * * *

 

“Reality bumping sides, truths, colliding, crashing, crushing, can’t make it sit right, all sideways and too many directions, too much,” Cole mutters. Then, voice clear and certain, “The ones who don’t make sense are the only ones who make sense. The world does not pull itself apart with them. Not as much. Not the loud ones, either, big and like the earth and the sun. So many hurts hiding in the cracks, and so, so many of them, like whiskers on a kitten. . . .”

I was staring up at one of the moons, bright and visible in the daytime sky. I hadn’t noticed him bringing his horse next to mine. “Good afternoon to you, too, Cole. Are you alright?”

“I can’t hear you, can’t make you make sense. But sometimes, you are so loud that I can’t hear anything else.”

“Was I loud just now?” I asked curiously.

“Yes. They hurt you, where you came from before. They all did. He wanted it that way.”

A jolt went up my spine. “Who wanted it that way, Cole?” And which ‘before?’

“The one who sent you there. So much planning, needing, but then he had to hurry, but had to make it right, this will fix everything, she will fix everything, I have made her perfect now.”

A cancer of feeling bloomed up in my chest. “. . .Daern'thal?” But he was locked away with the evanuris.

“. . . He said I shouldn’t say. He said none of us should say. But he still wants to find you. He is looking, waiting. He asked me to bring you, but I said no.”

“And you can’t tell me what his name is?” I asked carefully.

“He said we shouldn’t.”

“Does he talk to you often?”

“No. Only once, when he found out you looked for me. He watches you, even when you think he can't. He didn't want to approach Anders.”

Bile. “How does he do that with--” My eyes darted to the side, gauging the distance between us and the others. “With my friend, the one who watches me at night?”

“. . . I shouldn’t say. Layers, too hard on the outside. Not ready to be peeled, the flesh isn't ready, ripe, not to be eaten and savored.”

I pushed down an exasperated sigh. “Can you tell me why you can’t say? Is he trying to help people? Is that why?”

“All the planning, all the-- yes, the helping, in his own way. It creaks and groans now, stirring it its sleep. It knows things want to change, it fears it. And he is angry and hateful and broken and twisted around, like all of them, but also not. He is not as hot as he once was. But he wants to help, not like them. They just can’t agree on what helping looks like. They all think they’re wrong.”

“. . . Ok,” I finally said, voice quiet, somber. “Thank you for telling me, Cole.”

“But you are upset now.”

“. . .Sometimes when you clean a room, it gets messier before it gets cleaner. People’s feelings can work like that. I’m glad you told me what you did, I’m frustrated that you wouldn’t give me more pieces, and my emotions swelled up to gather around the new information. Like when a place on the body swells to protect an injury from getting worse.”

“I injured you? I didn’t want to do that. I only want to help people.”

“You didn’t hurt me. This isn’t an injury, it’s just something big to take in. People have a hard time taking in big things, changes, which is why it doesn’t all absorb at once. Sometimes people go numb, sometimes anger or fear comes up to protect them. That’s like the swelling. Or like throwing things up in the air, and it seems like chaos until they land and you can start to sort them. My upset right now is like the swelling. But that will go down, and I’ll be glad to know everything you told me. Sometimes people have to get upset before they can feel anything else.”

“Like anger. Like what you told me in the Fade.”

I nodded. “Exactly. People’s feelings work backwards sometimes, when the big things have to come out first. They have to make themselves look scary, like an animal puffing up its fur.”

“But why are people afraid of the truth? It makes it better.”

“That’s. . . a matter of perspective. And a very big question.”

“Does everyone work that way? Hurting to not hurt?”

“I think so. But I don’t think most people recognize it like I do. They get lost in the feelings, instead of standing back and watching them. They think they are the feelings, and they forget that there’s anything outside of them. When people are uncomfortable, they want to get away from the feeling, so they do all kinds of things to help themselves, but often they just hurt more. Burying things, drowning them out, denying them or pretending they aren’t there. Stuff like that.”

“. . .How do you know all of this? You’re like a spirit, watching, feeling, knowing, a mirror but not.”

"I just like paying attention. 'If you want to understand the human heart, you must look up at it from the bottom.'"

My brow wrinkled. Where had I heard that? And why did it hurt to remember it?

“It isn’t lost,” Cole said quietly. “He covered it to protect his plan. And so you wouldn’t hurt as much. He doesn’t think you’re a person, but he doesn’t hate you. He thinks you're precious, a gem in a world of coal.”

I sighed. “Thank you, Cole.”

Later, when Bull had traded places with Cole, he said quietly, “You know that kid’s creepy, right?”

I snorted. “You should talk.”

“I’m scary, not creepy. There’s a difference.”

“Put you in a dark room with tall shadows, have you tower over someone, ask them if you’re creepy or not.”

“Scary.”

“Ok well if Cole’s creepy, then so am I.”

“Nah,” he said, blithe and dismissive.

“How do you figure?”

“Maybe you know the same kind of weird shit he does. Maybe you can read minds or whatever. Wait, can you? Read minds?”

“Nope,” I said absently, eyes unfocused. "Well, not that I know of."

He grunted. “Good enough for now. Just tell me if that changes, ok?"

I smiled to myself.

"Anyway, the difference is you have a filter. And the ability to use basic grammar to communicate.”

I smirked.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. Just had a thought.”

Bull's voice, saying, ‘You might be a weird, squirrelly kid, but you’re my weird, squirrelly kid.’

If only we could let the world be as simple as it was in Cole’s head.

“. . . Ok, so maybe you can be a little creepy. Hmm, ‘troubling’ might be a better word.”

Varric guffawed behind us.

“I’m spitting in your dinner,” I called back.

No you’re not,” he answered. “You’re all talk.”

“. . . What’s a ’dillhole?’” Cole asked me. “I know all the other words.”

I put my face in my hand.

 

* * * * *

 

“Peace,” the elf panted when we’d put down the last of the demons attacking her. “I am no danger to you. My name is--”

I Fade Stepped forward a dozen yards to take the lead of the conversation. “Mihris. Yes, we know.”

“Have we met?” She asked in confusion.

“Nope. You can leave now, though. We’ve got this covered, thanks. Safe travels and all that.”

“Excuse me? I am here on an important mission. I believe there is an artifact in the ruins up ahead that--”

“Measures the Veil. Yeah. There’s also some veilfire, an ancient elven recipe for a rune, and a pretty nifty amulet. Like I said, we’ve got this. Have a nice day.”

“Who do you think you are?” She barked, appalled and insulted. “I am First of clan Virnehn! Not that you would know anything about such honor, or the value of the things inside those ruins. You’re obviously well-integrated with the shemlen, like the rest of your kind.”

I bit back a cruel retort: ‘Can you be the First of a dead clan?’ Instead, I only narrowed my eyes and replied pointedly, “Goodbye, Mihris. It was nice to meet you.” I turned and headed up the path to the entrance of the ruins with an incredulous shake of my head.

“You, flat-ear,” she called sharply, all good humor gone. “You need focused magical energy to get past the blockage at the entrance of the ruins. You have no mage with you. You need my help. Perhaps you can put aside the chip on your shoulder and your disrespectful attitude for a moment so we can work together. I would not ask, but I cannot handle all the demons myself.” Even the 'humility' at the end was snide.

I stopped. Waited a moment. Turned around slowly.

“Trouble--” Varric cautioned, recognizing a rising storm front.

I held a hand out to him and looked cold frost at Mihris. “You see,” I said with a falsely bright chuckle, “this is exactly why I wanted to avoid you. You’re a bigot. An ignorant fucking bigot.”

Bull grunted quietly behind me and leaned in toward Varric. It must have been a comical sight. “Definitely just a sweet kid,” he murmured.

“I told you not to piss her off,” he said back, near-silent.

“I beg your pardon!” Mihris bleated at me.

“Not granted, Mihris. I get that I wasn’t exactly sugar and sunshine to you, but were racial slurs really a proportionate response? You call yourself a First, but you can’t recognize another mage if they don’t have a staff strapped to their back? I could cast circles around you with my eyes closed. Do you think your Keeper would be proud of you? Or anyone in your clan? Did they die so you could so poorly represent them, so you could dishonor them?”

Bull smelled of shock.

Mihris’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth to speak, face turning red, but I cut her off.

“You fucking dalish - as a whole,” I specified carefully, “are no different than the humans you hate. You’re every bit as superior and even more arrogant, and you think you’re as entitled to it all as they do. There are just as few among you who are truly good people as there are among any other population, but like the ‘shems,’ you think yourself better because of your blood and where it comes from.

“They look at an elf, call it 'knife-ear,' and think it inferior because it isn't like them. You? An elf who you know exactly nothing about is inferior to you because she was born in the wrong place, hasn’t lived in aravels and forests and fields, and hasn’t had a needle stuck into her face repeatedly as a misguided representation of ignorant faith and ill-informed beliefs! Which, by the way, is a really poor long-term plan if you really believe that your Creators won’t return until every elf, including the flat-ears, returns to their worship.

“No,” I said, cutting myself off. “No, I apologize, I’m being unfair. The elves and the dalish have done the best they could with what they had. Your intentions were good, yes you do have a right to your anger, and there is a nobility to your people deep down that few can match. And none of that gives you the excuse to be a shit,” I bit out.

Mihris had gone wide-eyed. “Creators. . . you’re her, aren’t you?”

“I’m a her, yes. What tipped you off? Was it the breasts? They keep giving me away,” I said, scathing.

“Hahren,” she breathed in wonder.

My face contorted to suspicious confusion. “I’m no one’s hahren, Mihris. Now kindly tell me what the hell I have missed in the last fifteen seconds that has you looking at me like I’m the second coming.”

“You’re the Prophet. The Prophet of the Creators.”

I stared dumbly at her. I looked back at Bull, then Varric, both of whom seemed as clueless as I was. “I’m what now?” I asked her.

“Lord Dirthamen appeared to me in a dream not two weeks past. He said the Creators' Prophet had come, their true Daughter, and that She would restore the People.” She spoke with breathless and wide-eyed wonder.

I stared, this time with my mouth open.

“Lord Dirthamen said that the shemlen call you their prophet,” she said, scathing, “and that you have a mark that glows near the Rifts in your right hand.” She looked down at my gloved palm, eyes alive and intense. “You can close them and save the world. He said that is how I would know you. That you were of the People, the Daughter of Vengeance and Justice. One of the original elves,” she breathed, awe pouring off her like falling vapors. “I was on my way to Haven to offer myself to your cause when I learned of the artifact in these ruins.”

“. . . Well that’s new,” Varric said uneasily.

I looked at Mihris. Blinked. Opened my mouth to speak, then closed it. I looked to Bull and Varric again. They were both still as clueless as I was.

I put my face in my hand. “What the actual fuck,” I muttered to myself in English.

“. . .Weren’t the ancient elves supposed to be immortal?” Bull asked.

“Yes, The Iron Bull,” I said. “Yes they were. Cole?” I called. He had disappeared, and didn’t reappear now. I could really have used him to help me figure out what was going on. She wasn’t lying - or at least she didn’t think she was, but there was no way Dirthamen, the real Dirthamen, had appeared to her in the Fade. Fen’harel’s trap was eternal. And I felt certain that Dirthamen had risen and fallen with the First Blight. Or at least, part of him had. My chest felt like a spring that was being wound too tight.

“So let me get this straight,” I said, putting my hands on my waist and leaning my weight on one foot. My fingers dug into my sides, and not for the first time, I cursed my muted pain response. As instinctual as magic had been, so was the knowledge ‘pain brings focus.’

“You had a dream," I said, "and now you think I’m an ancient, immortal elf who’s here to restore the elven people? Or is it just the dalish? And this is all despite the fact that I’m just a filthy flat-ear?”

A mortified blush climbed her cheeks. “I was wrong, Hahren.” One of my eyes twitched. The spring was wound tighter. “I am so sorry, truly I am, I beg you to forgive me. I spoke in ignorance.

"It was no ordinary dream I had. I am a First, I know the tricks of spirits and demons. This was Lord Dirthamen Himself.”

“And he, what, escaped his prison in the Fade just to give you a dream about me? Rather than freeing his brothers and sisters and coming here to help you themselves, as promised?”

"His prison?"

"Never mind," I said with a wave of my hand and a disgruntled noise.

“I do not pretend to know the will of the Gods, hahren.” A twitch of my jaw, this time. “And He told me I was not the only one He spoke to.”

It felt like gravity tripled. “Excuse me?” I asked slowly.

“He came to us all the same night and said that the People must gather, that they must go to you and offer their aid.”

I paused a beat, then loosed an impressive string of expletives in two different languages.

“To Haven,” I managed when I was finished. “Every dalish elf, let me be clear, every dalish elf in all of Thedas was told to go to Haven not two weeks ago?”

“Yes, Daughter of Mythal. Immediately.”

My eyes slipped closed as they rolled heavenward.

Varric cursed quietly.

“I was under the impression that Haven wasn’t very big,” Bull said.

“Good impression. Because it’s not. Not big enough for tens of thousands of dalish to suddenly show up. Oh my god they’re going to stab people in the face.” Again I loosed a torrent of curses.

“Okay. Ooookay. . . . Okay. So, we have a new problem. That’s alright,” I coached myself, and even I could hear that I didn’t believe it, “problems happen. Surprises. Things catch you off guard. Even when you know everything that’s going to happen. Jesus shit what did I do wrong,” I moaned. I was muttering to myself by the end, too quietly for anyone to hear, except maybe Bull. I ran over the last two weeks and saw nothing that could have caused tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands for all I knew, of dalish to suddenly have a magical dream telling them to swoop down on Haven. We had been doing so well earning people's goodwill, and now we would have to combat the completely reasonable assumption that the elven “prophet” was siding rather aggressively with the dalish.

An odd keening started coming from my throat. I clenched my fist too hard and bit down on one the pad of one of my fingers hard enough to bruise, my eyes squeezed shut as hard as I could make them. I started rocking back and forth in quick, tiny motions, and I took tight, controlled breaths to calm myself, but it wasn’t working.

“The world is starting to come apart,” Cole said, suddenly here again, back with Varric and Bull. “She needs something to hold it together. Blankets and tight spaces, alone and safe in the quiet, the dark, cocoons where it all goes away until it can come back again, but the right way. Order in the static, something to cling to until the storm stops. But it’s too wide here, too bright. She needs something to hold herself together.” He sounded pained, or stressed or urgent, I couldn’t tell which. I was too busy trying to. . . .

To hold myself together.

“Help,” he said quietly. “Please, I can't do it, I can't help.”

“What do we do, kid?” Varric asked. “You said something about blankets? Our bedrolls are back with the horses."

“Arms,” he murmured, “strong and wide, bands of iron, safe from the world like a locked box. Warm chest, hard and sturdy holding tight, tighter until it goes away. Cover her up, block it out, make it make sense again.”

I felt Bull look at Cole and then back to me. I felt like I was vibrating all over, squeezing a nail into the webbing above my thumb. Pain should help, but I couldn’t feel it. I started backing up absently. If I could just get a minute alone--

Bull strode up and lowered himself to his knees at my front. He wrapped his massive arms around me gently, hands splayed and gripping. I jumped at the touch and pulled back, that odd noise coming from me again, and he murmured quietly, “You’re alright, Boss. Just relax. Lean into me, let me support you. There you go.” He tucked my face into the crook of his shoulder, and his over mine, chin holding me to him like his limbs, even one of his horns pressed to the back of my head. "There's nobody here but me and you. I've got you,” he said, a rumble in my ear and chest. "Listen to my breathing, my heartbeat." I made some halting, choked off sound and he held me tighter.

When he was pressing me to him so hard I could practically feel his ribs through the layers of thick, corded muscle, it started to feel like the world wasn’t shaking as much. Form began to return. Physicality. A body. The part of me that could control this came back. The part of me that could prevent it and hold it back came. He pieced me back together by holding me as if I were coming apart.

Mihris tried to say something at some point, but Bull only told her in a stern-calm voice to shut the hell up and to back off. She started to argue. Bull raised his head to look at her, and she went quiet.

My breath found me. My muscles. I remembered tension and how to start to release it. It took long minutes, but eventually, the last piece came back: calm.

I breathed, long and deep and slow. I realized I was gripping Bull back, my hands tight fists around the straps of his shoulder piece. I tipped my head so that only my forehead was resting near the crook of his neck and kept breathing until weight and body and brain all felt anchored again. Then slowly, I pulled back.

My eyes were red like I had been crying, I could feel them. I could feel the tension still in my face. Embarrassment. Shame for that embarrassment. And I knew this had all happened before.

“Thank you,” I whispered as I stepped back. My voice was unsteady. I couldn’t look at him.

“You want to call it a day?” he asked, calm and quiet like we were alone in a small space. There was no judgement in his voice, and he smelled sure and confident. Present and aware. “We can make up the time tomorrow. You can rest, do your sword dancing, be alone, whatever you need.”

“. . .No,” I began through a spurt of breaths that were too quick. I squeezed my eyes shut. “I need to finish what we came here for. I just might not be chatty for the rest of the day.”

“You sure that’s a good idea, Trouble?” Varric said uncertainly.

“You'll be fine. I can still back you up in a fight.”

“That’s not what I meant." I knew it hadn't been. But it had been the safe reply. "We have a long road ahead of us. It’s probably not a good idea to burn yourself out so fast.”

I shook my head. “It’s not the first time that’s happened, I could tell. It’ll be harder for me to know that we’re stopped and losing daylight because of me than it will be to push through, set up camp at the normal time, and deal with it tonight.

I felt Bull and Varric exchange a look.

“If you would allow it, Prophet,” Mihris said with a carefully quiet voice. I clenched my teeth so hard I thought they might shatter. “I have the herbs to make a tea that should help you relax. I’m certain you have better recipes than I, but I don’t know if you’re familiar with modern herbs.”

“No. I just need to get back on my feet. Travel safe, Mihris. Sorry I was a shit.” I turned and started back up the path toward the ruins. It took them a minute, but eventually I heard Varric and Bull fall in behind me.

“Cole?” I said, near-silent. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he said simply from the back of the group.

I felt eyes on my back the whole way.

Chapter Text

“I killed some darkspawn once. They weren’t that ugly, though. And I’ve still never gotten to see an ogre. Ass deep in 'Vints and Tal-Vashoth for years, you’d think the universe could throw just one ogre my way.”

“Yeah I’m not sure what genius figured a few planks of lumber would be enough to seal those holes they were coming through,” I say with a snort. “But uh. . . you do know where ogres come from, right?”

“Uuunderground?”

“Have ya heard of broodmothers, The Iron Bull? How they're species-specific?”

“. . .That sounds like something I don’t want to know.”

“Good call, Tiny,” Varric says seriously. His good humor has diminished since we found the first crates of red lyrium.

It only gets worse from there. We go deeper and start finding nodes the dwarves haven’t even harvested from yet. We destroy them, but I’m not convinced it really does anything except maybe slow their growth. Which is a massive accomplishment, I admit. They have a dark “song” about them. It is ancient and malicious, aggressive and furious. It does not break apart with the crystals.

It leaves me feeling uneasy. The feeling roots in my gut and I can't shake it, like intuition or a bad memory.

It takes Varric hours to put his humorous mask back in place after we finish in the mines and take in the sheer volume of red lyrium there. I think part of him had hoped that the temple in Haven was a one-off, that there couldn’t be that much of it, not really.

I wish he had been right. I wish this was the last of it, too. I don't tell him it isn't, and he doesn't ask.

 

* * * * *

 

“I’ve been thinking about why you wanted me and the Seeker to keep your secret, Trouble. Care to shed some light on it?”

“Sure,” I say easily.

We’re strolling away from camp, hunting and foraging for dinner, respectively. Varric already has a collection of roots and fungi, helped along by me. Tonight he has taught me a new edible plant. It's a grass, surprisingly sweet when raw, and apparently the fibers can be used to patch armor in a pinch. Otherwise, I’m just waiting for the return trip so I don’t have to carry a dead animal around longer than necessary.

"If the world at large finds out what I can do when I let loose, I figure it could change something in the timeline. I’m a fan of the horrible, potentially catastrophic immediate future being as predictable as possible.”

“I can’t say I disagree with that.”

“You are magnanimous as always.”

“And ruggedly handsome.”

“Varric, please," I say as if pained. "I'm just trying not to torment myself by how close you are when I know I can't have you." I sigh theatrically.

“So. . . out of curiosity, what exactly can you do when you let loose? Aside from cornering the market on grisly and hideous statuary.”

I look at him levelly.

“. . . I don’t want to know, do I?” He guesses.

I huff a laugh. “Given the way people's minds work, we’d have a hard time convincing anyone I wasn’t some kind of demi-god. People nowadays have no idea what magic can really do, could really do when the world was the way it was supposed to be. When the ancient elves were alive, there was no Veil. The Fade and the physical world were one thing, and elvhen could literally will things into existence. They could alter and shape reality the way a dreamer can in the Fade. And according to Solas and my nighttime friend, I am a mage of no inconsiderable skill living inside a walking pocket of what the world used to be. Savvy?”

He is quiet at first. Then he swears under his breath. “You know, Trouble, the kind answer there would have been, ‘No, Varric. You don’t want to know.’ For the future. Because somehow I doubt this is the last opportunity you're going to have to freak me the hell out.”

I smile a little, but it's a sad thing. “I’m sorry for asking you to keep it a secret,” I say sincerely. "I wouldn't ask you to lie if I didn't think it was really important."

He blows a raspberry. “Believe it or not, that’s the least of the shit I keep locked up in here.” He taps a large, gloved finger to the side of his head. “Well. . . ok maybe not the least.”

“Believe it,” I confirm.

Eventually, he poses a wary question. ". . . You're not going to have something follow you back to camp and then snap its neck in front of the fire again, are you?"

I hid my mortification. "I cleaned it up! How was I supposed to know things void their. . . fluids the moment they die?" I muttered something about the smell not being much different than normal under my breath.

"Yeah, that wasn't really the part that gave me nightmares. It was a halla. And you just. . . . Crk!" He pairs the snapping noise with a matching gesture.

"Yes, and Bull ate most of it," I defended. "It was a one-time mistake! One time. I forget about other people's sensibilities when I get too comfortable."

"So what, they do that kind of thing a lot where you're from? Dinner just walks up to them like that? Lets you pet it and then," he runs a thumb over his neck. "Because here, that's not normal."

For a minute, the only sound was grasses and earth under our feet and the creatures of twilight. I could hear a creek a few miles away, the beating wings of a predator high above us, the heartbeat of a colony of rodents far below, the scurry of ants.

"I just asked," I say, my voice unusually small.

"Asked what?"

I sigh quietly. I can already see how well he's going to like this. "For a volunteer."

"Wait. Wait. You talk to animals? And they just, what, offer themselves up to die?"

I shift uncomfortably. "It's not like that," I protest. "I don't like killing them. I don't like eating meat, or stepping on bugs. I ask permission before I walk on grass or step into water."

"You ask permission? You do know that plants and water are inanimate objects, right?"

I look at him until the certainty starts to melt from his face.

This isn't the first time I've had a conversation like this, I can tell - my body is priming for a rejection and screaming at me to shut up before it comes.

"What I mean is," I say gently, "I resigned myself to the fact that we need meat. I made peace with it. And since the universe just. . . gives what wants to be given, it's not a shameful thing to me, not something to hide or be squeamish about. I'm not just dominating another life with my will. I honor it, then I do it, and it's done. It becomes no more extreme than changing my shirt. It just requires more respect."

"I've seen you dominate plenty."

"People are different," I say. "They don't listen, so sometimes you have to yell."

"Riiight. Do you, uh, do you ask your clothes for permission, too, then?"

"Not usually," I say petulantly. "I do say hello to them the first time, though. Welcome them to the family, thank them for their presence, so to speak. They're always happier after."

"Happier. So. . . they answer you, then? Your clothes."

"Shut up, Varric."

"Look, I'm just asking," he says with half of a laugh. "I mean shit, kid, it must be one hell of a place you come from if people go around apologizing to dirt when they walk on it or thanking air when they breathe it. How does anyone find the time to get anything done? Do they weep over trees when they get cut down for fire and houses? Hold memorials? Do fish jump into their nets? Andraste's dimpled asscheeks, kid, we gave Daisy a hard time, but she's got nothing on you."

It's a long time before I reply. "I don't think I was normal there, either, Varric," I say quietly.

He goes quiet after that. He smells uncomfortable, sad, protective, and a little ashamed.

 

* * * * *

 

All requested rumors true.

For/knowldg. not exaggerated

Fluency in Commn. from 0 - 100% reported in two days. Conf. by Tethras.

Enhanced well above agent: strength, speed, stamina, flex., senses susp., bal, coord., pain tolanc.

Dim. need for sleep, food, water, voiding, poss. more.

Phys. combat reported just as imprss. Not verfd. Subject fights at range, shows pref. for defense and support.

Unprecedented  skill with animals, tame and wild.

Susp. Dreamer.

Susp. more, curr. unknown.

Curious, inquisitive. Open mind. Literal. Sensitive to others. Stubborn streak. Loyal, protective. Honest to a fault. Tempered. Often confident, hides insecurities well, second-guesses self. Prefers staying back, leads without hesitation when required. Brash. Instinct over thought. Has a temper, some blk & wht thinking. Suspect variant of asala-taar*. Has expr. int. in Qu., much of thinking already in line with it.

New companion Cole, claims is spirit of compassion. She's intractable that there's a difference between demons/spirits.

Future reports to be filtered through spymaster, as suspected. Will send more prior to return to base if can, est. dt. 21 to 25.

East later tomorrow. Should reach next dead drop in apprx. 1.5 - 2 days.

 

*a condition similar to PTSD

 

* * * * *

 

Varric insists on taking first watch. Neither Bull or I argue - he needs time alone.

With Varric's blessing, I return and collapse the mine. I didn't tell him about the base of the mercenaries who were backing the operation. I travel to it alone and wipe them out. I find it feels good to take them out with my hands, as if I had been missing it. I'm only bothered by the fact that it doesn't bother me. I find callouses on my heart that seem to have come out of nowhere. I take note, but don't question them. They're too useful.

Bull takes watch after Varric, and I leave again to practice the modified Fade Step. I find I can travel as far as I can see, and that elevation becomes irrelevant when I “step” down it. The highest point I run into is only about one hundred feet, but it seems enough to get a good idea.

I realize this is the first time I have been truly alone since I woke in the rubble of the Conclave. I don’t think my time in the field outside camp before we got to the Hinterlands counts.

I Step again and again and again, and though it is considerably more tiring than running, it is many times faster than any horse could run - theoretically. I haven’t seen one run yet, but they don’t look built for speed. A little basic math tells me that what a horse could cover in a day’s walk, I could cover in seconds or hours, depending on my line of sight. If the terrain is rough and winding, so long as whatever boxes it in isn’t too high, I can just climb above the trap and go from there.

My mind wanders on the way back to camp. I don’t want to think about the possibility that Daern’thal or Dirthamen could be loose in the Fade, but with what Cole told me and Mihris’s dream. . . well, there's “coincidence,” and then there's “this is clearly related but calling it coincidence makes me feel better.” In general, I think coincidence is a cop-out, and I am not a fan of pretty lies over hard truths. They waste time, because sooner or later, the truth will slam into your face with all the force and compassion of a cinderblock.

I’m afraid to talk to Fen’harel about it. I’m afraid to talk to him about anything, but I can’t put it off much longer - once I leave for the temple, I plant to stay awake until I’m back in Haven. I can't risk him knowing what I'm doing or the integrity of the whole project will be gone. I’ll be testing the limits of my ability to function without sleep to a dangerous degree, but I plan on getting six hours a night between now and my departure. I hope that will be enough, and I'll have to pay attention for signs of sleep deprivation as I go.

I could take Varric with me for help - he doesn’t dream, so Fen’harel can’t use him to try to find out what I’m doing - but even if it’s possible to Fade Step with him at the pace I want to go, I doubt he would be keen on the idea. And stopping to let him sleep, eat, rest, and use the bushes would mean the journey would take almost twice as long. I feel confident I can watch out for myself. Confident enough, anyway.

Before any of that, I need to run my plan for the envy demon by Fen’harel in case there are ramifications I’m missing.

I’ve almost laughed at the fact that the king of horrible unforeseen consequences will be the one to check my math.

 

* * * * *

 

I’m writing, legs splayed in more than a flat split on either side of me, my top half bent over and resting low on an elbow, while the others are eating. I don’t hate all the extra free time I have when I don’t need to eat, bathe, relieve myself, sleep. . . .

We're camped near a creek, and flying insects are out in force. The smoke from the fire keeps most of them away. Except for one. It has compound eyes and coarse hairs like a fly, but a longer body and, incomprehensibly, smaller wings. They shine like polished gold. I wonder if people harvest them for clothing or decoration or ornament.

The bug has been harassing us in turns, moving from person to person as it tires of a given hand swatting at it. When it comes to me the third time, I lose my patience. My hand shoots out, too fast to see, and I wrap it in a loose fist, my eyes still on my book. I hold it gently while I finish a thought, then rise and lope away to release it.

Camp remains silent when I come back and settle into my writing again, this time resting on my forearms with my body up in the air and bent the wrong way, legs crossed and hanging over my book. There is no wind tonight, so it’s easy - more a stretch than an exercise. Varric has grown used to it, and Bull is adept at pretending he doesn’t care. Either that or he doesn’t care. I’m not sure which.

He eventually breaks the comfortable silence.

“Boss?”

“Hmm?”

“If there’s ever some radical change to the Qun and we start getting married, I’m proposing.”

I smile to myself and say, tone placating and puckish, “I love you too, The Iron Bull.”

“Oh I never said anything about love. You’re badass. We’d be great in the sack and our kids would be unstoppable.”

I hum a laugh. “Bondage isn’t really my thing, though.”

“How do you know that?”

I open my mouth to answer, then stop. “. . . Fair point.”

"Besides, tying people up is just for fun. If it's not fun, why do it? I don't see you as the kind to like getting tied up, though, but tying someone else up?" He makes a decidedly R-rated sound in his throat, and despite myself, it sends tingles and warmth. . . places.  ". . . Wait, how did you know I was into bondage?"

"Told you, Tiny. She knows everything." Varric's voice flattens. "Half the time you can pretend she doesn't. It's soothing. She usually," he shoots me a covert look, "makes that easy. Sometimes I wish I'd started calling her 'Creepy' instead of 'Trouble.' But with her real name, it's just too perfect to change."

"Real name? Don't tell me--"

"Yup," Varric confirms. "Literally means 'trouble.'"

"Actually a much better translation is 'personification of trouble.' But close enough."

Bull laughs, loud and as big as the rest of him ("Fuck, that's perfect!"), and Varric snorts.

"Who came up with that?" Bull asks, still laughing.

"Her mysterious friend in the Fade. Apparently it was her name before she lost all her memories of this other world of hers. The Seeker said he's a wolf. Or looks like one, anyway."

I know the look Bull gets in his eye (ha), so I answer his earlier question before anyone else can talk. "I know you're into bondage - and so, so many other things - because I have eyes and decent skills of observation. I won't lie and say the insider information doesn't help, but come on. With your personality and your proclivities?

"As you dig down, most people are, by some point, the opposite of what they seem, right?"

He makes a noise of consideration. "To a point, sure."

"Shit, we should form a writing group," Varric says. "You two are insightful."

I smile and keep talking to Bull. "You? You've got your secrets, but the opposite thing? Not nearly as much. So correct me if I'm wrong - I'm totally not, by the way - but the pleasure you get out of sex is the pleasure of the other person. Not all the time, sure, but enough. Or with the right person. And you? I bet your leanings are the same as mine: bottom from the top. You take control because the top is the best place to make sure everything goes well, everyone's needs are met, and because frankly, most people just aren't as good at it as you are. You, my friend, are a humongous, terrifying, magnificent little teddy bear. Of sex. And Death. And spying. I will keep your secret, don't worry. So will Varric."

"Excuse me?" The dwarf asks.

"Don't be stupid, of course you will. He could floss with you. Anyway," I say, looking back to Bull, "I imagine a night - or day, as you prefer - with you is universally the best sex of your partner's. . .s' lives."

He grins broadly. "Care to find out firsthand?"

“Should I give you two some privacy, here, or. . . ?”

“Nah, we're just dicking around,” Bull half-growls in a friendly tone. “I am completely game when you get the urge, though. We would be great in bed. Or on the ground, up against a building, over a really strong chair. . . anywhere, really. You're so tiny, but I wouldn't have to worry about breaking you. And I bet I could take most of what you had to dish out, too. That'd be a treat for you. Besides, this is just how the boss likes it, right, Boss? Blunt. Open. No dicking around with all that delicate Game crap.”

The fact that he said "when" and not "if" does not escape my notice. And that is, in fact, how I like it.

“Fucking Ben-Hassrath,” I mutter to myself with a huffed laugh.

"Ok one: any time," Bull says. "Seriously. And two: you know we could say the same about Fade-sent Prophets, Your Worship," he points out sardonically.

“. . .Leave me alone. I’m writing. Ass.”

 

* * * * *

 

I'm alone when I enter his forest tonight. But then, I’m asleep well ahead of my usual time; likely he’s busy elsewhere. I hardly expect he sits idle much.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong - I feel him behind me mere minutes after I arrive. I say nothing. Neither does he.

