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The Half-Life of Element Zero

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Chapter 1 escape pod

 

Chapter one

 

Looking back, Helen realized that the first warning sign had appeared on the third date.

The first two dates had been fine. More than fine. Clinton was funny, charming, and easy on the eyes. He was a great storyteller. He owned a software company that wrote tech programs for omnitools.

That was how they'd met. Helen was part of the first wave of L3 biotics in the Alliance. After she'd paid her dues with several tours of duty, Helen had been transferred to Vancouver to research biotic wetware. Clinton's company had been hired to adapt omnitool programs for biotic soldiers. Helen had been part of a test group of Marines to put the new programs through their paces.

Helen was not used to attention from men, especially not men with black hair, olive-green eyes, dimples and perfect teeth.

She’d had few relationships. She was very short, with pale skin and an unremarkable figure. Her mouth was too wide for her face. She'd gone prematurely gray in high school, not long after her biotics came in. Her eyes were a muddy, slate color. She was no great beauty.

Or so she'd been told by the few boyfriends she'd had. Granted, that conversation tended to happen after they'd seen her biotics in action, but she saw herself in the mirror every day. She saw no reason to disbelieve them.

So when Clinton asked her out, of course, she'd said yes.

And on that third date, they spoke about his previous relationship. He told her it had ended because his girlfriend cheated on him. “I'm a big believer in full disclosure,” he said. “It takes a lot to earn my trust. It can take even more to keep it.”

Helen reached across the table for his hand. She wasn't exactly sure what he meant but oh, how she wanted him to trust her.

Clinton looked at their clasped hands. Then, without lifting his head at all, he raised his eyes to hers, so that he was looking at her from underneath his long, dark eyelashes and goodness, it had made her heart flutter.

“I want to trust you, Helen. Can I?” he pleaded. “Can I trust you?”

“Of course you can,” Helen breathed. “Whatever it takes.” And Lord help her, she meant it.

He kissed for the first time that night. And if he wasn't as good a kisser as she'd hoped, it hardly mattered when he looked as good as he did.

They had sex after the sixth date. They were fooling around on his sofa. Things were getting pretty hot when Clinton reached into his pocket and pulled out a condom.

“Oh,” Helen said, surprised. “I, um, wasn't planning to do that quite yet.”

Clinton's face turned hard. He scowled down at her. “Are...are you fucking serious? What is this, some kind of cock-tease, power play bullshit?”

Helen propped herself up on her elbows. “What?” she said, deeply confused by his reaction. “No, I'm just not sure I'm ready. I mean, I want to eventually, but we haven't—”

“No, you're just like all the others,” he pushed himself off of her. “You said I could trust you, but you didn't mean it.”

Helen found the next thirty minutes very, very confusing. Clinton made all kinds of outrageous accusations against her. She was trying to manipulate him. She was trying to control him. She wanted to fuck other guys. She was fucking other guys.

She spent the argument mostly reeling from one accusation to the next. None of her denials seemed to matter. And mostly, none of his anger made any sense to her.

But when he called her a whore, she'd had enough. “Yeah. We're done,” she said.

Clinton panicked as she'd headed towards the front door. “Oh my god, Helen, oh my god, I'm so sorry. Please, don't leave. Please!!

He begged her to stay. Begged. He even wept, as he tearfully explained that he was so sorry, that he didn't mean to lose his temper like that, but he'd just fallen so in love with her, and she was so beautiful, and he couldn't handle the idea of her leaving him, because he really, really loved her and he did trust her, really, and just, she was his everything. And on and on.

Helen got so swept up in it all. Nobody had ever told her they'd loved her before, not romantically, anyway. No man had ever wept over her or begged her to stay. Making up with Clinton, and having sex just...kind of happened.

As the relationship progressed, more warning signs appeared. First, he pressured her to move in with him.

“I can't, Clinton. You know I have to live on base. It's required.”

“If this were something you really wanted, you'd at least be willing to ask for an exception.”

“There aren't any exceptions.”

“But you haven't even asked,” he said. And it went on like that for weeks.

Then, just when she thought that issue was resolved, she started missing messages and communications from her family. Her parents lived on Eden Prime, and she spoke to them at least a couple of times every week, and often more. When a few weeks had gone by without hearing from them, she called.

Nearly the first words out of her mother's mouth were, “Sweetie, why haven't you called? Is everything alright?”

"What do you mean?” Helen asked. “I hadn't heard from you in a couple of weeks, so I was calling you.”

It didn't take long to realize that the reason none of her parent's calls had gotten through was that their ID had been blocked and that the increasingly frantic messages they had been leaving were getting automatically deleted.

Helen had recently updated the security software on her omnitool, so she wrote it off as her not paying attention to her settings. Granted, that was unusual for her. Helen may have been an adept by training, but she researched wetware in no small part because of her intuitive grasp of tech. Still, it just seemed like a coincidence. She changed the settings and forgot about it.

Then Clinton slowly but surely turned their dates into interrogations. How had she spent her day? Who was she spending it with? Why hadn't she called him back right away?

A lot of what she did was classified, which Clinton well knew. But even if she'd worked as a cashier in a convenience store, she would have pushed back on this. She'd grown up on a farm, she busted her ass every day, and her job was her own damn business.

Much like the argument over living together, Clinton took far too long to accept the truth.

“How do I know you're aren't fucking around on me?” he demanded one night after he'd ruined yet another date by picking a fight as soon as they got back to his apartment.

“You don't, Clinton,” she said. “It's called trust. And I'm tired of trying to prove a negative.”

She left that night and didn't talk to him for a week. She thought about how toxic things had become, how controlling he was getting. She thought of all of the arguments and ruined evenings.

Then he called and apologized. “I appreciate that Clinton, I do,” she said. “But I think it's best we call things off.”

Clinton had sobbed, begged, and badgered. Please, no she couldn't leave him. He could change his behavior. If she could just talk to him one more time, so that he could clear the air, that's all he would ask. If, after that, she still wanted to end things, he'd leave her alone forever. Promise.

Against her better judgment, she met him for dinner.

He had gone out of his way to give her the full-charm offensive, taking extra care with his appearance, and being so careful with his tone. He spent half the night looking up at her through his eyelashes like she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

It had nearly worked, too, damn him and his pretty green eyes. She was considering that maybe she should give them another chance when Clinton let slip something that he should have never known.

Two days earlier, Lieutenant Katarina Kowalsky, an L2 biotic in Helen's research unit, had had a seizure. She and Helen had been training with the new software when it happened. Helen had written up the incident report, and sent it to their CO and the infirmary. Nothing earth shattering but highly classified, as was nearly everything having to do with the health of the L2s.

At dinner, Clinton was talking about the issues with designing tech for biotics intended to be placed inside the human body, and how the presence of biotics changed every equation, and how biotic abilities were still so poorly understood. It had been a lovely conversation because one thing she and Clinton had always done well together was talk shop.

Then he said, his voice overflowing with concern, “I'd hate to see you drop to the floor during a routine training exercise, and start foaming at the mouth.”

Helen's opening sentence in that highly classified incident report she’d filed, just the day before? It had ended with,  “...during a routine training exercise, Lieutenant Kowalsky dropped to the floor and began foaming at the mouth.”

Something finally clicked into place. Helen sat quietly through the rest of dinner. When Clinton left to go to the bathroom, she walked out of the restaurant, hailed a cab and headed back to base.

Clinton called her before she'd even made it to the end of the block. She blocked his calls. They got through anyway.

She showed Clinton's picture to gate security, explaining that he was a huge security threat. Then she found her CO and told him everything she knew and everything she suspected.

The fallout was quiet but brutal. Every biotic on the base had omnitools with Clinton's programs on them. Those all had to be confiscated, scrubbed and, in some cases, destroyed. Worse, the Alliance found hundreds of subroutines infecting the systems on the base that had been in place almost since they'd hired Clinton's firm. He could have, at any time, shut the base down, had he been so inclined. And they could only guess at how much classified information he had downloaded and saved for himself.

For better or for worse, though, his primary obsession seemed to be focused on Helen, and nobody else.

He'd gone through her emails. He'd listened to her calls. He'd installed spyware on her omnitool, including a program that had turned it into a passive camera, that he'd turned on at his leisure to spy on her.

Clinton cottoned on to the fact that Helen had turned him in, and vanished.

Helen found herself targeted for an official (but classified) inquiry of wrongdoing. The Alliance placed her under barracks restrictions for several weeks while they completed their investigation. Her only outside communication was with her parents on Eden Prime, whose home and farm was thoroughly searched by the Alliance. Even then, any call was recorded and analyzed.

During the investigation, Helen had to answer questions about every little argument, discussion, or off-hand comment she'd ever had with Clinton, including things said during their more intimate moments. (Yes, the term “get you off” was sexual in nature. No, it did not refer to being acquitted of any potential criminal charges. Yes, those were her “real” breasts. Yes, really .)

It was mortifying and invasive, and Helen came out of it feeling violated on a molecular level. She found herself repeating a mantra from her early days in the Alliance. “Don't cry. Don't bitch. Don't blame.” It was the only thing that kept her from falling apart in front of everybody else.

The day Helen was officially cleared of wrongdoing, she was told that her promotion from Lieutenant Commander to Commander was being placed on indefinite hold and that she had been transferred to the Terminus Systems, effective immediately. She would now help the Alliance chase slavers and Batarian smugglers, which were usually the same thing.

Helen kissed her cushy R&D job goodbye and went back to combat for the first time in five years.

It wasn't too awful, she told herself, at least until she could find something else. She had no great love of combat, but she was good at it. And the hazard pay would be nice. She would make a go of it.

That sort of tenacious “can do” attitude lasted right up until her first shore leave, on Omega. Clinton showed up and caused a scene while she was having drinks with her squad.

“How the hell did you find me?” she demanded.

"Oh, you're never getting rid of me,” he said, with a malicious grin.

She tried to have him arrested—he was wanted by the Alliance, after all—but the Batarian security guard who answered her call shrugged and said, “This ain't Council space, sweetie. You got no jurisdiction here. You wanna bring him in? Hire a bounty hunter. Better yet, get registered as a bounty hunter, and do it yourself. More fun that way.”

Her CO was sympathetic but unable to do anything, either.

Clinton did everything within his power to hound, harass, threaten and terrorize Helen. He hacked her Alliance email. He hacked her private email. He sent threats, demands, and rants about how she was destined to be with him, about how much he loved her, about how much he wanted to kill her. He hacked into all of her accounts. He showed up on most shore leaves not in Council space.

Helen tried all kinds of ways to hide. She died her hair black to make her less noticeable in a crowd. She changed her passwords every single day. Her bank account was hacked so often that the Alliance finally set up a dummy account with a banker in Vancouver, who dispersed her funds for her.

Her friends, family, and colleagues were harassed, too. Some of them received emails or voicemails from Clinton, vowing that nothing would keep him and Helen apart.

Then Saren and his Geth attacked Eden Prime and killed her parents. It was worse than murder. Her parents had been husked, a new and unwelcome term to add to her vocabulary. She saw the security vids from the planet's surface. For the first time in years, and for weeks on end, Helen sobbed herself to sleep at night.

After she returned from bereavement leave, the Alliance did an about-face on her promotion. She made Commander and was offered her old job back on Earth.

She declined. She was way too angry to sit at a desk anymore.

Tours of duty came and went. Commander Shepard killed Saren and his Geth. Shepard said, out loud and on camera, that Saren had been the puppet of that giant dropship, which was a sentient being. Just as the story started gaining traction, Shepard was killed. Any talk that Shepard was Brilliant but Mad was replaced with talk that Shepard was Heroic and Dead.

On the two year anniversary of her parents' death, Helen traveled to the Citadel for a memorial service for the victims of Eden Prime. The speeches were mostly about Nihlus Kryik. The Asari announcer mispronounced her parents' names.

And, because the universe hated her, Clinton announced his return to Council Space by grabbing her arm, and saying in a low voice, “Guess you'll have to talk to me here, won't you, Commander?”

Unfortunately for Clinton, the years of near-constant combat, his own terrorizing of her life, and the emotional toll of the memorial shredded any sense of restraint Helen might have once shown. She Warped his armor, then proceeded to punch his face bloody until C-Sec pulled her away.

They were both arrested. Clinton escaped from custody within a couple of days.

The Alliance was sympathetic and explained her situation to C-Sec. They never pressed any charges against her. Still, she was officially a problem and an embarrassment. She took a General Discharge, Under Honorable Conditions.

Her old CO from Vancouver, who had a crazy ex of his own, pointed her in the direction of the Andromeda Initiative. “They'll stuff a new implant in your head. It's dangerous as shit. You might not survive. You'll never see the Milky Way again,” he wrote, “but it puts an entire galaxy between you and that fuckin' nutjob.”

Helen thought about it for less than a minute. “I'm in.” she wrote back. “Just tell me where to sign up.”

 

* * * *

635 years later

Everybody on the Nexus knew about Christian's devotion to his wife.

Christian Parker was a nice young man who worked so hard to keep the Nexus up and running. He never left, not even during the uprising, because he was faithfully waiting for his wife, Helen.

Helen was with 20,000 of her fellow, frozen passengers, a year behind on the Ark Hyperion. To hear Christian tell it, Helen was perfect. Beautiful, jet black hair, creamy skin, and slate-colored eyes. Smart, funny, popular—Helen was everything he had ever wanted in a woman.

He showed her picture to everybody. He talked about how they first met; their first date; where they got married; and what they planned to name their children.

“I miss her,” he would say, with tears in his eyes. “I miss her so much .”

In reality, Helen had never heard of Christian, but she was all too familiar with her ex, Clinton. And as far as Clinton was concerned, Helen had some reckoning to do.

She’d led him on and on for months about how he could trust her. Months. Then the traitorous bitch had turned him over the Alliance. More unforgivably, she'd dumped him.

He'd sent her literally thousands of messages. She hadn't even had the courtesy to read them!

Did she have any idea how difficult she had made his life? She didn't know about the frantic extra-net searches every single time she moved. Did she even care about how rude her parents and friends had been to him when he'd call? All he'd wanted to know was where Helen was.

She didn't even know about how he'd had to uproot his life on Earth! Or how he’d spent hundreds of hours and thousands of stolen creds having to evade the law because of her.

And he still hadn't forgiven her for how she'd treated him on the Citadel.

He'd tried to catch her eye during the memorial, but she rudely ignored him, like always. It was an incredibly bitchy thing to do, after risking his freedom by traveling all the way to the Citadel. And instead of apologizing, Helen had beaten him to within an inch of his life.

Escaping C-Sec had been child's play. He'd hacked into her email and read about her joining the Initiative.

Unfortunately for Clinton, the Andromeda Initiative screened all applicants with psych profiles and extensive background checks. It took some doing, and a lot of stolen creds, but he eventually found an information broker named “Fade” on the Citadel who could help. Fade gave him a new name, a shiny new fake ID, and a sunny personality profile.

Now he was on the Nexus, impatiently waiting for the Hyperion to arrive. He could hardly wait to see her face when she woke up after six centuries of sleep, only to realize that she would never live without him again.

The Scourge, though—that was the real blessing. With so many people at the top dead or missing, he suddenly found himself a mid-ranking security officer with better-than-average security clearance. The first thing he did was backdate the records, and have them listed as husband and wife.

What he did not anticipate, however, was just how long she was going to be in cryo. When the Hyperion finally arrived, the stupid higher-ups wouldn't prioritize Helen's thaw. As a biotic adept slated for potential combat, Helen's caloric requirements had her bio-tagged for slow-track thaw. “I understand your frustration,” Director Tann said, indifferently, “but we're in danger of running out of food as it is.”

And for the first time in his adult life, Clinton ran into a hard barrier that hacking couldn't penetrate. Bio-tags couldn't be faked, and no security devices could get around her biology.

He tried bribery, threats, pouting...nothing seemed to work.

When he found himself extra-frustrated by the situation, which was often, he would sneak into the cryo bay and jerk off onto her pod. “I'm doing this all for you,” he would tell her as he worked himself. “And when you wake up, you are going to be grateful, and sweet, and good...yeah, you are gonna be so good to me...”

Chapter 1 cryo unit

 

That was how the turian caught him—with his dick in his hand, and several weeks' worth of DNA on Helen's pod.

"I thought I recognized you.” The dual-toned voice made him jump out of his skin.

“Do you mind ?” Clinton said, as he fumbled his boner back into his pants. “I'm trying to have a moment here with my wife.”

The turian scanned the pod, and then him. Clinton did not like the look on the turian's face at all. 

"Look, 'Christian,'” -the turian actually used air quotes, the fucker—“why don't you run along, and do whatever it is that Tann thinks you do.”

“Fuck you, asshole, I don't listen to you.”

The turian tapped his omnitool. A video started to play. It was Helen, on the Citadel, beating the ever-loving crap out of him.

“I used to be a Spectre,” the turian said mildly. “Nihlus Kryik was a friend of mine, so I was at that funeral.”

“Well, whoop-de-fucking-do,” Clinton said, his voice getting higher in pitch as he began to panic.

“I wonder what Commander Trevelyan would say if we woke her up, and asked her about her marriage. Do you think she'll be surprised?”

Clinton ran all the way back to his apartment. He checked security, and—oh, fuuuuuck, that wasn't just any turian. That was the turian Pathfinder, who was now heading towards Nexus security.

Working fast, he hacked hydraulics to move Helen's cryo unit into one of the escape pods. He disabled tracking on the escape pod, and placed it on standby. He wasn't sure where he was going to go but he needed to get himself and Helen off of the Nexus right now .

He was shoving MREs into his pack when security began to force his door open. Just before they broke through, he released the escape pod out of standby, and into space.

If he was going down, the cause of all his suffering was going down with him. The last thing Helen Trevelyan deserved was a fresh start without him.

Security interrogated him for days about his identity and the falsification of his records, before anybody thought to check on Helen's cryo unit. By then, it was too late. There was no tracking on the pod, and no vector.

Helen was gone.

The turian Pathfinder was livid when he found out. He slammed Clinton against the wall so hard that it knocked one of his teeth loose. “Do you know what you've done? You sent her into the Scourge!”

Clinton smiled wide and nodded. “Yes.”

 “It's murder,” the turian growled, dropping Clinton on the floor and looked at him with disgust. “You murdered her.”

 “Yes,” Clinton giggled, finding the turian's expression completely stupid. “Good.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter two

 

The Scourge never caught the pod, but a tendril brushed against it just enough to cause a microscopic leak in the eezo core.

For millennia, Helen drifted silently through the star systems of Andromeda. The eezo trickled into the escape pod, and eventually into the cryo unit until Helen was practically bathing in it.

Still, she slept. Her cryo unit gently bumped around the inside of the escape pod like an ill-fitting nesting doll.

Nearly ten thousand years after she had been shot from the relative safety of the Hyperion, her pod drifted into the gravitational field of a planet. As escape pods are designed to do, it automatically altered its descent to make sure the heat shield was at the proper angle. It landed safely on the side of a snow-covered mountain in the planet's southern hemisphere.

“Safely” being a relative term. Escape pods were designed to have their occupants awake and harnessed into crash seats. Helen lay unconscious and prone in an unsecured cryo unit. The cryo unit pinballed around the inside of the escape pod a few times, before it came to a rest leaning against the wall, upside down.

The unit went into emergency recovery mode, releasing the chemicals designed to revive its occupant. Once that was done, it began to mechanically intone its forecast of doom.

Helen became dimly aware of noise, light, and a massive, massive headache.

“Warning. Unstable revitalization detected. Please stand by. Warning. Unstable revitalization detected. Please stand by.”

Her thoughts felt like they'd been covered in wool. Where was she? Why was she in a box?

“Warning. Unstable revitalization detected. Please stand by.”

Andromeda. Right. Already something was going wrong.

“Hello?” she tried to call, but her voice wasn't working yet. Her mouth felt cotton-dry.

She slowly moved her hands to the emergency latch. God, she felt awful.

It took a minute for her to realize that she was upside down, and that gravity was working against her. She finally managed to pop the latch but doing so nearly exhausted her. The lid creaked open. Helen tumbled out onto the tilted floor...of an escape pod?

Helen looked around. No, her eyes weren't deceiving her. She was in a standard escape pod, alone except for the cryo unit.

She dragged herself to the First Aid box and tapped it weakly with her palm. Its contents spilled out onto the floor. She grabbed a water ration, twisted it open and greedily sucked down its stale contents.

She tapped her omnitool. “Where are we?” she asked the VI.

“Unknown. Warning. The eezo core has malfunctioned. Element zero levels have exceeded safe parameters for human physiology. Please vacate to the nearest medical station and seek treatment.”

“Am I on the Hyperion?”

“Negative.”

“Where's the Hyperion now?”

“Unknown. Warning. The ambient temperature is dropping below recommended levels.”

Helen forced herself not to panic. Clearly, something had gone wrong. Survival first, answers second, she told herself.

Sitting in eezo for a few extra minutes wouldn't kill her, but hypothermia might. She opened an emergency supply locker under one of the seats, as the VI politely reminded her that it was cold and that there was too much eezo. She found boots, thermals, and a tactical, packable jacket. She put everything on over the Initiative pajamas she was already wearing. Her bones creaked.

I feel ancient, she thought.

She cracked open a couple of emergency heat packs. She drank another bottle of water, swallowed a couple of analgesics, and sucked down a couple of BioNRG biotic rations. Everything tasted terrible, and the texture was off. She didn't know if it was bad supplies, or if she just had several hundred years of sleep coating her mouth.

“Why am I in an escape pod?” she asked.

"Please refer to the security log associated with your cryo unit. Warning. The eezo core has malfunctioned. Element zero levels have exceeded safe-- ”

“Acknowledged. Discontinue warnings about eezo, please.” Helen tapped her omnitool and accessed the security logs.

