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The Half-Life of Element Zero

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Chapter thirty-two

Helen had learned long ago to keep a certain distance between herself and death. Any profession that saw much of death required it. Cops, doctors, soldiers—none of them could afford to fall apart at the sight of dead bodies.

Helen had always coped by using categories or labels. “Return to next-of-kin.” “Throw out with the trash.” “Evidence.” Now she had a new, far more horrid, category for the dead.

“Shock troops.”

At least Scout Harding had warned them about the undead. It gave Helen just enough time to adjust that she did not completely freak out when the first few corpses—putrid, slimy, and reeking of bad meat—staggered towards them, weapons in hand.

Corpses felt no pain, or fear, or remorse. They only stopped attacking when the body itself had been utterly destroyed.

Helen struggled not to vomit. The bodies had been pickling in a peat bog long enough to discolor the skin and lose some mass, but not long enough to be fully preserved.

After they defeated the corpses, Helen pointed at the chunks of flesh and bone that lay scattered around them. “How does a dead body do this?” she demanded.

Solas kicked into lecture mode. "In places where the Veil is thin, spirits press through, hoping to experience life in the waking world. They possess the newly dead and the dying, shackling them to the wrong side of the Veil. Most will go insane, and animate the corpse to kill any life form they encounter."

“He means demons,” Bull said shortly, glaring at Solas.

"The dead and the dying, do they know they are being possessed?" Helen asked as she scanned the remains of the bodies. "Are their souls trapped inside their bodies with the spirit?"

Solas had to think about it for a moment before deciding that no, likely not.

It was an awful day. A storm system had parked itself over the southern marshlands, keeping the area in a perpetual state of gloom.

If they disturbed the water, corpses attacked. If they searched an abandoned cottage, corpses attacked. If they just walked down the crappy roads, corpses attacked. Helen scanned what remains when she could, telling the VI to sequence DNA whenever possible.

They found a beacon, just off of the main road. Helen assumed it was nothing more than a local landmark but of course, Solas lit the Veilfire sconce without bothering to tell anybody he planned to do it. And of course, that triggered an attack of corpses led by a terror demon.

“Goddammit, Solas!” she yelled, as she hastily raised a barrier over everybody. It was a long, exhausting fight. The terror demon seemed especially keen on Helen, knocking her off her feet a few times.

When it was over, Helen strode over to Solas and wordlessly glared up at him. She must have looked a fright because his eyes slightly widened when he saw her.

“Apologies, everybody, I did not anticipate that response,” he said hastily. Then he looked around. “On the other hand, lighting the beacon does seem to have cleared the area of corpses. If there are other beacons like this, it might make travel easier.”

Warn us first next time," Helen hissed before storming off. Solas lingered a moment to look at a rune with the Veilfire before joining them.

They trudged through undead-infested swampland for several more hours. Wraiths tended to pop into existence and harass them. Ordinarily, she would have asked Solas why they did, but today, Helen couldn’t give a shit. She just wanted to rescue the Inquisition soldiers and get the fuck out of Dodge.

They found another beacon. Solas did give warning before lighting the Veilfire torch. It resulted in a shorter, more manageable fight.

When it was over, Solas asked Helen to hold the Veilfire torch and look at the rune. Did she hear anything? Did she feel anything? Did she want to scan it at all?

No. She didn't.

Solas looked a little disappointed, and said, “This is a unique opportunity to learn something new about the Veil.”

It took all of her willpower not to throw the torch at his shiny little head. What the hell was wrong with him? Had he forgotten that they were on a rescue mission? Did he not notice the swamp of horrors that surrounded them? Did it never occur to him that some moments were not appropriate for his stupid little lectures about the stupid fucking Fade?

When they found a reasonably dry alcove, Helen called a halt for the night. Sera tossed her bedroll into Bull's tent, which made Solas frown at Helen as if she'd decided for them.

Helen was too tired and sad to argue over sleeping arrangements. Besides, she could hardly fault Sera for preferring the company of the fun guy with the booze.

Bull and Sera made horrible jokes about the dead over supper, but Helen was grateful for the gallows humor. It kept her distracted enough to distance herself a bit from the surrounding horror. It also made it easier to ignore Solas.

Helen gave Solas the first watch and herself the last. It meant she would not have to interact with him again until morning. She slipped into their tent and got ready for bed.