I am leaning against a tree, looking up at a bright moon through gaps in the dense canopy. He is standing some six yards back.

[It was a risk, and I could not afford to take it,] he finally says. He sounds tired and sad, maybe even subdued. I hesitate to think I am hearing that right.

I don’t acknowledge that he’s spoken.

[Do you know what I have planned? How Corypheus got the orb, and what it is?]

I nod, so small it’s barely a motion.

[Then you know I would do anything to fix my catastrophic mistake. To restore our people. Our world.] He sighs silently. When he goes on, he sounds weary. Sad. [You were a weapon in our time. A brilliant one. Valiant and courageous and utterly unstoppable. I loved you.] There is so much feeling in those words. [When you disappeared. . . .] He pauses for a long time. [It was a blow to us all.] He doesn't say 'me,' but I hear it all the same. [I searched for you, but could find no trace, here or in the waking world. I felt certain you had died, but there was no evidence, no trail to follow. Eventually I had to let it go, to focus on the war, on trying to ensure that some of us survived.

[I was overjoyed when I found you alive in this time. And suspicious, if I am being honest. I had so many questions.] He says it with half a weak laugh in his voice. [But then I found your memories were gone. Your memories were gone, but your abilities were not, even without the conscious knowledge of your training.

[Nua, you must understand. You could shape the outcome of everything I had planned. Not only were you without memories of elvhenan, of me, of us, but your personality had changed, drastically in some ways. You became an unknown and potentially devastating variable. I wanted nothing more than to be your brother again. Your companion. I wanted to reach out to you, to show you my face. I wanted to do everything within my power to help you. But I could not. Not until I knew if. . . .]

He sighs, and it is such a heavy sound. ‘If you would be an enemy,’ he doesn’t have to say. It sets something bitter and caustic and sour off in me. It’s nothing I haven’t guessed, but hearing it is far worse than abstract knowledge.

[You said I lied about Solas, but I did not. He is no agent of mine; my only lies have been through omission.]

I bite down on anger that sparks against the flint of his sheer arrogance so he can finish. This is the most honest he has probably ever been with me. With this me, at least.

[How much safer was it to have two sets of eyes on you? Two perspectives, two potential influences, until I could see what side of the conflict you would decided to support? Until you decided yourself? Until I knew who you would be?] He is saturated with regret, leaking it, but more than that, the fact that he had to push the words "potential influences" out around disgust at himself wipes away most of the worry that he is just fabricating another lie. Another story.

[I had to protect the goal. The future. Our past.

[. . . Nuaelan. . . I want you with me.] He says, and it is emphatic. Honest. [There are so few of us left, and you were among the best. Even when your hands were bloody, you cared about the people. You cared about justice and everything that was right and good. You wanted little more than to help. You were strong. You were not built to be a good person, but over time, it became obvious that you were one regardless.

[The wars changed you. They changed us all, but you held on to something within yourself that I could not manage to. You held me together in the end, when I believed myself lost. Unworthy of anything. And when you vanished. . . .] His mind goes somewhere thousands of years distant, and very dark. His last words are soft. [I can apologize to you if you wish, and I would mean it, truly. But you know as well as I that I would make the same decision if I had it to do over again. In the past, you would have done the same.]

Reflexive denial pours over me like sandpaper, even while I wonder how much of this is manipulation, how much of that manipulation is intentional, and if it really matters to me in the end, no matter the answer. He is still himself.

I set aside what I want to talk about for the moment and chose a topic I will get more use out of. Best to put off the finale, because it will take us down a hard road.

“You said I was a weapon.” My voice is detached and formal. I am not talking to a friend, not now. I cannot be. I am talking to someone who may or may not prove a very dangerous enemy when this is over. “I assume Solas already told you that I went back in time and saw him. He was even more pleasant back then,” I say, dry and flat and unamused. “So I know now that Daern’thal made me.

“If it was just the skill at fighting, I could believe I was made to be a shield. To guard or protect. But with everything else you said I was trained in. . . . Are you going to make me spell it out, or will you save us both the time and tell me who I was made to hurt?”

It is a long time before he answers. These pauses between us, unhurried and natural, are soothing in a way I cannot put words to, even now. It is one of many things that has me increasingly thinking that my trip to the arbor wilds is really just to confirm what I already know.

When Fen'harel does answer, his “voice” is so quiet I almost can’t hear it. [. . .The evanuris.]

I feel my heart thud in my skin. It makes sense, of course. Why else would a Forgotten One, all of whom were apparently defined by their desire to see the lie that was the “gods” torn down, put in as much time and effort and, presumably, expense, as Daern’thal must have to train and groom something like me? Positioning me with Fen’harel had been brilliant. He would have given me an in with the evanuris, and Solas had very obviously been a noble - knowing him, a high-ranking one. It must have been perfect.

“Did you know?” I eventually ask. I would be impressed with how light my voice was if I could care enough. But that would be an unhelpful precedent right now. “When he gave me to you?”

There is disgust at my phrasing. [I suspected,] he says slowly.

“Which means you probably figured it out pretty quick. I heard you, in my dream. You told Daern’thal that you had no interest in helping with one of his ‘experiments.’” I say the word with cool but detached distaste. “So why did you take me?”

He sighs and closes his eyes. Something about this is paining him in the extreme, and I dread learning the reason. [The short answer is that I was curious, and I owed him a favor.]

“And the long answer?”

[Nothing you could not put together on your own. The favor was unrelated, and you know my nature.]

Likely he had handed me off to Solas so often because he couldn’t stand me. I wonder how much of my life I had lived being treated like a non-person, or at best a burden. The feeling isn’t as alien as I think it should be, given how little I remember. The thought alone hurts, in fact.

That was that, then. And now. . . .

“What made you decide that ending this world was the right course of action, in the end?” My voice is meticulously light.

He grows uncomfortable in the extreme, which answers my question. No, not uncomfortable. Afraid. He is afraid. What a disconcerting feeling that from him is.

[You have seen them,] he says quietly. Mournfully. [You walk among them every day.]

I take a moment to make sure I have grasped the correct line of thinking.

“So you want to kill all the weeds because you think the flowers are better,” I say, and it is with the dispassionate tone of a scientist making an observation, marking a note down for later consideration.

[You think differently?]

“I didn’t say that,” I reply calmly. “I just want to make sure I understand your position. I want to know that you made this decision objectively. Not because you’re homesick, not because you can’t face the results of your decision to bring down the sky.”

[I do not claim objectivity in this.]

“That’s good." I nod, and though I mean the words, something in my face goes almost cold. “So it’s personal. Destroying another world, this time on purpose, killing millions. It’s personal.”

He is wary now. On edge. He "knows" this is my answer showing itself, and already the anger is rising in him. [Yes.]

He makes no excuses for himself, at least.

“And what that’s going to do to you?”

[Will be my price to pay.]

I take a loud, deep breath. He waits patiently, and it goes on for a long time.

“Where I come from,” I say, my tone speculative and almost detached, “the planet is dying. We’re killing it. We’ve been poisoning the air, the water, crushing cultures who live in harmony with nature, wiping out species and ecosystems out of greed, the needs of a population too large to sustain, a belief that it is our right to do so, or that we are inherently superior to everything in the natural world, for as long as ‘civilized society’ has existed. Even in its primitive, nascent forms. Our impact is so large that even the weather patterns are changing. I daresay we could give the elvhen a run for their money when it comes to arrogance and a thirst for blood and dominance. Humans on my world are a virus. They consume resources, and when an area can give nothing else, they move on. And there are almost eight billion of us.”

Shock rattles him.

“The thing is, though. . . the world isn't dying. It's not going to end. We will, because we'll have made it uninhabitable for our species. For most species, really. Mass extinctions were already beginning when I left. And Fen'harel, my world is beautiful," I say, an unmistakable ache and longing in my voice. "Even now. 

"So, we will die. But the planet will be just fine. And for every kind of plant and animal and bug that gets wiped out, something new will evolve to take its place, something that thrives on whatever acid and poison we make of everything. Probably they'll all be similar in some way to what we know now. Life tends to stick to a few basics, but it spins infinite variations of them. Eventually, some of them may become sentient enough to decide it’s ok to poison everything they need in order to live. I suppose having a mortal life and a disconnect from the deeper places of the world makes us short-sighted.

“What I wonder is, what gives a person the right to decide in place of nature and its meticulous balance? A society I can understand. They're unruly and they tend to be governed by the most selfish and arrogant among them. But what gives one person the right to decide that one form of life is more valid than another? Or inferior? See, that’s a big part of the problem where I come from. ‘It isn’t like us, so it doesn’t really count. It's not the same.’ We have genocides in our history that might made even you blush, and every one of them was born from 'They aren't like us. They're not really people. They're different.'”

“Right” is a simple question. “Right” is a choice, a perspective. But to believe you truly can make that choice. . . . I envy that kind of self-confidence. And I'm smart enough to be wary of it.

"Now, I have this theory that you know the people of this world are real. If you didn't, you wouldn't be so afraid of the possibility of being corrupted by that kind of thinking. You wouldn't have had to kill one of your best and oldest friends. Which isn't an accusation; I can't imagine what that cost you. And frankly I've wondered if I knew Felassan, because when I think about him being gone, it tries to rip something in my chest that refuses to come apart, and is all the more pained for it."

I see a memory of emotion in him: I did know Felassan. We had been. . . close. The ache in me deepens exponentially, and I pull my energy inward before he can see.

[So you believe I should let the consequences lay.] There is bitterness saturating his voice. There is the resignation of someone watching an end unfold that they had ‘known’ was coming, but had so badly wanted to be wrong about. What a foregone conclusion I must have been. No wonder he had wanted as many chances to sway me as he thought he could get. I wonder briefly if he had tried to recruit Cole. But probably not. I can't see him trying to use spirits the way he is willing to use people.

“I didn’t say that,” I reply calmly. “And honestly. . . I don’t know where I stand on it. I think there are the lives that exist now, in this world. And there are the lives that could exist, in the world you want to create. To me, that potential energy, that theoretical energy, is just as valid as existing energy, because that’s all it is: energy. That's all everything is, whether it's people or ether or the places between the stars. In the end, our pain, our suffering, our joy and achievements, our lives and deaths, they don’t matter. The universe carries on, and it's probably indifferent. Matter is matter and energy is energy, and the form it takes doesn't really matter much to me.”

I wonder suddenly if I'll feel sick the next time I look at one of the people I consider my friends, knowing how casually I spoke of their deaths the night before. Of the decimation of every person and every thing they know and care about. I could never explain to them how two things that should completely oppose one another can be true at the same time. That I love them, that I care for them, that they matter to me, and that I understand that none of us means one goddamned thing in the end when you zoom out far enough. Our lives, every experience a person can have, are priceless and impossibly beautiful, because they are nothing but sparks from a fire against a dark sky: breathtaking for an instant and then gone forever.

In a way, maybe I am  well matched to Fen’harel. Maybe I am amoral. Maybe I am even a monster. But in the end, I am what I am. If I seek anything, it is only to find out what that is and to be true to it.

'Find who you are,' the creature in the Fade had said. 'Not the details, those don’t matter. But the heart, that you must nurture.' 

[Then why do you bother with the Inquisition? If you believe nothing matters, why did you not simply walk away? Why do you not walk away now?] The words are almost scathing, and there is an accusation under them. It seems oddly personal.

“I bother with the Inquisition,” I say, heat and life entering my tone for the first time tonight, “because if I have to live, then that is the world I want to live in. One where we help each other. One where we fight for balance and flexibility and rightness, if we have to fight. For the things every person knows are right without every having to be told. For the ability to find what is Good in the world and pursue it for ourselves. Because the consequences of kind and compassionate acts feel vastly different from selfish, angry, short-sighted ones. Because I’m not the universe, not right now. I am small, and I am here, and I have to look at things from the ground. It isn’t your plan I necessarily have a problem with, Fen'harel," I fairly snap. "It’s your reasoning.”

Redcliffe occurs to me, and I sigh heavily. “In a little while, I’m going to be shot forward in time by one year.”

Shock vibrates in him again.

“By that time, in a world without the anchor, the Breach will have grown so large that it encompasses the whole sky. Sethius will have crushed the world under the heel of armies of men and demons. Red lyrium will be as abundant as plain stone, and people, so many people, will be dead.

“As the plan goes, I'll find a way to get back to this time and ensure that future never comes about. I would do it without question, there wouldn't even be a decision to make, because that future would be too horrific to allow. Because there, in the moment, there would be too much suffering and evil for me to want to allow it in the face of any better option. Until I stopped to think about it. But even then, the choice would be made for me by the fact that the world would literally end if I did nothing. Not just end as we know it, but end, period. No more chances for mistakes or successes or nature to take its course.

"But that world will be full of people. It won’t just be monsters and victims and heroes. There will be bystanders. There will be children. Some of them won't be born or conceived in this timeline. There I have snuffed out lives that will never be seen again. There will be millers and cobblers and jewelers and beggars, street performers and prostitutes and merchants. Real people. Yes, they're here in this time, but not as they will be in that future. Those people will never exist again. I will be killing every one of them.

“You ended your time in your world - our world," I allow, but it is only for his benefit, "by taking a desperate action because if you did not, the world would be destroyed. You went to sleep on the heel of that act of desperation. You woke on it. And you found. . . well. I know what you found. I want to say the situation in my case will be more complicated, but it really isn't. The irony of talking to you about leaving catastrophic consequences where they lie, allowing them to play out and for the world to right itself as it sees fit while knowing that I will do the exact opposite, eradicating an entire world in favor of a more palatable one. . . the irony of that is not lost on me."

[You are a good deal more honest than you once were.] It is almost begrudging.

I pause. "Well. . . as you've said, apparently I'm not quite who I used to be." It feels like such a lonely thing, all of a sudden. Sorrow lays on me like a thick blanket, muffling everything as if I'm standing in a rainstorm. He wants to edge closer. He doesn't.

“It's also not lost on me that right and wrong are ultimately subjective. But I can give objective reasons why ending that future is probably the right thing to do, and the only people who might ever argue are philosophers. That is my problem with what you have planned. You can't give me worthy, objective reasons why it's the right thing to do.

“You’re grieving the consequence of a decision you made which, by the way," I say with an incredulous little laugh, "I really don’t think was any decision at all. And that's the spearhead of your plans. You tell me you want to restore our time and our people. But our people were worse than Orlais and Tevinter combined, Fen’harel. So what you really consider superior when we get down to it, assuming I’m understanding this right, is long lives and a fuller world and existence. And more than anything, it's familiarity. Something you had come to love despite its faults. You're going to end the world because you're homesick." I held up a hand to stop what he was going to say. "I know, I know that's an oversimplification. But I'm not wrong. You miss your home. You miss your people. And you miss it all on behalf of the elvhen who never got to see it. On behalf of every descendant so stunted they're basically beyond recognition.

"But honestly, do people really need longer lives and more power with which to fuck things up? They seem to be doing a pretty good job as they are from where I’m sitting. There was no magic in my world at all and we still did just. . . a staggeringly good job of it."

I pause. My energy tells him I'm not done. His tells me he will wait. It is a basal kind of heaven, even now.

“Tell me something: did the destruction of the world that threatened when you created the Veil have anything to do with the titans?”

[. . .Yes.]

I nod to myself at a theory confirmed. “Titans that your people began attacking and harvesting from, at least in part because the little creatures that scurried about inside of them weren’t valid forms of life. They weren’t really people. Your people were doing them a favor by wiping them out. Putting them out of their misery.”

[That was not my decision,] he says, a hard note entering his voice. Maybe he had disagreed. I can hope, even if I'll never know.

“I didn’t say it was. And maybe I can understand how you feel. After a week traveling with an elf I was only just starting to be able to look at her without feeling sick. She probably thinks I hate her. But I don’t know that I think they all deserve to die because of it.

"I was a human, Fen’harel. I know what it feels like to be one of those dolls, and I can tell you that from the inside, I sure as shit felt like a real person. You won't want to hear this, but I felt exactly the way I feel now, absent the racial differences and my connection to the Fade, which is more or less like having a new sense." An incredible, expansive, world-changing sense, but not as much as he might like to think. And knowing what it felt like with and without it now, I would never say I'd rather die than go back to the way I had been. It would hurt. I'd feel muzzled and small, muted and alone, but life would still be life.

“This, now, is your decision, and you’re consoling yourself with the idea that you ‘don’t have a choice,’ when really, the only question is what choice you, one single person, feels like he can live with. You're going to sacrifice millions of people to make yourself feel better, and you can excuse it by saying that it's for the world, for a race who shouldn't have been wiped out, but that's all it boils down to.

"I want to know why you have the right to make that decision. Not the ability. The right. This world is neck-deep in problems. So was y-- ours." I kick myself inwardly. Reminding him that I didn't feel like a part of that world is hardly going to help my case. "How do you know that these broken and warped people you’re prepared to end aren’t another Children of the Stone? That you won’t find their validity until after it’s too late to undo another one of your plans that proves upset by something you couldn't have foreseen? You don't have the best track record.”

[. . . I do not.] There is no denial in his voice. No realization. He has already thought this out.

I am disappointed, but not surprised. He is too smart not to have already considered all of this, and that is what frightens me. That there is no argument that can pierce his resolve, because he has already thought of all of them himself, and made the decision regardless. If it is the wrong thing to do, he will do it anyway. He has plucked out his own eyes and punctured his ears so he could not risk being swayed.

I huff a sad, quiet laugh, and I am more than a little amazed. ”Fuck but you’re arrogant.”

[An overabundance of pride was ever one of my defining traits,] he says, and he is wry despite the stifling, crushing weight of our conversation. He is also trying to tell me something; there is a layer wrapped up inside the words, and he is waiting for my reaction.

I cast around for what he could be searching for-- A sharp pain lances through my forehead and the heel of my hand flies to it with a pained sound.

Suddenly he is in front of me. "Don't touch me," and I warn sharply.

He takes a slow step back.

[What is causing this?] He asks, hard and metallic worry in his voice. It is as if he has asked me this question before and he almost despairs, frustrated at the lack of an answer. No one likes to feel helpless, least of all him.

“Thinking about you," I finally manage. "Or Solas. It shoots up at random, but I can’t pick out patterns because I lose whatever whisper of thought caused it,” I say, not hiding the fact that I am pissed about it at the moment. "No one has been reckless enough to try to remind me, if they could."

I take deep breaths, releasing a little of the pain with each one, until I regain my detachment, my cool. It is much safer than allowing this conversation to touch anything too deep within me. It is much safer than feeling the worry, the sharp sadness that threatens like an animal, a monster one step from tearing me in half and leaving me to bleed in agony until the slide of death comes. If it ever will.

I almost laugh. I know this feeling well.

I straighten and let my head fall against the tree. He is so tall, I didn’t have to look down the planes of my face to meet his eyes.

“This is my problem with your plan. I understand," I say kindly. "I understand that in elvhenan, you were just a man. You worked within the conditions you were given and tried nothing more than to do the right thing. It’s what I’ll do, over and over and over again as the Inquisitor, hoping for the best. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t want a war, you didn’t want to lead. You just wanted to help people, to free them, and you wanted them to think for themselves, and god but why was that so much to ask?”

A sorrow wells up in him so vast and deep that I am reminded of the flood of feeling, as if from inside of myself, I got when I touched the despair demon. I quaver involuntarily; it causes me physical pain.

“You’re not trying to help people now. You’re trying to undo something you never could have foreseen that resulted from actions you were all but obligated to take. If you say there were no better alternatives, I believe you. With no reservations. You threw a stone into the water to stop a flood, and you blame yourself, you probably hate yourself, for the way the ripples bounced off the shore, against every leaf and twig, and the damage that those incalculable movements did.

“There’s a difference between accountability and culpability, Fen’harel, and I know that’s not all this is about. But I also don’t know if I can sign off on something that’s going to affect other people on such a scale when you are willfully making an emotional decision. And if I’m being honest. . . my real problem? It's just as selfish as your plan." I pause. "I don’t know if I can watch you do it to yourself.”

[And what would you do?] He snaps angrily. [If you acted out of desperation and woke to find that those actions had destroyed the world? If you had to wake up and know that every horror you beheld was your fault?]

I blow a tight breath out of my nose and close my eyes, willing away the impulse to argue. I cast my mind into a blank place and put myself into the position he described.

“I would mourn,” I finally say. “Then I would take what was in front of me and try to help it be the best it could. I’m not god. And I’m not interested in playing one--" 

[Says the "Maker's Prophet,"] he scoffs.

"And," I go on, voice sharpening, "I have an end to the line of thinking 'this time will be different, this time it will work, this time I will do it right. This time I will ensure I am not surprised.' Well news to you, apparently, you're not God.

“And don’t take your mood out on me,” I snap. “I’m not your fucking enemy, and I’m not going to apologize for not just. . . batting my eyes adoringly and going along with your plan for mass genocide!" I push to my feet, quick and almost unconsciously. "You are the last person in the world who gets to complain about being questioned!

“I don’t want you to do this to yourself,” I enunciate, leaning toward him. Angry, afraid tears well in my eyes, but I don’t let them fall. “I worry there won’t be anything left of you. And I know what it’s like to live as a shell. That’s all I was. I knew how to survive anything, and so I stood in front of other people and I took their pain.” Despite my effort, the tears have begun to roll down my cheeks, swollen and heavy and silent. “I did the hard things so they wouldn’t have to. Because I could, because I was much better at handling them and, frankly, because it was a lot easier for me to go through it myself than to watch them suffer, helpless to do anything about it.

“I have been taken away from everything, and I have had everything taken away from me and you are the only thing, the only thing I have that feels like. . . .” I sniff wetly, angrily. “That feels like home. Do you understand how profoundly alone I am? There are other elvhen in the world, Fen'harel. How many of me are there? 

"I remembered you, buried so deep in my bones that no one could take it from me, even when they took everything else. So pardon fucking me if I don’t immediately jump onboard with something that is going to as good as kill you. Worse than kill you. I know what that road looks like,” I say viciously, “and I would do anything to keep someone like you away from it.”

[. . .What are you talking about?] he asks, confused. I feel it, something in me rising to the surface that does not belong here, in this world. Suddenly I understand how I could "feel" the same when I was so obviously different.

My eyes widen. A pain, dull and thudding and sharp as raw, cut metal is eating at my chest like a cancer.

This was why I hadn’t wanted to remember.

I press a hand hard to my sternum and fold over on myself, squeezing my eyes shut, trying to stay loose enough that the worst of it can’t take hold. I know that is all I can do.

[Nuaelan?] He is well beyond worried.

“Just. . . wait,” I whisper-plea.

Floods, washes of injury pulse through me, and an unbidden sound, strangled and torn, rips from my mouth. The pain is so full it literally takes my breath.

A wash of certainty and comfort encircle me like a thick, heavy, heated blanket. I feel arms that aren’t arms take me and hold me. “Shhh,” a voice says in my ear. I feel what it looked like to him when so much pain poured out of me.

He had been frightened.

Slowly, the panic that was chipping away with poisoned tips at the deepest part of my chest calms. Buzzing stills, an angry hive calming under gentle smoke.

”Shit,” I breathe.

The "arms" retract and Fen’harel, shrunken to closer a normal size, places a gentle paw on my knee in a very human gesture.

[What happened to you?] he whispers.

I can’t speak right away. 

“I knew,” I breathe. “There were clues that I shouldn’t want the memories of my old life back, the life I had before coming. . . coming back here?” I shake my head, one hand clenched in the fabric over the center of my chest. “There is a host of monsters in me. It is dark and frenzied and terrifying, and I think my amnesia is the only thing that’s keeping it from eating me alive. I think there was something wrong with me, or something. . . that something happened to me. Both, maybe. When I woke up below the chantry, it was like a revelation. It was like someone had taken chains from my mind, scales from my eyes, my heart. Even my body felt lighter. And I don’t think it was just that I went from being human to being elvhen. It was like someone took hundreds of pounds from each of my limbs.” My eyes are cast back to memories that feel both old and immediate.

I shake myself back into my body. This isn’t why I’m here. I squeeze my eyes closed and rock forward to sit on my heels, fists pressing into the earth to ground myself. I take a deep, deep breath.

When I go on, I put kindness in my voice and rest my arms on my thighs. “I know what made you. I can make a good guess, anyway. And you know, don't you? That just because people say something about you over and over and again, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes all it means is that they have a misconception in common. Or a prejudice, or a blindness.”

He is watching me closely, his energy out and attentive, but hovering back. That is not what it wants to be doing, but he is cautious, and I have rounded on him too many times tonight. This is too important.

“I think you believe, deep down, that you’re ruination. But you’re not.

“‘From childhood’s hour I have not been as others were; I have not seen as others saw; I could not bring my passions from a common spring. From the same source I have not taken my sorrow; I could not awaken my heart to joy at the same tone;’” I pause to pierce his eyes as I go on. “‘And all I loved, I loved alone.’ A poet from my world wrote that a long time ago.”

I look down at the loose tunic I’m in and pluck at the soft material, rubbing it between two fingers. It is like velvet and satin and roughspun all at once. The motion is a needle of comfort jabbing into me through the bones and nerves of my fingers. It hurts before it helps.

“I don’t remember you. I don’t know how much information I’m missing. But I know you like I know the others, and. . . you’re not a bad person, Fen’harel,” I whisper. “Maybe you were, when you were young, I don't know. But you have't been for a long time. You’re not a monster. Or a waste, or a fool. How many of them said that you were over the millennia? Again, and again, and again. How many of them say it now? Did it start from your 'birth?'

"When we're young and people tell us we're garbage, we tend to listen. We can't help it. We think they're showing us the truth of who we are, when actually what they're just showing us is how messed up they are. You're brilliant. And bright. Your thoughts and opinions and ideas don’t merit dismissal and derision out of hand. It's only because you try to share things with them that they haven't already considered. People are not open-minded. New things scare them. It threatens them, so they try to put you in line, and shame is very effective at doing that. You could probably break apart into the birth of a new spirit: Thick Skin. But the pain that creates that skin. . . .” I trail off. That pain doesn’t go away. It stays locked inside. It is the genesis and sustenance of iron walls of deep mistrust. Of fear. And fear can disguise itself as very ugly things.

“The more different you are, the more alone. We weren’t made to be alone. You, especially - I assume the form of a wolf was not random. We’re pack animals. People and wolves. And you have spent too much time alone," I say, gentle and soft and firm and honest.

“You're willing to look where others aren't. To see things others don't want to." I pause. "Are you willing to look at yourself?"

I lower my eyes until I can smile in a kind, hopeful sort of way. “You just need to spend less time around people who are shitty." I can't manage to say the word I want to, to call him "brother," but it is there, plain in the air for him to see. "And idiots. And you need to spend more time around people who are curious, who have open minds. Other people who have eyes, and who want to use them. Like you.” I warm my smile. A small part of me argues with what I’m saying, but I believe he used to be that person. I believe he's lost right now, and I believe that sometimes, suggestion can be very powerful - the suggestion of faith even more so. I have hope, even a little, and if I have any I will gladly spend it on him.

“You’re not a bad person, Fen’harel.” My spirit is out and honest, reaching to him in comfort, in love, in possibility. “You’re not broken. You’re good. And you can do good. You are not the end.”

It is a time without time we stare at each other, until he whispers, [I know you.] It is like a revelation.

[Would you. . . . Nuaelan, would you close your eyes?]

I give him a curious look, but do as he asks.

[Keep them closed.] It is to my shock when I feel a rough hand slip into mine. When it pulls me to my feet in one fluid, sure motion, I have forgotten what it is to breathe. When arms circle me, holding me to a broad, solid, and very real chest, I feel as if a brand has been plunged into the heart of me.

His cheek slides up the column of my neck with tender slowness, his nose coming to rest under my earlobe with a gentle nudge. He exhales, long and low, and it is as if he has never breathed before. The feeling in him is painful, overwhelming, hard and twisting and desperate and broken. The breath flows over my skin like heavy, liquid silk.

“Ar lath, falon,” he whispers. “My sister. My heart.”

Something in me cracks open, and the brand turns to the heart of a star.

I slide my hands up his sides, over his broad back and shoulder blades. The feel of smooth, thin material is under my fingers as it slides between my palms and his skin. I lean into the embrace. I run a hand over his scalp and down his neck. Long, smooth hair is under my fingers. I repeat the motion over and over and over. I can think of nothing else to do, and I feel like he - ancient, clever, frightening, and powerful enough to have been mistaken for a god - is raw and open and almost small right then. I wonder how long it has been since he showed this to anyone, or even to himself.

I hold him in return, and I try to push every piece of comfort and acceptance and love into him that I can without being too obvious. I wish I could fix this for him. He bleeds pain like tar.

He “knows” he has to walk the road alone, he has decided it. He knows no one should be so sullied. Like me, he would refuse to allow another to take on the pain if he can do it. But he wants to. I am the one thing left that he does not want to let go of. Maybe part of him wonders if he should cut me out of his heart for that very reason, like removing an infected limb before the blood poison can spread.

I see myself through his eyes. Once again, I am to him the one piece of himself left in the world - the “him” who came before war and horror. I shine more brightly for knowing that, as if I haven’t just been made to do what Daern’thal wanted, but as if I have been made for this, too.

But he will have to choose. Where he is now, held and holding, there is no edge to fall from. But it will come soon, and it is impossible to know if he will step into it. As close as I ever come to truly praying, I do in this moment.

I huff a quiet laugh, a shaky sound. “I love you too, dummy,” I say, just as quiet. It is heartfelt and almost raw, and at the same time it makes something jab upward in my chest that has me fighting a sob. I have no idea where it comes from or what it is. “So much.” I think I have never felt so whole, because I could never truly forget a feeling like this.

‘I don’t want to lose you.’

I’m not really sure whose plea it is.

Chapter Text

Josephine and Cullen are trying and failing not to eyeball Fen'harel. I don't blame them; he has not bothered to size himself down tonight, and lays curled around me, head up and watching them, front paws crossed. His tail is planted in front of my feet like a furred barrier. He does not even try to hide the fact that it is a claim. I don't fault him that right now, and if I'm being honest, I wouldn't hate it even if I did.

“I’m sorry to come to you both like this without your permission," I say, "but it’s an emergency. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

“What is it?” Josephine asks, now taking Fen in with open curiosity.

“The dalish. Apparently--”

“Does this have anything to with why they’ve been showing up outside of Haven?” Cullen interrupts irritably.

“Oh, good," I say flatly. "It’s already started.” I massage my forehead with one hand. “Apparently every single one of them had a dream - on the same night if the woman I talked to is to be believed - telling them that I'm the salvation of their people and they're all to come to my aid in Haven immediately."

“All of. . . you can’t mean literally. . . you mean all the dalish in Ferelden, right? That's what you meant to say?"

It feels like I've shrunk down by a quarter. “No. I mean all of them. Every single dalish in Thedas. They’re all headed toward Haven.”

“Maker,” Cullen breaths. “It will cause a riot. We can’t support that many. There have to be thousands upon thousands.”

“Tens of thousands, if I have my guess. Maybe 100,000 or more. And that’s assuming the dreams are only happening for the dalish, and not just. . . elves in general.”

Josephine's lips part, eyes widening, and Cullen scrubs a hand over his face, then looks up as if to the heavens.

“That was more or less my reaction,” I say drily.

“What. . . these dreams, what are they?” Cullen asks.

“I have no idea. Something or someone pretended to be one of their gods, apparently convincingly. It seems like too much of a coincidence to not have something to do with how I got here or how I got the mark or with the demons chasing me, but all I can do is guess. I have an idea about how to fix that last bit, but he," I tilted my head back toward Fen'harel, "disagrees with my methods."

"What methods?" Cullen asks.

[She wishes to use herself as bait.] His tone perfectly conveys his thoughts on the matter.

"Are you--" Cullen seems to bite his tongue. "Forgive me, Prophet, but are you out of your mind?"

At Fen'harel's smug satisfaction, I mutter peevishly at him, "Yeah, and it's your favorite boyfriend agreeing with you, and everything."

[Even the most hopeless mind can stumble upon good sense,] he says privately.

I growl silently at him.

“I must agree," Josephine said. "It would likely be effective, but if you are taken or killed, that would hardly matter."

"Not. One. Word," I say quietly through my teeth at the wolf behind me. At the others I wave a dismissive hand.

"This thing," Josephine says. "Is it possible the ancient elves worshiped a creature of the Fade and mistook it for a god?”

I shake my head readily. “Their gods were real, they just weren’t gods. And elvhen were far too familiar with the Fade and spirits to--” ‘To fall for something like that,’ I was going to say. But when you had forever to pull a con, you could change even simple men and women into gods.

A breath puffs out through my lips and I start again. “The stories have been warped almost beyond recognition over the millennia." I feel a silent stir from Fen'harel, but it is a tiny thing. "But they did technically exist. It can’t be one of them, though, because they were all locked away before humans arrived in Thedas.”

"Every prison can be broken out of sooner or later," Cullen says darkly.

"Not this one," I say with a laugh that suggests how ludicrous I find the idea.