The next thirty minutes were among the worst in her life.

It was Clinton. Because of course, it was. He'd somehow followed her into the Initiative. And had them listed as married. He'd been... wanking off on her pod. An authoritative-looking turian showed up, and Clinton fled. Not long after that, somebody (she didn't have to wonder who) hydraulically moved her into an escape pod and blasted her into open space.

She scanned the lid of her cryo unit. Sure enough, there was DNA for a “Christian Parker” on the lid.

She checked the dates on the security vids. “What's today's date?” she asked the VI.

“9 March 12,469 Galactic Standard.”

“Um...repeat?” she said shakily.

“9 March 12,469 Galactic Standard.”

She laughed. She couldn't help it. Ten thousand years. Hysterical giggles escaped her for a full five minutes. She only stopped because it exhausted her.

She used her omnitool to run a medical scan. She wasn't at risk of radiation poisoning from the eezo; she already had it.

“When did the eezo core malfunction?” she asked the VI.

“19 December 2819 Galactic Standard.”

She'd been eating and drinking irradiated food and water, and it would be fatal if she didn't get treatment soon.

“Is the external atmosphere breathable?”

“Affirmative. The external atmosphere consists of 76% nitrogen, 22% oxygen, .7% argon and .3% unknown element.”

“Are there any Initiative signals in the nearby area?”

“Negative.”

“Are there any signals of any kind?”

"Negative.”

"Is this planet populated?”

"Insufficient data.”

“Explain.”

“Passive scans upon entering the planet's atmosphere indicated the presence of extensive, non-organic structures.”

“Are any of those structures nearby?”

“Affirmative. The nearest such structure is located 4.7 kilometers to the south.”

“What is the temperature outside?”

“The current temperature is -2 degrees Celsius.”

So, who’s up for hiking through the cold on an uncharted planet with a fatal case of radiation poisoning?

The external cameras showed the upper escape hatch partially buried in snow. When she unsealed the hatch, she had to biotically blast the snow out of the way.

Doing so made her dizzy and nauseous. Like all biotics, she'd already had nodules of eezo all along her nervous system. Now, eezo permeated her entire body. Right, she thought. Keep the biotics offline for now.

When she regained her equilibrium, she crawled out of the escape pod and looked at her surroundings. It was nighttime. She was in a forested valley of some kind, on the sloped side of a mountain. The sky held two moons.

There were no buildings. No towers. No power lines. No running lights gliding through the sky as ships made their way in and out of a spaceport.

"Well, fuck.”

Helen turned on the navpoint to the nearest known structure and started walking.

 

Chapter 2 Helen Trevelyan on Thedas

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 header

 

Nobody knew who she was, or how she'd come to be at the Conclave.

According to a couple of clerics who had been at the Conclave only long enough to deliver papers and then leave, a back door to the Chantry had opened on its own accord, but they did not see anybody walk through.

According to the soldiers who responded to the explosion, the human fell right out of a rift, with the mark on her hand and odd clothing on her back.

According to Cassandra and Leliana, the stranger had babbled in an unknown tongue before she passed out completely. They declared her a foreign spy and placed her under arrest.

Solas could not say they were wrong. He had led a foreign magister to the orb, after all. Perhaps the woman worked for Corypheus.

In the event, the more the Chantry focused on the prisoner, the less the Chantry would focus on him. Turning himself over in Haven had been a calculated risk, but he finally had the Anchor in sight.

The woman's strange clothing and a single piece of jewelry (a bracelet) had been confiscated not long after she had been placed in the dungeon. Now she lay before him, unconscious, shackled and covered only in a dirty blanket, while the Seeker and the Spymaster loomed in the shadows.

Chapter 3 Render

He scanned her injuries with his magic. She was in poor shape, but the worst injury was the fractured skull and the swelling of her brain. He lay his hands on her head, reduced the swelling and knit the bone.

When slid his hands off of her head, most of her black hair wound up in his palms.

Solas frowned. He followed his magic through her bloodstream, fatty tissues, and nervous system, and found the problem.

“The prisoner has been poisoned,” he announced.

“Oh?” Leliana stepped out of the shadows and eyed the prisoner with interest. “With what?”

Solas' frown deepened as he tried to decipher the way his magic was interacting with the toxin in the woman's system. “Nothing I am familiar with.”

“If she is losing her hair now, it likely pre-dates the explosion,” Leliana said.

“Perhaps she poisoned herself before the Conclave,” Cassandra stated. “This could have been a suicide mission of some sort, and she was not expected to survive.”

“Perhaps,” Leliana said. She knelt by the prisoner and began to examine her, looking at the woman's limbs and opening her mouth and eyelids.

Solas stepped back for a moment and allowed Leliana to work. The bard had excellent observational skills, coupled with a formidable intellect. As long as her talents were not pointed in his direction, he could use her to his advantage.

“Well?” Cassandra asked.

Leliana stood back up and crossed her arms. “She is short, for a human, but has been in very good health for much of her life. She has perfect teeth and few scars on her skin. The calluses on her hands are not from farming, or from wielding any weapon I am familiar with. She has no ink stains on her fingers. The clothing she wore is most unusual, but...not luxurious.”

"So, not a peasant, not a noble, not a soldier, not a scribe,” Solas supplied.

Leliana nodded. “Is she a mage?” she asked him. 

“No. I have found no trace of the Fade within her, save for the mark.” 

As if hearing itself discussed, the Anchor flared up again. The prisoner cried out in her sleep, saying something in a language nobody understood. Solas knelt once more beside the prisoner and took her left hand in his, trying to soothe the mark into compliance. Upstairs, they could hear raised voices and footsteps running outside. 

“Notify me if there are any changes,” Leliana ordered. Then she and Cassandra left.

As soon as they left, Solas abandoned any pretext that the prisoner's health was his top priority, and spent all of his focus on the mark. If he could just take it, coax it back to him, then he could close the Breach himself. He could leave these quicklings to their short and brutish lives, and start repairing the world from his own, much costlier, mistakes.

Twice, he slipped into the Fade, looking for answers. Twice, he quickly slipped back out. The Breach had twisted the Fade around Haven into a hellscape of nightmarish proportions. Any spirits that could have helped had either fled or been warped into demons.

The mark recognized him, responded a little to his magic, but...it was very attached to the prisoner, who was still dying by degrees from whatever poison was in her system.

By evening, Solas finally conceded to himself that he lacked the magical strength to forcibly remove the mark.

He looked at the prisoner with distaste. He was going to have to save this pitiful human, teach her how to use his mark, and then use her in whatever way he could in order to close the Breach, and get his Orb back 

Solas sighed. It was going to be a long night. 

__ 

Leliana found him in the early hours of the morning. “How fares our prisoner?” she asked, breaking him out of his concentration of the prisoner's nervous system. 

“While her other injuries are healed, I could not eradicate the poison in her system. I believe I have been able to neutralize it, however.” 

“In what way?” 

He slowly got to his feet and stretched his back. “I have never encountered anything like it before,” he said, truthfully. “The poison is neither chemical nor pathogenic. It was, however, slowly migrating towards several points in her body. Once it reached those points, it seemed to become inert. I simply...pushed it towards those points.” 

Leliana nodded. “And the mark?”

Solas had to tread carefully here. He could not appear to want the answers he actually needed. “I have used wards to contain the mark, but I fear such measures will not last long until the Breach is more stable. Regarding that, I have two theories. First, some sort of artifact created both the Breach and the mark.”

“Artifact?” Leliana said, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What do you mean?” 

“The Fade twists around the Breach and her hand in precisely the same manner. Not like the smaller rifts that are showing up, and not like other places in the world where the Veil is weak. They are identical and simultaneous. It must have been deliberate. An artifact or device of some kind is the only means of doing that.” 

Leliana blinked once, her face unreadable. “And your second theory?” 

“I believe that the mark can close the Breach.”

For just a heartbeat, Leliana's careful mask slipped. He saw hope ignite in her eyes before she ruthlessly stamped it out.

“Why do you believe this?”

“Because the mark is deeply connected to the Breach. When the Breach expands, the mark expands. When the Breach is quiet, the mark is quiet. If the Breach can affect the mark, it stands to reason the mark can affect the Breach.” 

“You don't know that,” Leliana said. 

“No, I do not. As I said, it is only a theory. And we will need the prisoner herself to test it, preferably on a smaller rift.”

“I see,” Leliana looked at the prisoner. “I will bring this to the others' attention. You should get some rest. Thank you, Solas.”

Then she left.

Well. He had done everything he could for the moment. He had moved the pieces into the most advantageous position for him. Now, he must wait for the pawns to step forward. He issued instructions to the guards to wake him if there was any change in the prisoner's condition. He left for his own quarters, and whatever rest he could find.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter four 

Solas had not even had time to undress for bed when the runner banged on his door.

He opened it to find a human infant, not fifteen summers old, in a near panic. “The Seeker needs you right away, ser!”

“Is the prisoner awake?” Solas asked, closing the door behind him, as they hurried towards the Chantry.

“Yes, ser. She killed a guard with her magic, ser.”

“She is not a mage,” Solas frowned. 

“It's just what I was told, ser,” the runner said. 

Solas nodded and thanked the child, but privately thought that the runner must have misheard what had happened.

The Chantry dungeon was in chaos. Solas could feel the residue of multiple Templar anti-magic spells lingering in the air. A dead guardsman lay crumpled against the wall, his pants, and smallclothes down around his ankles. The man's bladder and bowels had voided at the moment of death. 

The prisoner, naked, bloody and bald, crouched in a corner. Her shackles lay scattered in pieces across the floor. She was shouting in a language Solas had never heard before. She used her right hand to cast a barrier around herself, while she held her left hand up to her chest as if it pained her.

A handful of nervous-looking Templars, their swords unsheathed, stood nearby awaiting orders. Cassandra also had drawn her sword. Cullen was physically holding her back, as Leliana tried to calm the Seeker down. “We need her, Cassandra!” the spymaster was saying. 

Solas walked by all of them, feigning a calm he did not feel, and placed himself between Cassandra and the prisoner.

Cassandra turned her fury onto him.

“You lied to us, apostate!” she shouted, as Cullen tightened his grip. “You said she was not a mage!”

Solas ignored her, as he surreptitiously tested the prisoner's barrier with his magic. He had never felt anything like it. It felt strong. Solid. And utterly unlike the Fade. 

“Commander, Seeker,” Solas said, “do either you feel any magic in her? Any hint of the Fade?” 

Cassandra stopped struggling with Cullen. They both got a slightly distant look on their faces as they sought for the prisoner's magic. 

“No,” Cassandra finally admitted. “I do not.” 

“Neither do I,” Cullen said, looking at the prisoner with distrust. 

Solas let out a puff of annoyance. “So, a Chantry guard attacks a shackled woman, and the Seeker's solution is to run a sword through her.” 

Cassandra deflated a bit. “I...No. Of course not.” She sheathed her weapon.

Cullen let the Seeker go, and approached the dead guard. He grabbed the man's hair to look at his face. “This is Ivans,” he scowled. “He's a Templar. Why is he in a guardsman outfit?” 

“The answer seems rather obvious, Commander,” Leliana said. 

Cullen shook his head in disgust. “You!” he snapped at the guards. “All of you! You were here. Why did nobody try to stop this from happening?” 

The handful of guards looked at each other for a moment. “Well...she's a murderer, Commander,” said one of the guards, speaking slowly, as if Commander Rutherford were stupid. “She had it comin', she did.”

“You mean, you were waiting your turn,” Solas said, coldly.

Cullen ordered his Templars to take the guards into custody, who protested that they “didn't do nuffink!” Cullen and Cassandra dragged dead Ivans out of the dungeon, leaving only Solas and Leliana with the prisoner. 

Solas ignored the commotion. He instead focused his attention on the prisoner, who had turned an alarming shade of gray. He tried to send a healing spell over her, but nothing got through her barrier. “Leliana, she is going into shock.” 

“Were you lying about her being a mage,” Leliana asked as she fished some potion out of a crate, “or were you just wrong?” 

It was a fair question. “I have never seen this type of magic before,” he said. “She has maintained that barrier for several minutes, despite the fact that she is about to collapse. I cannot get my own healing magic through it.” 

“I see.” Leliana squatted down just outside the prisoner's barrier. She lowered her hood, which made her look much softer and years younger. “My name is Leliana,” she said gently. “You have been injured, and we need to heal you. I promise that neither of us will hurt you if you cooperate.”

The prisoner replied in her strange language. Her voice sounded rough, like pebbles in a box.

“I am sorry,” Leliana said, “but I do not understand your language. Can you understand me?”

The woman hesitated a moment, before nodding slowly. 

“You are going into shock,” Solas told her slowly. “If you will lower your barrier, I can treat your injuries.” He held his hands out to show he was unarmed and acting in good faith.

She looked at them both, then lowered her right hand. The barrier disappeared. Leliana helped her to the cot, then found a dirty blanket and draped it over the prisoner's shoulders. The prisoner pulled the blanket as close as she could around herself. Her hands were shaking. 

“Here,” Leliana handed the prisoner the healing potion, “drink this. It will help.” 

The prisoner sniffed the potion but did not drink it. 

“Can you tell us what happened with that Templar?” Leliana asked gently. 

The prisoner started speaking again in her own tongue, then stopped herself after just a few words. She started and stopped a couple of times. Finally, she closed her eyes, as if concentrating very hard and said, “Me...to sleep?” 

“You were asleep?” Leliana suggested. 

The prisoner nodded. She spoke a few more words in her own language and mimed being punched in the face, right where her cheek and lip were split open, bleeding and swollen.

“He struck you?” Leliana said.

“With a mailed fist, it seems,” Solas added. 

That got them another nod. “Yes. He...on top. No...” she tugged on Leliana's trousers. 

“He climbed on top of you with no pants on,” Leliana said. She sounded gentle, but in the short time he'd known the spymaster, Solas had only seen her icy, ruthless intellect. He wondered if she was genuinely sympathetic towards the prisoner, or if this was just part of her interrogation technique.

“Yes,” the prisoner whispered. “So I...” she held her right hand up and created a tiny ball of her strange magic. “No...no think?” 

“You reacted instinctively,” Solas suggested, “and killed him in the process.” The prisoner nodded again.

“This is Solas,” Leliana said. “He can heal you.” 

The prisoner looked at him. “You...” she seemed to be struggling for the right word, before settling on “doktor?” 

“I am a mage,” Solas said, “much like yourself.” 

The woman frowned at him, confusion on her face. “Mage?” 

“Mage,” Solas agreed, pointing to the broken pieces of her shackles on the floor. “Your magic did that.”

The prisoner shook her head. “No magic.” 

“But your barrier,” he said, miming the way she'd held her hand in front of her. Then he made a quick barrier of his own to illustrate his point. “Magic.”

“No magic. Is...biotics.” 

“Biotics?” Leliana asked, directing the question to Solas. “Is that what they call magic in her country?” 

Before Solas could answer, though, the prisoner asked a question, first in her language, then in theirs. “Why prisoner?” 

Leliana said, “We should treat your injuries first. Do you have a name?” 

“Helen.” 

“Helen, you should drink that,” Solas said indicating the potion in her hand. “It will help.” Helen drank the potion. 

“I am going to start with the bruises on your face,” he told her. She stared at his ears as he ran a wash of healing magic over her eyes and cheeks. 

When he felt she had stared at his ears for far longer than was polite, he boldly met her gaze. Instead of the expected contempt for elves, or contrition at being caught staring, he saw only exhaustion and confusion in her eyes.

When he was done with her face, Helen ran a hand over her head. What few hairs remained came off in her palm. She looked at them forlornly. 

“You were poisoned,” Solas explained. 

“Yes,” she said as if this was expected news. 

“I neutralized the poison by forcing it to migrate into discrete areas of your nervous system.”

Helen dipped her head, and thanked him in her own language, he was almost sure of it. “Where this is?” she said quietly.

“We are in Haven,” Solas said. 

“Haven,” Helen repeated. “Where Haven?”

“In Ferelden,” said Leliana.

“Fe-rel-den,” she said slowly. “Fe-rel-den...planet?” 

Her question was so ludicrous, so out of place, that Solas wondered for the first time if perhaps she was mad. He and Leliana looked at each other, Leliana's face showing the same surprise his did.

Solas tilted his head at her. “This world is called Thedas,” he said, in a tone that made it clear she should have known this.

“The-das,” she said to herself, then shook her head. The name meant nothing to her.

Leliana stood up and crossed her arms. Gentle Leliana was gone, and Sister Nightingale was back. “I need to retrieve your clothing. When I return, you will answer every question I have. Is that understood?” 

The prisoner raised one eyebrow at Leliana and shrugged. Leliana turned and walked out of the dungeon. 

“So-las,” she asked, “how I got here?” 

“You fell out of a rift.” 

“What is rift?”

“A rip in the Fade,” Solas said. 

She stared blankly at him, then asked, “What is Fade?” 

Solas made a spur of the moment decision. Whether she was telling the truth or just plain mad, this was an opportunity to present himself as an ally. Besides, he would not have to tell her anything she was not about to learn, anyway. 

So, he spoke as quietly as he could, as if in confidence. “There was a gathering at a nearby Temple,” he explained. “It should have ended a civil war. Instead, an explosion killed everybody, including the spiritual leader who had called for peace talks. It caused a massive Breach in the Fade and left you with that mark on your hand. You are the only survivor and the only suspect.” 

Helen remained silent, as Solas finished up his healing, and tried to strengthen the wards around the mark. The wards were not going to hold up for long, unless he—no, unless the prisoner—was able to calm the Breach. 

As he worked, she looked at her hand. Then she took in the Chantry basement, and Solas, as if truly seeing where she was for the first time. 

Leliana returned with Cassandra. “Your clothing has been stolen,” the spymaster said, clearly angry about it. “For now, you will wear this.” She handed the prisoner a pile of clothes. 

Cassandra and Leliana held up the blanket to give Helen a little privacy while she dressed. 

“Where is omnitool?” Helen indicated her wrist.

“Your bracelet? Stolen, along with your clothes,” Leliana answered impatiently.

“Not bracelet. Is...” Helen said something in her own language, then said, “is important.”

“It is a trinket. It doesn't matter,” Cassandra said, angrily, as she towered over the seated prisoner. “Who are you?”

 

Chapter 4

 

“Helen Trevelyan.” 

“Where are you from?” 

She said a word in her own language, and then, in Common, “Ground.” 

“'Ground?' What do you mean, you're from the ground? You're short, but you're no dwarf.” 

Helen looked genuinely confused. “No, I...” then she started talking to herself in her own tongue. Then she said, “'Earth.' This The-das. Me Earth.”

There was a long silence, as the three Thedosians looked at Helen. Finally, Leliana asked Solas, “Is what she saying even possible? Could the Breach have pulled her through from another world?”

“I do not believe so, no. The Fade reaches everywhere in Thedas, but I have never heard of it touching any other world. Still, it would explain a great deal, if true. Her clothing, her language, the unknown poison, her magic...everything about her is an unknown.” 

“The Breach is also an unknown,” Cassandra said. “Could she not have caused it? She deceived you into thinking she was not a mage, did she not?”

“She was never awake, and therefore was not capable of deceit. As for the Breach, it is not new magic. It is simply Fade magic, on a rather terrifying scale.” 

“You believe her innocent, then?” Leliana asked.

“It is more accurate to say that I have seen little evidence of her guilt,” he said.

Leliana nodded once, then returned to the prisoner. “Why were you at the Temple of Sacred Ashes?” she asked. 

Helen said, “I cold.” 

“What do you mean, 'you were cold?'” Cassandra said.

Helen tried several times to explain but whatever she needed to say could not be done in the few words of Common she'd managed to pick up. She pressed her fists up against her eyes and spoke rapidly in her own language, her frustration at the language barrier getting to her. 

The Anchor flared up, suddenly and violently, cracking through all of Solas' wards. Helen cried out in pain and shock, curling over her hand. Solas managed to clasp her hand between his. He tried to pull the Anchor to him with a calling spell. Not only did it ignore him, but it also seemed to make it worse for Helen. 

A runner came sprinting into the dungeon. “The Breach is expanding again. Demons are everywhere. Commander Rutherford said he is heading out with his men.” 

Leliana said, “Well, it appears we have the opportunity to see if Solas' theory is correct. Solas, please find Varric Tethras and locate a rift for the prisoner to use the mark on. The two of you can help with the demons, at least, until we can get this resolved." 

“We do not need Varric,” Cassandra said sullenly.

“Yes, we do,” Leliana said. “We cannot afford to turn such experience away.” 

Ten minutes later, Solas found himself in possession of his staff and walking to the outer road in the company of a handful of guards and one extremely chatty dwarf.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter five

It didn't take long before Solas, Varric and the guardsmen found themselves underneath a rift, fighting the wisps and shades that it vomited forth every few minutes.

The guardsmen were brave enough but barely older than boys, more hindrance than help. Solas sent the clumsiest one back to Haven under the pretext of telling Cassandra where they were. Another guard died within the first hour.

The dwarf, however, was indeed a veteran fighter. He and Solas quickly fell into a pattern. The rift would open up and discharge several demons. Solas would throw a barrier over everybody. The crossbow sang her deadly song. And a teenage guardsman would get in the way and make everything harder than it had to be.

Chapter 5 Solas fighting at a rift

 

In between skirmishes, Solas and Varric discussed what had happened. Varric, Solas was learning, loved to gossip.

"Curly was pissed. I haven't seen him that angry since Kirkwall,” Varric said, referring to Commander Rutherford. “All the guards involved are being punished. But behind his back, the men mostly feel the prisoner should be hanged for killing a Templar.”

“The Templar got exactly what he deserved,” Solas said, not bothering to hide his anger. “The Chantry has allowed such abuses for far too long.”