**

After the others had gone to bed, Solas set his wards and watched a few corpses shamble in the distance. None of them came near the camp, so he left them alone.

Helen was annoyed with him. Yes, lighting the Veilfire sconce without warning the others had been shortsighted on his behalf. Still, such items fascinated him. What else had modern mages learned to do with the Veil?

Moreover, he had wanted to see what the runes looked like under Helen's omnitool. Observing his own healing magic the night before had been a revelation. It had never occurred to him that a non-mage could see it as well, much less one who would see it from a scholar's perspective.

Her unwillingness to scan the rune disappointed him. Helen was usually so curious about these things, but she had been in an unreasonably foul mood the entire day.

And now they were sharing a tent again. Being in such proximity with Helen had become, well, problematic.

Sera had once called Helen "plain." In many ways, Sera was right. Helen's mouth was too wide for her face, her nose a little too big. Her figure was not voluptuous, her manner inelegant. And her ears...they might be normal for a human, but their shape continuously took him by surprise, as if they'd been deformed.

Yet the thought of running his thumb across that wide mouth of hers made his heart race.

Maybe he should have taken Maisie up on her offer. They were headed to Redcliffe soon. Perhaps he could visit the alienage there, and find a temporary companion to help him take the edge off.

Helen, at least, had not noticed his attraction to her, for which he was grateful. For if she were to see, if she did reciprocate his feelings...

No. He would not, he could not, be that selfish. Not to Helen, not to the People.

When his watch was over, he woke Sera, warned her about the corpses, and went into his tent.

Helen lay on her side, curled up in a tight, twitching little ball. Her biotics flickered around her hands.

Solas watched her with concern as he undressed. When she started muttering in her own language, he knelt next to her. “Helen,” he said softly as he lightly touched her shoulder.

She awoke instantly, sitting up as she looked around with terrified eyes. A moment later, she let out a relieved sigh. "Solas," she whispered.

“Your biotics were flaring,” he explained.

Her brow wrinkled with worry. “I didn't do any damage, did I?”

“No. Everything is fine.”

She lay back down. “Thank you for waking me.”

Solas settled into his bedroll. They lay on their sides facing each other. “It must have been a very intense nightmare.”

She nodded. “Geth and demons, husks and corpses, the undead all crying out to me in my parents' voices.”

Her parents. No wonder she had asked if the person's soul had remained in the body after death. Her terrible mood suddenly made sense. Solas had seen the corpses. Helen had seen the people they had once been.

He reached over and squeezed her hand. She squeezed it back, before letting it go and tucking it under her cheek. “Thank you for waking me,” she said, with a yawn. “Good night, Solas.” Moments later, she was asleep again.

Solas rolled over onto his other side, his back to Helen, lest he be tempted to stare at her for too long. After several minutes of recrimination, he finally allowed himself to fall asleep.

**

The following morning, the ground team stood underneath a small rift as Helen spoke with an Avaar barbarian about the status of the Inquisition's soldiers. Apparently, the chieftain's son was trying to make a name for himself.

Chapter 32 Helen is really super short

“Damn, she's short,” Bull muttered to him. “I mean, I knew that already, but still.”

“Truly, your observational skills are a wonder to behold,” Solas replied.

The barbarian explained a bit of his religion to Helen. Solas had not studied much of the Avaar faith, but it was not based on Chantry teachings at all.

“Interesting how widely Fereldan beliefs diverge,” Solas remarked.

The Avaar bristled at that. “Call me Fereldan again, elf, and see how far you get!”

“Yeah, elf,” Bull snickered under his breath. “Have a little respect for the locals.”

Solas barely had time to glare at Bull before Helen called out battle positions. She opened the rift. The demons poured out. Helen's barriers were strong, and the fight was short.

When it was over, the barbarian looked at Helen. “You can heal the Lady of the Skies,” he said, wonder in his voice.

"It isn't me," she said. "It's the mark. What is your name?'

“Amund, Watcher of the Sky.”

“Well fought, Amund, Watcher of the Sky. I appreciate your help.”

“Watch the water, Herald of Andraste.”

They continued, running into more corpses and wraiths. They found another beacon, which Solas lit. And this time, when the battle was over, Helen scanned the rune with the omnitool as Solas illuminated it with the Veilfire.