“The knowledge you must have,” Josephine breathes. I see the gears turning in her head. “We could leverage your information for resources, or space or alliances. Every university, study, scholarly organization. . . court historians, family lines, they would clamber over themselves for five minutes with you. It would be enough to solve many of our current problems.”

“I don’t know everything, Josephine.”

“You know enough,” she says with an incredulous laugh. “What you said about the first Inquisitor alone--”

“I’m sure that will all prove useful," Cullen says peevishly, "but can we please get back to the problem at hand? We already have over five hundred," he enunciates, "dalish camped outside the gates of Haven, and you’re saying that we can expect tens of thousands more at least? My soldiers started turning them away days ago, but scouts have them camped not a mile away. They won't leave. It has nearly come to blows more than once. They're utterly intractable.”

Fen'harel snorts, earning him curious looks from the advisers.

“If I find out who orchestrated it, believe me, they’re getting a kick square to the groin,” I say darkly.

“That’s all well and good,” he replies, “but what are we to do? Haven wasn’t built to be a military outpost, let alone a makeshift city. We're on shaky enough ground with the Chantry as it is, and the moment they get wind of this--”

“You said they’re camped outside of Haven, right?” I interrupt.

“For now.”

I chew on a thumbnail and speak as I think. “The dalish are nothing if not proud. I doubt they'll set foot in the town. They’ve lived in harsh conditions for generations, too. If I had to guess, and this is a rough guess, mind, but they’ll all probably follow suit with the dalish who are already there and set up their camps at a safe distance.”

“Even if they can supply themselves for Maker knows how long, the impact on our own people will be untenable. Hunting is already sparse in the region, and the amount of waste. . . .” he trails off as if pained.

“They have the Arlathvhen every ten years, a gathering of all the clans, and as far as I know they manage it without laying waste to the environment. It goes on for months. Probably not in snowy regions, but the concepts are the same. In any event, you only need to find a temporary solution.”

“Thank the Maker,” Cullen sighs. “You have a plan, then?”

“. . .Sure. Let’s go with that. Josephine,” I turn to her before Cullen can ask the logical question, “has Lelina started sending the men and women out?”

“Yes. Mostly to the trade hubs, and many to smaller cities and larger towns that see travelers. The timing is fortunate with the meeting in Val Royeaux happening soon; word will spread much more quickly than normal. She is confident that travelers will carry the tales to larger cities and outlying settlements more credibly than a handful of agents could.”

I nod. “Get word to them, then; they’re going to need to head off the idea that the elven “prophet” has decided to ally herself with the heathen dalish, or as the Commander says, Orlais will crush us before we can take our first breath. If we can convince the clerics that this isn’t yet another move against the Chantry. 

“Tell them. . . I don’t know. I don't care. Just make something up. Maybe prick noble pride by dropping some hint about ‘filthy savages’ stepping up when they won't, or whatever it is they call the dalish. At least the clans stay well away from settlements when they travel.”

“You said we only need a solution ‘temporarily,” Cullen prompts. ”How temporarily?”

I hum, considering. My lips move soundlessly as I tick off on my fingers all the things we’d need to do before Skyhold, accounting for travel times. “I think,” I say slowly, “around three months. Say. . . three to four months. It might be more, but I don’t think so.”

"You think?"

"I'm sorry my magical predictions of the future aren't specific enough for you, Cullen," I half snap.

Josephine looks from me to him and back. One of her brows arches ever so slightly.

“I didn't mean it like that," Cullen says, backpedaling fast. "Just. . . that’s enough time to travel by foot to Haven from anywhere in Thedas.”

I look at him, my face almost as grim as his. “That complicates things,” I say, in the likely the largest understatement ever uttered.

[The dalish will tend to themselves,] Fen'harel says to us all. [They will not allow their presence to be an undue strain on local wildlife or resources. Their respect for nature is too great. I would concern yourselves more with logistics. They will not allow themselves to be turned away; they have been waiting for this moment for the whole of their recorded history.]

A muscle in Cullen’s jaw twitches, but he seems to listen. “Josephine, how many dalish do we have in the Inquisition at present?”

“One, Commander. Elden.”

“Bollocks,” Cullen swears. “Oh, Maker, I’m sorry,” he says to me, clearly embarrassed. He puts a hand to the back of his neck absently and sighs.

“What,” I laugh, “why aren’t you apologizing to Josephine? She’s the only proper lady here, and I swear like a sailor! In at least two languages.”

Cullen allows himself a rueful smile. “My apologies, Lady Montilyet.”

“That’s quite alright, Commander,” she allows, clearly amused.

I should watch him with his soldiers some time, because I know he is respected, his ire feared, but I can't reconcile a terrifying commander with the polite, if often peevish man I know.

“We’ll need to speak to Leliana as soon as we wake up, in any event. We’ll have her send word for Elden to return immediately. Unless you cannot do without her, that is,” he adds, looking at me.

I shake my head. “We were to meet up at Dennet’s farm tomorrow, anyway. Once we regroup, we’ll have plenty of people without her. She’s talented, though. And funny. Easy to be around. I've liked traveling with her.” <i>'Mostly,'</i> I think.

“Funny?” he asks as if bewildered.

“If you like dry humor, I guess,” I say with a shrug and a small grin. “Apparently I do.”

“I’ve never heard her crack a joke,” Cullen says, and I smile a little.

I sober. “I wish I could say this was a joke.

“I want to talk to Fen," I bump him gently with my shoulder, "about my plans for Val Royeaux tonight, so if you don’t have any questions? Well, any questions I can actually help with,” I say, flat and self-deprecating. I know this isn’t my fault. All the same, I feel the pressure of being the cause, pointless though that is. All of this should have been simpler. Which, given the bare-bones situation, is a horrifying thought.

Josephine glances at Cullen, who shakes his head. “Unfortunately not,” she says. “I think it would be a good idea if we met again tomorrow night, however. We can discuss the situation in Haven and get a more detailed idea of how long it will be until your return."

I nod slowly, knowing I won't be able to give them as much of a clear estimate as they'd like. “Will do. Should I leave you two to chat, or would you like to go back to sleep?”

“Actually, if you can spare the time, I would like a word with you,” Cullen says. “I would prefer it be in private,” he says with a glance at Fen’harel, “but that is obviously not an option.”

“Actually,” I repeat, ignoring the quiet, territorial warning growl rippling through Fen’harel’s ara'lin, “there's a safe place I go when Fen can’t be with me. Honestly," I joke, "it’s as if he has a life outside of me sometimes. Selfish ass.”

Cullen’s polite smile looks physically painful.

“Shall we go now?” I ask.

“Didn't need to speak to your. . . friend?” I get the sense he wanted to say “pet.”

“I have every night with him, Cullen,” I say with a small smile, and a vicious sense of victory ripples over Fen. I fight not to roll my eyes. “I don’t think one more night will spell the end of the world even if we can’t get to it before morning.”

“I will leave you both to it then,” Josephine says. “I was having quite a good dream when you came. Is there any way you can return me to it?”

“Only if you want to tell me about it in great detail,” I say with a grin.

She colors, a beautiful blush across the fullest parts of her high-boned cheeks. “Perhaps I will see where my mind takes me, on second thought.”

I send her off with a smile and a nod, and Fen'harel stands and puts himself between Cullen and I, his back to the man.

I want to hit him.

[I would caution against this.]

". . . Can he hear you?" I whisper. And that is how I learn that ancient, god-like magical Fade wolves can roll their eyes.

"Tch. Don't get tetchy with me, it was a perfectly reasonable question," I say at a normal volume.

"Prophet?" Cullen asks, confused.

"Would-- Do you mind?" I say peevishly to Fen'harel. "Move. And don't be an ass," I add in an undertone.

He huffs in annoyance, and it is enough to send my hair billowing. I do nothing to hide my ire as he sits next to me, tall and straight and regal as a feline, while I start to comb through the tangle he has made of my hair.

[I would prefer you not be alone with him,] he says frankly, staring directly at Cullen.

I look between the two, but it's obvious Fen'harel is still speaking privately. I roll my eyes.

"Why, is he going to eat me?" I ask sarcastically.

I see the moment Cullen realizes what's happening. "What is he saying?" he asks, unamused.

“Nothing complimentary. To himself,” I reply archly.

Fen’harel growls quietly at me.

“Well,” I shoot back.

[It is nothing of concern to you, templar.]

"Mother of god," I mutter as I put my face in my hand.

At the same moment, I see Cullen's fists clench unconsciously. "I have a name, thank you, and I have not been a templar for some time. Though I am still more than well versed in the tricks of demons." His tone is downright deadly, and abruptly I fear how this is going to escalate. "And I doubt very much that it does not concern me. Her safety concerns me," he says, the warning painfully clear.

“. . . You know it is rude to talk in front of other people when they can’t understand you,” I say diplomatically.

[Nua-]

I recognize his tone and cut him off. "Oh Jesus Christ why don't you just pee on me," I snap.

Cullen snorts, and that only eggs Fen'harel on.

[Can he feel hatred or love as we do? Or see the true fullness of a rainbow as it hangs in the air before it has even fully formed? Does he know the sound of a cloud as it gathers into rain? The scent when it crystallizes into snow?]

“Do you?” I ask coldly.

[There are lessons you do not learn until your hundredth year, Nua. Your thousandth. Your ten thousandth. The quicklings will never be able to understand you, not truly, no matter how they may appear. Their lives are not even the span of a breath to us.]

My face darkens. "I am not Fellassan," I say, my tone deadly with warning, "and I am not," I quiet my voice to a whisper, "one of your agents. Who I choose to trust and care about and," I lower my voice further, "consider a person is my fucking business. A little trust, if you please. I'm not a goddamned idiot."

A quiet, warning growl is rippling around him.

"He's not proposing marriage for fuck's sake," I say, my voice raising more than I intend. "The man doesn't even like me very much--"

[You cannot possibly be that obtuse.]

"He's my Commander," I cut over him angrily, "he's professional, he's not an idiot, and occasionally he is going to want to talk to me about Inquisition business! Or would you prefer to lock me in a glass case so none of the filthy quicklings can touch one of your people?" 

"I can hear you, you know." Cullen's voice is droll and unamused.

Slowly, so slowly, I look up, then over at him. I realize I have leaned in toward Fen'harel, and straighten myself. "Well. I'm just. . . the best at diffusing tense situations then, aren't I."

I want to crawl into a hole.

"It can wait, if you would prefer," he says drily. He is clearly unamused. I feel like a complete idiot.

I smile despite myself, but it is hardly an amused thing. "Honestly, Commander, at this point I'd go with you just to spite him. Oh, what," I snap at Fen'harel's silent reply. "Give me one logical reason you object to a conversation with a man who, quite frankly, is infinitely more trustworthy than you." 

I regret the words the instant they are out of my mouth. "I'm sorry," I rush to say. 

It is a long, long time before he answers. It is a pause on elvhen time, not mortal time. Distantly, I am impressed at Cullen's patience.

[You have every reason not to trust me,] he finally says quietly.

"I didn't mean--"

[You should not apologize for your honesty, Nuaelan. I simply worry that without your memories. . . . It does not matter. As you have pointed out, you are not under my command.] I feel his voice change so that it's "public" once more. [I was following a lead on our demon problem before you arrived tonight. I will return to it once you are in the forest.] "Our," he said. Not "Your."

"Fen'h-- Fen," I begin. We made so much progress not an hour ago, and I may have shattered it in my carelessness. It isn't like me to just blurt something out like that, for it to come out without my permission. It's as if a piece of me is tearing away from the rest, and I can't understand why.

[Nua,] he says strongly. [I have had many years to learn how to let things go. In the larger picture, it is unimportant. We are together. For now, that is what matters.] I see Cullen go rigid. [Your reticence is wise, and we have time to work out the rest.] 'I hope,' he doesn't say, thinking of the future.

I lean forward, burying my fingers in the fur at his jaws and wrapping it in fists. He is strong, sturdy. I don't have to be careful with him the way I do others. I pull his head down to mine until our foreheads rest against one another. I close my eyes and sigh, and it feels as if the sound is mending something. "Ar lath," I whisper.

[And I you, falon. Come. Let us go.]

 

* * * * *

 

Now that we're alone, Cullen looks uncomfortable, like he doesn't know what to say. I wait patiently.

"I never told you," he finally begins. It sounds like something to fill the silence. "It was good to finally hear your voice."

My eyebrows raise curiously. His heartbeat picks up. He smells of adrenaline, a scent I can't identify, embarrassment, and guilt.

He chuckles in a self-deprecating way and one hand brushes absently down the front of his tunic. It's a grooming gesture. The skin around my eyes tightens fractionally, but he does not seem to notice.

"I had heard so much about what you had to say from the others. I'd heard you speak, of course, but hearing it my language is different." He clears his throat. "I. . ." he puts a hand to his neck, and arch a brow subtly. What the hell is making him so uncomfortable? "I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, but I've felt somewhat responsible for you since the day you appeared. I was the first person of rank there, under the Breach. I covered you with my cloak, and when it was clear that the demons weren't going to stop coming from the Rift, I picked you up and ran you to the healers. I was nearby while they worked on you, cleaned you up, when we realized how young you were.” He colors just slightly, there and gone, and this time he does notice my eyes narrowing. “I oversaw Solas as he did. . . whatever it was he did to save you from the mark." He pauses, looking down, then suddenly asks, "How old were you, Nua? Where you came from." When I don't answer right away, he adds, "There has been a good deal of debate over it, and you've said that you sometimes remember things when asked."

"Yes," I say quietly. I am watching him perhaps too closely, trying to figure out where he's going with this. I simply wait for him to continue.

"You look much older in the Fade than you do in person," he offers. His tone is personal, and it makes my stomach twist in the strangest way. "In the real world-"

"The waking world," I interrupt, trying to shove away the feeling in my gut. I've never been alone with him like this. Close, and quiet. His voice has never been this. . . familiar. It is also more friendly than I have ever heard it, and I am utterly flummoxed. I've never met someone so prone to seemingly random mood swings.

"I beg your pardon?" He asks.

"Calling it the real world implies that this one isn't real. It is. It's just different. It would be like saying the sea bed isn't real because it's under water and you can't breathe or move normally and strange creatures live there."

"Ah. Yyyes." He doesn't quite seem to agree, but it's hardly something to argue over now, and I can't blame him anyway, given his life and training. "In the, uh, waking world, then, you look perhaps seventeen? You know I have siblings, I assume?"

My brows pinch together a little at the non sequitur, but I nod.

"Of course," he says with a huffed laugh. "Two of them were younger, and I suppose being brought up to watch out for them, as well as having held command for so long as a templar, I can be a bit. . . overbearing, perhaps." He pauses. "You were so young. Maker knows what horrors you went through to leave you in the condition we found you. You woke to a foreign world, unable to speak the language, and the first thing we did was clap you in irons and interrogate you. Despite that, all you did was try to help. You pushed through pain, fear, I assume, and the hostility of our people, only to have the role of Prophet thrust onto your shoulders. If people twice your age had half as much honor and courage, we wouldn't have needed something like the Conclave." He sighs. "I know I have been perhaps. . . short tempered." I nearly snort. "It wasn't my intent, and my frustration has not been directed at you. I thought you older. That would have been bad enough, but when I found out you were barely old enough to marry, I worried that you couldn't possibly be up to what was going to be demanded of you. I wanted--"

My eyes are wide. Cullen stops and gives me a questioning look, and I open my mouth, but it takes three tries to get anything out. "Sixteen is. . . not the age of marriage where I come from," I explain. "Eighteen is legal, but even at twenty or twenty-two it's still usually considered too young."

His eyebrows raise. "My mother had had four children by the time she was twenty-one."

"But you and your siblings are more than a year apart," I say, confused.

"Yes, of course. My sisters and brother and I were the ones who survived."

When it sinks in, my face goes slack. Of course. Disease, doctors who don't understand the body or basic hygiene. . . a woman would take her life into her hands any time she gave birth here. Infant mortality rates would likewise be frightening - Cullen spoke of his dead siblings as if no more uncommon than the fact that it rains in spring.

He looks at me oddly, confused, but goes on. "I don't know where you come from, but if you are sixteen, seventeen. . . I can only assume you were as extraordinary in your world as you are here."

I look down. It's a gesture of denial. Of shame.

"I've always wanted to help people," Cullen goes on. "Once we found out you were, as we had thought, only a young woman, I. . . well, I became a bit iron-handed," he finishes flatly. I snort quietly. He says it as if it doesn't even make sense to him, and he has that goddamned half-smile on his face. This time, I know exactly what the feeling in my stomach is. Were I awake, blood would be draining from my face.

“It wasn't my place," he adds sincerely, apologetically. He has misunderstood my expression. "You are more than capable. And I don’t mean to say ‘only’ a young woman,” he rushes to add. “I simply mean that I. . . Maker.” He has bent his head and his hand is back on his neck. I wonder if he ever rubs it raw inadvertently.

“I understand what you mean,” I assure, “and I appreciate it, I promise you. But. . . why are you so nervous?”

I am reassuring, patient, calm. On the surface, it is genuine. Inside, I have gone still and watchful and deliberate. I am coiled, waiting to find out what he’s getting at, because something is telling me I’m not going to like it. Listening to that voice is as instinctual as every pull of air into my lungs.

"Good.” Mirth is in his voice, but it is probably more relief and self-deprecation than anything. He sobers. “I've come to have a healthy respect for magic and the danger it can present in my life. Strange magic. . . well, I'm not certain I'll ever truly be comfortable with it. But as a person. . . you have my trust." He smiles, wry and self-deprecating. "You've more than proven yourself, and in all honesty, I've come to realize that I've been looking at you as if you're my younger sister.”

Any softness drops from my face and I feel oddly heavy. I feel Fen'harel nearby, ready to come to me.

"I am not twelve," I snap, much more annoyed than he deserves. I try to gentle my voice. "I'm fine. I'm sorry. That wasn't directed at you. But feel free to stick your nose in and see if you like what you find." I feel an answering chuff of annoyance, and then he is gone.

Cullen looks like he doesn’t know if he’s supposed to apologize or draw a sword that he doesn’t even have.

“Apparently I have two older brothers now,” I say, brusque and peevish. “God help me if you end up being half as overprotective as he is. God help you,” I correct with half a growl.

“I thought we were alone.” He looks utterly fed up, and I imagine that in that moment, he wishes Fen’harel were here.

“We are. He just. . . thought maybe he should butt in. He hasn’t heard anything we’ve said, though.”

He mutters something uncomplimentary about the Fade that I’m not meant to hear. I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to miss no one knowing that I can hear everything they say.

“Right,” he goes on, one hand absently brushing some nonexistent thing from his cuff. He doesn’t realize he does it. He is wearing in a long, loose, thin woolen tunic which gapes open at the neck. It is unfairly flattering, and I am uncertain what to think. Normally I’d consider it a grooming gesture, and his “younger sister” pronouncement a nervous attempt to distance himself from an unwanted attraction. It would explain the shame he had felt earlier if he was attracted to someone he thought was so young. But Cullen is hardly the type to be attracted to one so young, and past a certain level, signs of interest are identical to signs of nervousness. There are some exceptions, but he is not displaying any of them.

For some reason, I am annoyed.

“Where was I,” he says.

“Little sister,” I say flatly. I am not successful at keeping the ire out of my voice. Which is to say, I don’t even try to.

Cullen seems to assume my drop in mood is due to Fen’harel. With a useless sweep of the surrounding forest, he goes on. “It isn’t just that. It’s easy to forget with the way you are that all of this is new to you. Your confidence, your apparent skill and capability at everything you do. And you learn so quickly.

"You know the future, but not how to put on all of your clothing." I flush invisibly, angry at the detail someone has obviously put into their reports. "It’s easy to forget that you have no memories, that you’ve never even been in Thedas. Quite frankly you're frightening in battle, but reports tell us you couldn't build a fire without magic. You know obscure, long-buried history, but you walked into a patch of poisonous plants every child knows to avoid and tried to eat the pith from a fruit that's common in every southern nation."

“Do you have a point, Commander,” I snap.

“Yes.” He sighs heavily, and I feel the axe coming. “I don’t mean to question your judgement, but better that than risk you endangering yourself unknowingly.” He pauses. “I am concerned about your. . . ‘friend.’”

My thoughts turn to static.

Distantly, I can appreciate how straightforward he is. But that appreciation is a background ringing, because this cannot be what it is. Not twice in one night. Not with all the things I actually need to be doing.

“For all that you know, for all your skill and ability, I’m not certain you understand just how dangerous the Fade can be. How deceptive. Demons can see into you as if you were made of glass rather than flesh and blood." He speaks gently, as if breaking something hard to me. Or perhaps as if speaking from painful experience. "They will pull your deepest desires, your greatest pains and fears right out of you and twist them to get what they want. Nothing is above their ability to manipulate,” he says seriously.

My eyes have slowly, slowly been narrowing.

“If you have no memories,” he says gently, “how do you know that this creature can be trusted? That you truly know him? How can he be your friend when you aren't even from this world?”

I stand motionless, frozen in anger and my desire to keep it from overflowing. He means well. I know he does. I close my eyes and pull my lips in, holding them between my teeth.

Abruptly, I laugh. It is a harsh, dry bark, but it is far better than razing the trees around us. “To be fair, that's a very good question. I respect your concern, and I appreciate your honesty. But what you know about demons and the Fade could fit on the tip of a pin compared to what I know. I don’t need a big brother, Commander." My voice has gone cool and decisive. "I am the big brother.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but I hold a hand up to stop him. “Do you know what Fen and I were talking about before we came here? He was warning me away from you.”

“Excuse me?” I could almost see the steam start to rise from his skin, little warning curls of it, like a pot of water about to break into a simmer.

“The two of you have problems with one another, for vastly different reasons, and seem dead set on warning me away from the other. He would protect me even more stalwartly than you would, ‘older brother.’” My tone is scathing at the end. It's demeaning, no matter how he intended it. My god-forsaken feelings have been hurt, and it’s appalling.

“As for how I know he isn't a demon, it’s the same as the way I know that the first woman you had feelings for was one of your wards when you were barely older than you think I am.” ‘And that demons and a psychotic mage tried to use that to break you,’ “That you don’t write your older sister Mia often enough and consequently, that your family thought you were dead for months after the Kirkwall rebellion. That you put product in your hair every morning, and that whenever the two of you were in private, Hawke used to flirt mercilessly.

“Incidentally, she really was only doing it to get under your skin. But she did think you were handsome. She'd like you better now, I think. Hating everything she was on principal was a bit of a wet blanket.”

“How-- I didn’t hate--”  he cuts himself off and runs his hands through his hair. The man is transparent. “Maker that is unsettling. What don’t you know?”

“Not much,” I say bluntly. I am too annoyed to care if I make him uncomfortable. It's sloppy. 

“. . . Not much,” he repeats. He is less than ebullient.

“Does saying it back like that make you feel any better?”

“No.”

I sigh heavily. “Look, Cullen. . . I understand what you said earlier, and I really do appreciate it. But I'm not stupid. I know my age and status as a foreigner aren't the whole reason for all of this. . . ." I gesture a hand vaguely between us even as his heart takes off again, "whatever. The rest of it is your business, so long as we can work well together. 

"As for your feelings on magic. . . you believe in the Maker. How exactly do you think he made all of this," I gesture around us, "your world, if not through magic? You understand now that magic isn't the problem - people are the problem. But magic is a potent and singular weapon to be in the hands of someone who wants to do harm. I'm a woman, Cullen. And I wasn't powerful where I come from. Do you think I don't know what that feels like?" When he doesn't get my message, I glance pointedly at his groin. He's a mix of horrified and sickeningly uncomfortable.

"If I’m fate-sent, then all of me is fate-sent, not just the parts you want, and not just when it’s convenient. I’m sorry if I’m not what you wanted. I'm sorry if I'm not what anyone wanted. None of you asked for me, but the thing you all seem to forgetting is that I didn’t sign up for this shit, either. I was not a volunteer. But I'm here, and so I'm the one everyone is stuck with, willing or not. I'm stuck, too. 

"Believe me, I know I'm not ideal for this job, but I am doing my best and frankly, I don't have to be. I could have run off a hundred times by now and let the world get sucked into the Breach. I am sick of feeling ashamed about what I am, and I'm sick of apologizing because it makes people uncomfortable. Because it’s inconvenient. I shouldn't have to, any more that you should be hated for the scar on your lip or the fact that you were born into a good family or the fact that you could, at any moment, decide to start hacking other people to bits. I’m discreet and I respect people's secrets, ok? And look, I'm sorry, but if that's not enough, then you can cram it in whatever hole your high-handedness occupies." I am markedly less than calm by the end.

“I didn't mean. . . ." His voice is quiet. Genuine. And so sincere that it chips away at my defensiveness. He sighs heavily. One of his hands clenches and unclenches briefly. “Nua, I'm not afraid of you. Maker. I'm afraid for you. I worry after you.” It is like some sort of confession. “I don't know a thing about you, but I have come to care for you as a person. For everything that has happened to you, everything that has been asked, you haven’t complained once. You haven’t argued or fought or run, as you said. From the moment you opened your eyes, you have done nothing but help in every way you could. You are utterly remarkable. I'm not certain anyone could be better suited to the role you find yourself in.” His countenance darkens, sobers. “I have seen what can happen when a leader takes on too much, and you are so young.”

I narrow my eyes. Why does he keep saying that? “I’m not young, Commander. I’m--"

“Cullen.”

“What?” I snap, thrown off by yet another sharp turn in the conversation. Maybe he’s better than I thought. He isn’t. But it is technically possible.

“Please call me Cullen, if you would.”

I eye him carefully. “. . .Maybe,” I say slowly. Tightly, I start again. “I’m not young. I’m not a teenager, I don't care what I look like. I don’t remember how old I was, but I know I was at least as old as you, probably more. And I’m fairly certain that this body is much older than it looks.”

"Body?”

“We don’t have elves where I’m from,” I say, some of the ire leaving my voice. “We never have.”

“. . . What do you have?” he asks slowly.

“I can’t. . . I don’t want to talk about it. Not yet. Wait until I get back to Haven. But Fen. . . do you remember how I told you about all the things I can do? Heightened senses and so forth?”

“Of course.” ‘Because in what universe could I forget?’ it seems like he doesn’t say.

“This is more I don’t want to talk about until I’m back in Haven, but. . .” I pause, considering how to say it. “I don’t remember training in combat, right? But my body does. It’s the same with my magic, and I know an ex-templar is the last person who wants to hear this, but I don’t remember it. I just know it. Like breathing, like walking, like the beat of my heart. That's how I know I know Fen. My mind doesn’t recognize him, but to the rest of me, he’s as close as my own skin. I dreamed while I was asleep, after trying to close the Breach. The clearest, longest one was about him. It was a memory, and in it, I was with him, and we were very close.”

“Dreams can be crafted easily enough,” he says darkly.

I narrow my eyes at him. “As I said, I know that. Why would he train me to be stronger, faster, and more skilled in the Fade if he just wanted to turn on me later?”

“Why would a creature burn the anchor into you?”

I don’t have an answer for that. “Just. . . there will be more to explain when I get back to Haven,” I reiterate. “A lot more. I’ll be able to answer questions, and things that don’t make sense now will make sense then.

“I know you don’t know me. Being a former templar, I’m probably just about your worst nightmare,” I regret my phrasing instantly, “and I hate that. But just. . . can you try to suspend your disbelief until then? If you don’t all trust me after that, if you don’t want to give me the benefit of the doubt, you can. . . I don’t know, find some way to lock me up and just haul me around in a cart to close Rifts. Leave the world-altering decisions to the professionals.”

“None of us want to imprison you,” he says, as if I'm daft and confusing for even joking about it. “In all honesty. . .” he looks wildly uncomfortable. “At the moment, I'm more concerned for your safety than anything. We cannot afford to lose you.” It is graceful and seamless, but he tacked that last sentence onto the end at the last moment.

“I'm not sure anything can hurt me, Cullen,” I say, my voice gentle satin. A wash of that same scent I don’t recognize comes from him. “But I appreciate it. I know you’re an adviser to the Inquisition, and it’s your job to worry over the safety of the world’s salvation," I phrase carefully. "That’s not even considering the fact that you apparently so miss being an older brother.” My words are kind. Plausible. Logical. Inside, something is turning to iron. 

Fen’harel had been right: I have a soft spot for Cullen. There is no other reason I should be so angered and annoyed and, if I'm being honest, hurt by all of this. It isn’t like me to have missed something so obvious. It leaves me with a sense of disquiet not unlike nausea.

Cullen huffs a quiet laugh. “Thank you. I hope I haven't overstepped too egregiously.” His smile is far more warm than I likely deserve. The skin at the corners of his eyes is crinkled, and it twists some god-forsaken thing in my chest so hard that I almost take the fabric of my tunic in a fist.

I shrug lightly and look off into the woods. “Better to overstep than to leave something important unsaid. Me having a temper doesn’t change that, and I'm sure you're used to dealing with worse. Annoyed as I am, in fact, it makes me respect you more for speaking your mind. You’re a good man, and a very strong one. You take your duty seriously. You genuinely care. There was no one better Cassandra could have chosen.”

He is quiet for too long, and I am meticulously careful to focus on the scent of pine and sap and loam.

“Thank you,” he says eventually. His voice is. . . soft. “. . . How are things progressing in the Hinterlands?”

“I thought you were getting reports,” I say, the bitter undertone in my voice clear.

“We are," he hedges at my demeanor, "but only from Cassandra’s team. Scouts are keeping us updated on your location, but they provide little detail.”

I grunt quietly in acknowledgement. “We’ll rejoin her group tomorrow, as I said. Elden will be off--”

“Leliana has an assignment for Solas, as well,” he interrupts, a knowing but perfectly concealed tone in his voice. “If you can tolerate another loss. Sorry to interrupt, but I didn't want to forget.”

“I’ll try to console myself,” I reply wryly, careful not to react with too much interest. “As it is, the time without him has been positively torturous," I deadpan. "We’ll have plenty in the group without them, and we’re almost done with what the soldiers can’t take care of, anyway. Or shouldn't. Frankly I could be doing everything the group is on my own, and much faster. But I have a part to play, I suppose. It's just frustrating knowing how much more I could be doing." I look down. "I haven't told anyone else that. But I figured you'd understand." I pause. "We’ll get Dennet recruited, cycle through the Rifts I left in the northern part of the region, take down a dragon in the east, then--”

“A dragon?”

“Yyyes. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Large scaly creatures, big wings, notoriously bad tempers, spit fire at you? Well, this one does, anyway. I'm given to understand they're somewhat infamous in your world.”

He holds his hands up. “Wait. Wait. You’re planning to attack a high dragon?”

“Are we sure it’s me who doesn’t speak Common?”

“Prophet, this--” He stops, collects himself, and looks at me, appraising. He’s obviously biting his tongue about something. Several somethings.

I arch a brow at him. It is only mildly challenging.

“Are you. . . as prepared for the fight as you can be?” He asks carefully. His voice is a little tight. It sounds almost annoyed. Smells it, too, but it doesn't seem directed at me.

“I know everything about her. I know the terrain, the area, I know how she’ll fight, I know she has about a million and twenty of her children with her. I also know I have a Qunari with me who is going to be so excited about it that. . . well, he’ll be excited. About it. He’d probably work for free if I told him how many dragon’s he’s going to get to kill. Speaking of, is that drink I asked Josie for in yet?”

Cullen arches a brow, no doubt at the familiar moniker. “I can ask, if you’d like.”

“You could. But that would subject to the horrors of being awake in the Fade again.”

“I'm finding the scenery unrivaled so far," he says with a grin, "and I have to admit I wouldn't hate seeing more of where you come from. Then again, I could simply have Lady Montilyet speak with you herself.”

“And deprive you of my company? I am not nearly so cruel. Besides, how else will you check I haven’t been eviscerated by a falling branch or crushed to death by the next stiff breeze? You must have been insufferable as a child.”

“That isn’t funny.”

“It’s hilarious. I’m hilarious.”

“Maker,” he mutters, rubbing his forehead with one hand. I can’t keep the grin from my face. I feel suddenly lighter.

“Have her track down some really good Tevinter red, too. Please. Not much, maybe. . . three bottles? Five? I have no idea how much he drinks. Say five. No, seven. He can ration them if he has to. I doubt he'll be expecting anything so civilized down here, so anything should be a treat. Many, many more later, though. Probably casks, to be safe," I say half to myself.

"He?"

"Another companion. Loves good books, good wine, interesting magical theory and good. . . scenery. He'll like you." It is an effort to keep from grinning. "He won't be joining us for a bit yet, though. After Val Royeaux."

"Naturally."

“. . .Did you just make a joke?" I ask, delighted.

"I am capable from time to time."

I laugh, I can't help it, and his smile grows until I swear it is emanating light.

"How are things in Haven?” I only ask to be polite, and because, if I’m being honest, despite my ire and upset, I’m suddenly not eager for the conversation to end. When he's not being a bossy shit, there's something about him that's almost comforting. Like I can be calm around him in a way I can't around others. I want to know why, but it's something to look at on my own. What I really want to ask him is, 'Do you really not hate me? Are you sure this isn't some sort of trick?' But I am not, in fact, sixteen, and it's really none of my business. Then I remember the dalish situation and realize that my question was more serious than I intended.