Varric looked up at the Breach with a frown. “Think she caused that?” he said quietly.  

“No,” Solas admitted, “but neither did I think she was a mage.” 

As the hours passed, Solas pondered the question of the prisoner's innocence. At various times, she had acted confused, wary, angry and in pain, but at no point had she ever acted evasive or defiant. If she were guilty, if she'd truly intended for everyone to die at the Conclave, why stop at killing a single guard in self-defense? Why not slaughter everyone, and walk away?  

The afternoon wore on, with no reinforcements. The rift slowly grew larger, each round of demons just a little tougher than the last. They ran low on potions. Another guardsman fell. 

“We need backup, or we'll have to retreat soon,” Varric said as he shot a demon. “I'm not dying in this shit.”  

“Agreed,” Solas replied. He despised how weak he was, where a single afternoon of fighting minor demons could bring him to the point of exhaustion.  

Then he felt a barrier go over him, strong and cool. Varric felt it, too, because he laughed and yelled out, “Let's see you dance, you sons of bitches!”  

Helen was there, trapping demons in a whirlpool of her magic, knocking back anything that got too close to herself or any of their allies. Her magic was oddly silent. It did not whisper, or comfort, or call out to him like magic should do.  

Cassandra was with her, as well, quickly dispatching any demon within reach of her sword. A fight that had felt overwhelmingly difficult only moments before was suddenly over. 

The second the last enemy was down, Solas grabbed Helen's left hand. “Quickly!” he shouted, yanking it up towards the sky. Helen gasped in shock and pain as her hand directed the energy of the Anchor into the rift. 

Solas hated her just then. No matter her innocence or guilt, for a few heartbeats, he hated her with all his being. The mark was his. It belonged to him.

 

Chapter 5 mad solas

 

Seconds. That was all it took before the rift imploded shut. Hours and hours of conventional fighting had gotten them nowhere, yet his Anchor had closed the rift in mere seconds.  

Helen was shaking and pale. She stared at her hand in absolute terror. Solas pushed his hatred down deep within himself and put on the mask of the calm apostate. 

“What you do, So-las?” she asked. 

“I did nothing,” he said, keeping all traces of defensiveness from his voice. “The credit is yours.” 

He explained that she had just proven his theory that the mark could close rifts. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation,” he said. The look on her face was one of utter despair. 

It twinged at his conscience. He had no right to hate her. This should never have been her burden at all, and she would likely pay for his folly with her life. Telling Cassandra that he doubted Helen could have caused the Breach did nothing to lessen his guilt. 

Cassandra and Varric argued all the way to the valley. Helen stumbled along in a daze. She kept looking around with wide eyes, taking in as much as she could. 

The only time she did not appear lost was when they fought. She had combat experience and plenty of it. Whoever she was, her unusual magic was exquisite. Her barriers were strong, solid things. She could make an enemy float helplessly in the air, or force it to remain immobile or launch it into the sky. 

Other than her magic, she had no weapon of her own and was injured when a demon raked its claws down her back. 

“Do you not carry a weapon with you?” Solas asked her.  

She looked like she wanted to say a hundred things, but after a moment's struggle, all she said was,“No.” 

“Here,” he handed her his knife, “you need something to defend yourself at close range.” She nodded her thanks. Cassandra frowned but did not protest. 

They trekked back to the forward camp, battling unfortunate demons along the way. 

“So...are you innocent?” Varric asked her. 

“I no remember,” Helen admitted. 

“There's your first mistake. You shoulda made something up.”

Helen ignored him, looking at their surroundings with a frown that got deeper and deeper as they trekked their way to the forward camp. Varric tried another tactic. “I've never heard your accent before. Where are you from, anyway?” 

“Earth.” 

“You're from the earth,” Varric repeated. “That's helpful.” 

By the time they reached the forward camp, Helen had pulled into herself, shutting the rest of them out. She kept reaching for her right wrist, like a habit, as she stared up at the Breach. She only took her attention away from the sky when Leliana and Cassandra asked her to chose the path forward. 

“Me?” Helen said, then snorted derisively. 

“You bear the mark,” Solas pointed out. 

She looked again at the Breach. “Soldiers,” she said shortly. They headed towards the gates. Helen remained silent the rest of the way and did not respond to any attempts to engage her in conversation. 

They found Cullen and his men in deep trouble. As before, Helen did not hesitate to join the battle. Two shades that had flanked the Commander found themselves being sucked around a ball of energy. Her barrier dropped down on them all. 

After she sealed the rift, Cullen snapped at Helen, saying they had lost “a lot of people” getting her there. 

For the first time since she awoke, Helen showed a reaction other than fear, pain or indifference. The Commander had offended her. She pulled herself up into a straight, almost military stance, and slowly scanned the Commander from head to toe, anger and distaste written all over her face. 

Nobody understood a word of what she said next, but they hardly needed to. It was delivered in an utterly scathing tone. When her tirade was over, she paused for a moment, then said, “Kommander.” 

It sounded like an insult. Cullen turned purple with suppressed anger but wisely said nothing. Instead, he turned away to help one of his men. 

Helen watched them leave, glaring at Cullen's back. Then she closed her eyes and swayed for a moment on her feet. She hastily sat herself down on the ground and placed her head in her hands. 

Varric, who was closest, knelt down next to her. “Easy now, easy now,” he said, pulling her a bit towards him, so she was in less danger of falling over altogether. She was pale, sweaty, and seemed to be on the verge of passing out. 

“What is it? What is wrong? What has happened?” Cassandra barked out questions without bothering to wait for answers. 

“My biotics,” Helen said, using her word for her magic. “Use...energy of body.” 

“And you have had no food for the last few days, at least,” Solas said, suddenly understanding. Helen nodded. 

“When was the last time you ate, sweetheart?” Varric asked Helen. 

Long time,” she mumbled. 

“Ah, Chantry hospitality,” Varric said bitterly, handing Helen some strips of dried meat from his pouch. Solas found a crate of potion nearby and gave her one. Helen drained the potion and made short work of the dried meat. Solas handed her a second restoration potion and placed his hand on her forehead as she drank it. She was feverish. 

Soon enough, Cassandra stood and helped Helen stand as well. “Let us go,” Cassandra said brusquely as they walked past the men. 

When they reached the Temple of Sacred Ashes, Cassandra pointed out where Helen had first been seen. Helen looked more and more alarmed the deeper they went into the remains of the Temple, occasionally shaking her head to herself. 

Solas kept his face in a mask of disinterested curiosity when he heard Corypheus' voice coming from the rift. Hearing Helen's voice, speaking in her language, was a surprise, however. It surprised her too, as her eyes opened wide when she heard her voice coming from the rift. 

Poor Divine Justinia had yelled at Helen to warn people. Corypheus had only referred to Helen as “the intruder.” As in, “kill the intruder..” That was all the Fade would show them. 

“You were there! That was you,” Cassandra said. “What did you say?” 

“I say, 'What going on here?'” Helen said, looking confused. “I no remember this.” 

Solas explained to Helen what she needed to do. Unseal the rift. Defeat whatever emerged. Close the rift. If all went well, it would close the Breach at the same time. 

She raised her hand to the rift. A pride demon stepped through and laughed at them all. 

Helen looked shocked at the size of the demon. She yelled out a word in her language that sounded like, “Yahg!” before she placed a barrier over everybody in the immediate vicinity. 

The pride demon threatened them all, but its primary target seemed to be Helen. Anytime it saw her, it headed her way. It poured lightning into their forces, causing barriers to fail and wreaking havoc with heavily armored soldiers. 

Helen fought more like a rogue than a mage, dancing in and out of combat. At his instruction, she used the mark to disrupt the rift. He lost sight of her for alarmingly long periods of time, but then he'd feel her refresh his barriers, or see one of her unique spells. She shouted a lot. Nobody could understand a single word of it, but there was no mistaking the frustration and anger in her voice. 

It was exhausting. The pride demon and its minions were losing, but the cost was high. Cassandra took a couple of bad hits. Several soldiers were outright slaughtered. Every time he caught a glimpse of Helen, she was a little bloodier, a little slower. 

Finally, he saw the demon kneel in exhaustion. Cassandra took a running leap and drove her sword into its back. 

Helen was on one knee, but the moment the demon fell, her left hand reached towards the rift. 

This rift was much larger than the others she had closed. He could tell at once that, although she would be able to seal this rift, there wasn't nearly enough power to actually close the Breach. 

Maintaining the connection was taking a heavy toll on Helen. She almost fell over but caught herself with her right hand, rather than break the thread with her left. 

She collapsed as soon as the rift closed. Cassandra called for Cullen. Varric ordered people to move, to give them some room. Everybody was shouting. 

Solas shut them all out and ran to Helen's side. She was not breathing. He placed both his hands on her chest and pushed with his magic. “Odhea1,” he ordered her. “Odhea!” He moved one hand to her forehead and sent every bit of magic he had left into her. “Sathan2, Helen. Odhea.” 

Her chest slowly expanded. He placed his fingers on her neck. Her heartbeat was thready and weak, but present.  Solas breathed an enormous sigh of relief. 

The Anchor still lived.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 . “Odhea” = “Breathe.”

2 “Sathan” = “Please.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter six 

Solas followed the stretcher to a small, private cottage near the gates of Haven. Cassandra met them all at the front door.

Solas had to wait for everyone else to leave before he was able to check on the Anchor. It was more obedient, now that the Breach had calmed, but still not willing to leave its host.

Solas sighed, and then surrounded the mark with the strongest wards he was capable of placing.

It was the best he could do for the moment. Eventually, the mark would spread. In his current state, he was powerless to prevent it forever. But between closing the Rift and his wards, the woman should live long enough to seal the Breach.

He then checked on her overall health. She had the expected combat injuries but also appeared to be severely exhausted. Solas healed her as best he could, with what little mana he had remaining, before dragging himself back to his own quarters.

He collapsed into bed. He only walked the Fade a bit that night. It was mildly improved from the day before, but it had suffered its own traumas from the Breach and needed time to calm.

In the morning, as he walked towards Helen's cabin, he found Cassandra at the campfire next to Varric's tent. True to form, they were arguing.

“The Herald of Andraste?” Varric said. “Yesterday, you wanted her dead. Now she's the 'Herald of Andraste.' How do you think she's going to react to this when she wakes up?”

If she wakes up,” Cassandra said grimly. “The Herald's condition has worsened. I fear the worst.”

“Well, the Chantry always did love its martyrs. After they were dead,” Varric muttered.

Cassandra did not respond but the look on her face made it clear that Varric's words had found their mark. She turned to Solas.

“Solas. You have given your help freely, and owe us nothing. But the Herald is dying and you are her best hope. I would be most grateful for any assistance you can give.”

“Of course, Seeker.” He followed Cassandra to Helen's cabin, where she lay unconscious on a bed. Somebody had taken the trouble to wash her and dress her in a clean shift. The apothecary was sitting on a stool next to the bed, taking notes.

“Adan,” Cassandra asked, “how is she?”

“Worse,” Adan said, scowling fiercely. “She has a fever. And I swear, she seems to be thinner with every passing hour.”

“She told me her magic consumes her body's energy stores,” Solas explained. “She has had no food or drink for days now, except for a few restoration potions and Varric's travel rations. And that was prior to battle.”

Solas placed his hand on Helen's forehead. She was burning up. He pushed healing energy into her but it seemed to simply vanish. Frowning, Solas placed a hand over his mouth while he pondered his options. He turned to Adan. “We need honey, a generous amount. Cool water. A few spoons. And restorative potion, as much as you can spare.”

Adan clomped out of the cabin.

“Can you heal her?” Cassandra asked.

“I will certainly try my best, Seeker.”

When Adan returned with supplies, Solas gently opened Helen's mouth and used a spoon to dribble water into her. She swallowed it reflexively. Then he slipped some of the honey onto Helen's tongue. She swallowed that, as well.

“Keep feeding her the fluids and honey,” he said to Adan. “Try and get all of it into her, even if takes hours. She needs it. You want to use her body's autonomous responses, so use very small--”

Maker's balls, mage, I know how to hydrate an unconscious patient! How 'bout I barge into your cabin, and tell you how to do your job?”

Solas ignored the man as he examined his subject. The Herald was burning with fever, but the Anchor itself was stable. He added some more gentle healing magic into her, hoping to ease her symptoms. When he was done, he said to Cassandra, “The mark is stable, at least for now, but she is not yet out of danger. She needs fluids and food and rest.”

Cassandra nodded, then asked him to follow her. Once they were outside the cabin, she said to him quietly, “What do you think of her claim to have come from another world?”

“I think you are more interested in telling me what you think,” he said.

Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “You credit me with too much subtlety, Solas. If I want you to know what I think, I will simply tell you. I am asking for your opinion because your knowledge of the Fade is far greater than my own. So I will ask again. What do you think of her claim?”

“I have never seen it happen before, nor heard of it, not in any of my travels into the Fade,” he said. “But, having fought beside her, and observed her magic and her mannerisms, I cannot dismiss such a claim out of hand.”

“Nor can I,” Cassandra sighed.

“Then you believe she is innocent?”

“I do. Wherever she is from, I believe that much, at least, even if I have already failed in my duties. My job is to Seek the truth, yet I know nothing about her. I never thought to ask her anything at all.”

“You are trying to make amends, Cassandra. It is more than most.”

Cassandra frowned and looked back in the direction of Helen's cabin. “It is kind of you to say, but I know better. She defended herself against a Templar who was violating her, and I tried to kill her for it. Am I not exactly what is wrong with the Chantry? And now she now looks to be our only hope.”

The Seeker shook her head before continuing, “If she survives and chooses to leave, could any of us even make her stay? I cannot neutralize her magic, and neither could the Templars. You saw how she fought, exhausted and sick. What will she be like after she is healthy and whole?”

“That is a good question. How will the Chantry react to having a mage in their midst that they cannot control?”

“Their reaction does not concern me. My only concern is how to fix the Breach. I need the Herald for that, not the Chantry.”

He spied Leliana heading towards them. “Did you have further need of me?”

The Seeker looked at him. “Will you stay, Solas? You have a place here for as long as you wish.”

“Perhaps. I would like to make certain the Herald recovers before I decide.”

Cassandra nodded. “I am grateful.”

He took his leave and walked back to his quarters. He was beginning to develop a grudging respect for the Seeker. It was rare to see a human, especially one of such rigidity and unquestioning devotion, able to see her own flaws so readily.

He pushed the thought away. One honorable woman with a single moment of clarity did not make up for an entire world of wrongness. He needed to focus on his duty.

**

Solas spent the next two days alternating between wandering the village and checking the Anchor. He reinforced the wards a few times a day, and, as long as he was there, applied another layer of healing magic to the Herald.

He saw the knife that he had loaned to the Herald among her things. He left it there, wondering if she would remember that he had given it to her and if she would return it. It was a small test, and perhaps an unfair one, given the pressure she'd been under at the time. But he was curious.

He also spent some time speaking with the elven servants he had recruited as agents.

They did not realize they were his agents. He had simply asked them to keep an ear out for anything they heard about the Herald. Like servants everywhere, they were more than happy to repeat gossip and rumor in exchange for a little coin.

So far, all they had heard were the rumors that Helen was the Herald of Andraste, and that some people wanted her dead.

Solas sought out Cassandra to report the rumors. Naturally, she was well aware of the threats. She and Leliana had quietly encouraged the “Herald of Andraste” rumor.

It was a useful fiction, he supposed. Not only did it explain the mark on her hand, it was also turning the tide of opinion in her favor.

The Herald awoke on the third day. He was standing with Varric at the dwarf's campfire when she first appeared, wearing the barbarian armor of the Avvars.

 

Chapter 6

Solas shook his head. The choice of armor was a poor one. If the Inquisition was trying to promote the Herald as a holy chosen one, this was the wrong image to project. Had the Herald been large of build, or covered in war paints, the furs would have made her look fearsome.

Instead, their Herald was clean, pale, bald, and very small. The armor nearly swallowed her, making her look almost childlike.

He watched the crowds part in reverence as she walked purposefully towards the Chantry. Although she gazed back at the people with a seemingly calm expression, her eyes looked far too large for her face. When she met his eyes, her inner turmoil was obvious. She hated this.

As she continued towards the Chantry, Varric said to him, “Hell of a thing she's being asked to do.”

“Yes.”

Varric sighed, “This won't end well for her.”

“No,” Solas agreed. “It won't.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter seven

One of Helen's first post-Clinton missions in the Terminus had been an assignment to recover a shipment of Alliance weapons that had been stolen by the Blue Suns. They got to the drop point, overpowered the Suns, and started cataloging the contraband.

Like a lot of their busts, they'd found a lot more contraband than expected. Helen and her team had also discovered mods from the Hierarchy, containers of knock-off designer clothing, crates of fake Egyptian relics (Ancient Egypt was all the rage that year with the Asari) and the obligatory shipments of red sand.

Oh, yes. And a yahg.

Young Lieutenant Epstein, despite extensive training to never open any contraband without scanning it first, grabbed a crowbar and cracked open a large shipping crate. The yahg, hungry, thirsty and pissed, tore into Helen's team with a vengeance.

They'd all survived, but it had been a close thing. Lieutenant Epstein was nicknamed “Schmuckatelli Redshirt” from that day forward.

That had been her only encounter with a yahg. She never thought to see another, until one stepped out of the rift at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Just on instinct, she'd yelled a warning out to her crew, and threw a barrier over everybody.

It took a second for her brain to recognize that the thing she was fighting was far worse than any yahg. It was twice as large and shot lightning out of its hands. She reached for her Carnifex before remembering she didn't have it anymore.

Helen threw everything she had left at the thing. It was terrifyingly enormous. Worse, it kept swiveling its giant, ugly head towards her, like it was after her personally.

Twice, she issued orders in English before remembering that these people weren't her crew, and didn't understand her anyway.

After that, she just screamed her personal opinions about the planet to the yahg.

She did what she could with her flagging biotics, and followed Solas' suggestions to weaken the yahg (they called it something else, a demon of some kind) by connecting her mark to the rift.

As soon as the thing was dead, Helen dragged her hand up to the rift to close it.

It hurt. Not that closing any of the rifts had been exactly fun, but this felt like somebody was pulling the marrow from her very bones.

This is killing me, she realized. And that was surprisingly fine with her. Everybody she'd ever known was dead. She didn't belong here and had no need to stay if she could just get this stupid rift closed. When the concussive shock from the blast hit her, she blissfully embraced the darkness. Her last thought was, I'll finally see my parents again.

She was bitterly disappointed to wake up and realize she'd survived.

It took a moment to get her bearings. Lying in bed in a cottage. A colony that had regressed to the dark ages. The Breach. That damned mark on her hand.

She pulled her left hand out from under the blankets. The glowing, green stigma that was now embedded there made her want to vomit.

Helen didn't for one moment believe that it was really magic, like in stories. There had to be a scientific explanation behind it somewhere. But magic or no, it was painful, foreign and unwelcome. If only she'd had her omnitool, she could scan it for...

Stolen. The omnitool's loss was an almost physical ache. Yes, it would have been invaluable in this environment, but what hurt the most was what she'd brought with her. Pictures and vids from her childhood, of her crews and friends, her parents...her entire past had been on that omnitool.

Helen sighed, pushing the thought away. That sort of mindset would not help her now. Don't cry, don't bitch, don't blame.

She had to still be in Andromeda, though, right? Ten thousand years was a long time but it wasn't nearly long enough for a single escape pod to drift across space at sub-FTL speeds and wind up in a separate galaxy. She could even still be in the Heleus Cluster, but she just had no way to know.

The locals called the planet “Thedas.” Helen hated it. She hated it with every fiber of her being. This planet was filthy, cold, and primitive. Back in the Milky Way, there had been anti-tech colonies scattered throughout the Terminus Systems. Was this what happened when one of them was left alone for 10,000 years?

Was everybody on the entire planet human? She'd seen no Asari, no Turians, no Krogans, no Salarians.

The locals might see themselves as “elves,” “dwarves,” and “humans,” but the phenotype didn't matter to Helen. What mattered was that they were all a bunch of backwater hillbillies with way too much bullshit and not nearly enough tech.

Focus, Trevelyan. Focus on what you know.

She was no longer in a dungeon. Good. No pervy guards were in her little cabin, and neither was their asshole boss, Commander Pauldrons. All good.

Her universal translator still worked. Good. It was frustrating, having to speak her words out loud, and then repeat what she'd heard in her own ear, but it was better than nothing. It would certainly speed up the process of becoming fluent in the local tongue.

She no longer had radiation poisoning. The medic, Solas—no, not medic, the mage—had somehow managed to cure her. Her biotics had seemed stronger than usual, but she'd also been sick, starving and fatigued. Her memories of the whole thing were very fuzzy, so she wasn't sure.

As Helen lay there, staring at the ceiling, a teenage girl walked in the front door without knocking.

She kind of freaked out when she saw Helen awake and dropped the box she'd been carrying.

The noise startled Helen into sitting up.

“Oh!” the girl said, looking half-terrified. “I didn't know you were awake, I swear!”

“Is all right,” Helen said.

The girl dropped to her knees. “I beg your forgiveness and your blessing. I am but a humble servant.”

What the hell? Helen stumbled out bed and helped the girl back up. “Please,” Helen said, “this no necessary.”

The girl was jumpy and uncomfortable, but before she fled, she managed to tell Helen that the Breach was still there, that it was quieter than before, and that Cassandra needed to see her “at once.” 

Helen sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. She looked morosely at the mark. The Breach remained. Which meant that the mark was more than just a constant source of pain and radiation that was probably giving her cancer.

Now it was a chain to this absolute shithole of a planet.