“Oh!” she said, sounding surprised. “Would you mind lowering the torch for a moment?”

Solas did. Helen tapped on her omnitool and pointed a cone of soft, dark-purple light at the rune. The Veilfire writing was suddenly visible to them all.

“Can you see the light that I am pointing at this?” she asked.

“Barely,” Bull said. Solas had not realized the Qunari had been paying such close attention. Sera, of course, was rummaging through the abandoned crates and sacks for anything of value.

“It is faint but visible,” Solas agreed. “Why do you ask?”

“Just trying to get an idea of what elves and Qunari can physically see.” She tapped the omnitool off.

Solas held up the Veilfire torch again. “And when it was illuminated by the Veilfire, did you feel or hear anything? Any emotional resonance?”

“No.”

“None?” Solas asked.

“None.”

“Must be nice,” Bull said, grumpily. “Can we go now?”

They continued on their way, and Helen felt the presence of another rift. She followed the pull of the mark into a circular clearing with an altar on a small hilltop.

The magic here felt stronger and far more sinister than other rifts they had encountered. The rift spewed forth despair demons. A few corpses rose from where they lay on the ground. Once they were defeated, the emotional intensity only became stronger.

Solas felt the Revenant just before it emerged. An enormous corpse possessed and deformed by a powerful Pride demon, this Remnant brought two Despair demons in its wake. It turned its sightless gaze onto Solas. "You should not have come here, cousin," it growled, its voice barely recognizable as it tried to speak with rotting vocal cords.

It pulled out its sword with one hand and stalked towards him. Then it noticed Helen. Helen had just placed a barrier over Bull and Sera, who were being harassed by both Despair demons, but leaving herself vulnerable.

And the Revenant laughed.

Before Solas could do more than cry out a warning, the Revenant created a giant, magic fist, and yanked Helen halfway across the battlefield, right into its massive chest. “I have your pet, cousin!” it roared.

Then it backhanded Helen so hard that it lifted her off her feet and sent her flying several feet away.

Solas cried out in fury as one of the Despair demons surrounded his path in ice, preventing him from getting to Helen. “You always fail,” it hissed at him. “She'll die because of you. They all die because of you.”

He lit the Despair demon on fire. It screeched as it turned to ash.

Chapter 32 Helen ducks under a swing

Solas frantically turned towards Helen just in time to see her duck under the Revenant's swing, using her small size to her advantage. One side of her face was covered entirely in blood, and her jaw was hanging the wrong way, but Helen was still fighting furiously. She rolled behind the Revenant and Warped its armor.

“Herald!” Solas yelled. “Your barrier!”

As soon as her barrier was up, Solas poured fire onto the Revenant, the flames bouncing harmlessly off of Helen's barrier. Her Shockwave knocked the Revenant to its knees. One more Warp and the Revenant's spirit disintegrated into the rift.

Sera and Bull still fought the last Despair demon. Solas' fireball ended the battle in a moment, and Helen closed the rift. Solas Fade-Stepped to her side before she had even finished, utterly horrified at her ruined face.

As soon as the rift closed, Helen's knees buckled. He caught her and lowered them both to the ground.

The Revenant had pulverized the entire right side of her face, eyeball to jawline. Part of her earlobe was missing. A scan with his magic revealed a broken jaw, torn muscles and ligaments in her neck, and a herniated disc.

“Hold still,” he ordered. Then he called for Bull, who was already running over with Sera.

“Here, take her,” he said to Bull.

Bull took her gently into his arms, then looked at Solas, concern on his face. “Can you fix this?” he asked.

“Yes, but I will need both of my hands.”

He looked at Helen. "I am sorry, my friend, but this will be painful." Even before the Veil, this would have been a terrible injury. Now, with so much of his magic locked away, he could not afford to spare even a fraction of it for pain relief.

He first healed the muscles, tendons, and disc in her neck. He reconstructed her jaw. Then did he knit her flesh and skin back together, taking extra care that she would not be left with a scar.

Solas felt drained when it was over. Sera, of all people, wordlessly handed him a restoration potion. He wondered again if he should use lyrium, like the modern mages. This was, perhaps, one of the few times he would have been willing to do so.

Helen slowly sat up and gingerly felt her face. The blood on her armor and in her hair was still damp, but her skin was clean and unbroken.