“Well enough.” He sounds beleaguered in the extreme. “We got 328 more dalish yesterday. They all came together in a single group. The one that arrived before them came together, as well. I'm wondering if their clans aren't much, much larger than anyone has guessed. We could predict how soon more will be arriving and in what numbers, make plans, but every one of them refuses to speak with us. All they say is that they’ll speak only to ‘the Daughter of the Creators, you filthy shem.’ I'm paraphrasing. But it's accurate paraphrasing.”

I purse my lips.

“I’m hoping Elden will be able to get something out of them."

"There's a dalish elf in the Bull's Chargers, too. An archer. She'd help if you asked. Her name's easy to remember, she just goes by 'Dalish.'"

He nods. "The company arrived not along ago. I'll speak with her personally in the morning. If that doesn't work, it's another week until Elden can get back, and Maker knows how many more will have arrived. We have planners working on where to place them, but the simple fact is there isn’t room for as many as you estimate will be coming. We’re trying to figure out what to do, but at the moment. . . we’re at a loss.”

If I could just talk to--

“Cullen,” I say sharply, an idea occurring to me. He looks up, then becomes curious at the light in my eyes. “Have you tried to meet with them personally? I mean, have you talked to someone who could represent them? Could you tell me about them? What they look like, how they seem, that kind of thing?”

He makes a considering noise. “I spoke to a small group today who seemed to be representing the rest of them for now, but I couldn’t tell you much about any of them. Small builds, long ears, tattooes, staves.”

“If you can get me some detail on one of them, I might be able to find them like I’ve found you and the others, and talk to them. I could get you all the information you need and tell them to stop being twits. Around you, at least,” I add with a shrug. "Baby steps."

Life floods into Cullen’s eyes. He steps forward, unable to contain his excitement. His hands twitch like they want to reach out. “That would be perfect. Maker, if someone could talk to them. I’ll get you everything I can tomorrow. I’ll have Josephine and Leliana come as well. Between the three of us, we should be able to paint you a good picture.”

I can’t help it - his excitement and relief are contagious, and I’m grinning before I realize it, staring into eyes only an inch or so higher than mine, and little more than a foot away.

Abruptly, he notices how close he is and steps back, further than he had been. His heart is hammering, his cheeks flushing subtly, and I have a sinking feeling of denial in my stomach.

“Uh. . . if you haven't," I say, don't spread the word that I speak Common, ok? I'd prefer people be surprised. Even our own people.

"I. . . suppose that’s everything, then?” I hedge. Suddenly, I cannot leave fast enough.

“Unless there’s anything else you need.”

I refuse to acknowledge the observation that a teeny, tiny, mostly buried part of him is hopeful.

“No,” I say a little too curtly, unsettled.

“. . . Until tomorrow night, then.”

“Goodnight, Cullen.” Abruptly, he is gone, back to his own dreams.

I back up into a tree and slide down it, burying my face in my arms where they rest on my knees. I know the instant Fen’harel is back.

“Not one word,” I manage, voice rough and muffled my my arms. “I will literally kill you if I feel one whisper of an ‘I told you so.’ And I need to stop losing my temper with you, I know that. I'm sorry, really. It's stupid and childish. I don't know what's wrong with me."

I expect him to approach, to touch me in some small way. We are almost always touching.

When I have given up on the idea, he moves forward and lays close, so just the tips of his outer coat are brushing me.

[You are as you should be.] There is something he doesn't say, but I don't know what.

 

* * * * *

 

14 WM/Ver

Trip to the Arbor Wilds is go.

Last night was a shitfest. I really miss sleeping at night.

Conclusion on Envy: kill it.

Complications: I need enough time to get to the temple and back, because I need adviser help deciding between mages and templars, if I have to.

That the templars will want to join after they see the truth of their commander is a given, so if I have to choose a faction, I may need to be ready to tell them they can't join. Collecting both as I want to will be more difficult - we'll have to leave immediately for Redcliffe and just. . . hope for the best. A strategy I don't think I like.

Annoying thing? The first  thought I had after thinking abou turning down the templars was how disappointed Cu. would be, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a deterrent. I need to figure out if there was something I did wrong.

It would help if part of me didn't keep worrying over what would happen if I got sucked back to wherever I came from. I "know" this wasn't a fluke. I "know" my being brought here was intelligent design, and it makes sense to let me see this through if whatever it was went to the trouble. But I also know that surprises happen, and plans are sometimes hidden.

Envy got F. and I talking last night about  time and the mutability of “fate.” I told him: I’m here, I know what I know, so I’m going to use it. If time is a fragile egg and it wants to break, just me being here would have been more than enough for that to happen. Maybe that’s short-sighted. Idk, but it FEELS like the right choice. Whatever that means.

I told him something like, “In the bigger picture, does it matter? No. But I’m not in the bigger picture. I’m right here, right now, on the ground. If the choice is mine to make, I’m making it.”

Of course he asked me what if I make things worse?

'I'm not you. If I screw everything up, I'll try to learn from the advice I wish you would take about your pain and the decisions you make trying to cope. I’ll understand that I did the best I could and that I acted in accordance with my nature, and since I’m not god, I literally could not have done any better. It's just as likely to me that maybe that would mean that things are SUPPOSED to be screwed up.'

Everything only leads me to questions, and each answer immediately has a hundred little question babies. I think I'd be that way without all this "adventure" piled on top. But t hings like this make me wish I knew MORE. Which is just. . . no. It reminds me how sometimes, getting things can only make us want more of them. You get money, you become more aware of how much money you DON'T have. You get famous, you become more aware of how famous OTHER people are. Things like that.  You scratch the itch and that only makes it worse.

We're weird. People are weird.

'We act. Then we do better the next time. I won’t blame myself for trying. If I was going to, if I believed that and took it to its logical conclusion, the only real decision would be to kill myself so I couldn't influence anything. But even that wouldn't work - death creates ripples, too. We’re not gods. I’ll carry on, I’ll find some way to forgive myself, eventually, hopefully, and I’ll try to do better. As long as I understand that, at the end of the day, I'm not in control. . . I should be ok. Hopefully.'

I wish he would listen. Just thinking about him hurts.  But I need to be nicer to him, too. I don't know what the hell was up my ass last night, it was like someone lit a burner under me.

Off to things I have to pretend are adventure now, instead of the reality of biting my tongue while they take five hundred years to hack their way through whatever they're fighting. It's like watching a kid try to learn something and having to hold yourself back from correcting them or just doing it for them. Except they're not kids, and there's no way for them to get as good as I am.

One of these days, I may just sneak away and kill three days' worth of enemies in an hour. If they're all dead, no one can tell on me, right?

Chapter Text

“Varric, are you attracted to me?” I ask out of the blue. We've been on the road for maybe a half hour. As usual, they let me ride in back. Later today, we'll rejoin the others. I find I'm excited, despite the fact that it means rejoining Solas, too. But then, hopefully he'll be paring away from the group soon, at least for a while.

He sputters. “Excuse me?”

“I thought I was good at reading people,” I say absently, a thoughtful frown on my face. “But it turns out someone was attracted to me, and I missed it.”

“Observer bias,” Bull says conversationally.

“What?”

“Observer bias. I’m guessing you’d rather this person not have a thing for you?”

I shift in my saddle, rolling one shoulder a little. “Well. . . it’s not exactly convenient.”

He grunts in assent. “You didn’t want it to be true so much that you overlooked the signs. Or if you saw them, you made excuses for them. It happens a lot to Ben-Hassrath agents when they’re green. Didn’t to me, but then, I’ve always been good,” he growls.

“Excuse me?” I ask coldly.

“I’m not saying you’re green, Boss. But you’re not exactly working with a full deck either, right? You don’t have your memories. A slip was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“Yeah but that's what bothers me. If I missed that, what else am I missing?”

“Just keep me with you. You’ll be fine,” he assures.

“'All the better to send detailed reports on you and make sure I’m indispensable, my dear?'”

“See? You’ve got the right skills. Maybe you’re just rusty.”

“Rusty my ass,” I mutter, glaring at the back of his head. “I don’t like you,” I say.

He laughs. “Please. You adore me. I don't blame you, I'm pretty awesome.”

Suddenly I wish I needed to wear shoes, because I very much want to throw something at his stupid, bald head.

“You two shouldn’t ride in front anymore,” Cole says in a worried voice. “Or. . . maybe just wear helmets,” he adds thoughtfully.

“Where did that come from, Kid?” Varric asks.

“Nua. She wants--”

”Thank you, Cole,” I say in a sharp-bright voice, “thank you. Don’t want to make the poor Qunari any more afraid than we already have,” I say.

“. . . Ok,” he says.

“I’m not afraid,” Bull growls. “It’s just not natural.”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” I say in English.

“But The Iron Bull isn’t a lady,” Cole says, confused.

I put a face in my hand. “It was a joke, Cole.”

“But now you want to see him in a dress.”

I am actually mortified, then, and I feel my cheeks heat. “Do you fault people for their dreams too? I am not responsible for the random shit that flashes through my brain.”

“I wasn’t faulting you,” he says, confused again. “Why would I do that? You think it would be funny." He pauses. "Your blush doesn’t show, you don't have to worry. It never does. He made you that way. But you can turn it on if you want.”

I close my eyes and take a breath.

“. . . I’m saying too much,” Cole observes.

“Thank you, darling,” I reply.

“Don’t look at me, Tiny,” Varric says under his breath. “I have no Maker-forsaken idea.”

 

* * * * *

 

We’re riding in a line. I’m leaned back, laying with my arms under my head, feeling the twitching movement of Charles’ - I named him this morning - walk and listening to his steady breaths and the shift of earth under his feet. I imagine being at sea must feel similar. Charles’ steps are quieter than the horses I know and his movements are more sinuous, but the familiarity is still there. These horses don’t get shoed, though I’m told that in Antiva charms are sometimes attached around their ankles, small bells that tinkle as they walk.

I’m watching a stormfront in the distance. Gray, billowing clouds are lit from within, like a thunderstorm in reverse. There is a column of rain in the otherwise clear sky, a massive angled column that almost looks made of fog.

“Adnraste's ass, doesn’t that hurt?” Varric asks from behind me.

“Hmm?” I tilt my head back to look at him over Charles’ rump and the cat-like sway of his strong tail.

“The saddle. You know, jabbing into your back?”

“Oh. I mean, it’s not a spa chair, but I figure it’s a good stretch for my spine. That or it’s not, and I should move, but I can’t really tell because. . . well. You know.”

“Yeah, let me know when you figure out how to bottle that whole 'immune to pain' thing. I know a guy. You could retire in six months.”

“Nah. It’s overrated. Not feeling pain, I mean.”

“Tell that to my last stubbed toe.”

“Which you wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t hurt, right?” Bull rumbles helpfully from ahead of me. “Which means you probably would have made it worse instead of being careful with it until it got a chance to heal.”

“Eh.”

“Pain can be nasty shit," Bull allows. "But you don’t realize how much it does for you until you really think about it. When you get too hot, it makes you sweat. So you don’t die. When you’re hungry, it makes your stomach hurt. So you don’t die. When your harmless little stumble is actually a sprained ankle or a broken bone, it tells you to go to a healer. So you don’t eventually die, or become a cripple. Nasty shit, but useful, like I said."

"Do you have any idea how annoying it is traveling with two insufferable know-it-alls?"

"Please," I say. "We're delightful. Besides, you hung out with Aveline, Fenris, and Anders for ten years. Maferath's chapped asscheeks, you put up with Carver for months. We should be a walk in the damn park. Besides, Solas is the group's designated insufferable know-it-all, and I don't think he'd appreciate you handing out that hard-won title to just anyone."

He chuckles, not an entirely happy sound. "Compared to Junior, even the Seeker is almost delightful."

“That was pretty good, Boss," Bull says. "Nice and irreverent."

"Thank you. I've been practicing. I'd never say anything like that around Cassandra, but it's good to have in my back pocket."

"Yeah. I've been meaning to ask, how does that work with you, anyway? The pain thing.”

“Not feeling it, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh well I’m actually learning to. Feel it. Sort of. It just doesn’t. . . hurt. Does that make sense?”

“Nnnnno. No, it doesn’t.”

I sit up effortlessly, which earns me an appreciative look from the Qunari. Varric is writing something in a small, thick notebook.

“When you break it down,” I say, “all we really feel are different kinds of sensations, right? We call them good or bad based on how they make us feel. You should understand with what you do in your spare time, the way one can bleed into the other. Pain is the same - just a sensation. Its job is to be ‘nasty shit,’ like you said. ‘Hey, body, our hand is in a fucking fire, pull it out so our flesh stops charring and this horrible feeling I’m giving you can go away.’ It makes us stop the thing that’s damaging the body as fast as possible.

“It’s like how we feel good when we eat or drink or lay down when we’re super tired. It’s why the hungrier we are, the better everything tastes. It’s also why orgasms feel so good.” When he turns around and looks at me again, I wink. “That’s my considering my audience,” I grin. His chest swells with a silent laugh.

“Our brain has us pretty well trained to take care of our bodies. It drives us toward things that are good for us and away from things that will hurt us. It’s why sugar and fat taste so good but rotten food makes us sick just looking at it. It’s why we’re attracted to healthy, pretty people, but not sickly, 'ugly' ones. Everything we find hot can be broken down into indicators about how strong the babies we make will be and how well we can take care of them, because apparently, that's the whole point of life, at least biologically: make more life.

“I feel the sensation when something hurts. It’s just not that ‘oh, fuck, this is the worst thing ever’ feeling. I get to choose whether or not to jerk my hand out of the fire instead of my body just doing it for me. So far, my reflexes have been fast enough that it hasn’t been a problem.”

“. . .If you were a Qunari, the Tamassrans would have you breeding like you wouldn’t believe.”

“What?” Varric asks with a laugh that almost sounds scandalized.

“Uh. . . thank you?” I say uncertainly. “You should design recruitment posters. ‘Dream of the brood mare’s life? Join today!’” To Varric, I explain, “Qunari selectively breed the big gray ones from generation to generation. He meant if I was his species, not his religion. They don’t do it with dwarves or elves or humans.”

“Where’d you learn all of this, anyway?” Bull asks.

“I just know it. Same as everything else.”

“No, I mean all that other stuff about pain and pleasure and attraction.”

I hum thoughtfully. “I don’t think I did," I say slowly. "I think I always just. . . payed attention. That I was interested in the way the mind worked. So I picked things up as I went.”

Bull huffs a laugh and shakes his head. “You know, in another life, you would’ve made a hell of a re-educa--”

His voice is drowned out when I pick up a smell. Blood. It’s far from unusual here, but it’s something else that has me jumping up to a stand on the saddle and look into the distance. Charles jumps. Bull tenses, Varric just looks up curiously.

The blood is fresh. It's Elden’s.

I swear loudly and drop off Charles, yelling for the others to follow.

Grassland blurs around me and my braid slaps sharp against my bare arms in the wind. I leap over a hillock, a boulder, a startled ram, the hoofbeats of Varric's and Bull's horses fading quickly, their shouts nothing sounds in my push forward. Into the shadow of a shallow canyon created by lifts of rock, and finally, when I break through the other side, the pissed off roar of a bear, the tang and hush of magic as it curls up a staff and speeds away, Cassandra's shouting, stirred-up earth and crushed grasses and hasty footwork.

I break over a last hill and for one sloppy moment, I freeze, because what I see is not a bear. It is three times too big to be a grizzly, its fur looks so thick as to be impenetrable and its jaw built to crush stone, and it has as much forward muscle as a mabari. One well-aimed swipe of a paw – larger than Iron Bull's head – would kill a horse if it hit right. After knocking it sideways into a tree and shattering its bones. Elden is down off to one side and not moving. Cassandra is leading the creature away from her.

I tear forward and leap onto the creature's back. I wrap my legs around as far as I can under its armpits, clamp down for dear life, and yank its head backwards by the eyelids to get its attention off Cassandra. She dives in and starts hacking its underside, but the only thing able to penetrate its fur is a straight-on stab. I see the world go slightly blue and feel one of Solas' barriers slide into place over me.

With a string of expletives, I wrap my arms as far around the creature’s massive neck as I can, then squeeze until I compress its fur and flesh enough to barely, barely join my fingers. It throws itself onto its back and rolls to dislodge me. I grunt, give a cry as it rises back to its hind legs, grit my teeth, and throw my head back, putting my entire body into it-- There’s a loud but muted pop of bone, like a knuckle cracking but much louder. The creature goes limp and I throw myself off it as it falls.

I take in the area before it hits the earth with a thump I feel in my fingertips – there is nothing else dangerous nearby, so I run to Elden so fast it would look like I teleported to anyone watching. As Bull and Varric dismount and run to us, Cassandra is saying something-- Dead. She’s saying Elden is dead. Denial to the point of fury rears up in me.

With the calm focus of a field surgeon, I am checking her pulse and breathing. I find neither. Her face is sliced open so savagely that I can see her teeth, and I fear she may lose an eye. More claw marks rake over her throat and down onto her upper chest. I can see muscle and bone.

Someone puts a hand on me, I don't know who, and I throw it off. I tilt Elden's head back carefully and start CPR. It is slick, bloody work until I realize I can seal off the gash in her cheek with magic, freeing up a spare hand.

Breath. Breath. Breath. Pump. I am careful, so careful to be gentle, but I still hear the pop of ribs breaking away from the sternum and the crunch of fractures. A little is alright – if you're pushing hard enough to pump the heart, you're going to go through a rib or two.

This goes on for minutes. In a back space of my mind, I have the detached realization that in my old body, I would have run out of energy by now.

More time passes, and I begin to fear Elden is gone. Varric is murmuring something to someone.

“Prophet. . . .” Solas tries. His voice is gentle. Consoling.

With a growl, I hook a blade under Elden’s armor and shirt, slicing them through, realizing only after the fact that I have done it with a spectral blade, there and gone in a moment. I spare no thought for her modesty as I shove the gear and garments aside, exposing her chest and stomach. I place one hand above her left breast and the other on her right side below her armpit. I warn the others to step back and send a course of electricity – I can only guess at the appropriate voltage – streaming from my left palm, through her heart, to my right.

Nothing happens. I pause, then do it again, slightly increasing the power. Nothing. A third time. Nothing.

With a savage cry, I bring my fists down on her chest.

And it shoots upward, lifted by a ragged, gasping breath.

I fumble for a healing potion – I never use them – and pop the stopper out with a thumbnail as I bring it to her lips, putting an arm behind her back to hold her off the ground. She chokes on half of it, and most of the rest gushes out of her cheek and down onto her neck, but she gets enough down that I hear the muffled sounds of bone and flesh starting to knit. I reach for another potion, but Bull is already holding one out, crouched down on the other side of her. I tilt her head so the gash in her cheek faces up and pour the solution in more slowly. I heave a quiet sigh when the flesh of her face starts pulling together and her skin grows just a little less pallid.

A third potion, then I help her sit up, slow and gentle, and press my forehead to her shoulder. I am crying tearlessly and silently, and a corner of my mind worries that I'm so attached to anyone. I ignore it.

I pull back to look her over again, and that's when I see the others. Varric looks like he's trying very hard not to look bothered. Solas is rapt. Bull is a mask. Cassandra. . . .

“How did-- She was gone. How did you do that?”

I gently pass support of Elden to Bull, then pull her clothing shut and magic it back together. I fall onto my rear in the dirt. “Science,” I breathe. “I'll be happy to explain it later. First, what in the sanctified fuck is that thing?” I look with a jut of my chin to the small mountain of brown fur laying in a heap not far from us.

“A bear,” Iron Bull deadpans. “A bear whose neck you just snapped with your bare hands. No pun intended.” He sounds troubled, but I get the impression it’s not by how I killed the creature.

“. . . Your world is utterly terrifying,” I say. “That thing is like a bear the same way a kitten is like a Frostback red lion.* Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get my horse.”

“We grabbed it when you took off,” Varric says. He seems almost wary.

“. . . I know. That was my excuse to get a minute alone.”

“Trouble, I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone when I say that right now, no one is going to try to stop you from doing anything. You walked away from what was basically a building slamming you into the ground and then falling on top of you, then snapped its neck like it was a twig.”

I sniff and stand, dusting myself off. I give a listen to Elden and hear her heart beating steadily. Her breathing is clear. As I pass, I glance at Bull, and I can almost see the gears in his mind spinning. His scent is unhelpful – it doesn't tell me anything that isn’t on his face. I think I should take it as a good sign that he's not trying to keep what he feels off his features, but I'm not certain I do. It’s either part of the act, some new plan. . . or he suspects how good my senses are.

 

* From the DA Wiki: "Red lions are usually longer than ten feet and typically weigh well over 600 pounds.” They are also frighteningly intelligent.

 

* * * * *

 

“So?” Varric asks as he slips out the door behind the Seeker. “Do we know the plan from here?”

“I--” She looks around and her eyes scrunch. “Where is the Prophet?”

“I believe I heard her mention something about the stables,” Solas offers. “She slipped out just after assuring the Horsemaster that his tasks were completed. Elden followed her.”

Cassandra heads toward them. “Come, then. We completed everything she sent us to do. What about your group?” She looks down at the dwarf.

“We finished everything, too,” Bull answers for him. “Didn’t get the impression we were headed back to base right away, though.”

“That is for the best. We received word that Elden and Solas are needed in Haven. They were to head out as soon as we regrouped, but I think it best Elden gets at least one night of rest before traveling, and it makes no sense for them to return separately. I still do not understand how. . . what the Prophet did to revive her.”

“She kept the heart moving physically while putting breath into her lungs,” Solas said. “The spell she cast was simple. She directed lightning from one palm to another, through the chest. I cannot claim to understand how that revived her.”

Bull grunts thoughtfully. “She has an anatomical understanding that could make our Tamassrans blush. I’d love to find out what else she can do.”

“They are your teachers, are they not?”

“That’s one of their jobs, yeah. ‘Tamassran’ is more a branch than a specific job. It's about as specific as calling someone a soldier. Lot of things fit under that umbrella.” They reach the stables and stop, as a one, at the sight that faces them. “What the hell is that?”

The Prophet is scratching the forehead of an animal in one of the stalls that should be a horse, but isn’t. It is massive, at least two or three hands taller than any normal horse, even those used by the Qunari. Its muzzle is more square and nearly without any taper, its head less curved and delicate, its ears more expressive. Its eyes are closing and its dark head leaning down toward her, like a toddler drifting off without meaning to.

A slight young woman with close-cropped hair strides out to meet them. “That’s an emerald courser,” she says in a half-whisper, eyes on the sight before them. “I’m Seanna, by the way. Good to meet you. I help my father with the horses. And I have never seen anything like that.”

“You run into that a lot around the Prophet,” Varric says wryly. His tone is low to match hers. “She’s got a thing for animals. They seem to have a thing for her, too.”

“I’ll say. I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but she’s not what I expected. Walked up, asked permission to go in and see the horses. Permission. From me. Greeted me friendly-like too, as if I was no lower than her.”

“She does seem pretty egalitarian,” Bull agrees. He too, speaks as if trying not to wake something.

“If anything, she likes peasants more than nobles,” Varric adds, one hand absently scratching the pronounced corner of his jaw. “So what’s an emerald courser? Never heard of it. Or seen anything like it, for that matter.”

“You should see what’s inside the stall,” Seanna says conspiratorially. “You wouldn’t have heard of it though, not if you aren’t in steed husbandry. They’re an old breed, pretty much died out even before the Dales were sacked. Ancient Tevinter bred them, supposedly a cross between their horses and some ancient breed no one knows the name of. Some people even say they’ve got hart in them. You can see it in the eyes and the strong haunches. They were smart like the harts, too. Smarter.

“Supposedly Tevinter worked magic into their bloodline. They were about perfect. Brave, loyal, hardy, exceptionally long-lived. But they were also infamous for their tempers and willfulness. Unless they decided they liked you, they’d take your hand off soon as look at you. Breeders back then never got the recipe quite right, and when the emperium fell, they all but died out. They were called altu-something in Tevine, I can never remember. Dad could tell you. Name didn’t stick, anyway.”

“If they died out, how are we looking at one?” Cassandra asks.

“They got bred into just about everything else when they were around. You can see a little of their sturdiness and loyalty is in the dalish all-bred, some of the spirit in those horses the Avvar like. There are even pieces in the chevalier’s steeds, though Orlesian breeders like to pretend that’s nothing but a tall tale.

“Every now and again, you get a horse with more dominant courser traits. The blood just doesn’t dilute the way it’s supposed to. Dad found one years ago, almost a perfect example of the original breed. He wanted to see if he could do better at crossing him with some horses here to weed out some of its worse qualities. He’d be an absolute legend if he could. A line of coursers without their temper would be unstoppable. Good as a mabari.

“This one here,” she nodded toward the animal who was now clearly leaning into the stall door to get closer to the Prophet’s hands, “he was a fluke. He’s still young, but you can already tell he’s even more of a blueprint for the breed than his sire. He’s an utter shit,” she remarks flatly. “Most of the stable hands won’t go near him. They’ll walk outside from one end of the building to the other before they’ll pass his stall, and we can’t keep other horses next to him. He's so big we had to knock out a wall between pens to make one with enough room for him, especially since we can't take him out to the field anymore. Dad’s the only one he'll even lets muck out his stall.” She sobers. “He killed two stable hands before we figured that out.”

“He killed them?” Cassandra asks, aghast. She looks back at the Prophet with new appreciation and new trepidation.

“Aye. Crushed the foot of one. She didn’t last long after. The other. . . well. Marn didn’t listen well,” she says darkly. She offers no more, and no one seems inclined to ask for details.

“Will he be coming with Master Dennet?” The Prophet’s lilting voice asks loudly, startling the onlookers.

“Oh, no, your worship," Seanna calls back. "He’d tear the place up. You can’t work with him. Dad didn’t even bother to name him. Just took to calling him ‘the beast’ and it stuck.”

She turns around and the animal nudges her indelicately with his muzzle. Seanna nearly starts - that should have knocked her flat to the ground. “Is Dennet not fond of the him, then?”

“I wouldn’t say that, your worship. Dad may try to breed him, but he's impossible to break.”

The Prophet's lips thin. She looks at Seanna for a moment, then over her shoulder at the creature. “I don’t suppose you might sell him to me?”

Cassandra groans quietly, Varric nearly laughs. Bull raises an eyebrow.

“Didn’t you just save me from a monster?" Elden asks. "If you're regretting the decision, I'm sure we could find another bear. Or perhaps a nest of dragonlings. No need to part with coin to get the job done."

“I may if you keep ribbing me like that,” the Prophet says sweetly. She turns back to Seanna. “I’m not saying it’ll be a cakewalk, but there’s something about him I like, and if he really is as difficult as you say, wouldn't it be good to be rid of him? I don’t have any coin, but I’d be willing to owe your father a favor. And as a supposed Seer, I can guarantee that’ll be priceless pretty soon.”

“You’d have to ask him, your worship. There’s no love lost between the two, but I can't promise anything. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen him act so friendly toward anyone, but. . . he really is a lot of trouble. I wouldn’t give him to my worst enemy for twice his worth.”

The Prophet gives a smile, and it is as if the heavens open up and a singular ray of light shines down on her. “I’ll go and ask, then. Thank you again, Seanna.” She trods off, a more slight smile in place.

The young woman looks suddenly flushed. “I’ll just, er, see about getting you all outfitted with some better mounts, shall I? We can have your horses returned to Haven when ours get moved.”

“By all means,” Cassandra says, droll, “let them out to pasture. I think mine nearly died going up a hill yesterday.”

 

* * * * *

 

To no one’s surprise, Dennet agrees to part with “Beast,” once he is assured that the Prophet isn't an incompetent idiot. Rather vociferously, if she is to be believed - which, of course, tends to be most people’s inclination. If the party had been surprised by the horse’s head and neck, they are downright stymied by the rest of it.

His coat is a lustrous black that shines almost blue in the light. His mane is thicker and hangs much longer than a normal steed's. It trails back nearly all the way toward what would be the withers on a normal animal.

(“Uh, Boss, you know that thing’s going to be impossible to ride, don’t you?”

“Hmm?”

“The spine. When he runs, you’re going to be in for a hell of a bumpy ride. It'll curve when he runs, like a predator's. Prey animals have a straight spine, makes for a much smoother ride.”

“Oh, I know. But look at him when he moves. He has a natural dip near his neck. I figure if I stay there, I should be fine. Like riding a dragon.”

“. . .Yeah. Just like that. Wait. Wait. Can you actually do that?”)

The hair on Beast's back-end is similarly long and thick. It starts farther toward the body than usual and trails down the underside of a thick, muscular tail that is tuftless at the end. Varric makes fun of it. Until the creature, rather pointedly, it seems, plucks the dwarf’s favorite tankard from its tie on his pack and crushes it underfoot moments later, when the Prophet has her head turned.

His back is so broad, there is doubt about whether or not she can actually sit astride it comfortably and still be able to hold on when he runs. She simply points out that she is both strong and flexible, that it will be comfortable to sit cross-legged on, easy to stand on, and may even make it possible to nap comfortably while on the move. When Elden mentions the small fortune that will be needed for custom tack, the Prophet reiterates her general distaste for saddles.

The beast is more muscular than a regular horse and his teeth are more carnivore than herbivore, but, most unsettlingly, his legs are more canine than equine, and end in three large, padded toes, each tipped with a curved claw larger around than four fingers held together.

 

* * * * *

 

I am walking beside Beast - riding him is far out of the question yet - reaching up to scratch his neck and play with his mane absently while my mind wanders. I have put a spare shirt over his back. It's mostly a token, but it is a start in getting him used to having something there. If he takes to it well, I'll lay my sleeping roll over him.

I smell pollen and petals, sticks and stems and leaves. I smell tiny stones mixed into the soil and the hairs on a fly’s back. I smell a fennec in heat. The stink everyone else carries mostly doesn’t bother me anymore. Mostly. I try not to think about it too much, which helps - so much of discomfort is mental. Cole has very little scent at all, which is a godsend, but because the Maker hates me, Solas is, of course, the only “normal” one who doesn’t smell like a human cesspit. Bull, surprisingly, is almost tolerable without having to concentrate, and Elden comes in at a distant third. There is no hope for Cassandra or Varric. I simply remind myself that to them, it’s normal. Not even an issue.

Early morning moisture still clings deep in the soil. Cassandra has taken the lead again, with me behind her, trailed by, curiously, Solas and Elden side by side, then Varric and Cole. Bull caps the back.

My thoughts coalesce and I slow. Beast keeps an eye on me as I fall behind him. “Varric,” I say when he catches up to me.

“What can I do for you, Trouble?”

“I was thinking about what we were talking about last night while we were getting dinner.”

He gives me a covert look, clearly wondering if I’m going to spill my own secret. “And?” he hedges.

“Did you know that when clouds condense into raindrops, it makes a sound?” I ask rhetorically, borrowing from Fen’harel’s attempted warning the night before. At least someone could get some use out of it. I feel a ripple of muted surprise from Solas.

“Uh. . . I can’t say that I did, no.”

“Bee’s feet do too, when they walk on a flower’s petals. So does silk as it comes out of a spider. There’s a sound when a wound starts to close over and forms a scab. The cells in your body make sounds as they move.”

“Cells?”

“Tiny creatures, sort of. Every one of us is made up of trillions of them, cells and bacteria and viruses and god knows what else, all too small to see. They're how we heal and how we get sick and how we grow and age. We have machines in my world that let us look at them.”

Bull nudges his horse forward to listen, and I can feel Solas’ and Elden’s attention.

“Is this like how you talk to your clothing?” Varric asks dubiously.

“I can hear mites as they crawl through birds’ feathers, Varric,” I go on, ignoring his well-meaning jab. “Hairs as they grow and are shed. I can hear an eyelash fall and pick out the flakes of skin that come off of your arm when you scratch it. I can tell you what is in a mote of dust. There are colors you can’t see and sounds you can’t hear. You know, the way a mabari can hear those whistles that are so high-pitched that they’re soundless to you?”

“Qunari can hear them, too,” Bull rumbles conversationally.

I look back at him in surprise.

“We have decent senses,” he says with a shrug. “Though by the sound of it, they’re nothing compared to yours,” he says seriously.

I see I was right: he suspected my senses were better than I let on. Not quite as good as they are, perhaps, but certainly better than average. I turn back to Varric. “Every emotion has a smell, did you know that? So does moonlight. And illnesses that stay buried in a person for a decade or more before showing themselves. So do different kinds of rock and ore, and the growl of a stomach.”

By this time, Cassandra has fallen back, and our group now more closely resembles an amorphous blob than any kind of line.

“My point is, you’re a dwarf. So you live as a dwarf. With a mouth, skin, eyes and ears and a nose, limbs and hands and feet and a dwarf’s senses. Your people have senses no human or elf would understand. All those things exist to tell you what’s real and what isn’t. They give you pertinent information about the world. That’s the key word, ‘pertinent.’ But what nature considered pertinent to your existence when it made you is nothing to what’s really out there. The world, and the sky that stretches beyond it, the trillions of other worlds and galaxies--”

“There are other worlds?” Cassandra asks. “Beyond this one? Beyond yours?”