Helen did not want to be here at all. But she couldn't, in good conscience, walk away and find a place that was more civilized. She wouldn't condemn them all like that. Especially not if, as she strongly suspected, these were all descendants of the Andromeda Initiative.

Looking around the little cabin, Helen spied a small plate with cheese, bread and fruit on the desk, and a bottle of dark ale. She wasn't a fan of ale, but calories were calories, and she was starving. As it was, she'd been without regular meals for so long that she'd be lucky if she didn't lose a tooth. She ate everything and drank the bottle dry.

She used the chamber-pot, which was completely revolting, and washed her hands in the small basin of cold water nearby. There was no soap, no toothbrush, just—cold water and a small linen napkin.

When she was done, she dressed in the warmest outfit she could find. It was armor made mostly of furs. It took a few minutes to figure out how everything belted on. Finally, she checked her appearance in the hand mirror.

The woman who looked back was unrecognizable—pale, bald and scared shitless.

She felt a flash of unadulterated hatred towards Clinton. The man had stranded her in a dark and distant future.

Her anger showed on her face. Ah, there. That angry woman, she recognized. That was Commander Trevelyan, who took down Batarian slavers, infiltrated smuggling operations, and disrupted merc groups.

Feeling stronger, if not better, she opened the door and saw what awaited her.

Chapter 7 oh shit

 

“Oh, shit,” she whispered. This...this was...she didn't even know how to respond to this.

Helen walked to the Chantry, trying her damnedest to school her face into something other than anger or fear. She caught a glimpse of Varric and Solas, who were standing together.

Varric gave her a sad little smile, which she appreciated. Solas looked at her like she was a science experiment, which she did not.

The back of the Chantry held Leliana, Cassandra and that bloated bureaucrat who still wanted her dead.

Cassandra and Leliana told him to cram it, in so many words, because people now thought that Helen was the “Herald of Andraste.”

“Excuse, please,” she interrupted. “What Andraste?”

This sent the bureaucrat into a frothing rage. She was an apostate, a heretic, a heathen, a murderer in their midst. Cassandra threw him out of the meeting.

The women explained to Helen that they had founded an offshoot of the planet's leading religion, and were likely viewed by many as heretics. Although the Breach now gave them the duty to save Thedas, the original impetus for Inquisition had been the civil war between the mages and the Templars.

“Mages?” Helen asked. “Like Solas?”

“Not exactly,” Cassandra said. “Solas is an apostate. Self-taught.”

Helen shook her head. “What that mean?”

“It means he was never part of the Circle.”

“What is Circle?” Helen hated that she sounded so ignorant, but damn it all, she was ignorant. 

Leliana said, “Maker, you really don't know any of this, do you.” It wasn't a question. Helen wasn't sure the comment was even directed at her.

Chapter 7 Helen with Cass and Leliana

“Cassandra, go get Josie. And some food. And chairs. We need to have a long talk with the Herald.”

Cassandra left. Less than a minute later, a very pretty woman with a fancy dress and an even fancier clipboard walked into the room.

Leliana introduced the woman as Josephine Montilyet, the Inquisition's Ambassador. “And how are you finding your accommodations?” Josephine asked.

“Better than dungeon,” Helen said.

“Well, I should hope so,” said the ambassador, not the least bit offended.

“Josie, when we were speaking with the Herald, it became clear that she had no understanding of either Mages or Templars,” Leliana said. “I thought it best if we give her a brief history of the conflict.”

Cassandra returned with a handful of servants, who carried chairs, food and tea service.

Once everything had been set up, the servants left and the door was closed. Cassandra offered Helen a plate. “Solas explained that your magic uses the energy from your own body,” she said, “and that you need more sustenance than most people. Is that true?”

“Yes,” Helen said, more than happy to eat again, and relieved that she would not have to explain herself in a place where food appeared to already be in short supply.

Once they had all filled their plates, and Josephine had poured tea, the other women began to explain to Helen about the Mage-Templar war.

The “brief history” took a few hours. The conflict had been centuries in the making, apparently. Leliana and Cassandra bickered about which side was more at fault, with Josephine often reminding them they were there to teach Helen about the past, not argue over its interpretation.

Helen lacked the language for the complicated questions she wanted to ask. When she did stop the discussion to ask for clarification, it took her a long time to get her questions out. So she mostly kept her mouth shut and listened.

In the end, what Helen learned was that, in Ferelden, Orlais and most of the surrounding countries, mages were forced into “Circles,” once their magic manifested. This usually happened in childhood or early adolescence. Obviously, it caused a great deal of heartache for both the child and the child's family.

“Children,” Helen said flatly. “In prison.”

The Templars watched over the mages in the Circles, ostensibly to protect them from both their own magic and from bigoted outsiders. While some Circles were models of stability and viewed as learning centers, such a system was ripe for corruption, which Helen had figured out before they'd even finished describing how the system worked. Templars in many Circles had been allowed to abuse, maim, rape, torture and even kill mages with impunity.

They told her about tranquility. Possession. Blood magic. Apostates. Kirkwall.

Frankly, the entire system was appalling. That war had broken out was as surprising as water being wet.

The Conclave had been widely viewed as the last, best chance of reconciliation. Divine Justinia had convinced both sides to the negotiations. She was widely loved and respected.

That was who Helen had been accused of killing. The Divine, and all of those participants on both sides actually willing to give the peace talks a fair chance.

Then there were the Dalish elves, who followed their own gods and had their own ways of handling mages. Dwarves were immune to magic and had an entire economy based on mining the lyrium.

“What is lyrium?” was one of the few times she interrupted a discussion to ask for clarification. Lyrium, she learned, was a mineral which mages used to enhance their powers, and gave Templars their anti-magic capabilities. It was also highly addictive to Templars, which kept them under the control of the Chantry.

Then there were the Qunari, a race she had not met yet, who were known for their excessively brutal treatment of their own mages.

The discussion was long and exhausting, and only scratched the surface of the politics. It did nothing to explain what magic actually was.

Helen found herself with a full bladder. It was as good a time as any to discuss some of her own missing knowledge.

“I have questions.”

“Of course,” Josephine said. “What can we help you with, Herald?”

“Everything,” she said. “Where toilet? How you bathe? Clean teeth? Travel? Where to eat?”

The three women looked back at her, momentarily at a loss. Josephine recovered first. “Certainly, Herald. Why don't I give you a quick tour of Haven?”

“I need toilet first.”

“Josie, let's save the tour for later,” Leliana said, as she looked at Helen searchingly. “I think we need to ask the Herald some questions of our own.”

“Agree,” Helen said.

Josephine took her out the back of the Chantry and showed her the women's outhouse. It was, as expected, filthy, dark and foul. Not that Alliance latrines smelled fresh and clean, but they had been sanitary, at least.

“Where to wash hands?” she asked.

Josephine looked at Helen like she was the most wonderful thing she'd seen all day. “Oh! If you only knew! Leliana and I have been begging the others to please set up washing stations, but they think it 'Orlesian nonsense!'”

“Is filthy!” Helen exclaimed. “Spreads disease.”

“Please feel free to share your opinion with Cassandra and the Commander. Chancellor Roderick. Flissa. All of the Chantry sisters. Everybody.”

Josie then took Helen to her own quarters. She had two large basins on stands, with full water pitchers and little cakes of soap. Helen gratefully washed her hands. Josie said she would see to it that Helen had a similar setup in her own quarters.

“Herald, I must ask—why did you choose to wear that...fur?” Josephine asked.

“Is warm.”

“Ferelden is cold, but we can get you something else which is just as warm, but far more flattering.”

Helen wasn't offended. If Josephine wanted Helen to wear a clown suit and juggle knives, she'd do it, as long as she placed soap and hot water within Helen's reach.

As they made their way back to the Chantry, Josie explained that teeth were usually cleaned with a dab of toothpaste and a small cloth wrapped around the end of a stick. Bathing was limited to water, soap and a cloth, at least in Haven. Baths were easier to find in larger cities but were considered to be something of a luxury item. Fereldens, however, viewed them as a novelty, at best, or a scandalous waste of fuel, at worst.

“Don't care,” Helen said firmly. “Haven filthy. I just want clean.”

Josephine linked her arm through Helen's. “Oh, Herald,” she said, beaming at her. “We are going to be such good friends.” Helen laughed for the first time in ten thousand years.

“I agree,” she said. Her good mood didn't last long. Leliana and Cassandra had brought another person to the War Table.

Commander Rutherford.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter eight 

Cullen woke up thinking about lyrium. In truth, he'd hardly slept, so he wasn't so much “waking up” as he was “getting out of bed.”

He thought about lyrium as he got dressed. He thought about lyrium as he put on his armor. He thought about lyrium as knelt by his cot and recited the Chant of Light.

He had already endured the most massive disasters of this Age, including the Blight, torture at the hands of blood mages, a Qunari invasion of the Free Marches, a terrorist attack in Kirkwall, the madness of his Knight-Commander, and the mage uprising.

When things had been at their worst, lyrium had been a comfort, a balm. It had given him strength and had soothed his insecurity. It had shackled him to the Chantry, but it had also removed from him the burden of thought.

Now, in the midst of the single largest catastrophe in the known history of Thedas, one that made the Blight seem manageable by comparison, Cullen was dealing with the ever-present itch of withdrawal. Worse, he was in charge.

He was cocking it up.

Ivans. He grit his teeth to even think the man's name. He had allowed Ivans to come to Haven as a favor to the Knight-Commander of Starkhaven. Ivans had been suspected of making apprentices in the Starkhaven Circle... service him. He'd never been caught, and none of the apprentices would talk.

Cullen had agreed to bring him to Haven, telling himself that Ivans would be no danger because there was no Circle in Haven for Ivans to abuse.

But never in his life had Cullen been so overwhelmed.

Cassandra had initially asked him to join the Inquisition to help subdue the Mage-Templar conflict. He'd been in Haven, along with Cassandra and Leliana, expecting to help negotiate a peace.

Instead, he had a front seat for yet another terrorist attack and the horror of Breach. Overnight, he'd had to take on the duties of training an army.

With all of his new responsibilities, not to mention his withdrawal symptoms, “check the guard rotation” dropped off of his list of priorities. That was how Ivans had been able to attack the most important prisoner in all of Thedas.

When he'd seen her outside the Temple not five hours later, he had been so focused on fighting demons that he'd forgotten— he had honestly forgotten!—what his men had done to her. All he had seen was the stranger, with magic no Templar could contain, who had caused the Breach.

Well. He'd seen the hatred in her eyes and had heard it in her voice. He would not forget again.

He headed to the training grounds and thought about lyrium.

* * *

Cullen watched the people of Haven stand in silent respect for the woman who had calmed the sky. “The Herald of Andraste,” they called her.

Personally, he thought she looked like a savage, with her bald head, dressed in discarded barbarian furs. She might look like a savior to the people of Haven, but to Cullen, she looked like a prophet of chaos.

Cassandra found him later that afternoon. “Cullen,” she said. “you are needed in the Chantry.”

He issued instructions to his Lieutenant and walked back to the Chantry with the Seeker. “Well?” he asked. “How is she?”

“Physically, she is well enough.”

“Have you learned anything about her?”

They walked in silence for a moment more before Cassandra lowered her voice and said, “You know about the rumors that she is from another world?”

“Maker, yes. At least one recruit states it as fact every training session.”

Cassandra said, “I am inclined to believe her.”

“That seems...”

“Impossible, I know,” Cassandra said. “But you saw her magic, did you not? And there is more. She doesn't know this world or understand it. When Leliana and I informed her that people were calling her 'The Herald of Andraste,' she asked, 'what Andraste?'”

“You're joking.”

“No. Cullen, she had never heard of Mages, or Templars, or Circles. It was all new to her.”

“She could be lying,” Cullen pointed out.

“She could,” Cassandra agreed. “And how you feeling, Cullen? Are you sleeping at all? Have you eaten yet today?”

“You're very pushy, Seeker. Has anybody ever told you that?”

Cassandra glared at him. He sighed and relented. “Headache. No. No.”

When he got to the War Table, servants were clearing plates and tea cups. Cassandra snagged a remaining sandwich from one of the trays as it passed and handed it to Cullen. He ate it in three bites. He did feel better, although he wasn't going to admit it to Cassandra.

Minutes later, Josephine and the Herald walked in, arm and arm, giggling over something. The Herald was smiling. She was short—shorter than most elves, even. The furs she wore almost swallowed her frame. She looked like nothing more than a little girl, playing soldier in her father's armor.

Then she saw him. The smile vanished. Her eyes, which had been sparkling and brilliant, now looked at him with distrust and cold calculation. She patted Josie's arm once, then pulled from the Ambassador.

The Herald walked to the War Table, across from Cullen.

Introductions were made, and Cullen's role was explained. The only acknowledgment from the Herald about his role was a short nod and a frown.

“Herald,” Leliana began, “we need to discuss the issue of where you come from.”

The Herald nodded once. “Agree.”

“You said that you were from a world called, 'Earth.'” Leliana said.

“Yes.”

Cullen found her accent strange, like pouring gravel over the Common tongue.

“And that you were at the Temple of Sacred Ashes because you were cold?” Leliana continued.

Cullen openly scoffed at this. “Maker, did you really? You got cold, and thought you'd just pop into one of the most sacred places in all of Thedas?”

The so-called Herald barely spared him a glance. “Yes.”

“Why were you were cold?” Leliana continued, with a look towards Cullen that said keep your Ferelden mouth shut.

“I walk snow. At night. I cold. I see Temple. I go inside.”

“So the vision was true,” Cassandra said. “The Temple was still intact when you entered.”

“Yes.”

“But you said the Breach pulled you from your world,” Leliana's voice had gone hard.

“No. You say that.”

Leliana began to argue until Cassandra interrupted her. “She is right, Leliana. She said she came from another world, but you were the one who asked Solas if the Breach could have pulled her here.”

“So-las say no,” the Herald reminded her.

“He said had never heard of such a thing happening before,” Cassandra was correcting the Herald now, “but that it would explain a great deal about you.”

“How did you get here?” Leliana asked.

“My ship crash.”

“Your ship,” Leliana said. “The nearest ocean is at least a fortnight away. There is nowhere for any ship to crash.”

Finally, Cullen thought, we're getting somewhere.

“No ocean ship. Space ship.”

“Space?” Leliana asked. “What do you mean by 'space'? Which space?”

“Space,” the prisoner said as if this should make perfect sense. “Outer space.” She pointed vaguely towards the ceiling. “Stars.”

“Ridiculous,” Cullen muttered.

Helen shot him a look of complete disdain. “Leliana,” she asked, “you find omnitool?”

“What is she talking about?” Cullen asked.

“Her bracelet,” Leliana said. “No, Herald, we have not.”

“Maker save us,” Cullen scoffed. “There are hundreds of people dead. The Breach has torn open the sky. We're at war, and she's worried about a bracelet?”

The Herald did a thing that was very disconcerting—muttering to herself, before speaking again. “Is not bracelet!...Is tool, my memories...maybe memory from Breach.”

“Your memories,” Leliana said flatly. “Let me see if I have this straight. Your ship sailed through the stars and landed at the Conclave. You are the only survivor of an explosion that you don't remember. You use magic that you claim is not magic. And the one thing that might prove that what you are saying is true is a stolen bracelet.”

“My ship proof,” said the prisoner.

“The ship you came here in?” Leliana asked.

“Yes.”

“It's still here?”

“Probably.”

“Could you tell us how to find it?” Leliana asked.

“Yes. Is dangerous. The...poison? In me? Was from ship. No get close, no stay long. No touch.”

“Show me,” Leliana said, pulling a map of Haven and the surrounding area from a shelf and unrolling it. The women started talking. Cassandra asked the Herald to draw where she thought the ship was.

Cullen felt adrift as he watched the Herald. He couldn't trust his instincts, not right now, not when he had been so wrong, so often before.

Cullen almost—almost—believed she was sincere, but her story made no damn sense at all. Every time he thought she was about to walk into proof of her guilt, she seemed to wiggle out of it with another, more fanciful statement.

Just like a mage. The thought came unbidden. He tried to shove it aside but could not.

“Why did you come here?” he asked, just as the Herald had finished drawing a crude map, and a sketch of something that looked like a cross between an egg and a jar.

“You arrest me, no?” she said, not looking up from her paper.

“That isn't what I mean. Let's say I believe your ludicrous story, although, for the record, I don't. But assuming I did, why did you come to Thedas?”

The Herald met his eyes, and for the first time since he'd met her, it wasn't in anger. “By mistake,” she said, her voice very quiet.

Chapter 8 Helen Trevelyan

“What do you mean?” 

Helen tried to explain, but even when she spoke to herself in her language, he could see that she was getting frustrated. 

“I sleep on large ship...bad man, he take me. He...threw me. Into space. I...sleep ten thousand years. I land on Thedas. I wake up. It snow and dark and cold. I find Temple. Now...” her breath hitched so convincingly, he almost believed it. “Now, I here.” 

Cassandra and Josephine clearly believed her. Leliana was much more skeptical. “You were asleep for ten thousand years?” 

The Herald nodded. 

“Herald,” Josie said gently, “if we find your ship, could you return home?” 

“No.” 

Leliana, her face hard as glass again, said “There's something else I don't understand. How is it you barely speak our language but still understand everything we say.” 

“Good point,” Cullen muttered. 

“I understand all language,” the Herald said. 

“All language,” Leliana repeated. Cullen decided that Leliana repeating something in a skeptical tone was an extremely irritating interrogation technique. 

“Every language. Yes.” 

“Even if you've never heard it before, you understand every single language?” 

“Yes.” 

Leliana started reciting something in Orlesian. Cullen happened to recognize it as a prayer from the Chant of Light. 

The Herald looked like she was listening to something. “Say again, please?” Leliana did. The Herald said, “Une prière?” 

“One of them,” Leliana said. 

Josephine then started speaking in rapid Antivan. Helen smiled a little at the Ambassador. “Gracias, Josephine. Jabón es...bueno?” 

Leliana and Cassandra had not apparently needed any translation for the exchange, but Cullen did. He looked at Josephine, who said, “I was telling the Herald that I would make certain that she had plenty of soap and water in her quarters. She thanked me and said, 'soap is good.'” 

“Well,” Leliana said, “I am still not certain I can believe your story. It is very...far-fetched.” 

“Yes,” Helen agreed. 

“But no matter where you came from, I do not believe you were responsible for the Divine's death.” 

“Nor do I,” said Cassandra. 

“Nor I,” said Josephine. 

They all looked at Cullen expectantly. 

“I do,” he said, without any trace of apology in his voice. “I find your story nonsensical. If it weren't for that mark on your hand, I'd have had you executed. I have seen no evidence of your innocence, only your guilt.” 

“You believe I kill those people?” she said calmly. “Truly?” She looked at him directly, no anger or hatred on her face. She genuinely wanted to know his opinion. 

“Yes,” he said, thinking about the scene in the dungeon, where not one Templar had been able to get through her barrier. “I do.” 

Leliana and Cassandra looked like they wanted to kick him. Josephine started wringing her hands. 

The Herald, however, didn't seem bothered by it at all. After muttering to herself again, she said, “You no believe that. You just...shame I kill your man.” 

“That is not true!!” Cullen yelled, his voice much louder than he intended. 

“No?” the Herald said, one eyebrow raised. “Your guards that...protect man I kill. What happen them?” 

“Protect—they didn't protect him,” Cullen protested, “They just...” he struggled to find the right words, and realized there weren't any that wouldn't make it worse. “They are on half-rations and barrack-restrictions for two weeks, plus they've lost any leave time they've accrued. Not that they would have time to take leave, anyway, but whatever it was is gone now.” 

A long, uncomfortable silence permeated the room. He glanced at Cassandra, hoping for some support, but she was glaring at him. Josephine's expression was the polite mask that he was sure she'd perfected at court. Leliana looked disappointed in him. 

After muttering angrily to herself, the Herald said, “No...court-martial? No...discharge from ranks?” 

Cullen stammered a bit and started to argue, then her words sank in—court-martial, discharge... 

“You're a soldier.” 

“I Marine,” she said, slowly, tapping on the war table. “Naval officer.” 

Cullen rocked back on his heels, before rounding on the other advisors. “Maker's breath, she just admitted that she's a foreign military officer! She's standing right here in the middle of our war room! For all we know, she could have been sent here to spy on the Inquisition!” 

And the Herald, Maker damn her, laughed at him, before lowering her face into both of her hands. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, before raising her face to him again. Her eyes were red and shone with unshed tears, but her gaze was steady. “Everybody I know dead ten thousand years, Commander,” she said, her voice very rough. “Nobody left to spy for.” 

“Why didn't you mention before that you are military?” Leliana asked. 

“Nobody ask.” 

Cullen bit back the truly blasphemous words that had bloomed on the tip of his tongue. He pushed the heels his hands into his eyes and thought about lyrium. 

“What is your rank, Herald?” Leave it to Josephine to ask that. 

“Commander,” said the Herald, “but I...retire from Navy.” 

“You're the same rank as Commander Rutherford?” Cassandra said. 

The Herald shook her head in the negative. “You more like...Admiral,” she said. 

“General,” Cullen corrected, automatically. “The Inquisition doesn't have a Navy. Only ground troops, such as they are.” 

The Herald looked at him in the eye, any trace of the misty-eyed woman from a few moments before was gone. “Commander. If you think I guilty, your men think I guilty. You need decide,” she pointed to the door, “or all this for nothing.” 

“She is right, Cullen,” Cassandra said.

“Ask, Commander,” the Herald said. “You want ask me, so ask.” 

He tried to look at her objectively. Maker, she was tiny. She was taller than Varric, but not by much. But she stood straight, her shoulders thrown back, her chin up slightly, not in defiance but confidence. 

“Did you kill the Divine?” 