Nuvas ema ir’enastela, Solas. I am sorry to have caused you so much trouble.” She pointed to where the Revenant had fallen. “What was that thing?”

“A Revenant,” Solas said. “It is a dead body possessed by a powerful demon of desire or pride.”

That's a Revenant?" She sounded surprised. "I read about them in one of the books Commander Rutherford gave me. Its description lacked some important details."

They continued on their way, coming across a nearly hidden camp with an insane mage who attacked them on sight. Putting her down did not take long.

The camp also contained one of Solas' old Veil artifacts. Helen scanned the object, activated it, then scanned it again.

Solas had not personally installed every single artifact that he had made and used to create the Veil. He had, however, dictated where all of them would go. He had placed far fewer in what had then been uninhabited areas because fewer were needed.

What was now the Fallow Mire had been such a place. The statues, the monoliths, the humans—none had been here when he'd raised the Veil.

After making their way through more corpses, some hostile Avaar, and the final beacon, the ground team finally reached the Keep. A squadron of corpses guarded the front gate.

Helen looked at Bull with a grin. “You ready?”

“Are you serious?” Bull looked utterly delighted. “Oh shit, yeah!”

It wasn't until Sera started giggling that Solas realized that Helen was going to allow Bull to throw her into combat.

“You cannot be serious!” he hissed at her. “May I remind you, I just repaired your jaw. Which had been splintered open!”

She looked at him, her newly-healed face entirely too innocent. “And I appreciate it, my friend. If it helps, I promise I will not stop a Revenant's fist with my face.”

“No! It does not help!”

Nobody listened. Solas had to stand there and watch a Ben-Hassrath spy throw the Herald of Andraste into a squadron of undead.

Chapter 32 Helen lands in corpses

Corpses flew out to the sides. Some struggled to get back up, but most of them stayed down. Helen swept up the others in a Singularity. Solas and Sera followed in her wake. Bull mowed through bodies. Sera cackled like a madwoman as she shot arrows. Solas immolated whatever he could. 

The Avaar that faced them inside the Keep were no match. It took little effort to reach to the giant barbarian who held the Inquisition's soldiers.

“Herald of Andraste! Face me!” he yelled, clearly beginning a monologue. “I am the Hand of Korth!”

“Shut it, puppy!” Helen yelled back, as she hitched a thumb over her shoulder. “We've just killed everything in this swamp! You're all that's left! Surrender and live, or fight me and die!”

The Hand of Korth threw his head back and shouted out a war cry.

“Oh, I am so over this,” Helen muttered, as she flicked a Singularity behind the barbarian's back where his archers stood.

It swept all three archers into the vortex. They reacted predictably.

The Fool of Korth turned around to see what all the fuss was about. Helen Warped his armor just as Sera threw a jar of bees onto him. His piercing shriek was far louder than his war cry had been only moments before.

“He sounds like you,” Sera said to Helen, as she shot arrows into the still-floating archers, “when you see a spider!”

Solas sent arcs of lightning into any approaching enemies, as Bull engaged the sword-and-shield Avaar who advanced towards them.

The Fool of Korth tripped over his own two feet and fell down the staircase where he had hoped to make his dramatic entrance. Bull ended his life. The remaining Avaar quickly followed him into death.

“I don't want to sound like a bad person,” Helen said, “but that man may have been too stupid to live.”

They located the missing Inquisition soldiers. They were shaken and had minor injuries, but alive. Solas tended to the injured, while Sera and Bull searched the place for anything unusual. The soldiers were genuinely impressed that the Herald had come for them.

When Solas finished healing the soldiers, he found that giant Avaar, the Skywatcher, pledging his loyalty to Helen.

Bull walked up behind Solas. “You know, for a gal who insists she's not the Herald of Andraste,” he said quietly, “she's getting herself quite the following.”

“And I am certain your superiors will tell you exactly how to feel about it once you make your little report.”

"You don't always have to be a dick, you know. I don't have anything against her, personally. I like her. She's a little too serious for my taste, but she's damn good in a fight. But you and I both know that when a new group of humans comes into power, everybody else eventually suffers. It's bad for your people, and it's bad for my people."

Solas opened his mouth to fully engage this Qunari bastard about his people, but Helen interrupted them. “Bicker later, you two,” she said as she started back towards the forward gates. “We're leaving this pisshole right now.”