“Of course. We have a very old quote where I come from, something like, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than you can dream of.’ Technically it’s, ‘Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy,’ but I figured that wouldn’t get my point across as well. Anyway,” I say, turning back to Varric. “I know you didn’t mean any harm. That’s not really in your nature," I say simply, not bothering to assure him that his 'secret' is safe.

“I also know I do and say a lot of things that seem absolutely crazy to you. The point I’m making is that just because you can’t understand them, Varric, just because they seem too outlandish, doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t objectively real.

“‘Asit tal-eb,’ I quoted. “Did you hear that when the Qunari were in Kirkwall? It means ‘I am what I am. You are what you are.’ Different. Not better, not worse, just different. Like some people are tone deaf, like some people are brilliant, like some people have brown eyes and some people are submissive, some are gay and some like sour things and some have two left feet. Because they are what they are, they can do and see different things. You see mountains, Varric. I see mountains in a grain of sand.”

“Are you quoting the Body Canto?” Bull ask in genuine surprise.

I smile over my shoulder. “It’s a beautiful line, at the end,” I say. “So is ‘Meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun.’ I probably butchered the pronunciation, sorry. The Soul Canto is my favorite, though. It’s just. . . exquisite,” I breathed.

“You cannot be serious,” Solas says.

“And yet I am,” I say, that snap in my voice that seems to be reserved exclusively for him. I return to Bull, demeanor changing utterly. “A lot of the things in the Qun, the more philosophical points, anway, remind me of some of the oldest religious teachings from my world. I’m surprised Meraad isn’t a title in the Tamassran order. Well. . . assuming it isn’t, anyway.”

“What are you talking about?” Elden asked, measured. She is still next to Solas. Had the two of them. . . No. No, not a chance. I laugh quietly at myself for the very idea. Solas is almost as much of an anti-shemlen-"mingling" snob as Fen'harel.

“It’s from one of our core teachings,” Bull explains. He is looking at me seriously and with a new appreciation. “It means ‘The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless. Meraad means ‘tide.’ It’s a central idea of the Qun, one of the few that every Qunari knows.”

“Can your people not read?” Elden asks.

“Oh, they can, sure. Everyone knows at least the basics.” I smell something that utterly belies his demeanor and voice. It’s almost defensive. I wonder if he knows that dalish purposely don’t teach their children to read. “But the Qun is massive. Priests study it their whole lives and still barely crack the surface. We learn what we need in order to fulfill our roles, and leave the rest to the experts.”

“You never get curious?” She asks.

“To be honest, not really, not about that kind of thing. Like I said, they teach us enough, and we all have volumes of our own tailored to what we need to know. It just. . . isn’t my job. I get to hit things.

“So Boss,” he goes on, “If you’re from another world, how do you know so much about the Qun?”

“Fuck if I know,” I say drily.

“Well see, the Qunari aren’t exactly the missionary type--”

“No,” Solas said flatly, “your people are more the ‘conquer, brainwash, and forcibly convert type.”

“And here is where I'm going to be done,” I say, moving forward to leave the group. “I don’t do religious debate.” Especially not with people whose opinions are already set in diamond. Beast moves away from me slightly as I near him but, I notice, glances over to make sure I haven’t gone far. He’s like a cat, a jaded human, and an angry street dog all in one.

“You cannot possibly agree with the way their people live,” Solas demands. He is almost incredulous, and certainly affronted.

“Can’t hear you,” I call back lightly, “on account of being done with the conversation!”

“What’s wrong with the way we do things, Solas?” Bull asks. It’s a harmless enough question, and seems mostly curious. Poor bastard.

“Aside from the fact that you have outlawed free will and independent thinking?” Solas replies, distaste and disdain saturating his voice.

“Dear god, you’ve gotten him started,” I moan quietly. That is when I encourage Beast to run ahead of the group with me. He has months of pent up energy to spend, anyway.

 

* * * * *

 

“Why, in the Maker’s” swat! “name don’t these bastards go after you?” Varric grinds out. “And whose brilliant idea was it to camp near a swamp?”

“Solas’s,” I say blandly.

“I beg your pardon?” He actually sounds affronted. I have seen him immolate no fewer than sixty of the insects like some sort of area-of-effect bug zapper.

“It feels nice to scratch them,” Cole says helpfully. “And they’re not hungry anymore. I wish they wouldn’t bite my fingers, though. Or my face. But at least I don’t have any on my bottom. The Iron Bull has them on his--”

“Yeah,” I cut in as if bored to spare us all wherever that was going. I’m squinting because I think I can see a far-off galaxy in the sky above me. “You told me there would be great dreams here and that you’d love to camp nearby. There were stars in your eyes. It was adorable. How could I say no?”

To a one, every face turned a glare in his direction.

“I did no such thing!”

Bull has taken to fanning a clump of tall marsh grasses around him to keep the creatures away. It seems to help. Marginally.

“Nahhh I’m just screwing with you guys,” I say. The glares turn in my direction this time. “I don’t know whose idea it was,” I lie flawlessly, “And it’s probably best for morale that no one try to find out. And obviously the reason I don’t have as many bites as any of you because I’m cold and bitter.”

Varric snorts. Otherwise, this is met with silence, until Elden adds, voice dry, “Well they don’t seem to mind salty.”

A laugh forces its way past my sealed lips before I can stop it.

“Yeah, laugh it up, Prophet,” Varric says. “It’s easy to be in a good mood when you’re not a buffet for blood-sucking parasites. These aren’t bugs. They’re tiny, winged, biting monsters straight from the heart of the Void's darkest orifice.”

“How are you doing it?” Cassandra asks curiously. “Or is it simply some immunity?”

“Barrier,” I say around a berry I have stolen out of Elden’s bowl. She gives me a look that clearly says ‘Godsent or no, I dare you to try that again.’

“And is there a special reason you’re not sharing, or did you just decide you hate our guts in the last hour?” Bull asks testily. He has wrapped a bedroll around himself to try to get more coverage.

“I’m not a source of endless magical power here, Bull," I object. "That would take a lot of energy. Otherwise, Solas wouldn’t be getting as pockmarked as the rest of you.” Unless he’s holding back to downplay his magical ability. If so, his dedication to the lie is admirable. Being a feast for insects crosses a line in my mind.

A muscle in Cassandra’s jaw twitches as she slaps the side of her neck hard enough to leave a mark. Varric actually shoots me a covert glower.

My lips turn down in a suppressed grin, and I silently extend the barrier around the ring of the campfire, pushing all the bugs out as it goes.

“Andraste’s sweet pearly ass, Trouble, thank you!”

Cassandra seems too relieved to glower at him.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day is uneventful travel - no bandits, no “bears,” no mages or templars. Just grasses and dirt trails and rocks and trees. I don’t know how any of them sit still for so long without getting blisters on their asses.

The only noteworthy report from either team about our time apart is the red lyrium mine - it is understandably alarming and ominous to everyone.

“You’re awfully quiet, Trouble,” Varric hedges. “Nothing to add?” His tone makes it clear he thinks the very idea is preposterous.

“Not at the moment,” I utter. ‘Not until my trip is over.’ He seems to get the message. Everyone but Bull, Elden, and Solas has been filled in about my plans by now.

“What about the lyrium?” Elden adds. “Any more deposits?”

“. . . Not at the moment.” Hopefully.

I explain CPR and the principles of defibrillation, with a warning not to just go around shooting lightning at everyone who falls unconscious. I also teach them the Heimlich; apparently if someone chokes in Thedas, it’s almost always a death sentence. So is a bad allergic reaction. Mothers die from infections after birth because doctors don’t know about washing hands or sterilizing tools and equipment. Without penicillin, even the simplest infection often turns deadly. Between all of that, improper nutrition, and the backbreaking work generally required every day just to survive, it isn’t unusual for many people Cullen’s age to be grandparents. Someone his age - I refuse to just think “he” - would see another ten or twenty years. More than that and they would be outliers. When I learn that, I suddenly realize I've only seen one elderly person since I've been in Thedas - an old woman living in Haven.

We touch on dysentery, which is a polite word for severe diarrhea. Apparently it claims about a third of infants, and I don’t know how many adults. And I'm told it was a bad problem in the Crossroads.

“Did you not notice the smell?” Cassandra asks, surprised.

I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I dart a glance at Solas, and though he looks utterly composed, I feel an echo of amusement from him.

I clear my throat. “Have them boil all their drinking water for ten minutes,” I tell Cassandra. “Hard boil, no less than ten minutes. That won’t fix the problem, but it should make a big difference.”

“Why?"

“Ask me to tell you more about germs when we get back to Haven. And don’t even get me started on your doctors. If I get sick, do not take me to one of them.”

Bull spends some time riding next to me, working with me on my reading. Between his size, his horse’s, and the fact that I’m walking, the interactions are almost comical. Blessedly, Common is more or less phonetic, and the alphabet not much larger than English’s. Aside from that and Varric and Bull sharing stories now and again, time stretches out like elastic. I don’t mind, but I can feel the boredom of some of the others. So can Cole. He does an admirable - and hilarious - job working on his small talk.

 

* * * * *

 

“There are so many of us that even most rare conditions have large pools to study," I explain. "And there are more brilliant minds to do that studying. Psychopaths, serial killers, pedophiles, abusers and rapists, saints, philanthropists, eccentric geniuses, master artists and musicians. Rare diseases and disorders. Innovations are an everyday occurrence. If you’re into something weird, no matter what it is, you’ll find like-minded people, especially because of this thing we have that lets us talk in real time to anyone, anywhere around the world. In writing, voices, or face to face, so to speak. I mean, not literally everyone has access to it, but all the developed nations do. Even better than that is a device nearly everyone carries that can instantly answer any question on any subject you could possibly think of.”

“It sounds like a utopia.” Solas says. I have to hide my surprise.

“It sounds like a mess, is what it sounds like,” Varric says.

“It is," I say, grateful for his gift for insight. "It is a mess, and that’s exactly why.”

“What’s exactly why?”

“‘Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ Do you have that saying here?”

"Something like that," Bull nods. “People are good at wanting what they don’t have and bad at being happy with what they do.”

“Exactly! Is that a problem with the Qunari?”

I literally hear Solas gritting his teeth.

“Eh, well people are still people, but it isn’t nearly as bad under the Qun as I’ve seen everywhere else. Part of our training, the way we're raised, is basically learning to be where you are, who you are, doing what you’re doing, and to let that be enough. When you know who you are, what your place is, it’s easier. Out here where you’re getting pulled in ten different directions your whole life, it’s not so easy.”

"All the more to discourage ambition and free thinking," Solas says. "Better to have the choice.” Unfortunately, I’m a little impressed at the restraint in his tone.

“Sorry, Trouble, but I have to agree with Chuckles on this one. I’m pretty attached to free will.”

I shake my head. Curiously, instead of speaking up for his people, Bull looks at me. He smells musky, like earth and rock, and strangely absent. I remember how much the former Arishok in Kirkwall said “Explaining the Qun is not my role,” but Bull is hardly so straight-laced. Hissrad, maybe, but not The Iron Bull.

I arch a brow at him, to which he shrugs and indicates I should go for it. I shrug back and look at Varric.

“You hear things like ‘know your place’ and ‘fulfill your role’ and 'be satisfied with what you are,'" I explain, "and you think of something foisted on you without your permission. Like being stuck in a skin your whole life with no room to grow or change. An ill-fitting prison that you’re expected to be happy about. And if you’re not, or if you can’t pretend believably, you get spirited away and your brain gets scrubbed. But what if it was this: your role is rogue, businessman, storyteller and author, and general good person. If a little secretly.” I doubted the Qun diversified that much, but that was hardly the point. “Now what if your entire society was built around supporting and encouraging you in those endeavors?”

“Honestly? I’d be less likely to want to do them.”

I laugh. “Ok, ok, look I wasn’t saying it was the life for you. But you get my point, right?”

“Better to have to have the option of feeling lost than to have no choice in the matter,” Solas says.

I bite back a sigh. “It’s not a perfect system, and you’ll never hear me say it is. It's got some serious flaws. One of their trade-offs is people who feel trapped. Ours is people who feel lost. But neither side is immune to either of those. They don’t have homelessness there, Solas. Everyone has work, everyone is provided for. There are no slaves and no masters. The woman who weaves clothing is just as valued and respected as any one of the Triumverate. There’s no overpopulation or overcrowding, and the current generation is compassionate enough to not pass on disabling conditions to the next out of some stubborn belief that it's their right to do so. It has its upsides. Just like your freedom does.”

“Upsides?” He repeats, disbelieving and affronted. The anger and disgust rolling off of him are so strong I nearly hold my breath. “No one is homeless and everyone has work because anyone who does not fit the mold is turned into a mindless laborer, doomed to live out their life drooling in a quarry. Is that not slavery taken to the extreme? They do not pass on flaws, as you call them, because they cannot choose with whom to create a family. In fact, they cannot have families at all. They cannot choose who to love, who to marry.”

“. . . I'm surprised you would be so closed-minded," I say sincerely. "You’re just talking cultural semantics. People flee their society just like they flee this one, Solas. Just like they fled mind. Just like they have fled every society throughout time regardless of the consequences. My point is, every system has things it does well, and that doesn't change because you think that overall it's evil or ignorant. And even if it were, you can still learn something from it. Every way of life trades benefits for compromises, some are more extreme than others, and not everyone in the world is so hard-wired to need black-and-white, empirical freedom as you are. And you do not want to get into a debate with me about societal evils, not when you deify ancient elves like you do," I say, my voice going sharp. "Those people were horrific, and-- What-- Don't you look at me like that!"

"I am not looking at you at all."

"You know what I mean," I snap, my good humor evaporating. "I can admit that they did some things well in elvhenan. They did some things very well. They respected the world as it was, not as they wanted it to be, for instance, at least where spirits and the Fade were concerned. In other areas, they were genocidal lunatics with a severe racial superiority complex. Just because I wouldn’t want to live there, just because there are things I might not agree with, that doesn’t mean we can't learn things from it, that there was nothing for us to admire or respect. You're Mr. The-World-And-All-Morality-Are-Nothing-But-Gray-Areas, does that only apply when you want it to? There is no good and evil, remember? No black and white? Yes, some shades of gray are darker or lighter than others, but it’s all still just somewhere in the middle. Bad things can come from good and good things can come from bad, and that’s true for societies just like it is for people."

"You find something admirable in the madness and evil of Corypheus, then? In the fact that you are hunted every moment in the Fade? Or in the institution of masters and slaves? In a child starving in the street?"

"Ok, first of all, that is some serious trap phrasing, and second, of course I do! Frankly I'm shocked that you of all people would even ask something like that, like. . . who are you right now?"

I huff a breath and tick off on my fingers, "Strategy and the benefit of the ability to step away from emotional attachment, get back to me when I figure out what the hell is going on, insight into huma-- er, the nature of people, and. . . well, also insight into the nature of people, and information about where the society that let that child starve is going wrong and what needs to be fixed. But that's just off the top of my head. For god’s sake, Solas, you’re supposed to be curiosity embodied. The consummate learner. How are you supposed to pick anything up if you take one look at something and start hissing and spitting like a pissed off cat? I mean, I know you have your sore spots, we all do, and I know you're more inclined to prejudice and judgment than I am, but really? If you’d pull your head out and quit being so closed-minded for a minute, you might actually learn something even you don’t know.”

It is a long time before he answers. The silence that weighs down is both thoughtful and awkward, but I am too annoyed and fed up to care. Finally, he says, “. . . Perhaps you are right.”

Were I in my old body, I might have tripped over my own feet.

I pause, then decide to take a victory where I can get it and just move on. “It’s something people strive for in my world, being satisfied,” I say, my tone considerably less passionate. “Because we have so much abundance that it’s almost impossible not to want more.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Elden says.

“No, I think I understand what she is saying,” Cassandra says. “I saw it in Nevarra, it was one of the things that turned me from the nobility. The wealthy only seek more wealth. Those who have power only seem to become more aware of the power of others, and work to gain more for themselves. For most people, the more they had, the more selfish they became.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Somewhere along the way, we lost the half-a-hair-thin balance between work and ease. We always want things to be easier. That’s not bad, it helps us survive, conserve energy. You see it all throughout nature. But energy isn’t a rare commodity anymore where I'm from. When you live in a world where the important things are almost impossible to get or hold on to, and everything else is handed to you without being asked, where if you do unnecessary work you’re looked at as odd, where things that hurt you in the end are the ones that are raised up as the ideal. . . well, we sort of live upside down. More material indulgences, less emotional richness. More poverty, more greed and corruption. More experiences and information, less satisfaction and learning. More connection, less love, less interaction, fewer meaningful relationships. Longer lives, less health.

“My world is not a utopia, but you could stick people in one and they’d still just be people. Generous, selfish, short-sighted, wise. Some will find heaven even in a back alley that smells like piss, others will find things to complain about in a paradise. Some want to skate by, others want to do their best. We may be overrun with miracles, but we’re still just people. Lost, confused and young, small, overconfident and spoiled - at least where I was from - more likely to get swept up by idiocy than listen to wisdom, and at the end of the day, deeply flawed. We choose entertainment over betterment. We have limitless resources, but our people are still starving. It's still always 'us versus them.' Physical prowess over education and art, profit and dogma over life-saving research, fear over reason, hoarding over helping.

“You have magic. We have science and technology. It's our version of magic. Take all the superficial things away, cultural differences, nutrition and vaccinations, things that don’t really define a person, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between us.”

 

* * * * *

 

We stop for camp in the late afternoon to let Elden rest. Her complaints about it are the loudest I’ve heard her be, and probably more words than she usually utters in three days.

It’s my night to cook. By which I mean I feel like cooking; since I eat so little and take two thirds of the watch every night, I’m not part of the regular rotation, and no one is going to complain about a volunteer. With my sense of smell, the food I make is becoming more passable with every attempt. To my tastes, it’s less horrifying than everyone’s cooking but Elden’s. She learned to cook “shem” food long ago, apparently, but knows dozens of dalish recipes. She promises to make one for me the next time she can - she says humans prefer their food much more bland, and she doesn’t have access to most of the spices she grew up with.

I can’t relate. Even dried meat and stale bread explodes with dozens of flavors when I put them in my mouth. Unfortunately, all that usually means is that what’s disgusting to the others is dozens of times more disgusting to me. It lends itself well, though - I learned early on that, counterintuitively, my body is very aware of a given food’s shelf life. The others can eat meat that’s much older than I can without getting sick, and consider scavenged fruit appealing far longer than I do.

Varric brings down two nugs in not five minutes, and Bull is the one helping me skin today. Since I’ve gotten plenty of practice in such a short time and am, in general, skilled with knives and other creatures’ anatomy, I’m getting good enough that his corrections are minimal. I gut the animals and magic the innards away to some kind of scavenging rodent that’s been snuffing around far outside the wards Solas set up.

I leave Bull to butcher it - something I don’t need to be taught, apparently - and go to gather herbs. Whatever smells like it will go with the meat and the few roots we gathered during the day’s travel, I collect and bring back. Solas checks to make sure I haven’t claimed anything that will make us all vomit horribly later and, with Elden, teaches me the names and properties of the ones I don’t know. I manage to be almost polite to him, civil certainly, the entire time. The relief I feel being around his ara'lin only makes it more difficult. He offers to start teaching me potion-making, and since I don’t know anyone else who I’ll have such regular access to who knows the craft, I tentatively and churlishly accept.

I’ve set the stew over coals at the outside of the fire, covered it, and wrapped it in a bedroll, which I enchanted to be fireproof. It will take hours to cook this way, but it’s early yet. A late dinner won’t kill anyone, and the meat should be almost decadently tender when it’s done. Bull complains it won’t cook right, to which I reply that when it’s his turn to make the meal, he can char the meat to wood pulp and old shoe leather all he likes, and honestly, how is he the one who doesn’t like his meat cooked to less than brickette form?

(“I’m huge, deadly, badass, smart, and a great lay, Boss. Not a savage.”

“No, what you are is someone who has the palate of a goat with a head cold and a burned tongue. Surprising, given how much subtlety you display in other areas. And if you don’t watch yourself, I’m going to start thinking you’re dropping hints about your skill in bed.”

It annoys Solas when I seem too chummy with Bull and damn near lights him on fire when I flirt with the giant man. So I go out of my way to spend every minute I can with him. Oddly, Elden is never happy about it, either.)

After the others have tended to their gear, Varric starts up a card game. I refuse to play until I have a grasp of the rules, but in honesty it’s just a good excuse to be with them and have less attention than normal paid to me.

I feed sweetgrass to Beast and talk to him in a low voice, almost always in English. It’s more private that way. He lets me rest my forehead against his muzzle. It only lasts a moment before he’s shoving it off with a toss of his head, but it’s progress. He tolerates me engraving some of his “nails,” too, and watches curiously. I use magic to etch shallow, swirling patterns into the keratin, learning his body language and keeping up a stream of babble while I do. We figured out quickly that he doesn’t tolerate being looked in the eye by anyone but me, and that only sparingly. He literally went for Elden’s throat when she did it while trying to greet him. Which is how we, or more specifically I, when I tried to stop him, learned that he’s also freakishly strong.

I saw the intelligence in his eyes even before I had approached him at Dennet’s, but I’m quickly coming to suspect that he has an intellect that would give a mabari pause. Running with him today helped. It was a herd activity. I’ll eat with him, sleep with him, drink from the rivers I lead him to, anything I can until he figures out I’m maybe not too bad. If none of that works, I'll try. . . something I haven't figured out yet.

It’s a little astounding and a little sad that a horseman as skilled and sincere as Dennet hasn’t figured out that “breaking” a horse - a barbaric practice, but I understand the practical necessity of it - isn’t always the best way to go. “The Beast,” or just “Beast,” as we’re calling him, is more stubborn and willful than I am. You don’t break something like that - you gentle it. But then, I don’t stand to lose an investment or have my livelihood take a hit if he decides he’d sooner pee on my dinner than cooperate with me. Something about the focus and attention the task is demanding is satisfying down in the cracked parts of me. It’s a more of a relief to be speaking his inhuman language than I ever would have predicted. And because of him, I realize exactly how bored I’d been before he showed up.

Solas gives me my first lesson in potion-making, which is no more than how to properly harvest and mill elfroot. Apparently it’s very fussy how you go about it if you want the finished product to do anything, to do it well, or to have any kind of a shelf life. It’s dry and particular and meticulous work and I love it. He also teaches me - with pointers from the others - how to tell a good potion from a poor or fake one. It turns into a lesson in how to avoid being swindled in general. I can smell lies and ill intent on people, but I haven't shared that information, and it’s still a good skill to have, regardless.

It's the same reason I patch up torn clothing for practice when I could just magic it done - I wasn’t able to argue my way out of wearing gear or weapons, though I don’t need either, so they tend to be neglected. Cole works with me at lockpicking on a practice lock Varric picked up in the Crossroads, and I grill Cassandra and Elden on how to do simple things without magic. Basic and feminine hygiene, grooming and cosmetics, what vendors to seek out for what goods, birth control, things like that.

This leads to a Q & A about where I come from, which is fun right up until Bull asks increasingly specific questions about espionage and warfare and I tell him we have a weapon that can kill millions of people at once under the right conditions. This leads to an understandably horrified silence.

Bull is not pleased to hear that we have been using “Gatlok” for over a thousand years, but I assure him I will die before I help the people of this world get any better at killing one another.

“You don’t think it makes sense for us to have equal advantage to defend ourselves?” Cassandra asks. Demands, more accurately.

“Yes. But the history of my world shows that equal advantage is little more than a hollow ideal and is always temporary. If the southern lands learn Gatlok, it motivates the Qunari to come up with something more deadly, which then spurs you to become more powerful in turn. That road doesn’t end. We call it the arms race, and invariably, it’s how you end up with a weapon that can wipe out a city in a matter of moments. My people are coming up with far worse as we speak.” I don’t dare tell them about germ warfare. Could they make an advanced form of it? No, not yet. But an idea like that doesn’t tend to go away once it has been born, and whereas someone will undoubtedly think of it on their own, I refuse to help it along.

“Fucking shems,” I hear Elden mutter to herself.

“Your ancestors were worse, Elden,” I say darkly. She looks up at me in surprise, but there’s something odd in the look, too.

I turn back to the others. “The men who built that weapon on my world didn’t do it to attack people. They did it because it was a war. Someone on the other side was trying to build it and they wanted to get there first. They made it to deter attack, but cut and dry, the end result was that it got built, and surprise of surprises, someone ended up using it. Over 2,000 times, in fact. Only twice for war, both times by the government who had created it first. The others have been for testing - almost every nation in the world has them now. But ask me how good those tests are for our planet as a whole. They leave mutations behind, poisons that linger for decades, probably hundreds of years. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. The world isn't an equal place, and you won't make it that way by force.”

They ask me questions about people they know and current events and random pieces of history and the future. I can’t answer most of their peppered questions, but I’m grateful for anything that sends my mind roving. Splinters of my life, like hair-thin wood fibers, are coming together as the days pass. I can almost make out small pieces of the picture sometimes. Varric asks me if I know about this and that happening in Kirkwall, or this person in the Coterie or that bar owner, which leads to stories that have the others laughing, and no one seems to be disturbed when I jump in to add a detail here or there, as if they all forget that I wasn’t actually there for any of it. Or maybe they figure I as good as was. Varric asks me about nug racing until Cassandra looks like she’s ready to pitch him into the fire. She is comically mollified - to my eyes at least - when he tells me he’s making good progress with Swords and Shields. Elden can’t believe I would read it.

When we finally eat, I spend most of the meal openly staring Bull down. He doesn’t complain about the food once and, size notwithstanding, eats four times more than anyone else. I don’t work hard to hide how smug I am.

 

* * * * *

 

When Elden goes to wash that night, I make an excuse about supervising the invalid and follow after her. She’s grouched in front of a small creek with her shirt off when I catch up, bathing with a fragrant bundle of leaves she's tied together by what I can smell is a piece of cured sinew. I track the leaves to a nearby tree and pluck a few to use.

“How are you feeling?” I ask with feigned casualness when I have settled next to her.

She shrugs blithely. “Fine, honestly. Same as if it was any other scrap and I’d been healed good as new. Everyone’s just fussing because you brought me back from the dead. Frankly I’m glad I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m not sure how long their good manners will keep holding off the ‘what was it like?’ questions.”

“First of all, if you’d been dead, you would have stayed that way. You were more just. . . toying with the idea. Second. . . what was it like?” I ask, utterly unrepentant. “Was there anything? Light, blackness, visits from departed loved ones?”

She shrugs one shoulder as she finishes scrubbing under one arm. “Same as any other time I’ve been knocked out. It was just a nap.”

I nod to myself. “We have records on it where I come from. We call them near death experiences. Some people say there’s nothing, but most people say there’s something. A bright light in the distance that feels like home, a sense of peace and rightness, floating above their body. Some people who say that happened can even tell you about a conversation someone was having in another room because apparently they went wandering.”

“Seriously?” One side of her mouth is curled in disbelief. I laugh.

“That’s what they say. It’s the great unsolvable mystery, death. Well, that and the ocean. And the cosmos. But mostly, death. That’s the only one they figure science can’t give them an answer to, but who knows. We have a lot of open-minded people.” I pause. “To be fair, we just have a lot of people, period. That lends numbers to any minority.”

She just grunts quietly in reply, and then goes quiet for a time. “Doesn’t sound like something I’d do. Toying with the idea, I mean. I hardly even liked toys when I was a child. Or games. The adults gave me a nickname when I wasn’t four, it basically means ‘girl who is always serious.’ The other kids had a nickname for me, too. Wasn’t quite as nice, though.” She has a small grin on her face.

I have fun imagining that. Dour little Elden the pudgy toddler, waddling around and scowling at the other children for being too hyperactive.

“Extreme situations can bring out surprising things,” I say. “And for what it’s worth, I think you’re hilarious.”

A natural silence settles over us as we wash, and I look up at the moon, just a hair over half full. “You don’t seem too keen on The Iron Bull,” I say conversationally.

“I’m not.”

I smile to myself. What a world it would be if everyone was so blunt. “Any special reason?”

She sits down, making herself comfortable while her skin air dries. “He’s qunari. I tend to hate them on principal.”

“Aaany special reason?” I repeat.

I see her eyes leave us, going far distant. “You’ve never asked me about my tattoos. My clan. What I’m doing serving a shem Commander.” She says it as if expecting a deserved condemnation. I suppose if I were another dalish, I might feel obliged to give it.

“It’s not really my business, is it? I figured something like that would be pretty personal.”

She huffs a dry, quiet laugh. “If it’s not the business of the Prophet of the People, the daugher of Mythal and Elgar’nan, the living ancient sent to restore the dalish, I don’t know whose it would be.”

So she did know; she'd had the dream. It had been what I had followed her to ask about, anyway. “That’s not who I am, Elden.”

Her lips twist and she nods. “Ok.” ‘Sure it isn’t. Whatever you say.’

This is not an argument for right now. More odd is knowing that this was who she thought I was from the moment we met. Which just impressed me even more - she hadn’t held back during our fight in the training ring. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“What’s to say? You’ll decide I’m worthy or you won’t.”

“Worthy?” I repeat, failing to hide how appalled I am at the very idea.

She shrugs. “I’ve hardly kept to the ways. I could have found another clan. Instead, I took up with the shems. I serve them. Well, I took up with Cullen. He’s worth following. So are you.”

“. . . What happened? To your clan?”

She stretches an arm out before her and gazes at it in the moonlight. “Ever wonder why I’m so dark?”

“Yes, actually. I mean I assumed you were from the north, but I always thought the dalish kept pretty much to the southern continent.”

“Mostly they do, but there are clans in the north. Mine was one.” She stops and slips back into her shirt. “The Qunari wiped us out. Down to the last infant.”

I go still.

“We stayed out of the southern continent for the most part, but we ran into trouble with the shems and had to range farther north than we preferred. We got too close to the fighting in Seheron. One of their elven converts infiltrated us, a dalish. He traveled with us, convinced us it was safe to camp closer to his people. At first I think he was there to keep us away from the fighting, to be honest, but I’ll never know.

“Then something changed, and the mission became conversion. To save us from ourselves. You seem to know about the Qunari. You can probably guess how well that went. What happened after we refused the voluntary path.

“I lost my mother and father, three aunts, one uncle, three grandparents, my great-grandfather, twelve cousins, a betrothed who had been my lover for three years, a best friend, my Keeper and my First, two hundred and twenty three clansmen, and five siblings. People I’d known all my life. My sister was the youngest in my family. She wasn’t two. I was the only survivor, and that just by the skin of my teeth.”

“Jesus,” I breathed.

“That was more than two years ago. I wandered for a while. Tried to take up with two other clans, but I just. . . kept having flashbacks. I couldn’t stay. I made life too hard on them. Or maybe that was just an excuse I gave myself.

“I felt like I’d doom them if I stayed, like I carried all that death with me somehow. Then when I was traveling near the northern Frostbacks, I overheard a shem commander chewing out some of his men while they passed through the woods. Funniest thing, it wasn’t for not polishing their armor right or not working hard enough, it was for being unkind, unthinking arseholes to an old woman and her family. I got curious, so I tailed them for a while. Not like I had anything better to do.

“I didn’t care for the shemlen, I never have, but the Commander was different. He was honorable. And he had the most haunted eyes I had ever seen. He had been through horrific things, but he found a way to go on. A purpose. He marched on every day. It was the first sign I’d gotten that it might be possible to live after. . . .” She hesitated. “That there might be a way, if not through, then a way to walk with the weight on your shoulders.

“So one day, I took out three of his perimeter guards, walked right up to him, and said that whatever his mission was, I’d like to join up. That my interview was unconscious on the southern edge of his camp. Turned out he was traveling to Haven to join the Seeker’s Inquisition, collecting people along the way.”

She was lucky she hadn’t been killed. With anyone but Cullen, she probably would have been, and they wouldn’t have bothered to ask questions. But I don’t have to tell her that. Maybe it had even been a win-win for her: join up, or be executed. I know the feeling, ‘There’s nothing to lose.’ Of being alone, of being so tired that you’re just done. After a certain point, salvation is salvation; as long as it ends, it stops mattering how.

“A few months later, I heard a rumor they’d found a naked elf under the Breach. Beautiful, couldn’t figure out if she was a girl or a woman, mark in her hand that matched the Rifts. Weirdest shit I’d ever heard. Figured it was something someone came up with drunk one night to impress a girl.”

I want to tell her that not all Qunari are like the ones who wiped out her people. That Bull is about as different from other Qunari as anyone can get. But I don’t know if that’s really true. He waged war for his people for years. However he had embraced his current persona, he had done so on orders. He would do anything on orders. In a couple years, no matter what we go through together, even if we were to fall deeply in love, if things don’t go right and his people order him to kill me, he’ll do it. Bull is a wild card until he chooses a side. But either way, words like that are a cold compress offered to a freezing person. So I just sit there, failing to find a single thing that might take any of that old ache away.

Eventually, I guess, “You were afraid I’d find you unworthy. Because you made mistakes. Because you think you’re bowing to the people who destroyed the ancient elves.”

She doesn’t answer, which is answer enough.