“I no remember,” she said, “but...no reason to.” 

“Are you really the Herald of Andraste?” 

“No.” They both ignored the noises of discontent coming from Cassandra and Leliana. This was between him and the Herald. 

“Do you believe in the Maker?” 

“No.” Cassandra frowned at the Herald, who kept her gaze on Cullen. 

“Where does your magic come from?” 

She looked a little exasperated at that. “Is not magic, Commander. Is biotics. Is a...substance in my body. Allow me do,” and she created a small, blue ball of light in the palm of her right hand, “biotics.” 

Cullen reflexively reached for his sword-hilt, and called to the dwindling lyrium in his system, before he remembered how useless that was. 

He couldn't hear her magic at all, and it raised the hairs on the back of his neck. 

“You can touch,” she said. “This no hurt you.” 

“No, thank you,” he said, shortly. 

She did not look offended. The little ball vanished. 

“Your magic,” he said, deliberately using the term, “is unnatural. No Templar can stop it. No mage can stop it. If anybody was capable of causing the Breach, it was you.” 

The Herald tugged off her gloves. The mark shone weakly in the creases of her palm. When he focused on it, he could hear the Fade calling to him, although the whispers were fainter than they used to be. 

She pointed to the mark. “This. No. Biotics!” she said, angrily. “I no want this.” 

“Which is an easy thing to say when nobody else can use it!” he shot back. “That mark and your magic give you an unholy amount of power! You may be the strongest living mage in all of Thedas right now! If you turned into an abomination, nobody could stop you!” 

She blinked at him for a few moments, her brows knit together. “What is...a-bom-i-na-tion?” 

Thank the Maker that Cassandra answered, (“You'll recall our discussion this morning, Herald, about possession?”) because Cullen had been rendered speechless by that single question alone. 

Everybody in Thedas, even the smallest of children, knew what an abomination was. 

He watched the Herald's face as Cassandra explained the concept. The Herald listened intently, but he could see she was skeptical. She doesn't believe us, he realized. 

And that realization made him simultaneously believe that she was from another world, and hate her all the more for having the luxury of never knowing the fear of magic. 

“I believe you,” he said, interrupting Cassandra, “Maker help me, I believe you are from another world. But,” he gripped his sword hilt and tried not to think about Kinloch or Kirkwall, “you need to believe us when we tell you about the dangers of this world. Possession is real, Herald. I have faced it myself, far more often than I would have ever wanted. Guilty or not, you need to understand that.” 

The Herald looked him intently, her eyes lingering on that damned scar. 

Then she stood up straight and snapped her right hand to her forehead, her hand firm, the tips of her fingers just touching the outer edge of her eyebrow, palm angled slightly down. Her left arm was at her side, fingertips rigidly pointing to the floor. 

She maintained eye contact as she did it. It was a foreign—but unmistakably military—salute. It was both an acknowledgment of his position, and notice that she was outside his chain of command. 

Maker, he wanted to throttle her. 

Instead, he saluted her in return. Heels together, right fist over his heart, elbow at a right angle to his body, arm parallel to the floor. After several seconds had passed, she said something in that language of her and relaxed her posture. He did likewise. 

“Yes. Well,” Leliana said, “If you two don't mind, perhaps we can get back to matters at hand.” 

Cullen pinched his eyes against the headache that was forming and thought about lyrium.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter nine

The rest of the meeting was uncomfortable but productive. 

Josephine asked about Helen's family. Siblings? No, only child. Were her parents nobility? No. What did they do? They were farmers, first on Earth, then on Eden Prime. 

“Eden Prime is another country?” Josephine asked.

“Another planet,” Helen replied. 

There was a long silence that Helen suspected she would hear a lot if she continued to discuss how things had worked in the Milky Way. “So, you just, what—go to other worlds all the time, whenever you feel like?” Cullen asked sarcastically. 

“Yes,” Helen said. 

Cullen opened his mouth like he was going to argue, but Josephine cut him off. “We are here to establish the Herald's background, Commander. I believe we are in agreement that the Herald is the daughter of farmers, yes? So, I will make that part of her family history.” 

The Ambassador scribbled something down, then asked, “And how old are you now?”

Helen wasn't even sure how to answer. Was she still thirty-one? Was she 10,000? Josephine seemed to understand her confusion and said, “I will clarify—how old do you think you are?” 

“Thirty-one.” 

“Marriage?” Josephine asked gently. “Children?” 

“No.” 

“How do your people handle magic?” Leliana asked. 

Helen struggled to explain it adequately. She managed to get out that biotics were usually identified during adolescence, that training was voluntary, and that there was no such thing as demons or possession. 

She lacked the language to explain much else with any clarity. It was hard enough explaining element zero to people in the Milky Way. And how could she talk about the Asari, who had always had biotic abilities? 

God, she missed her omnitool. 

Leliana and Cassandra wanted Helen to head out the following day to a place called the Hinterlands and meet with a nun who might help them. Josephine thought Helen should take at least a week to get her bearings and learn about local customs. Cullen mostly glared at her. 

Helen thought Josie had a point about her learning how to navigate Thedas, but she also couldn't wait to get out of Haven. It was cold, and it stank. It was also a military post, where the leader of the Army utterly loathed her. 

“I leave two days.” 

Leliana and Cassandra decided that the official position of the Inquisition was that the Maker had brought the Herald to them from another world in their hour of need. 

“But not true!” Helen protested. 

“It is a matter of interpretation,” Cassandra said. “You are exactly what we needed when we needed it. Who's to say that the Maker did not bring you to us?” 

It was also decided that, for the moment, Helen should keep her ability to understand all languages to herself, even from the other members of her team. “It's a useful skill,” Leliana said. “You never know what you might learn.” 

As soon as the meeting was officially over, Cullen stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. 

“He had been under a great deal of pressure for some time,” Cassandra said, “but he believes you. That is enough for now.” 

“His men,” Helen said, shaking her head, and hating her language barrier, “he hate me, his men hate me, too.” 

“I will speak to him about it,” Cassandra said. 

Josephine sent Helen back to her quarters, saying she would join her there shortly. Fifteen minutes later, Josie was busting through the door with a few servants in her wake. They set up two wash basins, extra towels, soap and pitchers of water. There was also a pearl-handled stick, a jar of charcoal-based toothpaste, and small bits of flannel for cleaning her teeth. 

Josephine was carrying a box which, when opened, revealed books, a half-full inkwell, some charcoals and quills, paper, and an empty journal. Josie placed everything on the table. “Your first language lesson begins,” she announced. 

Josephine spent the next hour teaching Helen the letters of the Common language. “I want you to translate some simple songs of your culture into the Common tongue,” she ordered. “Allow people to correct your grammar, no matter how rude they might be about it. Oh! And ask Master Tethras if he will loan you some of his books! He is a famous author, you know! His books are positively scandalous!” 

Before she left, Josephine showed Helen how to light the lamps, bank the fire at night, where the matches were for candles and made several pointed suggestions about what to wear going forward. 

Then, she delicately handed Helen a small silk bag of soft, flannel pads, “for that time of the month.” 

Helen suddenly felt a bit sick. 

Like everybody who had signed onto the Andromeda Initiative, she had agreed to a reversible form of sterility. The Initiative had a plan—make the habitats viable and productive, then reverse the sterility, and encourage an Andromeda baby boom. 

Everyone, including herself, had undergone genetic testing and psychological counseling. She had been committed to having a large family when the time was right. 

And now she could never have it reversed. She would never have children. 

Clinton—that worthless, rat-dropping bastard—had finally managed to take from her every single thing she could have possibly cared about. It had taken him ten thousand years, but he'd done it. 

All of this seared through Helen's brain in a heartbeat. Don't cry, she thought. Don't bitch, don't blame. She handed the little bag back to Josephine and said, “Thank you but...I no need.” 

Josephine made a little noise of sympathy, and quickly changed the subject. She gave Helen a list of places in Haven to visit the following day. Finally, she told Helen she had made arrangements to have her meals delivered to the cabin. 

Helen thanked her profusely, and Josephine left. 

As soon as she was alone, Helen stripped naked and used the new soap and an entire pitcher of water getting herself clean. She was freezing by the end but didn't care. She dressed in clean panties, socks, leggings and a long tunic-type sweater. She sat near the fire and started translating, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She switched to charcoal after a minute. Using the quill and ink was messy. She didn't know how to get the ink to do what she wanted. 

Supper was delivered by the same girl who had dropped supplies all over the floor earlier in the day. She shook so hard that she would have dropped the tray of food as well, had Helen not made a timely intervention. 

“Please,” Helen said as gently as she could, using the same tone of voice that she'd once used on freed slaves, “no be afraid of me.” 

The girl looked at her like she'd said she planned to eat her. Helen decided not to push it, saying only, “Thank you,” before the girl fled. 

Supper was a bland, greasy stew, a hunk of bread, some cheese, hard cider and a small bottle of cold water that had been infused with an herb of some kind. Helen devoured it all. She brushed her teeth, crawled into bed, and quietly sobbed herself to sleep. 

** 

She woke up in the morning before dawn, her left hand aching. 

Servants somewhere must have been waiting for some signal, because literally within five minutes of lighting her first candle, the same girl was knocking on her door with a tray of porridge, cream, dried fruit and hot coffee. 

Helen was so happy to see coffee that she thanked the girl enthusiastically in English, before remembering to switch to Common. That got a little smile out of the girl. 

Helen ate, cleaned up and dressed in one of Josephine's suggested outfits. She undressed almost immediately and hung it back up in the small wardrobe. Josephine had beautiful taste in clothing, but Helen was not wearing silks to run errands. 

She found more normal clothing and a jacket. It wasn't nearly as warm as the furs she'd worn the day before. Suck it the fuck up and adjust, she told herself. She grabbed Solas' knife and left her cabin. 

She met first with Harritt, the blacksmith. She liked him. He asked her what kind of weapons and armor she needed. Her language skills weren't up to par, but this was a man who understood what his soldiers were doing in the field. She said, “light” and “fast” and “warm. Please, warm.” 

Then she showed him what she wanted for close combat—essentially, a retractable dagger that she could keep strapped to her right forearm. It wasn't an omniblade, but it would have to do. 

“That's it?” he said. “No shield? No staff? Just...one dagger?” 

She nodded. Harritt frowned. “Look, I s'pose you know wotcher doin' n all, but leathers and a single dagger won't help you none against a mace to the back of your skull. I know you're a mage...” 

“Not mage,” Helen said. This was going to get old. 

“But if you're going to fight without a staff,” he said, ignoring her protests, “you need better armor.” 

He measured and fussed and grumbled. Then he informed her that she could use this dagger, with that armor for now, but that when she returned from the Hinterlands, she was to come see him at once because he would have her real armor and her real dagger done by then. 

She then spent several minutes watching Commander Rutherford, and his Lieutenants train the new recruits. She couldn't comment on sword-and-shield techniques, but Sweet Baby Jesus. Some of these FNGs were so green, she expected fingers to start falling into the snow. 

The Commander noticed her watching. “Something you need, Herald?” he asked, in an annoyed tone of voice. 

She ignored him and walked over to Cassandra, who was beating up some blameless practice dummy. “I saw you talking to Harritt,” Cassandra said. “Tell me what sort of weapon you plan to use.” 

“My biotics,” she said, “and dagger.” 

“Show me,” Cassandra said. So they spent a few minutes with Cassandra trying to get through her barrier with her sword and then dodging as Helen would strike with the dagger if Cassandra got too close. 

“It will do for now,” Cassandra said after a bit. “I suppose we will have plenty of opportunities to test it once we leave.” 

Helen nodded and walked back into the village. Her biotics felt good. No, better than good. They felt amazing. She desperately wanted to throw a singularity, just to see how wide the radius was, but instinct told her that might not go over well with the locals. 

The quartermaster, Threnn, inadvertently taught Helen a racial slur.

“Anyone call you knife-ear, you come to me,” Threnn said to a skinny guy who was wearing work clothes and a knit hat, who carried a bucket and shovel. 

After the skinny guy left, Helen introduced herself. Threnn told her about requisitions, explained what her purpose was, and acted as put-upon and irritated as every other non-commissioned officer Helen had ever known. 

When their business was concluded, Helen asked, “What 'knife-ear' mean?” 

“Are you serious?” Threnn gaped at her as if Helen were having her on. Helen waited patiently for her to recover. “Maker, they said you was from another world but I didn't really believe it. It's an ugly thing that people call elves. It's not polite, got it? So don't go 'round, sayin' it yourself.” 

Varric stopped her as she walked by, and they talked. She liked him a lot. He was the first person to ask after her mental health, which embarrassingly caused her to tear up. Don't cry, the thought, frantically. Don't cry

“Hey, now, don't cry on the dwarf,” he said, patting her arm. “I'll just tell lies until you leave.” 

It was stupid but it made her giggle. She managed to get out that Josephine had suggested she use his books to learn how to read. “Of course, the Herald of Andraste can use my books to learn how to read. Can I tell my publisher, too?” 

After a couple of minutes of joking, she said, “Varric, favor? You please to come Hinterlands with me?” 

“What, with you and Cassandra?” 

Helen nodded. “Please. Yes.” 

“You do realize Cassandra hates me, don't you?” 

Yes. “No.” 

“Well, she does. But yes, I'll come to the Hinterlands with you. Even though it's, you know, full of the outdoors.” 

“Thank you, Varric.” 

After lunch in her cabin, she met the alchemist who had kept her hydrated. He had some good suggestions about high-energy drinks she could take on the road. He called them, “restoratives,” but sugar water was sugar water, no matter how bad you made it taste. 

Finally, she sought out Solas to return his knife. She knocked on the door of the cabin she'd been told was his. She heard him say, “A moment, please!” 

He opened the door a minute later. “Herald,” he said, neutrally. “Good afternoon.” 

Chapter 9 Solas

 “Good afternoon,” she replied. She handed him his knife, hilt-first. “I return,” she explained.

“Thank you,” he said, taking it back. “How is the mark doing?” he asked.

She shrugged. It ached, but not so much that she felt the need to do anything about it.

He invited her into the cabin so he could look at the mark. They sat at a small table as he inspected her palm.

“Is it causing you any pain?” he asked.

“Some,” she said, “but is...tolerate?”

“Tolerable,” he said. He took her left hand into both of his. A warm pulse ran through her hand, easing the pain somewhat.

She wondered how he did that. Where was he pulling that energy from? How did he direct it through himself and into her? How did that transfer work, in a world without subcutaneous delivery systems or SmartArmor or omnitools?

She didn't realize that he was finished until he gently released her hand, and cleared his throat. “So,” he said. “The Chosen of Andraste, a blessed hero sent to save us all.”

Helen looked up at him, surprised by the bitterness in his tone, and caught him smoothing his face into a neutral mask. But for a moment, his true feelings were plain to see.

“Ah,” she said, “you angry at me, too.” She stood up. “Thank you, Solas, for heal.”

He looked like he was about to say something, but she left before he could.

Helen was suddenly overwhelmed with every ounce of resentment she felt about her circumstances. Don't cry, don't bitch, don't blame, she scolded herself. Especially don't cry. She kept it together, kept her calm, all the way to her cabin.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter ten

Solas watched the Herald hastily retreat from his presence. He sighed; he needed to do a better job reigning in his temper. 

Earlier that morning, Leliana had knocked on his door and shared with him what the Herald claimed to be—the daughter of farmers from another world, and a military officer, who had drifted through the stars for thousands of years. 

“Do you believe her?” he asked. 

“No,” she said quickly. Then she hesitated, and added, “Well, not yet. It is odd. When she speaks, I do believe her. Then I think about what she has just said, and I get angry with myself for entertaining such nonsense.” She left not long after that, looking troubled and uncertain. 

The rumors in Haven were flying fast and thick. The Herald was an abomination. The Herald was a simple farmer's daughter. The Herald was an evil mage who used blood magic. The Maker himself had pulled the Herald from the heavens to save them all. 

Then the subject of all the speculation showed up, unannounced, to return his knife. 

He found himself disappointed that she had done so. His task was complicated enough already. It would be much easier if the Herald were petty and selfish, or even just thoughtless. 

Perhaps that was why he had been unable to maintain his simple apostate facade when she sat so trustingly in his presence, her hand in his, and oblivious to the meaning the mark held for him. 

“You angry at me, too,” she'd said. 

And he honestly had been. Seeing the Anchor nestled in the palm of a mortal, of a human...it rankled. She'd fled before he'd had a chance to say anything else. 

Do not forget, not even for a single moment, where the fault lies, he scolded himself. Even if she shared some of the blame, even if she had been working with Corypheus the entire time, alienating the woman would make his task even more impossible than it already was. 

One of his agents—Telina, the servant girl assigned to the Herald—stopped by later that afternoon. 

“What have you observed?” he asked. 

“She's an odd one, Messere. Ambassador Montilyet is trying to teach her how to read and write the Common. And she's a bit fussy, honestly, washing her hands all the time.” 

“Interesting. What else?” 

“She didn't know how to bank the fire, or light the lamp.” 

“She is human,” he pointed out. “Perhaps she is accustomed to having servants do those tasks for her.” 

"No, Messere, that's just it. I don't think she's used to having servants at all. She made her own bed this morning. She changed her outfit at least once but hung the clothing back up. And she keeps thanking me.” 

He took a couple of coppers out of his pouch. “Anything else?” 

She hesitated for a moment, then leaned forward as if she were about to reveal something truly scandalous. “I heard that she asked the quartermaster what 'knife-ear' meant. She'd never heard it before! And that Threnn had to explain it to her! Can you imagine!” 

And when her eyes met his, he realized that this infant expected him to feel a connection with her over this. So he shook his head, as if he, too, found it amusing. He handed her the coppers, saying, “Thank you. We will meet again tomorrow?” 

“If you like, but the Herald is leaving for the Hinterlands in the morning, with the Seeker and Master Tethras.” 

“I see. When she returns, then.” 

The girl left. 

He pondered his options, then headed towards the Herald's cabin, and knocked on her door. 

Her eyebrows went up when she saw him. “So-las?” 

“My apologies, Herald, but I wondered if we might speak for a moment.” 

Her gaze was disconcerting as if she was trying to look into him. After a moment, she opened the door wide enough to allow him to come inside. 

 

Chapter 10 Helen

 

She gestured him to her small table, where her supper awaited. It was simple fare—meat, bread, butter, cheese.

“Herald, I wanted to--”

She raised a hand, to stop him from going any further. She pulled a chair out for him, inviting him to sit.

Curious, he sat. She opened a bottle of hard cider and poured him a glass. Then she took everything she'd been given to eat, and began to divide it evenly among the plates.

“Herald, this is not necessary,” he said as soon as he realized that she intended to feed him half of her own dinner.

She handed him a plate, anyway, and the only fork. Then she began eating herself, using her fingers, the knife and a spoon.

He sipped on the cider, bemused at her actions. He'd only stopped by to offer her a quick apology, and (more importantly) to suggest that she take him with her to the Hinterlands. Now he was staring down at a plate of food he did not want but could not, in politeness, refuse.

“I wanted to apologize for my tone earlier today,” he said. “The Breach has us all on edge, but I should not have taken it out on you.”

She shrugged. “Eat, So-las.”

Giving in to the situation, he pulled out his own knife and started to smear some butter on his bread. “I hear you are traveling to the Hinterlands with Cassandra and Varric.”

She met his eyes and nodded. “You want go,” she guessed.

“I should go,” he corrected. “We face a bloody conflict. You will need a mage with you.”

The Herald gave him another long, searching look. “You soldier, So-las?”

If you only knew. “A long time ago, yes.”

“You from Ferelden?” She hesitated in her pronunciation—Fer-el-den—as if she was still testing out the word on her tongue. The question was innocent enough, but it led to a subject he needed to avoid. Time to redirect the conversation.

“'Are you from Ferelden,' is the proper way to ask that question. I understand the Ambassador is giving you language lessons.”

The Herald wiped her mouth with her napkin, went over to her desk, and brought back an inkwell, a quill, a stick of charcoal, and some paper.

The paper had writing on it already. In an unsteady hand, and written in smeared charcoal, it said, twinkle twinkle tiny star, how I wondering what you are.

She pointed to the quill and ink. “I no use before,” she said. “Is messy.”

“You know how to read and write,” Solas said carefully, “but not how to use a quill and ink.”

“Yes,” she said, seemingly relieved to hear him say it.

He showed her how to sharpen the nib, load the ink, clean the quill and make her marks. As they worked, he discretely put the food she had given him back on her plate. After an hour, she had eaten everything and had written her own primer for upper and lower case Common.

He excused himself after that, saying he would see her at sunrise to head to the Hinterlands. “Thank you, So-las,” she said, touching the paper.

“It is no trouble,” he told her, and he took his leave. Fen'Harel, he thought, on the way back to his cabin. Betrayer of Worlds. The Dread Wolf. He Who Hunts Alone. Also, Teaches Penmanship on the Side.

**

Their first day on the road, the Herald insisted that all of them understand what she was doing with her own magic. "You need know, Varric," she said, getting a bit aggravated when the dwarf got bored and tuned her out. "Battle too late for learn."

Her primary spells—and he did not fail to notice that she winced when he referred to them as such—were Pull, Throw, Singularity, Warp, and Stasis. She indicated that she had others but did not elaborate.

She was a competent horsewoman, but only just, and not used to long days in the saddle. She never asked him to heal her saddle pain. Since it was not life-threatening, he did not offer it.

She was fastidious in her habits, keeping her hands, face, and teeth clean by what appeared to be long-ingrained routine. Their campsites were neat and orderly.

He and Cassandra would spar with her in the evenings. She had experience with hand to hand combat, but the reach of Cassandra's sword and Solas' quarterstaff confused her. Even with her barrier up, it was not difficult at first to throw her off balance.