I look out to the reflection of the moon on the water, warping and mending, soft and torn. “If there was a world just for the elven people, Elden, if it were to happen some day, it would be a lucky place if even a handful of them were like you.

“Forcing yourself to suffer on a path that would only have deepened your wound so you could say you followed the letter of the law would have been. . .” I consider my words. I want to be honest, but I also don’t want to disparage beliefs that are in her bones, pressed in by generations of racial memory and pain and tradition and zealot-like determination.

“Idiotic?” She suggests.

I laugh despite myself, and it turns into a sputter as I quickly shut it up. “I was, uh, trying to be a little more delicate than that. Sensitive, you know.”

She nods grandly. “Because of course I’ve always shown myself to be one for that kind of thing.”

“Dainty as a flower, yes. It’s why I like you so much.” I sober. “I’m not one for the letter of the law most of the time. I just. . . look, I have some opinions on the dalish. But I understand they’re just that: opinions. I don’t think they're more right than anyone else's. I don't need to cram them down anyone’s throats, and I certainly don’t need to disrespect your heritage and your people’s way of life when those things are now knotted up with the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. You come from a strong people. Sometimes strength and, uh, selective sight just go hand in hand.”

“You’re not a shit,” she compliments.

“Thanks,” I say with a gentle smile for no one but myself. “I try. Most of the time.”

“. . .What do you think of us? Really?”

“Really?” I look to make sure she’s serious, then consider for a moment. “I think you’ve had the most shit fortune of anyone in the world since Tevinter found your people. Really just comedic-level epic tragedy, or it would be if it weren’t so disgusting. I think you people have worked your asses off to preserve everything you could. I think you’re flawed just like everyone else, that for your virtues, you also have your faults, and vice versa. I think I respect your determination, your faith, but I also think. . .” Apology enters my voice. “I’m never going to advocate for an inflexible worldview, Elden. Or an inflexible way of life. I’m not a fan of hard-line. Your people are ice; I’m liquid. Being fluid is my nature, which means I’m never going to quite ‘get’ that level of closed-circuit dedication. So I can only try to relate so well. But like I said, those are just opinions, and I can respect your people and their ways and beliefs despite them. Those are two separate worlds. And different things are right for different people.”

I pause, gentling my voice. “But. . . you want me to be really honest?”

She isn’t looking at me, but she nods.

I pause to put my shirt back on. “I think it’s a lost cause,” I say softly. “I think I understand why you do it, but every bit of your lore was ripped from you, not once, but twice, and held out of your reach for hundreds of years. There was only ever so much that could be done with that, and it means that no matter how hard you work to reclaim lost knowledge, you're building on a platform of sand. What your people believe, what they struggle to preserve. . . it’s like the truth seen through the reflection of a mirror that’s been broken, then each shard bent and warped. It’s like trying to make a kaleidoscope into a clear shape. Pieces are there, but it’s unrecognizable from what it once was.”

She looks at me for the first time. “You’ll tell us, though? The truth? The real truth? Our history?”

I pause, looking down. I absently flick a pebble into the water, if only to buy myself an instant more. “What if all I have to tell you is that everything you know is wrong?”

Hard determination mingles with pain in her scent. “We would want to know,” she says, iron in her voice. I know that if I looked up, I’d see it in her eyes, too. “We care about the truth. We live for our history, and for the day we’ll be restored. Who we are and where we come from. If we have the chance to learn all of that from the source, even if it means we have to unlearn everything we thought we knew, the People will want it. They will cry out for it, Prophet. Please. Don’t take something like that away from us. Not when it’s closer than it has been in our entire history.”

I almost laugh mirthlessly. They had someone far more knowledgeable than me try to teach it to them, and they chased him away and threatened him.

“. . . What if it causes a riot? There are going to be more Dalish camped around us than there are people in several of the world’s major cities combined. We can’t even guess at how many. If I tell them something they don’t want to hear, they could go on a warpath. I’m guessing your clan wasn’t abnormally large.”

“Do you really think us so savage?” She asks quietly.

“I think you--” ‘human,’ I was going to say. But of course that expression won’t work here. “People. And people respond to their passions. No one is above that. It’s just a question of what their threshold is.

“You know them better than anyone, Elden. What will they do if I tell them their gods were slavers and horrific, self-serving abusers? If Andruil hunted the People for sport and Falon’din started wars that lasted centuries just to force more people to follow him? What will they do if I tell them that they weren’t gods at all, but lying, manipulative, power-mad amoral bastards who lived on the snapping backs of their people and delighted in causing agony and suffering? If in the end, the elvhen people fell to stop them from literally destroying the entire world in their greed and savagery? And if the great villain of their history, their stories, was actually their savior?”

Her eyes go wide and stark with horror and illness. “. . .Is that true?”

“What if it was?”

She looks down. Swallows. Opens her mouth to speak, then closes it again. Agony, heartbreak, anger, confusion and denial, all are mixed in with adrenaline and pouring into the air. Determination caps it off and she looks back at me. “I won’t lie, it will be difficult to hear. And I for one would want to know why Dirthamen would come to us in dreams only to lead us to a Prophet who was going to tell us he was a monster. But you were there. We will still want to know. I can’t tell you how everyone will take it, but our history is everything to us, Nua. Even if you have things to tell us that are painful, difficult to hear, we will respect them coming from you. The People are traveling from all over the world to hear it from your lips.”

‘You wouldn’t respect them if you found out who made me,’ I think darkly. “How certain are you? Because I can’t risk the Inquisition, Elden. Maybe when all of this is over, but not now. It’s the only thing that’s going to save your world.”

“Positive,” she says firmly. “But if you’d like, I can speak to some of the clans and. . . test the waters, somewhat. I won’t tell them anything you just told me without your permission, of course. It wouldn’t be my place.”

“The truth is everyone’s place. But I get what you mean. And thank you. How many are there, by the way? Dalish?”

“It’s hard to say for certain, but spread out over all of Thedas should be at least 200,000 of us. Our clans are much larger than we let the humans think.”

I pale.

“We’re not stupid,” she says, some mix of amused and defensive. “We’re not all going to swarm some tiny shem hamlet in the frozen mountains.” I nearly sag in relief. “They’ll see the signs of the clans who have come before them. Probably they’ll hold back, find a safe spot to set up camp, and send an envoy. They’ll coordinate and figure out how to spread themselves without putting too much strain on the area or putting themselves - or you - at too great a risk, while still staying close enough to be ready when you call for them. It will be like an Arlathvhen, just larger.

“We know what the shemlen think of us. There are some clans that are more aggressive than most, but I can guarantee you that not even they will be willing to make an overt move, to make their intentions or association to you known until you tell us it’s time.” I actually sag from relief now. This takes care of my biggest fear about their converging on Haven.

Elden smiles wryly. “The dalish are familiar with how the shems tend to condemn by association, and they’re here - we are here - for you, not the other way around. We won’t risk you, and we won’t move until you tell us it’s time. We haven’t survived this long by accident. By taking chances or being stupid or not knowing how the shems do things.”

And just like that, I have an army at least 50,000 strong. An army that knows how to move undetected, that doesn’t need our healers, smiths, cooks, resources. To say it is staggering would be a disorienting understatement.

“I appreciate that. It takes more of a load off than I can say. I have Josephine and Leliana doing damage control already, trying to stop the message that dalish converging on the fledgeling Inquisition would inevitably send. Unfortunately, we need their cooperation.” I sigh. “Now,” a tiny smile finds its way to my lips, “I just have to tell them to stop before we out ourselves.” I recognize a warm numbness in my forehead that I think is a headache.

“Can you name any other army in the world 200,000 strong?”

“Oh, so you were only counting all the strong, reasonably trained, able-bodied men and women in your estimate, then? And of course they’re already outfitted with weapons and armor. And all of that will just magically stop every taern and sovereign in a thousand miles from standing against us on principal any time we need to cross their lands or get supplies?”

She looks sheepish. “I hadn’t quite thought of that.”

“Which is my worry. It takes a load off to know the dalish will probably be careful, but there’s no guarantee, and all of this is happening at Haven while I’m not there. And I can’t be there, because I have to close Rifts and collect agents and spread the good word or whatever so we can save the stupid world. You know, so people can keep having petty, repugnant race wars and hacking each other to bits over trivial, superficial shit.”

Her voice turns hard, promising. “Whatever we do, we will not be a burden to you.”

I think of several things to say in reply but discard them all immediately. In the end I just shake my head. “I’m sorry,” I say. “About what I said about the past. I shouldn’t have just. . . dumped it in your lap like that. I guess it’s something I’ve been worrying a lot about, and here I have a sounding board with an insider’s perspective. . . It was selfish. And I really am sorry. If it helps, there were heroes, too, powers who fought for good. And Mythal wasn’t as horrific as the rest of them. She actually cared about her people. I’m not sure I could say I’d call her a good person, but then, I’m hardly playing with a full deck, as Bull put it while you were gone.”

Her face darkens at the mention of him, but it dissipates quickly to give way to a wistful, pensive, strong sort of sadness. Elden has iron in her. It makes me less afraid to be honest with her, to trust her with my thoughts and even my feelings. This is not a woman who breaks easily. I decide to have a word with Cole about her.

I take a deep breath that pushes heavily back out. “Come on,” I say, rising and dusting myself off. “I know potions are magic and all, but let’s get you some rest before you get back on the road. I want you two arriving safely.” I’m considering Sending Cassandra or Bull with them just to be certain of it. Solas and Elden are more than capable, but the world is even less friendly than normal right now.

 

* * * * *

 

Though I take only one watch, I don’t get my extra few hours of sleep tonight. I know where we’re headed, and there are a lot of “bears” to clean out before we can make camp there. I have no interest in a repeat of this morning.

 

* * * * *

 

I haven’t seen Fen’harel since that last long, heavy night of conversation. I was going to be worried if I didn’t see him again tonight, but he’s waiting for me in the forest. To my surprise and delight, he strides forward when I appear and gently presses his forehead to mine. I bury my fingers in his thick fur, then lean back and look up at him, smiling widely--

And wake to the feel of rain on my face and damp clothing. I wrinkle my forehead in confusion; I put a barrier up around myself every night in case it rains, but it’s not in place now. I cast it again, dry my things, and let myself fall back into slumber.

“Sorry,” I huff when I've returned. “I was getting rained on.” My voice makes it clear how bewildered I am about it.

[You are not in a shelter?]

I shake my head. “I like it out in the open. We always have a watch, and I feel better able to act if something comes up when I’m not trapped in a tent. Mostly, though, I like the stars,” I finish with soft sincerity.

Just like that, we are standing in a wide clearing with an unobstructed view of the night sky. I don’t have to say a word for him to know how struck I am by the view, and by the gesture. Or for him to know that I missed him last night. That I was worried.

[I thought it--]

Again I wake to rain. I shove up out of my bedroll angrily. “Ok what the shit,” I snarl.

“Everything ok there, boss?” Varric asks from under the boughs of a tree near the sputtering, weak fire.

“Yeah, I. . . I just don’t get why I’m getting rained on.”

He arches a brow.

“Oh that’s not what I mean,” I snap. “I cast a barrier. Twice. I do it every night.”

“This is the first night we’ve had rain.”

That pulls me up short. “What?”

He shrugs. “You know, your disposition is decidedly less sunny when you don’t get enough sleep. Which is pretty hilarious when you think about it.”

“. . . So help me I will pelt you into the face of the sun.”

He nods. “I see what you mean. I was way off base.”

I mutter unflattering things under my breath as I cast another barrier and dry my things again, dragging them to Bull’s tent. Given that I sleep outside and he’s monstrously huge, he never has to share.

The moment the flap opens, he’s awake and alert, though he gives no outward sign. When he catches my scent, he relaxes.

“It’s just me,” I say anyway. “Move over, you’re sharing tonight.”

He props himself up on one elbow and gives me a look, a slow grin pulling his lips.

I roll my eyes. “Put it back in your pants, Qunari. It’s raining and for some stupid reason I keep getting wet.”

He arches a brow at me.

“Oh for-- I cast a barrier!”

I hear Varric chuckle under his breath and really do want to pitch him into the sun.

“What is going on?” Cassandra calls.

“The Prophet’s discovering that water is wet,” Varric calls back.

”Face. Of the goddamned. Sun, you demented hobbit!”

“What in Maferath’s dimpled asscheeks is a 'haarbet'?" Varric mutters to himself. "Hm, probably don’t want to know.”  I hear the others settle back down.

“Move the hell over,” I grumble peevishly at Bull. “Not that far.” At the look he gives me, I add, “What? You’re good with boundaries and I never get to touch anyone. I could lie and say I’m wet and I’ll get cold, but. . . well.”

“I like you when you’re tired,” he says with a grin and settles himself back down, scooting his massive frame over a few feet. Just enough so that I can curl up and press my back comfortably against his side.

“Cranky?” I bite out caustically.

“And bossy.”

I make a rude noise with my lips. “Says the consummate Dom.”

“Dom?”

“Dominant. Typically refers to a specific kind of relationship where I’m from,” I say, words a little slurred. “A Dominant and a submissive. I wouldn’t call you dominant in personality. You’re too sly for that.”

“Eh, I’m flexible.”

“Only because you know you can be and because it gets you want you want.”

“You say those like they’re bad things.”

I grunt as I settle down on my bedroll and turn onto my side with a comfortable huff. “I say them like they’re you not being true to whoever the hell you are under those seven-layered labyrinthine masks or personas or whatever. It’s disconcerting.”

“Maybe you’re just inflexible.”

“Now you know that’s not true.”

He chuckles, deep in his chest and so low that it rattles through my frame. I learn that this body is incredibly responsive and have to surreptitiously press my thighs together. He catches the scent anyway, and when his own smell changes, it just makes my reaction worse. All of that happens in an instant, and then he’s pressing fingertips to my scalp where it rests atop my arm. I oblige and lift my head. He works his arm under it to replace mine, and when I settle down onto the warm, gray-blue skin, the height is perfect, and I am more comfortable than I have been since we left Haven.

“Oh my god that’s amazing,” I effuse. My voice slurs blearily as I add, “You’re hired. You’re hired for everything ever for forever.”

He makes an unfairly sultry sound, low and deep again, and rumbles quietly, “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Mhm,” I utter, trying very hard not to shift my hips.

I hear another chuckle, this one soft and breathy. “‘Night, Boss,” he utters. Then, strangely, I feel a gentle kiss pressed to my hair.

I am out within moments.

 

* * * * *

 

“It was raining,” I explain when faced with my friend a third time. “I cast a barrier, but it just. . . fell, apparently. Twice. What’s weirder is that I guess it hasn’t rained before tonight, which makes me wonder if this maybe isn’t a one-off.”

His mind whirs into speculative exploration, and I feel that sense of rightness that’s only there when he’s engaged in something so quintessentially him. [Hmmm, without seeing how your magic works in the waking world, there is little I could do but speculate.]

I grin to myself. I can feel how much he wants to do just that.

 

* * * * *

 

I break away from him before long, though tonight, I sorely resent having to use my sleeping hours for work. I may demand a night off. The idea that it would be a reasonable demand is so understated I could laugh.

I tell Cullen what I learned from Elden, and he nearly sags with relief. He is dressed in that godforsaken draping, open-necked tunic again. He’s oblivious to my reaction, but Fen’harel is not. I pull my ara’lin in peevishly.

Most people’s - Cullen’s, for instance - bodies act in the Fade just like the would in the waking world. If you’re afraid, your pupils contract. If you’re embarrassed and your body is inclined to it, you blush. Scents are just as clear here as they are when I’m awake. Except for people like Fen’harel and I, who know that what we present in the Fade is whatever we want it to be. So he doesn’t smell my reaction so much as feel it.

“I can’t help it,” I growl under my breath at his peevishness. “The same thing happened tonight, maybe I’m. . . I don’t know.”

He catches the gist of my thoughts, and says, [You are not in heat. It would be readily apparent if you were.]

I do a double-take and gawp at him. ”Excuse me?”

“What?” Cullen asks.

I look between him and Fen’harel, sputtering. “I-- There was-- I have--” I break off with a growl. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I’m sorry. There’s. . . we have a non-verbal layer of communication,” I gesture between myself and the monstrous “wolf,” to Cullen’s immediate and overt displeasure, “and sometimes it. . . ugh, well it doesn’t matter.” I turn a glare at Fen’harel and bite out under my breath, “We are talking about this later, and you are going to stop leaving things about my anatomy out.”

I ask Cullen to have Josie and Leliana stop agents from heading off the rumors about the dalish, and then Fen’harel and I spend the rest of the night watching over his dreams from a respectful distance while I get a lesson in Elvhen reproductive anatomy.

[Elvhen did not sexually mature until the roughly one thousand years, though physical maturity was reached around one to two hundred.] The bottom drops out of my stomach. [Your cycle will be roughly one hundred and fifty years long. Two hundred or more was not unheard of, but it was uncommon. When you enter estrus. . . .] He shifts, and something like discomfort and vicious territorialness wafts off him, [It was a time of indescribable vulnerability for elvhen women. Males were not plagued with it, but they did react to females who were in the state, and were thus triggered to enter into an answering frenzy. The anatomical differences, or rather the functional anatomical differences that occurred during this time were. . . substantial. For that and other reasons, women were usually sequestered alone with their chosen mates until the period had run its course.]

“Fffff. . . . W-- Ok. That’s. . . wow. Uh, I don’t suppose you know when my last cycle was?”

[Before you disappeared, it had been perhaps. . . ] He pauses a long moment, thinking. [Not quite one hundred years, I believe. Yours tended to run between two hundred and two hundred fifty years.]

“So I’m good for a while, then.”

[. . .I cannot say.]

“Oh. Right.” I feel like an asshole.

[No apology is necessary,] he assures me, reacting to what I don’t say. [I would dearly like to find out what happened, however.]

He hasn’t said as much, but part of the tours of his - our - home have been the hope that something will jog my memory. So far, nothing has.

“Do I want to know how long elvhen pregnancy lasted?”

I feel him look at me. [No.]

I shudder visibly, pulling my shoulders up to my ears. “Any demon updates?”

He wordlessly gives the negative. [They have proven. . . elusive.]

I am sitting up against his side, and I crane my neck to look at him. “Why is that so perplexing?

[Given how quickly they found you and the number that converged, it has been my guess that a great many of them must be working together, and that they are widespread. It is not impossible that it was luck, but I cannot believe that was the case. Yet I am unable to find any who seem to be hunting. No spirits know of it, nor, apparently, do the demons I have questioned. My search for the Dirthamen imposter has proven just as fruitless.] I don’t need his ara’lin to know how utterly frustrated he is. He could really use a win right now.

“You question demons?”

He nods wordlessly. [They are nearly impossible to get answers out of, but it can be done if you know what you are doing. And if you are lucky.]

“How are you finding the time to do all of this? We spend so much time together. . . . I mean I know you said time moves differently here, but. . . .”

[I will take the time if I need it. So far, I have been able to keep up the hunt well enough.]

“On top of everything else you have to do?”

I feel him look at me for a long time, and the weight of secrets that passes through him. All he says is, [Yes.] I cannot hide the sting I feel at his refusal to tell me more, but we both know I understand it.

[I have been meaning to ask you. You have traveled a number of days since.] ‘Your first kill,’ he “says,” much more gently than he ever could out loud. [How are you faring with it?]

My brows draw together. “You know. . . this will maybe sound a little psychopathic, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. At all.”

I’m shocked when he isn’t the least bit surprised. In fact, he was expecting almost that exact answer. [It has in large part to do with how you were made. You adapt quickly. Pain or guilt over what you have done, what you must do, would interfere with your ability to do it.]

“. . .Right,” I say, flat and dry. “So like I said, a little psychopathic.”

Chapter Text

“You look happy,” Varric says, sly and smug, as I return from an early morning walk. I take time alone to wake up every morning - Elden argued against the wisdom of me wandering around alone until Cassandra flatly told her I’d be fine, then refused to discuss it further.

“Oh? Yeah, it’s probably because of all the sex Bull and I had last night. Which of course makes sense, because a, I’m still alive and not literally split in half, and b, we both seem like the type to do that sort of thing quietly.”

I feel Solas seethe, but it’s for the sake of the displeasure I smell from Elden that I lay off. I sit with Varric on a fallen log I put before the fire last night, then dried off early this morning. I shrug a shoulder. “I don’t get to touch people a lot. I guess it helped me sleep.”

There is an odd twinge from Solas - it’s like he’s defensive on Fen’harel’s behalf. I’d be lost without my time with him in the Fade, without the way he always finds some way to be touching me, no matter how slight. But the difference between his touch in the Fade and physical touch in the physical world is like dreaming that you’re swimming, then waking up and feeling your body submerge.

I see understanding on the faces around me, then sadness and embarrassment. “Mostly, though” I say puckishly, keen to break the tension, “it was the sex. Nice way to break in a maybe-virgin.”

Elden chokes on her tea - I think she gets some up her nose - and Cassandra flatly says, “That is not funny.”

“Sure it was! Depending on your sense of humor. Besides, I only said it because it was that, or continue to sit here while the rest of you stare at me like someone just murdered my mother and my dog.”

There is a beat of silence, then Varric clears his throat. He is dishing up and handing out the vaguely tan gruel that passes for breakfast. I have yet to try it. This morning, it is accompanied by some sort of tiny, hard-looking berry and patchily-toasted bread. Beast has been inching closer with painful slowness, and either I am the only one who has noticed, or no one else cares.

I have tried to tie him up at night to ensure he doesn’t wander off, but he has been very clear in his opinion of my effort. The morning after I’d tried the second time, we’d woken to find that despite the fact that we always have a watch posted, he had somehow rooted through everyone’s bags, pulled out anything even vaguely resembling rope - including the thin leather thongs Elden uses to keep her hair out of her face - and chewed it to pulp and scraps. He even gnawed through the harness of Varric’s pack. It had been a force or will not to laugh myself stupid while I magicked them back together. Beast hasn’t wandered off yet, so I suppose I just shouldn’t irritate him too badly, and hopefully he’ll stick around.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” the dwarf says after a sip of ale. “Before we left Haven, word is your tutor got a pretty weird injury.” He waits for me to look at him. “Tripped over his pointer, apparently. Though to hear him tell it, you jabbed the thing right through his hand.”

I lean back on my hands. “Oh, I did,” I say conversationally.

To a one, their hands stop between bowls and mouths. “You. . . did.” Cassandra says.

“He was being a dick! I warned him not to do it again. Twice.”

“In the language no one but you and Chuckles knows?”

“Yeah, how did you magically start speaking it, too?” Elden asks Solas.

“Magic,” I say. “Now stop interrupting.” I turn to Varric. “I told him In the universal language of very clear, very specific glaring. When he did it a third time, I made sure he couldn’t do it a fourth. Which was a good thing anyway, Eddard was a way better teacher.”

Cassandra groans so only I can hear as Varric says, “So you literally jammed the thing through his hand?" He laughs dryly. "You’d like Isabella.”

I arch a brow at him. “I just said I did. And Isabella would eat me for breakfast. Uh, figuratively speaking.”

“Right. Back to the impaling-your-teacher thing. . . .You don’t think that was maybe a slight overreaction?”

I scowl. “No. You people have healing potions! He probably doesn’t even have a scar. Maybe next time he tries to teach someone, he’ll stop to wonder if corporal correction is really the best way to go.”

“Or he will simply take it out on future students,” Solas offers a little too brightly. I glower at him.

“He was the cowardly type, not the vendetta type. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. I nicked his shell. He’ll be hiding under rock for a while.”

“Good thing Eddard likes sweets so much,” Varric mutters.

“Yes, exactly! Positive reinforcement is always the way to go when you want to train someone. Plus it was experiential learning, not staring at a bunch of inscrutable lines in the pages of old books.

“Good word, inscrutable,” Varric says.

“You would like it,” Cassandra tells him.

“Anyway, you always lead with the carrot, make it fun. Do you have that saying here? The carrot and the stick?” Varric nods, and I hide a little thrum of disquiet in my gut. “It works different pathways in the brain, so it goes by much faster, and more effectively. Eddard is a walking set of complete encyclopedias. The only reason he’s an apprentice is probably because he was cursed with pointy ears,” I say churlishly, lightly flicking one of mine to illustrate. Then cursing loudly and exhaustively in three languages as I press the heel of my hand over it. Even Bull’s brows are raised by the end. Varric, for his part, just looks proud and wildly entertained. Elden is amused, but a little bewildered.

“What?” I ask her. “I thought sensitive ears were an elf thing.”

“Well. . . yeah, they are. But not that sensitive. Creators, you must get turned on in a stiff breeze.”

Everyone, including me, is gaping at her, and I am thanking god that this body doesn’t blush.

She takes in our expressions. “Oh, grow up.”

“I knew elves’ ears were one of their biggest erogenous zones,” Bull says clinically, and I hold my breath at the smell that comes off of Elden. “But a breeze? Lucky as hell if it’s true, but you’d never be able to get anything done.”

I am too busy remembering a number of seemingly random times I have felt a shockwave of arousal. I had developed something of a complex over it, because it happened regardless of mood, regardless of who or what I was talking to, thinking about. . . . But now it started to make sense. Breeze. Thick fog. The brush of a blanket or fabric, a sound of the right frequency, a leaf, someone with long hair passing too close. . . .

“Ehhhh, I don’t know,” Varric argues, setting his bowl down next to him. It’s only mostly empty, and the way Beast eyes it, it becomes clear what exactly he’s been trying to do. I clear my throat pointedly, but not too loudly. When the horse meets my eyes, I give him a look. He stops and paws at the ground with a loud snort, annoyed. “Seems like it’d be a pain in the ass to me.”

Bull and Varric both look at me like I’m supposed to settle the matter. But Beast starts to edge toward Varric’s bowl again and, as if they haven’t spoken, I turn to Elden. “So,” I say, trying not to make the eye I’m keeping on Beast obvious, “that’s seriously not. . . I mean. . . well how sensitive are your ears?”

It seems like a personal thing to be asking, but she wasn’t shy a moment ago. As if to confirm it, she blushes a little. It’s probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. While she’s offering an explanation, Solas mutters, quiet enough that even Bull doesn’t hear, “An elvhen trait.”

“Wonderful,” I mutter in return, loud enough for the others to hear.

“You get desensitized as you get older,” she says a little sheepishly. It is the second most adorable thing I have ever seen. “I mean, you’re supposed to. You know, most. . . elves.” It sounds like an uncomfortable sort of stutter, but her message is clear. ‘Modern elves.’ “The shems used to make us cover them, back in Tevinter, but the practice didn’t carry over after the Dales, thank the--” her brow wrinkles almost imperceptibly, “whatever gods there may be.”

Solas looks at her curiously. He glances at me when everyone else’s eyes are darting surreptitiously between the massive creature looming behind Varric, and me.

As Beast slowly, so slowly, lowers his head toward Varric’s bowl, I cast a barrier around the dwarf and his food. Beast’s muzzle thuds into it and he jerks his head back with a shake and a cry, which makes Varric nearly jump out of his skin.

“Shit! Was no one going to tell me?” He half-hollars. “Really?”

“You’d better figure out how to make friends, Varric,” I say. “He seems like the type to hold a grudge.”

“Me?” He cries. “That thing has been after me from the day we met!”

“You did insult him,” Elden says, working at her own meal as if nothing has happened.

“The horsemaster’s daughter said his line was descended from the ancient Harts, did she not? Their pride and tempers were infamous, should they find reason to take insult. It was said they had long memories, as well.”

“I never insulted it! And Elden called it a monster, why isn’t it ruining her things?”

“I think he took it as a compliment,” I said. “Plus he seems to like women better than men. And you did so insult him, you made fun of his tail.”

“I made--!”

“He’s jealous, too,” Cole says. “Why does the ugly short one get to sit so close? Why does she laugh when he speaks? I am better.”

“Oh, come on,” Varric says. He sounds like he’s caught us trying to pull a practical joke on him. “You actually think it understands us?”

“You spent a decade with Cake,” I say, “what do you think? And not calling him it might be a good place to start.”

“Cake?” Cassandra asks. “What does cake have to do with any of this?”

“Cake was the name of Hawke’s mabari,” Varric answers, exasperated. “She named it after the Hero of Ferelden’s. And if he was a mabari, I would understand, but he isn’t a mabari, he’s a horse. Mabari are made with magic, for shit’s sake, that’s the only reason they're so intelligent.” he argues.

“The Queen of Ferelden has a mabari named Cake?” Cassandra asks.

“Varric,” I say, “please, your world is swimming with magic. You have sentient trees and mountains,” Solas’ attention snaps to me, though the rest of him stays as it is, “you think a horse can’t understand you? Look at his head. His brain is probably bigger than yours!”

“Sentient mountains?” Elden asks.

“Now you’re just making it personal,” Varric objects, ignoring her. “And making shit up.”

“A story for another time,” I say to her. “We’ll meet one later, anyway.” To Varric, I argue, haughtily, “I am an impartial presence, thank you very much. And I don’t lie unless I have to.”

“Sentient mountains?” Bull asks.

“Keep up,” I tell him, turning my head a little in his direction, but not looking away from Varric.

The Dwarf snorts. “Fine. Fine, I’m sorry I hurt its-- his feelings. And for Andraste’s sake, don’t ever let one of the ‘proper’ dwarves hear you talk about living mountains. They're bad enough as it is.”

“Won’t be an issue,” I say. “I think they’re pretty much extinct, anyway. Now don’t tell me you’re sorry, I’m not the one you insulted.”

“Oh for-- Fine.” He swivels to face Beast, who has walked over to Elden and lowered his head so she can scratch the underside of his muzzle. She is careful to keep her eyes away. “I’m sorry, Ser horse, if I mistakenly insinuated your tail was anything less than glorious and perfect. I’m sure it strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies and makes all the lady horses blush and swoon. Your coat glistens like the night stars, your powerful flanks are. . . . can I stop now? It’s getting creepy.” He turns and asks me. He looks like he’s sucking on something bitter but trying not to show it.

“You’re the one who made it weird. I said you should apologize to him, not flirt.” That is how I learn that Varric’s face can, in fact, make an unfriendly expression. I look at Beast. He is pretending to ignore Varric, his eyes closed as he leans into Elden’s fingers, but a minute amount of tension has left his chest and forelegs.

“It is better,” Cole answers, a little hesitantly.

“But don’t push it,” I finish.

Varric looks from Cole, to me, then just shakes his head and mutters to himself, “You people are all insane. Just once, I’d like to get caught up with a group of sane people. At least moderately sane.”

 

* * * * *

 

To my unending and blinding delight, it has been decided that Solas and Elden will ride with us until we near an Inquisition base camp just off the main road out of the Hinterlands. It will take at least half of the day. When they break from our group and get to the camp, they will send word of their departures, collect their escorts, and restock their supplies. I am especially glad for it, begrudgingly, because it turns out Solas isn’t returning to Haven - he’s moving on to another territory to work with a team of soldiers and get a head start on the elvhen devices that will strengthen the Veil. A perfectly logical, prudent reason to pull him away from the rest of us for a while. I must remember to get Leliana flowers. And at present, I am wondering if I will last the afternoon.

“All I’m saying is,” Bull argues. “the way you southerners do it is just as crazy.”

“I imagine it would seem that way to someone who is incapable of thinking for himself,” Solas replies with arch, thin “civility.”

“That’s not really a problem in my line of work. Pretty encouraged, actually,” Bull replies drily. “But I mean, think about it. You have to know how to do everything. You’re your own merchants, butchers, accountants, seamstresses. Plus you work on top of that, and you raise kids. The list doesn’t end.

“Don’t even get me started on marriage. Qunari have friends. We have families like you do, people we love. We just don’t have sex with them. Family under the Qun aren’t blood, no, but there’s a strength in that. Here, you expect one person to be everything. Not just a friend, not just a lover, not just a partner. And they’re supposed to be that for as long as you live. People change. It’s insane to think that would ever work.”

“He does kind of have a point,” Varric says.

“It would hardly do to send a spy under deep cover to Thedas who was capable of questioning his peoples’ beliefs,” Solas says. “Iron Bull is nothing if not intelligent, and it is his ‘role’ to weave effective deceptions.”

I swear to god, even his horse looks full of itself. I pinch the bridge of my nose surreptitiously.

Bull makes a thoughtful grunt. “Boss is right. You can be pretty damn closed off.”

“I do not need to examine slavery an infinite number of times on the off chance that it will have miraculously become an entirely different institution since I last looked to know it shouldn’t happen, either.”

“That is the longest sentence I have ever heard, Chuckles,” Varric murmurs to himself.

“The Qun is freedom, Solas. Not slavery. That’s the point. You pass a lot of judgement for someone who’s never seen it from the inside.”

“I have seen it from the inside,” he snaps in his controlled, collected way. “I have lived it in the Fade. Do you think the Qunari were the first to institutionalize mind control? I assure you, the practice dates back many thousands of years, long before your people were even dreamed of. You speak easily of its freedoms while out of its grasp, away from its people and living as you please.”

“Which is it? Either I can’t question that the Qun might be wrong, or I’m enjoying living free of it. I’m fulfilling a role, Solas, doing a job. Just like you are. Just like the Seeker is, just like the Prophet is. We all have parts to play. The difference is that Qunari do their jobs for the benefit of the whole.”