“What sort of weapons are you used to facing?” Solas asked her.

“Like Varric,” she said, “but not really.”

“Range weapons?” Cassandra asked, “Like bows and arrows?”

The Herald had flipped her hand back and forth. “Close enough.”

Cassandra frowned and glanced at Solas. He knew they were thinking the same thing, but he let the Seeker ask it.

“If you do not carry a shield,” Cassandra asked, “and you do not wear heavy armor, how do you protect yourself from enemy fire?”

What followed was one of the many conversations with the Herald where her language skills proved inadequate. She would begin a sentence, then mutter to herself in her own language. Then Solas and the others would eventually make suggestions which were nearly always wrong.

Finally, she handed Solas a rock, walked away several paces and turned her back to him. “Throw gentle,” she ordered.

He tossed the rock at her back. It hit her on the back and bounced off.

She handed it back to him. “Throw hard,” she said, as she turned her back again.

He put some force behind it. Her barrier jumped into place just as the rock would have touched her skin.

“It is autonomous,” he said, surprised.

“Not foolproof,” she said, touching her right wrist, “but better than nothing.”

It was like everything else about her magic—beautiful, elegant, and disturbing. There was nothing of the Fade in it, at all. Nothing. Seeing her use it was like walking into a crowded room, only to realize that you had suddenly gone deaf.

And although he knew her magic used the energy from her own body, he had not appreciated what that meant until he'd had to listen to her munch on trail mix morning, noon and night. In his less charitable moments, it reminded him of a horse.

The Herald still struggled to speak the Common. It was a source of frustration for all of them. He watched her try—and fail—to place complicated concepts into words that the others could understand.

Her habit of muttering to herself under her breath when she was trying to find the right word was, quite honestly, extremely off-putting. At best, it sounded rude. At worst, she sounded mad or possessed.

When he explained that to the Herald, to his surprise, he received full-throated support from both Cassandra and Varric.

“The sooner you learn our language, the better,” Solas said. “For now, let us focus on the basics.”

So she did. She asked a lot of questions. “What kind tree this is? What names of moons? What day this is? What is that? What is this?”

After a few days, the questions became more interesting. One morning, not long after they had broken camp and were on the road, the Herald pointed to Cassandra, Varric, and Solas, in turn, and said. "Human. Elf. Dwarf."

Varric and Solas exchanged a look. That sort of statement was often the prelude to a human saying something profoundly ignorant.

“Why all different?” she asked.

A confused silence met her question. “What do you mean, Herald?” Cassandra asked.

Helen closed her eyes for a moment as she gathered her thoughts. “To me,” she said slowly, then she indicated all of them with a circle of her hand, “in my world, no elf, dwarf, human. All human.”

“The elves in your world are considered to be human?” Solas asked.

“No elves in my world,” Helen said.

“At all?” Solas said.

“No.”

“What about dwarves?” Varric asked.

“Dwarves rare but human. Not separate.”

“Adversity between the races goes back for generations,” Solas started, but the Herald interrupted him.

“I no mean politics, So-las,” she said. “I mean...biology.”

Solas bit back his retort about being interrupted, grasping that she was not trying to offend, only to learn. “Ask what you will,” he said.

“Human and elf can have child?”

“Such pairings are not favored socially, and you will need to be educated on the reasons why,” Solas said seriously, “but yes, it is possible. Biologically, such children are considered human.”

“Human and dwarf?”

“Not exactly common,” Varric said. “Dwarves tend to be pretty clannish. But yeah, it's possible. You'd get a really tall dwarf or a really short human. Like you, actually. Hey, was one of your parents a dwarf?” Solas could just imagine what an author like Varric would do with such information.

“No,” she smiled. “I just short. What about dwarf and elf?”

“Rarer still,” Solas said, suppressing a shudder at the very thought. “Genetically, the child would be a dwarf.”

“And all these children, they can have children, too?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Thank you,” she said, looking thoughtful.

Later that day, as they rode, she pulled her horse up next to his, and asked, “So-las, I ask question?”

May you ask a question, Herald” he corrected. “And yes, you may ask.”

“What is magic?”

“You really jump right in with the big questions, don't you?” Varric said.

Solas ignored the dwarf. “Magic is a force which runs through all living things in Thedas,” he said. “Everybody is touched by it. Only mages, however, can manipulate it to their will.”

“But what is it?” she persisted.

“Magic is magic,” Solas said. “It isn't a thing. It simply is.”

Her brows were furrowed together. “Where it come from?”

“Where does it come from. The primary source of magic is the Fade.”

She held up her left hand. “This is from Fade.”

“Use your articles, please, Herald.”

That got a very, very tiny ghost of a smile. “What is the Fade, So-las?”

He answered her questions for the rest of the day. He explained about the Veil. He explained about the Fade. He told her about the different schools of magic. He told her about spirits.

Cassandra interjected with Chantry-biased nonsense about demons. This devolved into a long and spirited discussion between himself and the Seeker on the nature of spirits.

Although he would not concede any ground where spirits were concerned, he did defer to the Seeker's greater knowledge of anti-magic. The entire day passed by so quickly for him that he was surprised when it was time to stop, and set up camp.

That evening, after supper, the Herald sat at the campfire and practiced her letters. Solas took a few moments to observe her as he walked the perimeter.

She had pushed her hood back and stared so longingly up at the night sky that Solas almost felt like offering her comfort, or sympathy.

The Herald reached for her right wrist, then aborted the movement. She quietly packed her things away and went to bed.

He looked for her that night, in the Fade, but found nothing. Ah, well. It was a relief, really.

**

They were still a few days out from the Hinterlands when they ran into the slavers.

It happened on the high roads, southwest of Lake Calenhad. Cassandra and Varric had been bickering, as usual, when the Herald suddenly hissed out a short command in her own language and snapped up a closed fist.

Solas had heard it, too. People weeping, crying out for help. The creak of wagons, and the threats of slavers.

The Herald slipped off her horse and bellycrawled to the edge of the cliff. Solas and the others did the same.

There, on the lower road some 20 meters down, were two wagons—wheeled cages, more like—carrying captives, many of whom were women and children, and all of whom were modern alienage elves. There were eight slavers on horseback.

“We will attempt a rescue,” Casandra said quietly, as they pushed back from the edge and stood up, “but they will see us coming. I suggest--”

“Cover me,” the Herald said. Then she took a running leap off the cliff.

Solas and Varric cursed, pulling their weapons out from behind them, as the Herald hurtled towards the ground. Her biotics flared blue as she landed in a crouch, and chaos erupted all around her.

Cassandra jumped back on her horse and galloped down the switchback. “You think that's one of those moves she didn't tell us about?” Varric yelled as he shot Bianca into the fray. “I really think she should have mentioned jumping off cliffs.”

The Herald placed the wagons and their horses into a stasis field, to prevent the captives from being injured. Her Singularity swept three slavers off of their horses. Their mounts ran off from underneath them. The Herald flicked her hand towards the trapped men. An explosion killed them all.

Chapter 10 Helen's biotics by http://padme4000.tumblr.com/

Three other horses also ran off riderless, their owners having been Thrown up to the feet of Varric and Solas, who quickly dispatched them.

Another man was launched so violently into the air, it looked like he'd been released from a trebuchet. No man could fall from that height and survive.

Only one slaver remained. The Herald Pulled him to herself, snarled at him in her own language, then plunged her dagger into his chest. He died just as Cassandra joined her.

Solas and Varric hurried down as quickly as they could, along with their horses.

The Herald stood at the front of the wagons, which were still in her stasis field. She grabbed the reins of one horse attached to a wagon. Solas grabbed the other.

As soon as she released the stasis field, the horses tried to bolt. The captives released the terrorized screams that the stasis field had prevented. Solas and the Herald calmed the horses enough to keep the carts from overturning.

The captives were terrified of the Herald, who seemed to take it in stride. She spoke calmly in her own tongue, which of course, not one single person understood.

“Varric?” she said, loud and slow. “You find keys, yes? Unlock, please?”

She looked at an older woman, who seemed the calmest, but also the angriest. “Apology,” the Herald told her. “No hurt your people. No want frighten but...” she looked around at the dead slavers, then a bit helplessly at Solas.

“What the Herald is trying to say,” Solas supplied, as Varric started unlocking the cages, “is that we had to act quickly once we saw your situation. It was not our intention to scare you. Only to free you.”

“So, what now,” said the angry woman. “You going to take us captive, too? Expect us to work off our gratitude?”

“No,” said Cassandra. “We sought only to free you, and to help in whatever way we can.”

“A Seeker!” said the elven woman. “Thank the Maker.” And it was that—the appearance of a person who shared their Andrastian heritage—that finally convinced the captives that they were safe.

The elves were artisans from the alienage in Redcliffe. They had been trading in Gwaren when the Breach appeared, so they cut their trip short. On their way back home, they were captured by the slavers, who put their menfolk to the sword. None of them knew where they were being taken, although they had been heading steadily west.

Word of the Inquisition had not yet reached them. Cassandra's terse description of what they were trying to do seemed to cause Varric pain. “Seeker,” he said, rolling his eyes, “never go into sales.”

They made camp. The captives were subdued, as they began to process the traumas they had endured. Many wept. Solas tended to the wounds of the few elves willing to be touched by magic. Varric told the children stories.

Most of the slaver's horses eventually wandered back to them. Solas and Cassandra went through the animals' packs and tack. “They were heading to Orlais,” Solas said, reading the crudely written contract before handing it to Cassandra.

“Too many Orlesian nobles refuse to accept that slavery is illegal,” Cassandra said. “I will make sure Leliana knows what happened here.”

The Herald, meanwhile, quickly and quietly dismantled the cages, using her magic to crumple the iron down into scrap. She moved the slavers' bodies a discreet distance away, before stripping them of weapons and armor.

Cassandra spoke with the survivors about getting back to the Hinterlands safely. It was decided that the elves would take the carts, the scrap, the Inquisition's horses and all but four of the slavers' horses to the nearest scouting camp. The Herald and her party would continue on their way with the slavers' horses, as they were marginally better than the Inquisition mounts. Cassandra wrote out missives, which placed the elves under the protection of the Inquisition.

The elves studiously ignored both the Herald and Solas. Solas tried not to let it bother him, but it did. It bothered him to no end that the elves were terrified of magic. It should have been their birthright.

“So-las,” the Herald interrupted his thoughts. He looked up from the fire to find her squatting next to him. “Please to help?”

“Of course, Herald.” He followed her to where she had piled the slavers bodies. There were lying on the damp grass, like discarded refuse.

“You burn, please?” she asked him.

“Bodies don't burn well on their own,” he pointed out. “Not without a fuel source.” Once that would not have been true, and he could have turned the bodies to ash with just a thought.

“Burn please, So-las,” she said. He sighed and lit the bodies on fire. She held a tight barrier over the entire mess, causing the pile of smoldering bodies to superheat. Within a couple of minutes, there was nothing left but a smear of greasy soot.

“Remarkable,” he said. When her language skills were better developed, they were going to have a long discussion about exactly how her magic worked.

She started to head back to camp, but Solas stopped her. He was curious about how this looked to her eyes. “Does it bother you, that the people you just rescued are terrified of you?”

She looked at him knowingly. “Think it bother you, So-las.”

“Of course it bothers me,” he said. “They shun the person that granted their freedom. They run towards a system that offers them nothing but oppression and grief.”

The Herald, damn her, only shrugged, acceptance in her expression. “Their choice, So-las. I free them, they choose. I no like choice? I free anyway.”

Solas realized two things at that moment.

First, the Herald was indeed from another world. No servant of Corypheus would willingly rescue elves from slavery. No Thedosian would even question why humans, elves, and dwarves were considered different. No magic had been seen like hers before, not in this age or any other. Saying she was a liar, or mad, or anything else did not explain everything about her as thoroughly as her being from another world.

Second, real or not, the Herald was fascinating. He had been surprised more often in the last week of travel than he had in centuries. For all the reasons he needed to be here, he now had one reason he wanted to be here.

“You have done this before,” he said. “Rescued slaves.”

“Yes.”

“Cassandra will likely be upset with you,” he warned, “not for the rescue itself, but because you did it in a way that placed yourself most at risk.”

“Small risk,” she explained. “I not in danger.”

He turned back towards camp. “I believe you mean to say, 'I was not in any danger.'”

“I was not in much danger,” she said, as she followed.

“Better, although I suggest using my version when speaking to Cassandra.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter eleven

Helen had been nineteen years old, the first time she'd killed somebody.

It wasn't even a real battle. Her unit had been training on New Canton. She was off-duty and waiting for her friends at a sleazy little bar in the colony's only spaceport. A couple of intoxicated Batarians, unhappy with their high tab, were arguing with the Salarian bartender.

Then one of them pulled out a pistol and shot the bartender right between the eyes.

“The Hegem'ny's hereby d'clares war on the Counshul!” he slurred, as his friend drunkenly fumbled for his weapon.

Helen, who had at the end of the bar staring at the front door, hit them with Singularity and Warp. The Batarians died instantly, covering the bar in gore.

A few hours later, her Gunnery Chief, a gruff old bird from the Congolese Republic, found Helen alternately sobbing and puking her guts up in the head. “You'll get a promotion for this,” she said, handing Helen a bottle of water and a washcloth, “and a lot of people will hate you for it.”

“I don't want a promotion for this,” Helen had protested. “I didn't want to kill anybody!”

“Doesn't matter what you want. You took responsibility. That means being responsible. Don't cry, don't bitch, don't blame.”

She had, indeed, received a promotion, but she'd also faced an informal inquiry within the Alliance. Years later, she'd learned that the Hegemony had hoped to use the incident as political fodder until they saw the video. Gunning down a skinny, unarmed Salarian, only to die at the hands of a skinny, unarmed human, was, "bad optics."

Private Trevelyan had taken her Gunnery Chief's advice to heart, as she moved through the Alliance ranks. It had been one of the ways she had coped with the fallout from Clinton (the others included ice cream, sparring, and knitting).

Taking responsibility was on her mind a lot now, as she traveled with Cassandra, Varric, and Solas. Helen was the de facto leader of their group.

Not that the other three were begging for the job.

Cassandra might have been one of the leaders of the Inquisition, but she let Helen set the pace. Helen wondered what would happen when their group first saw combat.

It certainly wasn't Varric. He was a businessman, he said, and nothing more. She didn't buy that for one second, but still—running the show was not what he wanted. “I'm not leading anything, except a Merchant's Guild meeting. Actually...not even that.”

It should have been Solas, at least in Helen's opinion, but for reasons unclear to her, it was not. She'd once worked with a Captain, who'd been busted down to Specialist Third Class for a stretch after he'd done something he shouldn't have. Instead of issuing orders, he'd suddenly had to follow them.

Solas had that look, too—like he was swallowing words, and didn't like the taste.

He'd mentioned he'd once been a soldier, so why wasn't he part of the army here? Had he been in a different country's military? Dishonorably discharged? Was it because he was a mage? Or was it the elf thing? The politics and personalities of the situation were still rather beyond her.

Whatever the opinions of her companions might be, Helen was still in charge of a small ground team of three near-strangers, who looked to her to fix something she had neither caused nor understood.

Don't cry, she told herself. Don't bitch. Don't blame.

She was glad to put Haven behind her. It was freezing cold. She barely spoke the language. She was on horseback for the first time in over fifteen years, which meant several long days of discomfort.

But on the road, her companions did not act like her every move terrified them. And god almighty, it smelled infinitely better.

Another reason she liked leaving Haven was that she could finally stretch her biotics. Their first day out, she showed her companions what she did in the field, partly so they would know, and partly because she'd wanted to see if her biotics were as strong as she suspected.

Like most of the human biotics in the Initiative, Helen had received an L-5 implant and had been required to undergo a few weeks of training. The L-5 had made her biotics faster, and more adaptable, but not stronger.

But this? What she was doing now with barely a thought was what she saw from Asari Commandos.

Don't get cocky, she told herself. Cocky means dead. Whatever her powers were, nothing would kill her faster than ignorance.

And her ignorance of this planet was profound. It felt like she'd been thrown into a lake, and the only way to avoid drowning was to drink it all.

So, she asked questions. She asked for training. She worked on her letters. She worked on her language skills.

Days were all right. Cassandra was a woman of few words but always answered Helen's questions.

Varric only offered his opinion on most topics if asked directly, but he was more than happy to tell stories.

Solas, on the other hand, seemed to relish the role of teaching. For a man who held himself in such reserve, he became positively garrulous when asked about a topic he knew a lot about.

Nights were harder. The Breach made stargazing impossible. (Silly, she knew, but she wanted to see where she was.) She missed the hum of ship engines. Her body ached from horseback riding. She was having horrible dreams. She missed her omnitool. She missed bathing.

She was intensely lonely.

But as she watched her companions for a couple of days, she wondered if they were all lonely, too. Cassandra, Varric, and Solas answered her questions readily enough, but they didn't talk to each other much.

It was one of the reasons she asked them about the differences between humans, dwarves, and elves. She wanted to see what they would say. Their reactions were interesting.

Varric had the sort of guarded-but-relaxed body language that said, “not my thing, but fine for other people.” He wouldn't be up for a relationship with a non-dwarf, but he wouldn't shame anybody else about it, either.

Solas had turned pale and had clutched his reins so tightly that his knuckles turned white. His speech may have been polite, but his real feelings on non-elves were pretty clear.

Cassandra had said nothing at all but had looked wistful.

Still, what she heard tended to support her belief that people on Thedas were all homo sapiens sapiens, whether they liked it or not. They could reproduce, and their offspring could reproduce.

But this was not the time to argue about anything. It was just food for thought. 

**

Helen thought about responsibility again the day they ran into the slavers.

The second she'd seen the slavers wagons, she knew she could handle it on her own. Her primary objective was to keep the captives safe while she neutralized eight hostiles, who were inadequately armed and unprepared for anything like Helen's biotics.

So, she'd acted. The captives were terrified of her, but that was all right. She'd learned long ago that victims often view their rescue as part of the trauma they have endured. Helen gave them their space, and let Cassandra be the source of familiar comfort.

Solas' warning that Cassandra would be angry was an accurate one. Cassandra had chewed her ass out.

Helen had been polite, but uninterested. “I saw need, I do it,” she said, clumsily parroting Cassandra's own words back to her. “You understand this.”

Cassandra had glared, but she looked Helen with a new shine of respect. “Yes,” she said. “I do.”

**

It took a few more days to get to the Crossroads. One entire day was spent on the topic of the Blight, which was some sort of recurring plague vector that altered the course of history whenever it appeared.

The only way to stop a Blight involved the Gray Wardens. She learned that the armor she currently wore had once belonged to a Gray Warden, although hers had been re-purposed.

“Is disease?” she asked. Sort of, except that it also tainted water, crops, and soil. “Is contagious?” Yes, and fighting darkspawn put one at great risk. “What is darkspawn?”

Husks. There was a lot more to it than that, but that was the long and short of it. It was like a disease that turned animals and people into husks.

“What is cause?” Nobody seemed to know. The primary religion blamed evil mages who had trespassed on the Holiest of Holies.

Or something like that. She cared more about learning the language than she did about religion, so a lot of the discussion went over her head. The parts she did understand sounded like nonsense. She listened to Varric and Cassandra debate the topic and kept her opinions to herself.

She was extremely proud of herself for never once asking, “Did anybody ever try washing their hands?”

Solas didn't have much to say, either. She wondered if he, too, found the local religion to be mostly bullshit.

That night after supper, she opened one of Varric's books. “Read it aloud,” Solas sniffed. “If the Inquisition is to be taken seriously, its Herald should speak complete sentences.”

He had a point. Helen opened the book and began reading. “The...Tale of the Cham...Champion. By Varric Tethras. Chap..Chapter One. Once upon a...blight, in a town called...Lo-ther-ing...”

It took her an hour just to get through half a chapter, but the language did feel easier on her tongue.

“This good idea,” she teased. Solas glowered at her. “This is a good idea,” she corrected. “We can do this again tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Cassandra said quickly, before glancing at Varric, who had a shit-eating grin on his face. Cassandra frowned sternly at the fire, but there was no hiding the blush on her face. “I mean, only if you wish to, Herald.”

**

Helen didn't know what to expect at the Crossroads, but after speaking with Scout Harding, she thought it would be like an unruly protest. Or maybe a riot. Perhaps some looting. Nothing that wouldn't be solved by the Inquisition going in and busting a few heads. 

She was not expecting a wholesale slaughter. The mages and Templars were killing each other, the civilians, and any livestock within reach.

In just a few heartbeats, Helen saw a Templar, in heavy mail, slice off the heads of two screaming boys as they clutched the scorched body of their mother. She saw a mage kill a Chantry sister who was trying to carry an ancient, wounded farmer to safety. Then the mage lit the wheezing farmer on fire, apparently just for sport.

She heard Cassandra and Solas shout to both sides, either side, any side to please just stand down—only to find themselves out of breath a moment later in defense of their own lives.

Helen was quietly, calmly and thoroughly furious. She flicked a barrier over her people, then zeroed in on the most significant threats.

The spellbinder who killed nuns and old men? Snapped neck. The giant Templar that needed heavy weapons to kill 6-year-olds? Crushed to death by his own armor.

 

Chapter 11 fighting in the Hinterlands

 

She Pulled archers down the sides of mountains. Her Singularities tripped Templars and confused mages. She ordered Varric to cover the road that led to the mountain pass. She asked Solas to shield fleeing civilians. She sent Cassandra after a Templar who chased a screaming woman.

She didn't Throw anyone into the sky, but only because this was a populated area and she didn't know where they'd land.

It took most of the afternoon to clear the Crossroads of combatants. When it was finally done, she and her team stood, exhausted, in a burned-out field.