“Parts we choose.”

“Did the Boss choose to be here?”

I can feel the arguments in him, the exasperation simmering just to the right side of almost-sort-of anger. I get the feeling his actual anger is something I don’t want to see.

“Yeah. Didn’t think so.”

“. . .Don’t involve me in absentia or vicariously, either,” I grouse.

“In what?”

“Uch, never mind. It’s another language from my world, I just forgot who I was talking to.”

“I bet you’d be hilarious drunk,” Varric speculates.

"Or obnoxious and terrifying," Elden mutters.

“Assuming I could still control all my scary magic?” I ask churlishly.

“Uh. . . right," he says. "Assuming that.”

 

* * * * *

 

It is surreal how often they have conversations that feel so familiar, it’s as if they’re reciting lines from a play.

 

“I spyyyy--” Varric begins.

“No,” Cassandra says flatly.

“I spy--”

“No.”

“Aw,” I object.

“You should be good at finding things, Seeker. Of course, you. . . couldn’t find Hawke,” he finishes slyly.

"Buuuuuuurn,” I laugh in English. Solas looks confused.

 

 *

 

“Solas, if you do not mind me asking, what do you believe in?” Cassandra’s tone is genuinely curious.

He pauses to think. “Cause and effect. Wisdom as its own reward, and the inherent right of all free willed people to exist.”

“That isn’t what she meant, and you know it,” I say testily. “Why are you so allergic to just answering a goddamned question? Is it a disease? Is it a way to pat yourself on the back,” I say instead of the much more vulgar thing I want to say, “about how much smarter you are than everyone else? ‘Look at me, the master of answering a question without really saying anything at all.’ It’s misdirection, Solas, it’s not that impressive. Ten year-olds do it.” I know he does it to maintain maintain the front of elven apostate, and in all honesty, he is good at it. That doesn’t stop literally everything he does from making me want to set a cart of puppies on fire. And guise aside, the man laid it on thick.

Varric whistles, low and quiet. “Maybe you were up all night after all,” he mutters to himself. Then he flushes invisibly, I assume remembering that I hear everything.

Solas arches a brow, droll. I know my unfair disdain toward him is wearing on the others. To some, it has gotten downright annoying. I'm too grateful for the fact that if they're annoyed at me, it means they're at least looking at me like I'm an actual person, to be as affected by it as I should. Bull doesn't get annoyed, though, not about that. Bull only gets curious.

“I am aware what the Seeker meant, Prophet.” He returns his attention to her, at least outwardly. The rest is on me. I swat at it, but he ignores the effort. “I believe the elven gods existed, as did the old gods of Tevinter. But I do not think any of them were gods, unless you expand the definition of the word to the point of absurdity. I appreciate the idea of your Maker, a god that does not need to prove his power. I wish more such gods felt the same.”

“You have seen much sadness in your journeys, Solas." When have they been talking that she knows so much about his journeys? "Following the Maker might offer some hope.”

I almost snort. 

“I have people, Seeker," he says with gentle finality. "The greatest triumphs and tragedies this world has known can all be traced to people.”

Instantly, my anger is gone - only slight annoyance simmers in its place. It is mostly, but only mostly, in response to the shame he has made me feel, as if I am nothing more than an instrument to be played. And it hurts, because unlike the others, I know that his words are not philosophy. He speaks from experience.

 

 *

 

Cole is 'hearing.'

“Barman laughs. Slides the drink over. Tankard in view the whole time, no chance poison was added. Blade at his waist. Club under the bar. Moves with training, mercenary or guard. Use that if I have to.”

“Yeah," Bull agrees. "I go for the shoulder, a shot he trained to take on the armor. But, since he's a barman now and not a merc, he bleeds, flinches, and I trap the arm and break his neck.”

“Why, The Iron Bull?”

“I didn't do it, kid. It was just idle thought, in case it came up.”

“Do you think about how to kill everyone you meet?”

“Do you not?”

". . .What would you do to take me down?" I ask curiously.

"Hmmm. . . it would have to be poison. You're too strong to overpower, and your reflexes are so good there'd be no way I could sneak up on you. I've seen you catch an arrow flying at the back of your head. So poison. Get you to trust me, then sneak it into something you're going to eat or drink."

"But you don't know if anything will work on me."

"No, but if it doesn't kill you, it either does nothing or makes you sick. And if you trust me, you wouldn't get suspicious, not right away. That gives me time to adjust my approach."

I nod as if it's a satisfying answer. "And when you figure out I can smell the poison?"

". . .Fuck."

". . .Is no one going to comment on the fact that we're trying to figure out the best way to murder her?" Elden argues. It is the most heated I think I've heard her.

"Hey," Bull says, "It's good to think about these things. Helps you figure out what to guard against." He pauses. "Besides, this is going to keep me up at night, now. Seriously." 

I am reminded of an eerily similar conversation had between Zevhran and some of Alaine's other party members long ago.

“. . .I like your horns," Cole says. "But they’re dragon horns, not bull horns. You could have named yourself--”

“The Iron Dragon,” I cut in, letting the words slip over my tongue like a finger running down Bull's chest.

“Oh, shit. That <i>would</i> have been better.”

“I was going to say that,” Cole objects.

“I know.” My eyes crinkle, warm. “I couldn’t help myself.”

“Because. . . I already said it. It happened before, so now it was your turn.”

“Something like that. Sorry, though. I probably should have let you."

“The world is paper, wet and thin. They are so small, and everything is eggshell, a tiny thing dropped from a nest. I will shatter it all if I am not careful, always careful, watching, wanting, working, aching. Mountains and men, easy to break. Did I remember that or has it happened yet? Always getting it mixed up. What they can't know, what they should, the world is already cracked, made of brittle glass, why am I doing this? Is it for me, for them, for him? Point, pointless principal, a parade of parts and pieces, and they are all so small, but I am small too, right? Everything is fog, knots they can't see, and I will never not be alone again--” He cuts off sharply, sucking in a breath.

I feel like saltwater is sinking through me, and it is so intense that it has Solas' attention snapping to me, sharp and avid, but I barely feel it. It is like he cares sometimes, so much, and I hate him for it.

I suppose it’s only fair; Cole does this, will do this, to everyone. All the same, it's--

“I didn’t mean to make you sad, or sick. I only want to help. It is questions, all around you, so many more than most people. Why do you keep secrets?”

‘Why do people keep secrets,’ I know he means.

Our horses fill a silence. “I think it’s part of how we shape our world, Cole.”

“But you can't. This world is hard, it doesn't change.”

“It is the best we manage,” Solas says. “In the physical world, a person’s mind is the only thing they may truly control. We shape what we believe the way you would shape the Fade. Our mind is our reality, and other people are a part of that reality.”

“But. . . you keep them secret. You hide them, even from yourselves.”

"Some realities are harder to face than others," I say. "Harder than the pain of keeping them locked up."

“We share those things with people we trust,” Elden says, somber.

I remember everything she told me the night before, and it all takes a new shape. My reality shifts.

Cole thinks about this, then looks at me. “You can trust them. They would all understand, even if they can’t.”

Silence lays heavy for a long while.

“You can,” Cole says. “I don’t mind.”

I look up at him in surprise. I’m not fast enough to chase what he’s referring to, until he holds a hand out. It hadn’t been more than an errant thought, an impulse, not chosen or decided enough to even wonder if it would hurt him, to consider if I wanted to, should.

“You don’t hurt like other people. You’re soft. Supple, soothing, same. I saw a hot bath in a man’s head once. He went in the water when he hurt, and it took it all away. It’s like that. I promise to tell you if I don’t like it. If something hurts.”

I hesitate. “Even if it means you won’t be able to help me?”

He takes a moment to consider. “Yes,” he says speculatively. “It hurts you more to hold everyone. If I don’t tell you, you won't let me try.”

I’m aware of the cutting heat and pressure of everyone’s attention. But I let my universe be the boy next to me, and something in my heart thaws just as it sinks. With relief prickling on my skin, I reach out and take Cole’s hand.

After a time, with forced brightness I say to Bull, “You could always change your name.”

“Nah, I’m good with this. It gets the job done. Besides, it’s what people know me as. Don't want to build a reputation twice.”

I look at him as I lean in toward Cole. I whisper, “Is that really why he doesn’t want to change it?”

“No. It is who wants to be. This one fits, like good armor, or a Tamassran when it has been too long.”

I blink rapidly at that. Bull saves me by saying, “Thanks for sticking the ‘the’ on there, though. You and the kid. Most people forget. It kinda makes it sound like I'm not really a person. Like I'm this dangerous thing, you know?”

“You made it a joke on yourself," Cole says, "making a mockery, so you would never be that.”

“It kills the joke if you explain it, kid.”

"A Joker said that," Cole muses.

I smile wryly. “Welcome to the family, The Iron Bull.”

 

*

 

“Seeker,” Solas begins conversationally, “you initially believed our ‘Maker’s Prophet’ was involved in the attack on the Conclave, yes?”

“I did. The evidence seemed damning, given the lack of an alternative.”

“Yet you changed your mind.”

“You also heard the voices at the temple - is it so surprising I listened to them?”

“Sadly, yes. Too few invested with authority possess the courage to alter their course. They fear the appearance of weakness.”

“The truth is more important than my reputation, and anyone willing to accuse me of weakness is welcome to try,” she says, her voice almost stony by the end. Endearingly stony. But only because I know she’s on my side. My lips curl as I think of her as Divine.

“Cassandra?” I say. “I know you’re worried about that. The fact that you were so certain I was responsible, that you were ready to act on it.” The others go attentive the way they always do when I talk about things I shouldn’t know. “Don’t be. It’s not nearly as important as the fact that you changed your mind when faced with new information. That’s what you should take away from it. Don’t doubt yourself too much. Question? Yes. But not doubt, not like that. You’re someone worth having faith in. You’re someone worth following.”

I feel her discomfort, so I go on. “Almost anyone else in your place would have killed me outright. You know that. The evidence was damning, as you said. I had destroyed the Temple of Sacred Ashes. I had ruined your greatest, maybe your only chance for peace. I had murdered people you loved and needed, and still you made yourself stop and take stock. You asked questions while you were grieving and furious. You left me to face justice rather than cut me down.” Which would have been justice, had I been guilty. Not prudent, perhaps, but justice.

“I know you wanted to do all of those things. But you aren’t what you want to do. You aren’t what you’re tempted to do, or what you almost do, or what you think about doing. You’re the side that wins in the end. You’re the wolf you feed the most. You’re what you do. . . do.” I groan silently. “Ten-point dismount,” I mutter to myself.

“Wolf?” Elden asks.

“It’s a fable from a people mine. . . well, from an old people, who were much more wise than mine. Two wolves live inside the hearts of all people, it says. One is good and just and right, the best things a person can be. The other is anger, pettiness, glut, the worst parts of ourselves, and the two are constantly fighting to dominate our spirit. In the fable, it’s a grandfather telling all this to his grandson. The grandson then asks, ‘How do I know which wolf will win?’ The grandfather replies, ‘Whichever one you feed.’”

Solas seems satisfied, but not for Fen'harel so much as the fact that someone, somewhere was wise enough to come up with something like that. A people. 

“I. . . will think on that,” Cassandra says. “Thank you.”

 

 *

 

“Iron Bull," Solas begins. His tone is perfectly civil, and yet it has that note no one else seems to pick up on that tells me this isn’t going to be an invitation to braid one another’s hair and talk about boys. Twice in one godforsaken day. He cannot leave soon enough. “I understand that among your people, you are... what is the term?”

“Ben-Hassrath. Secret police. Spies, basically.”

“You spied upon your own people.” He doesn’t even pretend to try to hide the condemnation and judgement. It is no wonder he and Fen’harel get along. Solas must have been his bannerman.

“Is that so different from Orlais or Ferelden? They have all kinds of people policing them.”

“What they say and do, yes. Not what they think.”

“What you think is what you say and do.”

“No. Even the lowliest peasant may find freedom in the safety of her thoughts. You take even that.”

“That’s not....” he groans quietly. “Boss, you want to help me out, here?”

“Absolutely not,” I say incredulously.

He’s Hissrad. The Iron Bull. He doesn’t need my help, or anyone else’s. Which either means he thinks I can crack the shell easier than he can, or that this is some kind of a test. Or he just doesn’t feel like dealing with it. But if that were the case, he could shut it down easily enough. Since I really doubt he cares whether he converts some random apostate elf, that means it’s a test, and it makes me peevish.

“You jumped into the latrine,” I say, “enjoy what’s inside on your own. I warned you.”

"Hey, I didn't start this."

"No, but you saw it and stepped in, anyway."

But it weighs on me, heavier and heavier until I can’t keep it in. With an angry sigh, annoyed at myself, I say, “He’s talking about seeds, Solas.”

“And what seeds a person chooses to cultivate in their own mind should be their decision alone,” he retorts.

“...Yeah. You’re welcome, Bull. For that priceless assist. Next time you even pretend I exist while you two are pissing over the Qun, I’m snapping one of your horns off.”

“...You know, that could be kind of hot, having a broken horn.”

As if I’ve been taking lessons from Cassandra, I loose a hearty disgusted sound. "Fine. Then I'll gouge out your other eye instead."

 

 *

 

“So, Kid," Varric muses, "why human?” He asks this as we're ferreting through the pockets and packs of a group of mages we just killed. For some reason, this part still leaves me unsteady.

“It was the shape that would help,” Cole answers.

“Huh. Most people don't pick a shape. I guess I was hoping for something deeper with that question.”

“It had to be him. But harmless. The him he wanted that wouldn't hurt.”

“Well that's... deeper. I think.”

“He means magic,” I say as I'm bent over, ferreting through a satchel. “Cole, the first Cole, wished with everything he was at the end that he hadn’t been a mage. He thought everything would have been different. Better. Safer.”

“It would have been,” Cole says.

I glance at him. “Our Cole--" he repeats the words to himself as if tasting them, "looks like this, is this, because that Cole didn’t get to live. He's what that Cole wished he could be, living in his place so he could have his wish, in the end. Even if he couldn't... you know, have it.”

“I didn’t know how else to help,” Cole says mournfully. It is a heartbreaking tone.

"That's... really kind of beautiful," Elden says.

"There are few things in the world as pure-hearted as spirits," Solas says quietly.

I can hear the bones of Cassandra's jaw as she grinds it together.

"...Wouldn't that make demons pure-hearted, too?" I ask, sincerely curious.

He considers. "By that logic, I suppose so. But it would perhaps be more accurate to say there is nothing so true to itself as a creature of the Fade."

Bull is tense and uncomfortable and churlish. Then a thought seems to occur to him. “Wait,” he says to Cole. “So you could use magic. If you wanted to?”

“But I don’t want to.”

Bull growls, and the subject is dropped.

 

 *

 

Cassandra insists Cole accompany her to fill our waterskins (I try not to think about what they’re made of if I can) when we stop briefly. After they have gone a good distance, I hear Cassandra speak to him using her “business” voice. I may be more or less a walking mountain, but I know that if she turned it on me again, it would make me quail just as much as it had the day we met.

“The others told me what you are, demon. You have been following orders. I expect that to continue. The Prophet believes you are harmless, but I do not. Nor will I ever trust you.”

“She doesn’t believe that,” he says innocently. “She knows what I am. I didn’t remember until I met her. Wouldn't have remembered, not until later. Everything is still tangled.”

“Yet she has vouched for you strongly. She claimed you were like her.”

“She knows I want to help. And she isn't like me, not really. But... she is. She sings better than anyone, almost like home. She said it because it made the most sense.”

I hear a breath through flared nostrils. “Know this: I will not allow you to harm innocents, and I am watching you. Closely.”

“Good. If I become a demon, you should cut me down.”

“Do not doubt me. I will do it.”

“I know. I’m glad.”

“You’re... serious, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I hope you are, too. Nua would do it, to protect people. But... not right away. She would wait too long, and I might hurt someone.”

“She seems to care for you,” she says stiffly.

“Yes.” I can hear a smile in his voice. “She wants to be my friend. But that isn’t why.”

“Then why?”

“She wants to fix us. If it was me, she would try, even if I hurt someone. I don't want to hurt anyone.”

“Must you always speak in riddles, demon? Who does the Prophet wish to fix? Our group? Thedas?”

“De--”

“Cole, shut up,” I hiss, balling up a typhoon of emotion and shoving it at him. "Those are private thoughts!”

He pauses. “I... shouldn't say. But what if it goes wrong and you get hurt? It will make people sad and afraid. Angry. The whole world will hurt. And they don’t want to change.”

“I’m sturdy, Cole,” I say so quietly that only Solas can hear. “I’ll be fine. And I don’t plan on doing anything horrifyingly stupid.”

“But you don’t know--”

“What are you talking about?” Cassandra demands angrily.

“I....” I imagine I can feel him floundering from here, and I feel horrible.

He sighs. “It isn’t your fault. I’ll be quiet. About this,” he adds when the feeling wells up in me that I don’t want him to be quiet.

“...I don’t want to know what this is, do I.” Cassandra says.

“Yes you do,” Cole says, and he sounds confused. “But it would make you very angry.”

 

 *

  

“You never have told me why you dragged me to Haven, Seeker. I mean, what could I have told the Divine that you couldn't say yourself?”

“I thought she needed to see the chest hair for herself.”

I nearly choke. Elden gives me what is meant to be a bracing pat on the back.

“Er.... Say again?” He asks, incredulous.

“I thought she needed to hear it from the horse's mouth, as it were. I also knew she would ask you to help us.”

“Help the Inquisition? Me?”

“A crazy thought, I know, yet here you are."

Bull has taken over for Elden. He gives me a series of whacks that should have me flying into a large rock in the middle distance, then effuses over the fact that it was basically like hitting a massive tree trunk. He doesn't catch the way Beast turns his head toward him and bares his teeth, just a little, as he's hitting me. The growl that rumbles deep in his chest is too low for him to hear, too.

“Mm," Varric is saying. "Think you'll ever go back to Nevarra? Maybe when all this is over?”

“Why? Are you eager to see me go?”

He scratches his broad neck thoughtfully. “I wasn't, actually. But, now that you mentioned it....”

“How do you know I wouldn't just drag you along?”

“Be still my heart. I've grown on you.”

“Like fungus,“ she says flatly.

“Or cancer,” Elden adds.

“Thanks for that,” Varric says.

 

 *

 

“How are you holding up, Kid?” Varric asks Cole. It warms my heart every time he reaches out or shows kindness to him. “You've been quiet for a while.”

“My shoelaces keep coming untied,” he says mournfully.

“You're doing fine,” he replies in a voice I can easily see him cultivating by talking drunk people out of doing exceptionally stupid things. Usually Hawke. Sometimes Fenris. There was no help, I imagine, for Isabella.

“Can you talk to them?" Cole asks. "They don't listen to me."

“I think that’s a question for the Prophet. But if you want my advice, don't talk to them, Kid. Just tie them in knots.”

“Try looping the second lace under instead of over. It keeps them from working themselves loose that way," I tell him.

“The rabbit goes under the tree....”

"...That thing is distressing," Elden says. That she says it means she has more or less accepted him. I barely contain the swell of joy I feel enough that it doesn't hit anyone nearby.

 

* * * * *

 

Well after lunch, we go through the sort of emotional, sentiment-filled goodbyes you would expect from a group of seasoned warriors, and Solas and Elden finally depart. Cole has opted to go with Elden. The others look at me when he does nothing by way of asking permission. “What?” I ask dumbly. “He can do what he wants.”

Varric, Cassandra, Bull, and I are settled in a rock enclosure the size of a mansion that will become an Inquisition camp. It is in the heart of the area I cleared of “bears” the night before. There had been twelve of the things, which made me worry I was interrupting some sort of rut. I’d tried to avoid killing, but none of them had been interested in talking.

The will-be camp’s walls are high - it is a naturally-fortified piece of ground in a break where two gigantic rock formations abut, and is completely open the the “blue” sky above.

“...Are you fucking with me, Boss?” Bull is asking seriously.

I grin and give a little shake of my head. I can feel strands of hair start to shake loose from their bindings even at that small motion.

“A high fucking dragon?” He roars. Literally every small animal in over a quarter of a mile starts. The birds flee. Beast paws at the ground in irritation.

“Not a bad ‘welcome to the Inquisition’ present, huh?” I reply, grinning broadly.

“Not a bad-- Are you kidding me?” he ejaculates. There is no more appropriate word choice. He turns on the others. “Did you two know about this?”

“Not a word, Tiny. She doesn’t tell us much.”

“Taarsidath-an halsaam?” I ask with a self-satisfied expression.

“Oooohhoho,” he rumbles, and it is a universally R-rated sound that sets my pulse to hammering and the flesh between my thighs aching. “You bet your ass, taarsidath-an halsaam. Though I wouldn’t mind company. You know, in case it comes up,” he adds, with a quick glance to the apex of my thighs that lets me know he’s aware of my reaction. Beast snorts unhappily. I get the impression he wants to put himself bodily in front of me.

I want to make a joke about puns, but all I can do is look away and clear my throat tightly. Varric asks, “Do we want to know what that means?”

“You really don’t,” I reply. “And I wouldn’t tell you even if you did.”

He makes a noise of acknowledgement. “Thanks for my welcome present, by the way. It was lovely. Really, you shouldn’t have.”

“We joined more or less at the same time. I’m the ‘Prophet,’ and you know what I got.” I nod toward my gloved hand, but that’s not all I mean. “Want to go halvsies? I wouldn’t want you to feel put out. Besides, I could have kept you dangling for months on the stuff I told you in exchange for Swords and Shields, and you know it.”

“I maintain that my editor would love you.”

“I maintain that I have never been so insulted.”

I am leaning up against one of the stone walls, drinking a hot cup of tea. I settle in as the others move to their own tasks - Varric and Cassandra seeing to their weapons, and Bull practically vibrating. There’s a little smile on my face, partially because I’m trying to ignore an itchy sort of feeling I can’t identify. It has bothered me since we neared this place, right around the time I caught my first whiff of the dragon’s nest.

(Two of) The others wanted to wait until tomorrow and hit the dragon well-rested and with a strong battle plan, but they rethink that when I tell them exactly how near she is. Her and her dozen or so offspring. Arguing stops when I say they’re welcome to move camp if they want, but I’ll be staying here, and I add that it’s bear country where we are. Would they really want to leave me defenseless?

What they haven’t argued about is going up against a high dragon with just the four of us - entirely suicidal, generally speaking.

My mind wanders of its own accord. It keeps wandering no matter how many times I bring it back, until I realize it’s going to the same thing each time. Off to my right and down through a natural rock tunnel, into a wide open space with a tall pillar of hexagonal basalt columns at its center. To bright lemon yellow, gray-green, a broad arrow head, fang tips and muscled legs and eyes with enough intelligence to know what it is to be an apex predator.

I hear a voice that is not a voice. It is the same as the one that told me ‘Trust your body’ as I stood at the lip of a cliff outside the first Inquisition camp. My brow wrinkles, and my eyes are far away. I push off the rock wall and set my cup on a nearby boulder, feet already following the path.

“Prophet?” Cassandra asks.

“Stay here,” I say as I move past. Varric and Cassandra exchange whispered words. Varric remembers a similar look in my eyes as I made my way, possessed, to a fox statue in the middle of nowhere.

“No matter what you hear,” I add, “stay here.”

There is a shuffling of feet and a metallic attention in the air, but they don’t follow. I cast an invisible barrier when I enter the tunnel anyway.

I walk on dancer’s feet, silent and alert. I can smell her. I can smell her young. I smell. . . .

I smell fire, an old meal, play and squabbles, skin shed with growth. A family will kill any threat.

I send my scent before me on a breeze, carried to all edges of the bowl and up to her roost, high and always watching. They stir, their heads move as one to the tunnel. I change my scent. Not food. Not a threat. Same, but not.

I am air and earth and fire as I come into view. I move as roots, I exist as wind, my body is a banked, steady flame. It is their dance. It is what they know.

Mother hops from her cliff to the tall pillar, claws making rock cascade, wings held half-spread, showing teeth, eyes death. What is this? Not food. Not danger, not now. Does it fear?

A rumbling clicking comes from her and she bares her teeth like mother wolf.

I am not prey. Only prey would fear. Only weak would fear.

She smells no challenge.

I step away from the cave and into the open. I step away from escape and safety, away from the stink of the other nothings behind. Muscle lowers to sit on its knees, sure as stone.

Mother rumbles.

The boldest comes forward, a female, larger than the others. A male tries to follow, but she snaps him away. The males know their place.

I am earth. No need to look at her. No need to see as she approaches. No need to worry as she sniffs at my neck, jabs me with her muzzle. She circles, shoving with shoulders and slicing with her tail, testing.

‘Not weak,’ mother says. ‘Not weak,’ she agrees. Hesitant steps, then the others are coming forward all in a rush of stony muscle and needle-knife teeth, scales that cut and tails that break bones. I am immovable.

Eventually, they get bored. Eventually, mother gets bored. I rise and make to follow as they leave. It is noted and permitted.

 

* * * * *

 

There is yelling from the creatures behind. The smell worsens. I make it go away.

 

* * * * *

 

The sun, warm and wonderful, is lessening. One of the creatures is climbing the rock to come here. Stupid things. Small. Breakable. But a feeling stirs--

I stop, sharp teeth hooked around and under a jaw. They continue to play without me, and I’m jostled. I stand and, with a look toward the tunnel, start to walk away. ‘Mother’ notices, but there’s no reason to care other than knowing what’s happening around her. One of the smaller males tries to follow me. I give him a scratch where his neck meets his head and tell him to stay here. It isn't hard - this young, family is survival.

When I near the barrier, I cast it away and the smell that hits me is too much. I stagger. Adrenaline and anger, determination, worry, fear. A swamp of it. I let myself gag a little, then give a sharp whistle as I emerge. “Get him down from there before he breaks something,” I call.

“Thank Andraste,” Cassandra effuses. She is standing not far from where I had been drinking my tea, looking up at a garish pair of parachute pants and a broad, muscled, blue-gray back. He has almost reached the top. “What were you doing?” She asks. She’s not so much relieved now as she is starting to get angry.

“Making friends,” I say calmly as I take a seat in front of the fire. Cassandra and Varric come forward. I pour myself some tea as Bull undoes his climbing in a matter of moments and joins us, passing his palms against one another to get the debris off. “I didn’t time-travel, but I did learn something else I can do.”

They’re putting it together. I told them where the dragon was. But dragons don’t make friends. They kill things, and burn things, and pull the limbs off of things. But I have done the impossible more times than any of them can count in the last two weeks or so.

It’s Varric who breaks the silence. “You can’t be serious.”

I swirl what’s in my cup, then look at him from over its lip as I drink.

Bull is calm. But it is not a reassuring calm. Bull, right then, is more Hissrad than we have seen him.

“That isn’t--” Cassandra starts.

“Possible,” I finish, interrupting her. “I wonder how long before we all get tired of saying that.”

 

* * * * *

 

In the morning, the others argue against any plan other than trying to kill the dragons. They wake, they eat, they clean up, they pack up, and one by one stop fighting me on it. Bull is a strong hold-out, but he gets tired of arguing with two and being ignored by one. Cassandra and Varric are inclined to listen to me. Which is something, given that I’ve asked them all to do something that any child, gnarled mercenary, or breakneck adventurer would know is recklessly suicidal.

 

* * * * *

 

“This is the worst idea anyone has ever had in the history of ideas,” Varric whispers. “And I spent a decade with Hawke.” He doesn’t move his lips, as if afraid the motion will upset the dragonling currently gnawing on my thigh affectionately. Beast walks close on my other side, more tense and wary than afraid. He curls a lip at the little dragonling, but the creature is oblivious until he whacks it hard with his tail behind my back.

“Just stay calm and you’ll be fine,” I say with a smile, crouching down and running the backs of my nails the right way down his neck. He makes a low, happy rumble.

“There is a high dragon perched twenty feet away whose head is larger than many houses, and you want us to be calm?” Cassandra nearly hisses. Even as she speaks, the mother’s head is swiveling with almost imperceptible slowness, following our progress. She doesn’t blink.

“That’s why I said you should stay calm,” I say in a bright, happy voice, as if I’m play-talking to the dragonling. “They know you’re afraid, it’s coming off of you like clouds. But I vouched for you, so as long as you behave and don’t make any sudden movements, you’ll be fine.” I rise and carry on through the bowl, another of the nearly-black creatures following at my hip, nipping at my hand as I wave it playfully around its head. The one Beast whacked has taken to stalking his tail.

When the one at my side catches Bull looking down at it, it snaps at him and make a rumbling sort of hiss.

“All the animals you take a liking to this pissy?” He asks in a calm voice.

“Well I like you,” I say, relaxed. “I suppose that’s pretty damning.”

The “little” drake tailing Beast is watching him like a raven looking at a new toy. When it goes for his tail, Beast whips around and snaps at it, but the creature is undaunted. Beast is annoyed, but I have no intention of stepping in. It will be good for him to have to deal with something that can keep up with him. Part of me wishes we could bring one of the dragonlings with us.

Beast swats at its head, playful but too curmudgeonly to admit it.

This is when everything goes to shit.

The large female has been off in another area of the bowl. She happens to emerge just as Beast is going at her brother. She gives a shrill screech and surges forward.

The moment my friend’s hands twitch toward hilts and shafts, I shout at them to stop, but their reflexes are too slow. At their aggression, the other drakes turn on us, and the mother rears up on her hind legs, flares her wings, and screams down at us. It vibrates in my bones, locks my flesh like an electric current. Beast half-rears, crying out. But as suddenly as it starts, there is a hush and a feeling of warm wetness in my ears and I don’t hear anything but a high, clear note, unending. I yell at the others to run, to go, and the feeling of air moving past my vocal cords is the only way I know I’m speaking.

I get in between the female and my friends, blocking her like a linebacker. She is almost as strong as Beast. I cast a barrier wide out to the sides of me so the others can’t get past, and something in me, something like my ara’lin, flares out, speaking without words. Calm. Apology. Reassurance. I fight for the mother’s attention to keep her from taking off after the others and I fight to keep Beast from putting himself between me and the dragonlings.

My friends have stopped, far too close, weapons drawn.

“Go,” I yell at Beast, silent to my ears. “Get them back!” Apparently I convey my urgency well, because he takes off and begins herding the others away, shoving, pulling on clothes when he has to.

Once they are out of sight and far enough that only the barest traces of their scent remain, the drakes begin to settle. It isn’t long after they quiet that one gets restless and snaps at the leg of another. That's all it takes, and then, just like puppies, the altercation is forgotten and they are off wrestling.

The mother is another matter. I look toward her, carefully not meeting her eyes. We have a silent conversation. The result is that I am still permitted, but if the others ever come back, they will be eaten, bitten in half, and/or burned until their skin is crispy and black.

This seems fair.

That settled, I try to convey to her the overwhelming numbers that will come for her if she and her children stay where they are. They are too close to people. She doesn’t care about people, but enough ants can take down a bison. I don’t tell her that if it comes to a fight, it will likely be us who kills her.

 

* * * * *

 

They start shouting at me the minute I come into view. I can’t hear any of it. Cassandra is nearly red in the face, Beast has run out to me and is nudging and sniffing over every inch of me, licking gently at my ears, Varric looks like he wants to stay out of it, and Bull.... Bull is looking at me oddly. Staring, more accurately.

When I get close, his expression deepens. He says something that makes the others look at him, then back to me, and their faces go slack. Immediately they are rummaging in their bags.

“What?” I ask, again feeling the vibration of sound I can’t hear.

Bull walks up to me until he is too close. He’s looking at me like... He’s looking at me in a way that has shifted from friendly to asking. Except Bull isn’t asking. He’s telling. And he’s worried. He tilts his chin until the bulk of him is wrapped over me, despite the air that is technically between us. He raises a hand and brings it to my face. My breath sucks in, my neck cranes back, my eyes are confused and wary. I know what I see, I know what I smell, but he wouldn’t, not in front of the others. He wouldn’t period, not yet.

His hand doesn’t cup my face, doesn’t rest on my neck. A finger sweeps with surprising gentleness over the skin under my ear, then comes away. He holds it up to me and my eyes go wide. Light pink, mostly clear fluid. Instantly I am back to that first day when I woke with a concussion, internal bleeding, lacerations and bruises. When I was lucky to be alive. Just like I am now. The dragon’s cry punctured my ear drums. The damage could have been much worse. I cannot down the proffered healing potions fast enough.

 

* * * * *

 

We finish our business in the area that was cut off by the dragons. When we start to head back, it is with great surprise that we find the mother and her pack already gone. I can’t imagine to where - they roosted on the neck of a peninsula, and the young ones can’t fly. I can’t see fire drakes being fond of the idea of going for a dip in the ocean, but what do I know?

It takes the tension a while to leave the others. I want to say ‘I told you they were gone,’ but I don’t have much of a leg to stand on in the ‘trust me, everything will be fine’ department at the moment.

“You knew they would be gone?” Cassandra asks warily.

“I hoped. I told her they should go, but I didn’t know if they would. I could smell they were gone when we got closer.”