Not one single building stood undamaged; crops, gardens and food stores were ruined. Bodies lay everywhere—mages, templars, women, children, men, clerics, and sisters. Helen was willing to bet good credits that the Crossroads had a higher population of dead than living.

Helen fished a restoration potion from her pouch and drank it. “If this is your planet's idea of a holy war,” she said, angrily and in English, “your Maker can shove it up his ass sideways.” Not one of her companions bothered to ask what she'd just said.

Inquisition soldiers moved in to help secure the area. A scout saw her, ran over, and saluted.

“At ease,” she said, in Common. “Report.”

He told her where to find Mother Giselle, where to find the Corporal in charge of reconstruction, where the Inquisition might set up some camps, and likely places to start looking for the rebel mages and Templar strongholds.

She took in all of the information. “Thank you,” she nodded. “Dismissed.”

She closed her eyes for a moment to gather her thoughts. She opened them to find all of her companions looking at her expectantly.

“I know all tired but need help people. Solas, is heal for people possible?” Her grammar was backsliding, but she was too tired to care.

“Certainly,” he said.

“Good man,” she said, clapping him on the shoulder as he walked past her, and over to where the healers had set up.

“Cassandra, Varric, find what people need, please? Report back. Then we help.”

She made her way to Mother Giselle. The nun was both kind and shrewd. She laid out for Helen a blatantly political suggestion: go to Val Royeaux, and sow dissent among what was left of the Chantry hierarchy. At best, she would gain allies. At worst, it would buy her some time while the mothers bickered among themselves. Helen thanked the woman, who said she would head back to Haven.

Dusk was approaching. She gathered her companions.

They, along with a handful of Inquisition scouts, made camp near a gentle waterfall. It allowed (with cooperation) everybody just enough privacy to bathe.

She let her companions and the scouts bathe first, while she checked the camp, cleaned her armor, and washed a change of clothes (which Solas was kind enough to dry with a spell). She finally took her soap, her towel, and the clean clothes, and made her way to the waterfall.

The water was cold, but Helen didn't care. She stood under the fall and let her mind blank out for a few minutes. Then she picked up the soap and scrubbed away ten days of travel and combat.

Being clean—truly clean—vastly improved her mood. After supper, she read another chapter of, “Tale of the Champion” out loud, which caused the scouts to realize that the dwarf with the giant crossbow was, in fact, the most famous author in all of Thedas. Varric spent the rest of the evening soaking up the attention from his adoring fans.

Before she turned in for the night, Helen looked over her camp. Varric was gently teasing the Seeker in front of the other Scouts. The Scouts were deferential towards Helen but avoided making eye contact with her.

Solas was sitting alone, at the edge of camp, writing in a journal. Helen made her way over towards him.

“Solas,” she said quietly, as she knelt next to him, “I want to thank you.”

He stopped writing and raised his eyes to her. “For?”

She spoke carefully, so as not to leave out any articles or verbs. “For healing those people. For helping me to speak, and to write. For answering all my questions. For everything.”

He tipped his head just a bit, and while he wasn't exactly smiling, his eyes had softened. "You are quite welcome."

Helen started to leave, but he said, “You did well today.”

“Thank you, but I not...I did not do it alone.”

“Leaders never do, Herald,” he said. “but it takes more to make a peace than simply soldiers.”

She knelt back down. Did he have more advice to give? She'd take it. “You speak from experience, Solas?”

It was the wrong thing to say. His eyes went cold again as he looked down at his paper. “Yes,” he said shortly. “Good night, Herald.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter twelve

At the Herald's decision, they spent the next few weeks in the Hinterlands. She viewed closing the rifts and stopping the warring factions from fighting to be roughly equal in urgency.

Each morning, the “ground team,” (a term of the Herald's that he rather liked) would head towards the nearest “hot spot,” (that term, less so) and solve whatever problems they faced along the way.

Solas, for the first time in millennia, found himself surrounded by people who simply took him at face value. He wasn't Fen' Harel, to be feared, or flattered, or cursed. Nor did he find himself cast in his more recent role of flat-eared madman, to be run through for the high crime of correcting the accepted history.

Here, in this moment, he was simply Solas the mage. And while he would never view his companions as true equals, he could admit to himself that it was quite nice to be treated as one.

His off-the-cuff remark that the Herald read Varric's book out loud had been, as many of his ideas were, inspired. It raised difficult topics in a natural way, giving him the perfect opportunity to influence the Herald's view on subjects important to him.

The chapter which introduced the apostate Anders triggered a two-day discussion about possession, the Circles, the Chantry, the Rite of Tranquility, and the ethics of the Grey Wardens.

The Herald seemed especially troubled by the idea of possession. “So...the spirit lives in the person?” she said slowly.

“Pretty much,” Varric said.

“Could it be madness? The mage is delusion?”

“Delusional,” Solas corrected. “What do you mean, Herald?”

She thought about it for a long moment. “No demons in my world, so no possession.”

“Are there spirits or demons of any kind?” Solas asked.

“No magic, no Fade, no spirits, no demons.”

“But your magic,” Cassandra began.

The Herald let out frustrated, “ugh!” before saying, “My biotics are not magic. It is physics, Cassandra.”

Cassandra went silent but the look on her face made it clear she did not believe the Herald.

Solas, on the other hand, did believe her. He had observed her extremely closely over the last few weeks. Demons were dangerous not because they could harm you physically, but because they could harm you emotionally. The stronger the demon, the harder it was to resist the emotion it embodied.

Indeed, Cassandra and Varric were effective against demons in part because Cassandra's training as a Seeker, and Varric's genetic heritage as a Dwarf, gave them both at least partial immunity to a demon's emotional manipulations.

Yet the Herald treated demons as she had any other hostiles they'd encountered. To her they were all simply corporeal enemies that needed to be defeated. 

Solas had listened to her magic, and it was silent. He had looked for her in the Fade, and found nothing, except for the Anchor itself. Even Cassandra and Varric had a life force that the Fade recognized. But not the Herald.

And he pitied her. Truly, he did. She was like a golem that the durgen'len once made. She unquestionably had intelligence and purpose, but she lacked a real soul.

“Does it hurt?” the Herald asked, breaking him out of his thoughts.

“Pardon?”

“Does possession hurt?” she repeated.

“In the end, it often hurts both parties,” Solas said. “A spirit embodies a single emotion, but any person is far more complicated than that.”

The Herald was quiet for a moment. “Spirit stretches too large, and person squeezes too small?”

“An oversimplification, perhaps, but not inaccurate,” Solas said, “although it would sound pithier if you used your articles.”

That got a hint of a smile out of her until Cassandra began arguing. "Solas, you speak as though it is only beneficent spirits and good people who agree to join together. You must concede that most are demons joining with people looking for personal gain."

“I concede no such thing,” Solas said. He and Cassandra spent another hour arguing about the nature of spirits and demons.

“Anders did a noble thing, trying to save the life of Justice,” Solas argued.

“And now all of Thedas is paying for it,” Cassandra retorted.

“'The road to hell,” said the Herald.

“Beg pardon?” Varric asked. “The road to what?”

“Is a saying in my world. 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'”

Solas was so struck by her words that he remained silent for the rest of the afternoon.

**

On Thedas, most people would look at one's ears, or height, or clothing before deciding how much attention one deserved.

The Herald did none of that. She looked everybody straight in the eye. It made many uncomfortable, but it also meant that they were less inclined to lie or to withhold information.

Some of things she did earned her, if not exactly love, then at least respect from the Inquisition soldiers and scouts. Weapons, armor and any other equipment they found was given to the Inquisition or her ground team. She, however, continued to wear the old Grey Warden armor that she'd worn since leaving Haven. She helped the locals find food, shelter, and medicine. She encouraged Inquisition troops to take immediate action to solve problems, without waiting for permission first.

On the other hand, she demanded a level of hygiene in the Inquisition camps that many of the soldiers resented, although Corporal Vale liked to point out to anybody who would listen that the camps were some of the only disease-free places in the Hinterlands.

She also brooked no prejudice among the Inquisition rank and file. She broke up an argument one morning in an Inquisition camp. A scrum had broken out among half-a-dozen young recruits. The camp was awakened to shouts of "fucking nug-humper!" and "filthy shem!" and "knife-ear slattern!"

The Herald shouted at them in her own language. Nobody understood her words but she was so loud, and her biotics flared so menacingly around her hands, that all the recruits shut up and stood at attention.

"That woman, those men," she pointed at Cassandra, Solas, and Varric, "they my ground-team. You think we act like this? No!"

She told the wayward recruits that they were now “Company Half-Wit.” She informed the ranking Corporal that the Company Half-Wit would now do everything together, starting with digging out new latrines.

As they rode away, Cassandra said, "I know that things are different in your world, Herald, but I do not believe that calling those soldiers 'Company Half-Wit' will improve morale."

"Oh, I don't know. It improved mine," Varric stated.

“And we get new latrines,” said the Herald.

She also continued to ask about Thedas, although her questions were becoming more complicated now that she was she had become more fluent. The questions she asked often took him by surprise. For example, when he first explained enchantments to her (they had found a ring of staggering on a dead Templar) she asked, “Does enchantment use energy from the object? Or is it energy added to the object?”

"Both," Solas said, unable to hide his surprise at her insight. He was so delighted with her questions, that he placed a frost enchantment on her dagger, just for the pleasure of showing her how it worked.

Still, for all of her leadership abilities and her singular curiosity, she was, by nature, a contemplative woman. Her smiles were rare, small things. She asked many questions but did not speak just for the sake of talking. She was not one to fill up a silence.

In short, the bearer of his Anchor was a competent, inquisitive, and deeply serious woman. Logically, he knew that he should be grateful that she was not going to misuse his power for her own gain, and that she was trying to improve the world around her.

But such logic did not make his spirit any lighter.

**

One evening, as the four of them were camped out in the field, she read the chapter in “Tale of the Champion” where Hawke met Fenris for the first time. When she was finished, she chewed her lip, one of her many tells that she was working out something into the Common tongue.

“Is Fenris a mage?”

“No,” Varric chuckled. “He'd probably kill himself if he was.”

“So-las, you said that elves are better at magic than not-elves?”

“Elves are more likely to be mages than non-elves,” he corrected her. “Modern elves have a genetic connection to the Fade that the other races lack.”

“Tevinter is ruled by mages?”

“Yes.”

“Most slaves in Tevinter are elves?”

"Yes," Solas said, not bothering to hide his anger. What Tevinter had done to the remnants of his People, after everything he had done to free them...

The Herald was leaning forward, a frown on her face. “So...what happens to elf mages in Tevinter? Why do they not rebel?”

“What makes you think they have not tried?” Solas said, his anger close to the surface. “Magic manifests in childhood. Can you not foresee how a Magister could take a child, his property, and use that child's magic for his own purposes? Are you aware, Herald, of the horrific magical experiments done to slaves specifically because they are mages with no legal standing?”

Solas unloaded centuries of frustration and guilt onto the Herald, only vaguely aware that he had started to pace around the campfire. Humans were brutish and short-sighted. The Dalish were fools. The city elves were beaten down and assimilated, little better than slaves themselves. Did she believe humans in the South were any better than Tevinter? Even the Circle was a form of slavery, nothing more!

And on and on and on.

“So-las.”

She said his name quietly, but it felt like he had been slapped awake. The campfire had burned down to embers. Cassandra and Varric had retreated to their tents. The moons had changed position in the sky.

The Herald still sat on her camp-roll, giving him one of those searching looks of hers.

He sighed and knelt down by the fire opposite her, suddenly bone tired. "I apologize, Herald," he said quietly. "The crimes of the Tevinter Imperium are neither your fault nor your priority. I should keep my own counsel about such matters."

“No apologies,” she said. “I fight slavery many years, too.”

“So you have,” he said. He had forgotten.

“Go to sleep, So-las. I take your watch tonight.”

“That is not necessary, Herald.”

“Is an order, soldier,” she said with a slight smile.

She is taking care of me, he realized, because she believes I am one of her men. The conflicting emotions he felt at the realization raised too many questions for his state of mind, so he thanked the Herald and ducked into the tent he shared with Varric.

Varric was either asleep or pretending to be. Solas did not disturb him. He lay down on his bedroll and gratefully entered the Fade.

**

The day they cleared out the last of the Templars was a bad day for all of them, but the Herald had the worst of it.

Not long after breaking camp, they found an ocularum—an enchanted skull attached to the top of a pole. When one used the skull to look through its “eyes,” it reflected back the location of some artifacts.

Using the skull to illuminate the object gave the Herald a headache. More than that, though, she had been genuinely distressed by it. “It desecration,” she'd said.

“It is desecration," Solas said. "Really, Herald, I thought we were past this point in your fluency."

She pointedly ignored him after that. After checking with Cassandra about the local religious traditions, the Herald removed the skull from the pole, wrapped it in cloth and burned it on a small pyre.

She was quiet and withdrawn the rest of the morning.

The nearest artifact illuminated by the ocularum was in the courtyard of Fort Connor, which had been overtaken by Templars and red lyrium. After killing the Templars, Cassandra smashed the red lyrium into smaller pieces. The Herald moved the bodies and the red lyrium into a pile, threw a torch on top, and used her barrier to superheat the whole mess until nothing was left but ash.

The artifact itself turned out to be a shard, which contained the fragment of yet another skull. Solas placed it in his pack for further study. The Herald walked out of the Fort, found the nearest bush, and vomited.

It didn't take long to finish off the Templars, once they had located their encampment, but the Herald was clearly not feeling well. Her barrier failed, and she took an arrow to her upper thigh.

Despite the fact that the wound was bleeding quite freely, the Herald would not let Solas remove the arrow until he had washed his hands. She tried to insist he pour distilled spirits over the wound, “to prevent infection.”

“Really?” Solas said, exasperated. “I routinely prevent and kill infection with magic. Which you have seen. With your own eyes. Your field techniques may be fine for non-mages, but for me, they are a waste of spirits.”

In a fit of pique, he pulled the arrow out of her leg without numbing the flesh around it first. Helen vomited again, this time from the pain, and also all over his robes.

He jumped up in disgust and magicked the vomit off of his clothing. "Charming," he said. "Did you aim for me on purpose?”

“Yeah,” she said, wiping her mouth. “You real prick sometimes.” Then she passed out.

Varric, who had watched the exchange, shook his head. "You planning to stop her bleeding, or do I need to pour booze on it like she wanted and find some bandages?"

Solas didn't answer, but he did heal her while Cassandra and Varric moved the bodies of the Templars downwind. When they were done, Cassandra checked on the Herald. “How is she?” she asked Solas.

"Immature but otherwise fine,” he said, still annoyed.

The Seeker frowned, then undressed the Herald down to her smalls. Cassandra used a damp washrag to wipe the vomit from the Herald's face. When she was done, Varric scooped Helen up into his arms and placed her in one of the tents. Solas tried very hard to ignore how small and vulnerable the Herald looked. She is fine, he told himself.

Varric made supper (the dwarf, for all his complaints about the outdoors, was a surprisingly good camp cook) while Cassandra cleaned and repaired the Herald's armor.

Solas sat down in front of the campfire and nursed his grudges while he sharpened his knife. They should have been in a celebratory mood. They'd already routed the apostates. Now the Templars were defeated. They each would have their own private tent tonight. They would likely be heading back to Haven soon, and then on to Val Royeaux.

But without the Herald to ask her endless questions, or to read a chapter from, “Tale of the Champion,” things were quiet and tense between the three of them. Even Varric, ever talkative, spent his time writing in his journal.

After a very long hour of near total silence, Cassandra put the Herald's armor into the tent she was sleeping in. Then she, too, retired for the evening. Solas had first watch.

Once Cassandra was gone, Varric began to pack his things up for the night.

“You know,” Varric said, “you weren't very nice to her today.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me,” Varric said, as he carefully replaced the cap on his ink jar.

“She was being unreasonable,” Solas said. “I see no need to coddle such behavior.”

Varric was silent as he finished putting away his things. Once his pack was closed he stood up and crossed his arms over his chest. “Chuckles, for such a smart man, you sure don't see much.”

Solas raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. Well, by all means, enlighten me.”

“I'm trying to,” Varric said. “Do you believe the story about her coming from another world?”

“Yes.”

“Me, too. I honestly wasn't sure, at first. I thought it might be some weird spy shit that the Nightingale cooked up. But you've seen the Herald, with that magic of hers, and all those questions. How she's constantly surprised by all the little things. I mean, c'mon—Cassandra had to teach her how to light a torch the other night. What else could it be, except that she's from another world?”

“Agreed.” Solas' own reasoning had followed a similar path.

Varric nodded. "She's been here, what, three, four weeks? We tell her she's the Herald of a religion she's never heard of before and doesn't believe in. She barely speaks the language. They ask her to stick around and fix that giant hole in the sky.

“But you know, she's handled it all right so far. Maker help me, I sound like Cassandra, but the fact is, the Herald finds out what needs to be done, and she gets it done.She never complains. She helps people. She listens. She's done everything that's been asked of her, and then some. She's been solid as a rock—until we found that creepy skull thing this morning.”

“The ocularum,” Solas said.

“Whatever it's called, the point is, it freaked her out. Gave her headache. Made her upset. She hasn't eaten anything since then. Did you notice that?”

“I had not,” Solas admitted.

Varric glanced back at the Herald's tent, before continuing. He lowered his voice. "Look, I ran with Hawke for years. I know mages get a raw deal. But even for a mage, you're a pretty weird guy. You talk about shit nobody wants to hear. Spirits, demons, the Fade...things that make most people either run for the hills or call a Templar are your favorite topics."

Solas pressed his lips together in annoyance. “Do you have a point, Child of the Stone?”

"Yeah. My point is, you aren't exactly surrounded by people who seek out either your company or your opinion. But she does," he said pointing back at the Herald's tent. "In return, you treat her like a spoiled brat.

"Lighten up on her a little bit, OK? Try putting yourself in her shoes for just minute. Imagine being asleep for thousands of years and waking up in a place where everybody either thinks you're guilty of mass murder, or you're a religious icon. Meanwhile, everything and everyone you've ever loved is gone. How are you gonna feel?”

Solas couldn't speak.

Varric mistook his silence for disapproval. “Well,” he sighed. “I tried. Good night, Chuckles.”

“Good night, Master Tethras,” Solas replied, finally finding his manners. “And...thank you. I will think on what you said.”

Solas spent the next couple of hours on watch, occasionally walking the perimeter of the camp. He returned from one such circuit to find the Herald dressed and awake, staring at the stream. 

 

Chapter 12

“Herald,” he said, surprised. “Shouldn't you be resting?”

She shrugged.

“Have you eaten anything?” he asked.

“No.”

“Come with me, please,” he said, and he led her back to the banked campfire. He poured the last of the stew into a bowl and handed it to her with a spoon, and a couple of restorative potions.

“Thank you, So-las.”

“You are welcome, Herald. If you will excuse me a moment, I need to check my security wards.” She nodded. Solas re-walked the perimeter. The wards were actually fine, but he wanted her to finish eating before he started talking.

Helen had finished her meal when he returned. She was sipping on a restorative potion and looking up at the sky.

He sat down next to her on the ground, and, like her, looked up at the sky. “I find myself needing to apologize to you once again,” he said quietly.

“Me, too, So-las,” she said. “I am sorry I call you name, sorry I vomit on you. It was...bad day for everybody.”

“But more so for you, Herald. The ocularum upset you a great deal, and I was too busy correcting your grammar to notice. It was unkind of me.”

She lowered her eyes from the sky to the bottle in her hand, her lower lip tucked under her teeth while she worked out what she wanted to say.

“In my world,” she said slowly, “we travel from planet to planet. Is very common. After I join navy, my parents moved to a planet called Eden Prime. It was,” she thought for a moment, “a colony? A human colony. They bought a farm there.”

She stopped and chewed her lip again. Solas forced back the dozens of questions he had. Now was not the time.

“A few years ago—well, few years before I sleep—Eden Prime was invaded by...” she shook her head after a moment or two. “Machina? Machines? But with intelligence. We call them Geth. Geth attacked Eden Prime. Kill most of the colonists.”

Using her finger in the dirt, she drew a long, thin, pointed shape. “Geth take the people, still alive, and, ah,” she drew a stick figure of a person on the device. “How you say?”

“Impale,” he said gently.

“Yes. They impale people. It turn people into husk.” She drew squiggly lines coming from the body. “Husk that fights you,” her voice was cracking, “that forgets you. Marines that stop invasion had to kill all the husks. Most bodies never found.”

She tapped the stick person on the device. “My parents,” she whispered. “Both of them.” She sniffed, as she erased the figures in the dirt with her hand. “The skull today, remind me of my parents, of how their bodies were...”

“Desecrated,” Solas said, handing her his handkerchief. “The word you used this morning was 'desecration.'”

“Yes,” she used the handkerchief to dab her eyes. “And so tonight, I have very bad dream.”

“You dream?” he said, genuinely surprised.

She pulled the handkerchief away from her face and looked at him, equally surprised. “Everybody dream, So-las.”

“Dreaming requires a connection to the Fade,” he explained. “The dwarves do not dream at all. Have you always dreamed?”

“Of course,” she said, puzzled.

“And there is no Fade in your world? You are quite sure?”

“Quite sure. Everybody in my world dream.” He must have looked as skeptical as he felt, because she said, “So-las, dogs dream.”

Well. That was patently ridiculous, but perhaps the middle of his apology was not the time to start a new argument. The topic could wait.

Besides, the Herald looked exhausted. “You should get some rest, Herald. You lost a great deal of blood today. The rest of us have the watch covered.”

He stood up and offered his hand to help her stand up, as well. "Thank you, So-las," she said, looking up at him. "I promise, tomorrow I use my articles and verbs."