“You told her?” Bull asks. It isn’t his banter voice. It isn’t his business voice. I think it’s my first taste of the way Hissrad must have sounded. “You talk to dragons?”

“She said she talks to clothes, Tiny. But I have to admit, this....  Uh, this is a little more impressive,” Varric says uneasily.

“I’m sorry, you guys. Really. It was just a misunderstanding. It would have been fine, if-- I should have....” I trail off. “I don’t know. I’m just sorry.”

“Not taking is through there in the first place might have been a good place to start, Prophet,” Varric says.

“I know,” I sigh.

“It is alright,” Cassandra allows hesitantly. It sounds like forgiveness. Wary, possibly shaken forgiveness, but still. “We should have listened more closely to you, I suppose. And we were able to destroy more of the red lyrium by getting past. The Inquisition will make good use of the supplies, as well, now that there isn’t a dragon standing in the way.”

“...I honestly never thought I’d say this,” Varric starts, “but... no offense, your holiness,” he says to me before turning back to Cassandra, “I think you’re being a little too nice. I mean, there are daring plans, and then there’s ‘come with me on a stroll through a nest of dragons.’ We should have just killed the thing.”

“Yeah, why didn’t we?” Bull asks, somber. “I don't get that part.”

I hesitate. “We’ve... hurt the world where I come from,” I say. I lay a hand on Beast’s shoulder as we walk, scratching idly. “People hunted things to extinction, a lot of things. They did it because ‘there are so many it won’t matter if we kill these.’ Or ‘killing this is manly and impressive,’ or just ‘It’s my right, I don’t have to care,’ or ‘it’s interfering with my way of life.’ Our world... there’s a saying, an old one. That all of nature is a web. You can’t upset one strand without the entire thing being affected. That from the air to bugs and frogs to druffalo and grass and swamps, everything is interconnected. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s true. Nature where I’m from is caving in on itself because we’ve done so much damage to it. And it starts with just one animal.”

I look in the direction of the nest behind us. “I don’t think there are a lot of dragons left in the world. As dangerous as they are to people and their livestock, as... ‘badass’ as it is to be able to say you killed one, I promise you that if you kill too many, the world will feel it in ways you couldn’t have conceived of. It probably already has, the affects are just too slow for us to see, or they’re somewhere we haven’t thought to look yet. But their consequences will show up, probably in a way that seems completely unrelated.

“Until someone tells me I’m not in charge, if a dragon isn’t an immediate danger, we’ll leave it alone. If it is, I’ll try to move it before I allow it to be killed. I'm sorry, The Iron Bull.”

 

* * * * *

 

We make camp in a little copse of trees that night. Tomorrow, we’ll reach the main Inquisition camp, the one that sits near the highway out of the region. We are done in the Hinterlands.

I’ve asked Varric for a word. To be polite to the others, I walk us a small distance away before putting up a barrier to ensure we can’t be overheard. Solas could be standing an inch away, and unless he can read lips - which I assume he can - not even he would pick up a thing.

“Big day, huh?” Varric asks. He’s been looking at me like he’s waiting for an outburst or a flood of tears. I can’t figure it out, and I don’t have the energy to speculate.

I sigh quietly. “Not the biggest we’ll have, I’m afraid.”

“Your compassionate lying still needs work.”

I huff a laugh and sit down in front of him. He’s only just taller than me this way. Maybe it’s rude, but I don’t care. I only did it to be comfortable, and if anyone can get away with a harmless faux pas, it’s the chick from another world. I pluck at pieces of grass, hunched over like Cole would be. “I asked you out here because you don’t dream.” He has no quip, so I go on. “You know I’m breaking away from the rest of you tomorrow. I’ve been chincy on details because... mostly because of the things that are after me in the Fade.

“Since you don’t sleep, I can tell you things without any risk of it getting passed on over there.” Pleasant night air pulls in to fill my chest, then I look up at him. “After tonight, I won’t be sleeping until I’m back in Haven, and I’ll be cloaked from any sort of magic. I’ll be completely off the map, and I’m not going to stop until I get where I’m going. I don’t think I’ll be there long, but I can’t say for sure. If I had to guess, it’ll be at least a couple of weeks until I catch up to you in Haven.

“In case people start to freak out, I mean really freak out over how long I’m gone or the fact that they can’t reach me, you can tell them I said to calm the hell down. But,” I say, holding up a finger, “only to Josie, Leliana, Cassandra, and Cullen. No one else is to find out,” I enunciate, my eyes serious, “and don’t give them a single detail unless it’s life and death for them to know. Once I’m back in Haven, I should be able to answer pretty much any question any of you might have. And I should be able to tell you almost everything I’ve been holding back.”

He’s quiet. Then there’s a huff. “Shit, kid. I’m not sure I wanted to hear that you’d been holding back.”

“Information. I mean--”

“Yeah, I know what you meant. Just... half the time this doesn’t seem real anymore. And I make weird shit up for a living. Who you are, what you are, the things you can do.... I don’t necessarily believe in the Maker, but you’ve got even me asking questions.”

I shake my head. “Gods are just another word for magic, and magic is the explanation we use for things we don’t understand. Well, that’s true on my world, where we don’t have magic. But the gods part is still good here. My point is, just because everyone is saying something doesn’t mean they’re right, and just because something seems too far out of the realm of possibility... well, gods make a convenient scapegoat for things we don’t understand. Just keep an open mind.”

He’s quiet again. “So what is right, then?” It’s the most serious I’ve ever heard him and, unsettlingly, he looks like he trusts me to give him the answer.

“...After I get back.”

I ask him to get me a map from Harding while I have the others distracted, to swear her to silence, and we head back to camp.

 

* * * * *

 

“Boss.”

Bull has stayed out in the quiet, even after Cassandra and Varric went to their tents. I have been waiting for something from him, and it looks like I will get it sooner rather than later.

“Employee,” I answer.

“A while back, you said you wanted to ask me something.”

I look over at him in surprise. It takes me a moment to remember. It had been shortly after we’d met, and I’d wanted to ask him, worded with a little care, if I could touch him from time to time. It was exactly what I’d said the night I’d slept with him. ‘You’re good with boundaries and I never get to touch people.’ But that had been before I’d seen the look on his face today.

“Oh! Yeah. It solved itself, though.” I give him a dismissive, friendly smile, and he drops it. I don’t fool myself for a moment that he buys it, though.

 

* * * * *

 

I have failed to account for Beast in my plans. This is thrown into sharp relief by the tantrum he throws when I try to get him to go with the others.

“Maker, kid, just take him with you!”

“I--” I break off with a stymied noise. I plan to travel for about a week nonstop via Fade Step. I could probably keep him going by magic, if he could tolerate basically living between worlds on top of not resting, eating, or drinking. I remember Seanna saying his breed had ties to the ancient harts, creatures who lived in a world of magic. But the only person who might stand a chance of physically forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to do is the one who’s leaving.

I curse under my breath and do some quick calculations. If all goes to plan, and if my time at the temple is quick, I should just be able to make it back to Haven in time to leave for the meeting in Val Royeaux. Which of course means something will go horribly awry.

But what’s life without a little reckless negligence?

Chapter Text

I shuck every piece of clothing but my undershirt and trousers, and I leave my weapons. I enchant Varric’s bags to hold more than they should be able to so he has room for them. No one argues against my traveling so light - something about the seriousness and focus of my demeanor seems to quiet them.

 

* * * * *

 

I pass near five rifts on my way. I’m tempted to stop and give Beast a rest - I can occupy myself prodding at the insides of demons again - but this has felt so long in coming that I won’t even entertain the thought of delay, not really. 

My world reduces to the “whump” of Beast’s heart and the deep hush of his lungs as I listen with obsessive attention for any signs of distress, the map that is well-worn by the end of the first day, and the magic of the Fade Step, over, and over, and over.

What they never tell you about adventures is how boring they are. Like stakeouts. Ninety-nine percent of your job amounts to doing nothing at all. The planning for this was all urgency and intent and focus. I saw departing, and I saw arriving. The beginning of the journey was intent, too, as I took larger and larger leaps to let Beast acclimate to the magic. Plotting a course, seeing how far I could push us.

That all wears off in full sometime during the first night.

When I left, ten days had passed since Giselle told us the meet in Val Royeax was in less than a month. If my estimate is right, travel from the Hinterlands to the Arbor Wilds on horseback should take at least three weeks. I plan to cover the distance in a matter of days. But once I have the rhythm down - map, step, step, step, step, map, always with attention on Beast next to me - I have nothing to occupy my mind. For several straight days and nights.

If I get bored, I’ll get sloppy, which would be disastrous, so I focus on running over everything I’ve been told about myself, the questions I want to ask, and what each outcome - I am what Fen’Harel says, or I am not - might mean. For me, for the Inquisition, for the relationship with Fen’harel that may be balancing on a razor’s edge. I don’t let myself think on how badly everything could turn; The Dread Wolf is not a creature you want as an enemy. I run over theories and possibilities. I try to enter into a meditative state.

Going over the plains outside the Hinterlands is quick - sometimes I’m able to jump us several miles at once. Progress slows as we get to the Frostback foothills, and for great stretches the roads and paths are so winding and rock-lined that we have to travel at a normal pace. I’m not worried. We’ll make up time on the other side. I tell myself that, but in the back of my mind a worry pricks and pulls. My urgency to get to the temple only increases the closer we get, as does my fear that something is going to show up to block my path.

I start checking myself for signs of exhaustion after the third night, but find none. I’m feeding magic into Beast constantly, a thin, infinitesimal stream, but ceaseless. Every half hour or so, I sweep over him in detail with my extra senses, checking for cuts, nicks, burrs, muscles that are too stiff, tendons that are strained, signs of dehydration, anything. Bringing him was idiotic, but so far, he seems to be holding up as well as I am. Risky as it was, I can’t deny that the constant need to monitor his safety is a grounding thing. Thinking about what it would have been like to make the journey without that is an idea I don’t entertain.

When we reach the other side of the Frostbacks, it is like we have been fired out of a slingshot. At the crest, I can see all the way down the peak and at least fifty miles into the distance. For fear of what it might do to Beast, I break that distance into chunks, but still manage to cross in minutes what would have taken days of travel by normal means.

We reach the Arbor Wilds at dusk on day six. When I see its outskirts in the distance, I start shortening first the length, then frequency of our jumps to give Beast a chance to adjust. I will benefit from it too - with less disorientation - but I am not willing to push him as hard as I will push myself.

I managed a moment alone with Harding in the Hinterlands, and she told me the changes that would mark the start of the area - mostly the size, exuberance, and proliferation of green things. What she couldn’t have told me was how the smell would change - age, history, weight, and a sort of stagnant sorrow that almost holds its breath. The area is a massive, lightly slumbering cat with claws that could rend a mountain range. Nor could she tell me to expect the feel of old magic. It is not awake or alert, but slow, soft and vigilant. Woven through with expectation. It is like a place in the earth where two pieces of its surface meet. At any moment, with the slightest shift, it could tremble and screech, reshaping its world.

I pause long enough inside the tree line to do give Beast a rub-down as I do another thorough check of him. He feels jittery, like someone who has had a little too much caffeine or sugar, but his heart is steady, his eyes are alert and attentive - as good in the rapidly thickening darkness as mine - and his scent is mostly calm. It is the best I can ask for.

The temple - or more probably the well - is a hum within the earth. I feel it through the soles of my feet, and following it to its source is effortless. It pulls at something in my chest, and I realize I am achingly sad. No. Almost heartbroken.

I feel the magic in the forest plucking in the air, like tiny, quick pops of light and sound. They pepper it the further in I go, growing faster and closer together until it is like walking through a cloud of thick, popping bubbles or spores.

I feel the first of them in the trees and cannot help but stop. Fen’harel was right: there is no mistaking this one for him or Solas. It is a woman, and she is a universe, full and whole, of her own.

My breath has gone shallow. As if sensing my mood, pulled tight like sinew, Beast waits patiently at my side. There is an ache in my chest, and it is no more or less than the presence of a creature like me - one who wears its soul outside its body. A tremor like a shiver runs over me with the realization of much I have missed this thing I couldn’t have known I was without. The muscles around my knees flex with the desire to turn around, to face her. But I am not close enough to the temple yet.

The popping becomes a crackle that I push to the background by the time the twelfth of them joins his brothers and sisters in the trees. Mythal’s temple is near, but not near enough that they have felt the need to force me away. Perhaps they wouldn’t, I don’t know.

Twelve should be enough. It must be. They whisper to one another in silence, and I kneel slowly to the earth. I sit on my heels, back straight, hands in loose fists on my thighs, calm and looking forward. In a clear voice, I say, “I am here to speak to Abelas. I need his help. In exchange, if it is necessary, I bring news of Mythal.”

The air goes still. The crackling stops, the “voices” of their spirits stop. One drops to the earth on quiet feet behind the tree line and takes off at a run.

I do not have to wait long.

Abelas approaches openly, tall, proud, and seeded, drenched through with the truth of his name like oil saturating a cloth. I rise as he comes into view on the wide, overgrown road.

When he stops not six feet away, my eyes are level with his chest - he is at least as tall as Bull. I tilt my head up to meet his eyes. They are pale, and but for a yellow tint would match his skin perfectly. I can’t help the widening of my own eyes or the parting of my lips. He looks exactly like the elvhen in Fen’harel’s dream cities. Not quite human, certainly not elven, but something more. Power and elegance and connection gifted with a physical form.

“તમે શબ્દ હોય દાવો Mythal,” he says flatly and without introduction. "તમે કોણ છો?”

“I don’t speak elvhen.” For some reason, my voice is no louder than a breath.

His eyes narrow. “You claim to have word of Mythal,” he repeats, less hospitably than before, which is saying something. “Who are you?” he enunciates.

Something in my chest deflates, punctured. “Honestly, I was hoping you could tell me.” He does not react. “My name is Nuaelan. I don’t know more about myself than that. May I have your language?”

“You are elvhen. Why do you not speak it?” He should call himself “Flat and Unamused.”

“I don’t have my memories.” ‘I thought that might have been clear,’ I don’t add, but the thought is dry.

He regards me for what most would call an intolerable amount of time. It does not bother me. Eventually he asks, “Is that why you have the body of a quickling?”

My brows climb my forehead. I open my mouth, but sound won’t come out.

“How do you intend to take my language?”

“A spell.”

Amused disbelief is echoed in the trees all around me. Their numbers have swelled. Abelas gives something between a dryly amused exhale and a sneer. “By all means.” His voice is condescending challenge accompanied by a single, graceful dip of his chin. Him, his people, Solas. . . Fen’harel had not exaggerated when he had said elvhen were graceful.

The magic pulls effortlessly from him to me like a living thing.

“How did you do that?” he asks, and it is some mix of suspicious, incredulous, surly, and warning. Bodies tense in the trees around me, hands tighten around arrows. They are tipped with something, but I do not know the smell.

Rather than answering, I take my time to taste the language. It is water in all its forms, given voice. It is sheer, soft fabric in a breath of gentle wind, birdsong and growing trees, the clarity of air and the possibility of dance, if one could dance after leaving their body behind.

Fen’harel had been right again: I doubt I have ever loved anything more. It is like being set free.

I look up at him, unable to help the warm, fond, familiar smile on my face. Elvhen fits in my mind, and for the first time, I can believe, I can’t help but believe, to know down to my bones, that theirs is a world to which I had belonged. The tongue is mother and child to me.

I change over to his language - my language. “I’m told I’m somehow a pocket of what the world was before the Veil. It doesn’t exist around me. Apparently,” I add with a slight, lopsided shrug.

His eyes travel my form, seeing what can’t be seen, until he can’t deny that it’s just as I say. His words go back to elvhen. “And do you know how this came to be?”

“. . .Nnnno. I don’t.”

“And how you lost your memories?”

“The question of the hour. I’ve been assuming it was whoever gave me this.” I hold my hand up, bare - no need for gloves here, and hiding myself would be disrespectful. I let the magic of the anchor flare to life.

Abelas’ eyes narrow almost imperceptibly. “That is the magic of Fen’harel. Of the Sprits’ Home.”

With a nod, I let the Mark sink and sleep and return my hand to my side. “Stolen from him and imbedded into me, yes.” There is no reply to that. After a pause, I try with some hesitance, “I came here to ask--”

“No. You will tell us what you have to say or you will leave.”

My brows shoot up at the utter and abrupt change in his demeanor. His temperament.

I take a steadying breath, bracing myself for shock from all sides. “Mythal. . . is alive.”

He looks at me flatly. “. . . And?”

“Wait. . . what? You know?”

“Of course we know.” He looks at me like I’m some kind of slow he had never thought to see. “We are sworn to her.”

“W-- I--” I stammer, trying to get back on my proverbial feet. “If you know she’s alive, why are you here?”

“It is our duty to be here. If she wished otherwise, she would tell us as much.”

It’s like he’s trying to educate me on why trees grow toward the sky.

“. . .Alright,” I manage. “Then I should probably tell you that an attack is coming. Your people won’t survive it.”

Abelas scoffs, derides. “Allow me to guess. You offer yourself to preserve the knowledge of the temple before another can take it by force?”

“No!” I practically cry, appalled. It is dangerously hard not to say “Ew.” “I have more than enough information I shouldn’t have already, thank you. And if there is a fitting host for it, I should think it would be found among you. I have no desire to go within a hundred feet of the well or to be so controlled by anyone,” I say emphatically. “But the attack is real, and it won’t be like anything you’ve faced before. You will be wiped out.” ‘Without aid,’ I don’t add. I don’t want to give him a thread to cling go. As if he would need it. “One of the humans who pierced the Veil and brought the Blight will come to drink from it and take use of the Eluvian.”

“You know a good deal for one who claims to have no memories.”

For a moment I’m flummoxed - can’t he see I’m not lying? But I remember Fen’harel telling me there were ways to deceive, even among. . .our people. The very thought jars the reality I have built for myself.

“Memories and knowledge aren’t necessarily the same thing,” I say. “And I did just say I know a lot of things I shouldn’t. This is one drop in an ocean. His name is Sethius, but he goes by Corypheus - ‘The Conductor of Silence.’ He’s a megalomaniac, possibly literally unkillable, and he’s powerful. One of you should drink from the well, or find someone you think worthy before he has a chance to come. Just like his people, he will scour the world for any ancient elvhen power he can claim. I can send Mythal’s daughter, if you prefer. She’s kind of a bitch,” I say bluntly, “but she’d trip over her own feet to have it, and do a decent job of handling it. She was Mythal’s intended next vessel.”

Again, there is no reaction to the news. Again, there is a pause like the crossing of a lake so large the other shore can’t be seen.

“I will consider your words,” he says abruptly. No ‘how can I reach you if I want the daughter?’ Nothing. “What is it you want?” He is impatient, if an elvhen can be, to get me gone.

Again, my brows lift. I thought I could be curt. “There’s one more thing, actually, something I thought you would want to know in case he hasn’t reached out yet. Fen’harel is awake, and he intends to restore the old world. I imagine if that can include Mythal, it will. I’m. . .” I pause, uncomfortable. “You know she isn’t who or what she used to be, right?” I ask gently.

I am met with silence. It is disdain, curiosity, annoyance at my presumption, annoyance that I’m still here and haven’t gotten to the point. I feel elvhen glad for the excuse to wake up. Mostly, I feel the flat call of a duty accepted as eternity, like a dark, still pool of water.

“All I mean is,” I press on, “the way she is now. . . to be frank, she may not care enough about any of you to give you new instructions. Not in the face of chasing her vengeance. I think that’s all she’s alive for anymore.”

Hostility this time.

I hold up my hands peaceably, both in body and in spirit. “I’m not telling you to insult you, or her. On the contrary. I just want you to know your options. You can sacrifice yourselves to protect this place, and I know you would, gladly, but if what you died to prevent happens anyway, which it will, what will have been the point? The Mythal you served in Elvhenan, the one you pledged yourselves to, the one I’m told cared for her people.” The stab of angry resentment I feel saying that does not help my case. “What would she want you to do?”

“We have fought off invaders before.”

“Not like this,” I reply immediately.

Eventually, Abelas asks, “Are you one of his? The wolf?”

I snort quietly and make to answer, but another voice sounds first.

“She was.” It comes from a tree close behind and to my left. Abelas’ eyes lift in an unmoving head toward the sound, and I hear a pair of strong, nimble feet landing on the cover of leaves and ferns, near-silent.

I gasp quietly and whirl around. An elvhen man, tall and lithe as a dancer, with long, fine, straight hair, stands in medium armor, a bow over his torso and a one-handed blade in his fist. It is held ready, but not aggressively. He is regarding me coolly, levelly. He is regarding me with familiarity.

“You knew me?” I breathe. My heart is racing.

“No.”

A crease forms between my brows. “W-- That’s why I came here. That’s the whole reason I came here. I have one memory of elvhenan, but I need to know if it’s genuine or if it was planted in me. I need to know who I am,” I say, naked desperation, pleading, entering my voice by the end. The language makes plain the fact that my motives are larger than myself.

The man looks over my shoulder to Abelas, then back to me when he nods. A gentle breeze blows strands of his gossamer hair. “I am Suledin. I was a member of Mythal’s inner circle before her murder. I was also a scholar of some renown. For that reason, I was summoned to her in great secrecy and great haste one evening, long after the Last War had begun.” He pauses, and his eyes on me are intense in a calm, relaxed face. “She wished my aid in a puzzle that was posed by a creature Fen’harel had brought to her.”

My eyes widen fractionally. I am not so much as breathing. He nods in confirmation, and something explodes through me, wiping everything I am away and leaving nothing more than a means of receiving his information.

“What am I?” I whisper, every tension and question and fear felt over the last weeks poured into the three words.

He looks at me a moment. “An abomination,” he says simply. “You are something that should have never been allowed to exist, the worst possible form of apostasy. I would have destroyed you on the spot had the decision been mine to make.”

For the first time, I feel something other than the wonder that is the other elvhen: the reality of the threat they pose. I may have been built to fight, I may have been made to outpace them, but these are people who have dedicated their lives to battle. I don't remember myself, and there are far more of them than there are me. Beast takes a step closer to my side and absently curls his tail through the space around my legs.

“You are the product of a Forgotten One, Daern’thal, according to Fen’harel. You were created for the sole purpose of destroying the Evanuris.” All things I had heard from Fen'harel myself.

There is anger from the elvhen around me as they shift in the trees, bordering on hostility. There is outrage. From some, there is excitement. Hunger and eagerness. I represent vengeance well out of their grasp.

“And. . . that is why I’m an abomination?”

“No. That was why you were a danger.” I wait until he goes on. “Thousands of spirits and demons were sacrificed - butchered, tortured, and dissected - to create you. To create the myriad failures that preceded you and eventually led to your creation.” Even after all this time, the very idea leaves him furious, disgusted, repulsed.

The breath whooshes out of me with an audible noise almost like a distant and detached moan.

“Daern’thal worked through ages of the world to perfect your creation. Your very nature is volatile, and I don’t care to guess how many failed versions he went through before your. . . ‘success.’ Parts of no fewer than eighty spirits went into your creation, but we never knew exactly how many. I would not be surprised to find out the true number was far greater. He pieced together beings of inherently opposing aspects, somehow forcing them into a cohesive whole. He even tracked down demons to add to your creation.”

The air is thick with the same abject horror I feel. Pieces of myself are falling away from the whole, disappearing from my awareness.

“Every part of you down the smallest was intentionally, purposefully crafted, and then honed and reinforced once you took life. You are not elvhen. You are a trained animal.”

Shards of memory come back to me.

 

Elden talking about my eyes glowing. ‘It was like they couldn’t decide what to be. Gold and white and purple and green, I think some orange, maybe blue.’

How many times has Cole had said some version of ‘You are like me, but not.’

A desire demon. ‘Would you like to know where you come from? Would you like to know what you are? The answer would surprise you.’

 

And from the dreams I’d had after attacking the Breach.

 

Mythal saying ‘Wild magic is always unpredictable.’

 

Memories of my own thoughts, thousands of years past, maybe tens of thousands, come.

 

‘I have a people, but I am not one of them. Even most of the Spirits don’t know what to make of me.’

’Whispered words behind hands and around corners. They do not realize how well I can hear, better even than them. I was made to be better. “Abomination.” “Daughter of monsters.” “Why does he tolerate her?” “Blight.”’

 

Memories of Fen’harel.

 

‘He loathes almost everything about me.’

‘I want someone who doesn’t want what I am, but who I am. And Pride, Pride does not care what I am. Not beyond the disdain he treats me with for it. At least it does not disgust him like it does most others.’

 

A conversation I now understand is Fen’harel talking to Daern’thal.

 

‘I have no wish to participate in your experiments, and you know I abhor receiving one of the People as a gift. They are not things to give.’

‘But they are toys to play with, no?’

‘Not like this.’

 

Suledin goes on, carving deeper the hole I am sucked into, like quicksand that is savoring the process. “You were given anything that might aid you in getting to and destroying the Evanuris. You were stronger and faster than a any normal elvhen. You had more endurance. Your reflexes were unparalleled.” His eyes swept up and down me as he spoke. “Your connection to the Fade was. . . odd. How was nearly undetectable, and the way it was altered was something we did understand.

“You had no personality, not truly. No self. You were an amalgamation of whatever was required of you from moment to moment. You were whoever you were told to be, or whoever you needed to be, to get a job done, to win someone over. . . .” He pauses, then goes on in a quieted, almost thoughtful voice. “For a time, we thought it was you who killed Mythal.”

“But. . .” I shake my head. “No. Evanuris can’t be killed.”

“An unimportant detail, apparently. Murdering any one of the gods would have caused chaos in elvhenan. Mythal was matched in power only by Elgar’nan, and it took her thousands of years to collect enough of herself to find a host. It would have been more than enough time for Daern’thal and his like to move in.

For a long, long time, all I feel is the bodies in the trees around me and my own breath. All I can hear is the distant, sanded thud of the strong heart at my side and the steady, deep rhythm as he breathes. I allow my hands to ball into loose fists. I look back up at Suledin.

“Wh--” My voice wavers, and I clear my throat. “Why were you called? What was the 'puzzle' I presented?”

Something in Suledin’s eyes shifts in a way that has me feeling uneasy. Uneasy the way a goat must feel before a lion jumps onto its back from an outcrop overhead. I do not react. Not my face, not any muscle he can see, and not my ara'lin. It is cool, alert, and placid, eager and aware, just as it has been since I arrived. I understand now, how we could have lied to one other when our emotions were as apparent as our bodies. People are oceans of feeling, fleets of vessels on a sea, and I can reorder them however I like, pull any of them to the fore, push any to the back. I know I am hiding my reaction, I know I am, and yet somehow, Beast seems to feel enough to tense.

“The challenge you posed, to my Lady, was not what you were so much as one uniting strand woven through every broken, misshapen piece of you: the compulsion to obey. To follow unerringly any command given by Daern’thal. No matter the order, you had no choice but to carry it out exactly, perfectly as intended. Apparently you and Fen’harel had been looking for a loophole for some time. There was none to be found. Daern’thal could command you do to and be literally anything.

“It was in everyone’s interests to free you from his will. When it was determined impossible, I was asked to bind you instead to Fen’harel.”

I nearly rocked on my feet at the force of my shock. I shook my head in denial. “Taking away a creature’s free will goes against everything he stands for, everything he believes.”

“It was the better alternative. And your idea. One you argued for passionately.”

“But he agreed?”

Suledin gave me an oddly probing look. “Reluctantly. But yes. Eventually. As I said, it was the better alternative. Neither he nor Mythal wanted to see you put down, and that seemed the only option left.” His regret and disappointment practically seep into my pores. "It did not work."

I lean into Beast’s side. The physical reality of him is grounding. His heat through the thin fabric of my shirt, the expansion and retraction of his side with every breath. He turns his head in toward me, half hiding me from sight, his eyes on Suledin and Abelas.

My world narrows to the questions I want to ask. Remembering them. Holding them. Making them leave my throat.

“Why do I look so young? If I am who you say I am, I’m not young.”

This, at least, seems like a weightless answer to give. “You are not in your correct body. But it, too, was made to appear youthful. In our time, it - youth - was a fleeting thing. One who could maintain its appearance,” of me specifically he lingered on, ‘in face, not in body,’ “was considered. . . exotic. Appealing. Two things the evanuris prized.

“Everything about you was made to draw them in. For Ghilan’nain you were given the gift of skill with beasts.” I saw a massive, wide, bright yellow head watching from a cliff as her drakes shoved and tested me. “For Andruil, ferocity and prowess in battle. The instincts of a born killer, of a hunter. For our Lady Mythal, a strong sense of justice and right and wrong. None of us knew the extent of your abilities.

“Fen’harel’s motives could often seem inscrutable, but the greatest mystery was his adoption of you. We valued spirits more, in many ways, than our own people. Some more than others. None more than Fen’harel. What he must have seen every time he looked at you. . . .” His voice trails off and again his eyes sweep me.

Leandra. I am the horror of what was left of Leandra after the Butcher finished with her, but a hundred times over. A thousand.

Something painful in my chest contracts so fiercely I can feel it all the way up into my jaw. I swallow thickly. The air has turned to stone. Every eye, every life hanging freely in the air, is damning, and for an instant, I think I almost remember how it felt to exist back then. Hated. Derided. Loathed by literally everyone. Even Fen’harel. The only exception was the man who had created me with the thought that I was not, and was never, intended to be a person.

“When your design was perfected,” Suledin said, and he sounded almost musing, “you were sent to Fen’harel. The hope, we assumed, was that he would provide you with the access you needed to begin your. . . work.”

My eyes fall from his face and go far, far distant. I want nothing more than to turn into Beast and rest my forehead against his side. Instead, I ask in a voice that sounds almost unaffected, “Where is my body?”

He cants his head in confusion, and I return my eyes to his face.

“You said I wasn’t in my correct body. So where is it? And what is this?” I ask, gesturing to myself.

For a moment, he wears something that resembles amusement. “You misunderstand. You look the way you do because you wish it. When you desire to return to your proper form, you will.”

I narrow my eyes as my brows pinch together. “How?”

He chuckles now, and it is amused, but also a little incredulous, as if I’m a small child asking why mum and dad smoosh their faces together sometimes. “You are, as you say, what our world used to be. What it should be still. Will it.”

The presences around me turn expectant and interested. I cast a wary glance at Suledin, then Abelas - only to find he has departed without my notice - and close my eyes, counting on my own instincts and Beast to watch all of them. Gratitude at my “luck” in being forced to bring him swells again in me.

The concept seems simple enough. It is literally what elvhen could do in their time, right? Will things into being. So I imagine myself larger, different like they are. I imagine finer, more handsome, almost alien features. Grace and strength. Power. A strange right to exist in this or any world. A rightness, a connection no one else could understand. I wish myself into that form, that state. And I feel a change. It is instant, but I feel different.

I open my eyes and find Beast several feet lower than I am used to. Instead of the massive draft horse that must be part dinosaur, he is more the size of the other mounts I am used to. I am the size of a qunari, maybe more. I cannot help the incredulity on my face as I turn back to Suledin, who is now perhaps no more than two inches taller than me - and he is the tallest here.

Despite himself, he smiles. “Better,” he says.

I look at him, wary. I feel the inevitable crescendo of this meeting welling, but I won’t hurry my way to it. I won’t risk losing this chance.

“Thank you,” I allow quietly. His spirit acknowledges the words, and I take a breath, glancing down at one of my hands as I flex it experimentally. I can’t help it. It is as different from the one I have become used to as a puissant, perfected vine or flower is from scrub brush, cascading around an ancient tree, feet rooted in the heart of the world.

“Fen’harel and I. We were. . . friends?”

“Yes.”

Relief like mercury and arctic water flushes through me and I close my eyes against the feeling. I don’t have to ask if he and Fen’harel were close; there is no trace of him in Suledin’s spirit.

“It was my understanding you did not begin that way. But after the war began in earnest, that seemed to change. It was why he took you to Mythal for help. He did not wish you sacrificed.”

I nod absently let my gaze turn searching, cast down and away. “What did Daern’thal look like?”

“Whatever he wished. The Forgotten Ones did not limit themselves to single forms. All elvhen, eventually, could change their shape, but had the courtesy to keep it to a few around others. None but the Evanuris were permitted to magically alter their bodies, just as certain forms were forbidden to all but the gods.”

Helpful. “Can you think of any reason large numbers of demons would hunt me in the Fade? They seem to want to subdue, not kill.”

His ara’lin contracts like the eye of a cat in full light, and he gives me a look I cannot read. It is a disconcerting sensation. He looks down, thoughtful, and eventually replies, “No.”

I sigh quietly. He, they, are patient as I cast around for anything else he may possibly know. There is nothing. So as my ara’lin begs him, soberly, to consider my warning about the well, I open myself and let in the final act.

“You want to hurt me,” I say calmly.

He smiles fractionally. “I wouldn’t put it that way.”

My expression does not change. “Let me clarify: it is your belief that I should not exist, and you wish to rectify that.”

His smile broadens. It is echoed in the trees, and I know I am missing a joke. “I do. But there is no point. Not now.

‘?’

“The world is dead, da’lan. What is there that is left to save from you?”

A chill ices over my bones, but I do not let it show. My attention on every one of them, I ask, “So you see