"And I promise that I will remember you are a stranger needing guidance, Herald, not a child needing correction." She said good night and returned to her tent. Solas mused on the things he had learned about her until it was time for Cassandra to take over watch.

It wasn't until he was asleep, and in the Fade, that he realized he'd forgotten to ask her what her bad dream had actually been about.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter thirteen 

They found Horsemaster Dennet the following morning. The sour-faced old human refused to sell his horses to them until they made the surrounding area safer, although he did offer a Ferelden Forder as a show of good faith. 

The Forder was a 16-hands tall chestnut gelding, with a white blaze down its nose and a serene disposition. The Herald promptly gave him to Solas. Cassandra argued against it. “You are the Herald. The horse belongs to you.” 

“Cassandra, I need a ladder to mount this horse,” the Herald said firmly. “Solas is the tallest. It belongs to him.” 

Solas did not argue with her. Dennet might lack any semblance of social grace, but the man knew his horseflesh. “Ar melan ma, 'Mor'Lanun,'" he murmured to the horse. I name thee, 'Generosity.'

He scratched behind the Forder's ears. The horse leaned into his touch and gazed at him with deeply happy eyes. 

Solas was extremely pleased. He had not ridden a quality mount since before the Fall. While nothing could compare to the Harts of old, this horse had a strong body, a willing spirit and steady disposition that would serve Solas well.

“He is in love with you already, Solas,” the Herald said, amusement in her voice. 

“Yes,” Solas said, moving his scratches down Mor'Lanun's nose, before turning to face the Herald. He gave her a slight bow of his head. “Nuvas ema ir’enastela, Herald. 'Thank you, I am most grateful.' I named him, 'Mor'Lanun' which means, 'generosity.' It reflects both his spirit, and yours.”

That earned him a rare, brilliant smile from the Herald. Truly, whatever other frailties the Herald possessed, she had perfect teeth. “How do I say, 'you are most welcome' in your tongue, Solas?” 

“In this instance, the proper form would be, 'Nuva lasa su ma enaste.'” 

Nuva lasa su ma enaste, Solas,” she said, returning his slight bow with one of her own. Her accent was less atrocious than he expected. 

They inspected the area around the farm. Among other things, they found another ocularum, which the Herald grimly used to mark locations of the strange shards on their map. She also found an astrarium near the top of a hill that overlooked the farm. She unlocked it by tracing a constellation, although what it was trying to light up was anybody's guess. 

Solas was able to say, truthfully, that he had never seen one before. He did not say that it had once been one of his own artifacts that kept the Veil intact and that it showed every sign of having been repurposed by Tevinter mages. 

That was not a pleasant thought. If more than a small number of his artifacts had been damaged, or stolen, or deactivated, or otherwise used for their intended purpose...well, it was small wonder the Veil had grown so weak over the centuries. 

It was just one more thing he had not been wise enough to foresee, one more unintended consequence of his folly. 

The horsemaster's wife told them that a nearby wolf pack had gone mad, attacking people, “like darkspawn during the Blight.” 

Finally, Dennet's farmhand, a man named Bron, reported that bandits were harassing farmers. He wanted the Inquisition to put up security towers to protect the farm and surrounding area from bandits. And maybe kill all the bandits, as well. 

Bron then made a pass at the Herald that was so clumsy, it was painful to witness. “Listen, um, Herald,” he said, trying to pull her away from the group for a bit of privacy. “You ever get cold and lonely out there, just stop by. I'll warm you right up.” 

The Herald gave him a long, direct look, then threw her hood back so he could see her bald head. He flinched a bit at the sight of it. "You ask me to go secure the country," she stated, her accent deliberately thick. "To go kill all the big, bad wolves, all the monsters, and all the bandits. Build some towers for you. Then you think I will come back here for...sex? With you?" She looked him up and down once, shaking her head. "I have enough unpleasant chores already, no?" 

Bron vanished before she could say anything further. 

As they rode away from the farm, the Herald muttered, “That man is,” followed by a string of words in her own language. 

“Hey, now,” Varric said, “can't blame a guy for trying.” 

“That was not trying, Varric,” said Cassandra. “Trying involves thought. And effort.” 

“Idiots like him on every planet,” the Herald shook her head. 

The mention of planets reminded Solas that he had questions. “Herald,” Solas asked, “last night, you mentioned that your people travel to other planets.” 

“Yes.” 

“How?" 

“In ships. Very large, very powerful ships leave the planet and travel through space.” 

“I see.” Then, “Actually, no. I do not see. What sort of ships? I do not imagine they are anything like the vessels used to cross a river, or the sea.” 

The Herald explained their “spaceships.” She said there was nothing between the planets and the stars, not even air—just a vast, dark emptiness; and that being in space was like being surrounded on all sides by the night sky. 

Most planets did not support life. “Garden worlds,” like Thedas, and her Earth, did support life. She compared the distance between planets to a bee flying to one of the moons. It was exponentially farther between stars, nearly beyond comprehension. 

The Mass Relays that she described, however—those were not beyond comprehension at all, not to Solas. They sounded like eluvians, writ large. Not that he shared his insight with any of them. 

“So what happens if the ship springs a leak?” Varric asked. “Does it sink?” 

“No, but it might explode, or go off course. Depends on the leak.” 

“What about your ship?” Cassandra asked. Solas perked his ears up at that. The Herald had a ship? Leliana had not told him that, only that she had “traveled across the stars.” 

“That is not really a ship. That is an escape pod. It is like,” she stopped to think of the right words, “like a lifeboat that you cannot steer.” 

“That seems an odd choice for a long journey,” Solas said. 

“It was not my choice,” the Herald said. “I did not even know until I woke up on Thedas.” 

“You know, I'm not really clear on that whole, 'slept for ten-thousand years' thing. What happened, exactly?” Varric asked. 

The Herald sighed. "It started with my job," but that was as far as she got before the mark flared violently to life. She gasped in pain. 

A rift had opened up over a nearby stream. It was nearly as large as the one in the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Demons of terror and despair lay in wait. 

The Herald had already defeated several demons of terror in the last few weeks. She found them “annoying” (her word) but they had never affected more than just her physical form. 

This was her first time facing a despair demon, and there were not just one, but two. The demons were strong. Worse, they were drawn to the Herald, They hissed at her in her own tongue as they twirled by, leaving her covered in a layer of frost that Solas knew would bring a bone-deep ache. 

  

Chapter 13

She never stopped fighting, but her movements slowed, and she looked like she was holding back tears.

“The Herald needs help!” Solas called out to the others and stepped through the fade to the Herald's side. He placed fire runes around himself and the Herald. “Pull them towards us!” he shouted.

She did not hesitate, pulling first one, and then the other to herself and Solas. The demons ignited as they passed over the runes, and the Herald placed a barrier around them. They quickly immolated into ash.

Closing the rift took longer than usual. It was large and very high off the ground. The Herald was in no small amount of distress, crying out in anger and pain when the Rift finally snapped shut. She turned her back on them all, walked a few paces away, and bent forwards, hands on knees.

Solas followed, Cassandra and Varric behind him. He placed a hand on her back and sent a healing spell into her. She stood up, tears in her eyes. “What sort of planet is this, that such creatures exist?” she asked him, her voice ragged and hoarse.

“Those were despair demons.”

“They spoke to me,” she sobbed, “in my language. How do they know my language?” Solas had not seen her this upset since she'd been attacked in the dungeon of the Chantry.

“Because they are reflecting your own thoughts. They feed on grief. Whatever they said to you, it was to rob you of hope. Do not let them succeed.”

“But everything they said to me was true,” she whispered.

“What did they say?” Cassandra asked, scowling.

The Herald did not answer, but instead covered her face with her hands, as if trying to smother her feelings.

“Despair demons are not arbiters of objective truth, Herald” Cassandra explained. “You should not listen to them.”

The Herald wiped her eyes on her sleeve and took a moment to regain her composure. She looked at her companions. "My apologies," she said. "We should go." She walked over to where their horses were waiting.

Varric looked at Cassandra. “Pep talks really aren't your thing.”

“Shut up, Varric. At least I said something.”

They mounted their horses and followed Helen. She was quiet as they made their way to the cave where a demon had taken control of the strange wolves.

Subduing the terror demon was not terribly difficult. It dropped a token of protection against wolves, which Solas pocketed. He did not need it—wolves never attacked him—but he wanted to study it later.

Still, he hated killing the wolves. The Herald apparently felt the same way, as she handled the wolves' bodies with far more reverence than she had any of the slavers, apostates or Templars they'd killed. She ran her hand along the pelt of one of the females. It was thick and glossy.

“This pack was healthy,” she said when he knelt down next to her, curious about her reaction. “Wolves do not make war. They did not choose this. It is a sorrow.”

“It is,” he agreed. On impulse, he took the token from his pocket and placed it in her palm. “But, one hopes, not entirely in vain.” He wrapped her fingers around the token. “The demon dropped this token of protection. I believe it will prevent other wolves from attacking us. It could not save this pack, but it might save many others.”

Solas realized her closed hand was still clasped in his. He let go. Her dark eyes solemnly searched his for a long moment, before she looked down at the token in her hand. “Nuvas ema ir’enastela, Solas,” she said quietly. “It is very kind of you.”

“This is a small thing, Herald. A better response would be, 'Ma serannas,' among the Dalish or modern elves, or 'Serannasan Ma.' if you are using the more archaic forms.”

Serannasan Ma, Solas,” she said.

De da’rahn,” he responded, quietly pleased that she chose the proper form. He fished a bit of cord from his pack and threaded it through the token so she could wear it around her neck. Then, for good measure, he added his own ward to it to help protect her from cold damage. It would not stop a despair demon from taunting her, but it could help her fight the physical effects.

That evening, they read a chapter from Varric's book that featured a certain Knight-Captain beating a man who was revealed to be an abomination. After she finished reading the scene, the Herald gave a sharp look at Varric, who was trying (and failing) not to grin.

“This Templar,” she tapped the page once with a fingertip, “this is Commander Rutherford?”

“Yep. Same guy.”

She blinked. “He looked for apostates. That was his job.”

“Mmmm-hmmmm,” Varric looked as happy as Solas had ever seen him.

“And he did not notice that Hawke was casting magic. Right in front of him.”

“Nope!” Varric said.

The Herald looked at Cassandra incredulously. “And...this is who you hire to lead the army?"

Cassandra, who looked like she wanted to disembowel Varric, said, "It was a long time ago, Herald. Cullen has changed a great deal since his early days in Kirkwall."

“Did his eyesight improve?” the Herald asked. Varric threw his head back and laughed, as the Seeker sputtered. The Herald finished reading the chapter, stopping several more times to tease Cassandra, mostly at the expense of poor Commander Rutherford.

Solas was startled to realize that he'd been smiling and chuckling along with the others.

The recognition sobered him. Pretending to be part of the group was one thing. Actually belonging was far more dangerous.

The Herald had first watch that night, and Solas had the second. For once, he traded some of his sleep for the opportunity to ask her questions about her world. He started with a question that he had wanted to ask since the first moment he'd see her in battle.

“How does your magic work?”

He waited patiently as she chewed her lip. “Do you remember in the dungeon, when I was dying?”

“Yes. You had a skull fracture, your brain was swelling, and you'd been poisoned.”

“I had a skull fracture?” she asked, clearly shocked.

“You did. It was the worst of your injuries, and one of the first things I healed.”

“I did not know this, Solas. Thank you.”

“You have thanked me already, Herald. Think no more on the matter. But you were saying?”

She nodded. “There is a material in my world that we call 'element zero,' or 'eezo.' In its natural state, or when it is contained correctly, it is inert. If handled improperly, it can become radioactive, although it does not actually decay.”

“I am not familiar with this concept.”

More lip chewing, then, “Radioactivity is like the red lyrium. Even though you do not touch it, if you are around it too long, it can make you sick. Decay is when...” she closed her eyes and for a moment, had to mutter to herself in her own language, something she had not done in a while.

"A candle radiates heat and light but is eventually consumed. When eezo become radioactive, it is not consumed. We still do not understand why. The scientists back home have a term for it. They call it, 'transmutative decay.' It decays into itself. Imagine the candle, as it burns, recaptures the heat and light and returns it back to the candle as wax and string."

Solas sat back and thought about the implications. "Such a material sounds extremely useful."

“It is the cornerstone of my entire civilization. I quite literally would not be here without it. Anyway, the engine core of my escape pod contains eezo. It was damaged, and leaked into the escape pod as I slept.”

“And that is how you came to be poisoned.”

“Yes.” She held her right hand out and created a small rotating ball of energy. “Biotics have nodules of eezo all along our nervous system.”

“Ah,” he said, finally understanding what he had experienced when he'd healed her.

"When eezo comes into contact with an electrical current, it creates dark energy. My brain sends electrical impulses to the eezo in my body," she continued, using her left hand to point at her head, and then down along her right arm.

“Dark energy,” she pointed at the floating ball, “creates a field that changes the mass of any object inside of it. I can make a man light enough to throw. I can make his armor so heavy that it collapses under its own weight. I make the air dense enough to deflect physical objects, or heavy enough that it creates a singularity, capturing everything nearby in its gravity.”

“Fascinating. Are biotics common in your world?”

“Among humans? No. Well,” she clarified, “not ten thousand years ago, anyway, and not in the Milky Way. But now? Here in Andromeda?” She shrugged. “I do not know.”

“What do you mean, 'here in Andromeda?'”

"Here in this galaxy. I was born in the Milky Way galaxy. We call this galaxy 'Andromeda.'" She looked up at the sky, the way she did sometimes as if looking for something. "I think this is still Andromeda. I do not actually know.”

They talked all through her watch. Then they talked through his. She drew diagrams and pictures in the dirt. Atoms. Particles. Star systems. Galaxies. His head was spinning by the time he lay down on his bedroll.

One hundred thousand people, she'd said, twenty thousand of which were humans. They had deliberately gone to sleep for 600 years and crossed the heavens, all for the chance to start over.

Solas slipped into the Fade and found Wisdom. "I have much to tell you, my friend," he said.

***

They left for Haven the following day. The trip back was easier than the trip down. They were few rifts, the Herald was no longer saddle-sore, and the Inquisition had done a good job of keeping the roads mostly clear of bandits.

Mor'Lanun was a marvelous horse. He did not spook around demons or bandits, was swift and steady, and effortlessly took to Solas' instruction. More than once, Solas loosely tied the reins to the saddle-horn and read a book, knowing that Mor'Lanun could be trusted to go where Solas wanted.

The Herald continued to learn about Thedas, asking questions during the day and reading from Varric's book at night.

When he could, Solas asked questions about her world. This often led to her repeating things Solas already knew for the sake of Varric and Cassandra. The Herald did not seem to mind, though, and Solas had the chance to ask for more details.

Twenty-thousand humans?” Varric asked. “How the hell did you find twenty-thousand humans crazy enough to be put to sleep for six hundred years?”

“There were over eleven billion humans just on Earth, Varric. Nearly a billion more on the colonies.”

“What? No. Now you're just making shit up.”

And later, from Cassandra: “So, all of the stars we see at night, those are other suns? I never knew.”

Most of their time talking, however, was done answering the Herald's questions. As interesting as her history was, it was the immediate future of Thedas that needed saving.

As her language skills improved, her queries became more challenging and complicated. One morning, she started their day out by asking, “Cassandra, who was Andraste? Was she a real person?”

“Oh!” Cassandra sounded genuinely surprised by the questions. “I suppose we did gloss over the details back in Haven.”

Solas held his tongue as Cassandra explained the accepted history, teachings and beliefs about Andraste. He had learned painful lessons about trying to correct the historical inaccuracies of a people's religion. He would not try again, at least not now, and certainly not with the Seeker herself.

It was a good thing they were on the road, and that the four of them had become accustomed to the Herald's candor, for she asked questions that, in another setting, would have led to bloodshed. "Was Andraste a mage?" "Was Andraste an elf?" "Who was the Maker?"

Solas found some of her questions quite interesting, not because of Cassandra's answers, but because it showed him how the Herald's mind worked. "What did the Maker use to create the Veil?" "What is the Fade made of?" "How long had the Veil been up?"

The only time Solas spoke up was when the Herald asked, “Why worship a god that turned his back on you?”

“Why, indeed,” slipped out before he could help himself.

Varric, surprisingly, had quite a lot to say about Andraste. “You wanna know what I think? I think Andraste went to war as much to get out of a bad marriage as she did to free the slaves.” And, “C'mon, Seeker, you don't actually believe Maferath was jealous of the Maker, do you? He was jealous of Shartan!”

“Who was Shartan?” That question alone led to a couple of hours of incredibly uncomfortable discussion.

Finally, the Herald turned to Solas. “What about you, Solas? What do you believe?”

"I believe in cause and effect, wisdom as its own reward, and the inherent right of all free willed people to exist," he asked. "Yourself?"

The Herald looked at her left hand a long time before answering. “I no longer know.”

**

They rested at a small Inquisition camp that had been set up since they had last passed through the area. It was near a stream, which the Herald eyed with longing.

After supper, she tried to sneak down to the stream. Solas followed her. “Herald,” he said, stopping her as she was beginning to pull off a boot. “I am afraid there is not much privacy here. A proper bath must wait.”

“I would rather they see me naked than dirty,” she said, but she reluctantly put her boot back on. “Cassandra also said it is a bad idea.”

“Unfortunately, Cassandra is correct. It would cause an unnecessary scandal that the Inquisition does not need.”

“I am filthy, Solas. That is also unnecessary.”

“I understand your frustration, especially given your personal habits. For whatever it's worth, you are likely the cleanest human in all of Ferelden.”

She looked him up and down with a grin. “You are always clean, Solas, even your clothing. I think the cleanest human in all of Ferelden is probably you.”

“I am not human; I am an elf!” he snapped.

Hurt surprise flashed across the Herald's face. “Ir abelas, Solas,” she said, in a subdued tone. “I did not mean to offend.”

Solas ran his palms over his skull in frustration. This is who she is, he told himself. A stranger needing guidance, not a child needing correction, remember? She had spent the entire day inadvertently offending the Seeker. Why would she act any differently with him? She did not say these things out of malice, only ignorance.

But still—the Herald had a way of scraping his emotions raw.

"Herald, you must listen to me." He placed his hands on her shoulders and bent down a little so he could look her in the eyes. "The races of Thedas are both distinct and proud. They do not see themselves as the same, nor do they wish to. You will do the Inquisition no favors if you forget this."

She frowned at him, her eyes huge and sad. It felt a bit like kicking a puppy, but this was something she needed to understand. “You are the only hope to close the Breach. If you offend the wrong person, if you fail to establish an alliance with the mages or Templars, the Breach will never be closed. It will mean the death and destruction of everything in this world. Do you understand?”

She nodded, and said only, “Yes.” Then she walked back to camp without him.

 

 __

De da’rahn=It is nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter fourteen.

 

When the Alliance discharged Helen, they sent her for the required medical status conference. It was SOP to identify any medical issues related to the service member's military service, and (in theory) make sure that those issues were covered by the Alliance. 

Helen received a clean bill of health, but the physician also gave her an off-the-record warning. 

"Just because the issues with your stalker and your parents aren't service related doesn't mean you don't need help. You've been using combat to distract you from anger and grief. Frankly, you need counseling and lots of it." 

It was good advice that Helen had completely ignored. She was a biotic with extensive experience in both wetware research and combat. She had no family ties in the Milky Way but was still young enough to reproduce. As far as the Initiative was concerned, her psych profile was healthy enough. 

She'd told herself that she'd do counseling after she was settled in Andromeda, after she'd found a new normal. 

Now, as they picked their way back to Haven, Helen struggled to keep her shit together. Her “new normal” was a cold, primitive planet determined to crack open her vault of bad memories and unresolved issues at every opportunity. 

Like the ocularum. When Helen had first seen it, she'd figured it was just some primitive, tribal marker. She hadn't expected the inside of the skull to look like geth tech, all glowing circuits, and creepy energy. By the time she realized that the "circuits" were just lines of luminescent paint, she had a raging migraine, and visions of Eden Prime trying to shove their way into her thoughts. 

The possessed wolf pack also did not help. It was hard enough coming to terms with magic, demons, spirits and all of the other bullshit that violated her worldview. That any of it could take control of an entire pack of innocent animals somehow made it all that much worse. 

And those despair demons, dropping out of that rift, with too many teeth and not enough skin? 

“Forgotten,” they'd whispered. “Stranded. Unloved. Feared. Stranger. Unwanted. Dying alone, always alone. Too late. Lost. Lost forever.” 

The first time she'd heard English in a month, and it was to hear all of her deepest sorrows laid bare. 

“Stop it!” she'd cried, but of course that just made it worse. If Solas hadn't come to her aid when he did, she very well might have allowed herself to just lie down and die. 

Now she was having nightmares. Given everything she'd been going through, nightmares would be completely fucking normal on Earth. But here on Planet Everything Wants to Kill You, nightmares were apparently cause for alarm. 

Several hours after she'd accidentally offended Solas by calling him “human,” she woke up—again—in the middle of the night. She dressed in the dark, left the tent, and relieved Cassandra's watch early. 

Helen took the watch for the rest of the night. She walked the perimeter, munched on trail mix, and tried to not think about her nightmares. Or her parents. Or Solas. Or her her dismal future on this godforsaken planet. 

By the time the others emerged from their tents, Helen had made breakfast. Cassandra frowned at her. “Herald,” she said, checking the sky, “why are you still on watch?” 

Helen just shrugged. “I was up.” It was a dodge, but nobody argued with her. They were all getting tired from the road. 

She tried to avoid Solas, but he insisted on riding beside her. For the first time since she'd met him, he volunteered information. 

He told her about the elves, not just the Dalish and city elves but the ancient ones, as well. The Elvhen had once been immortal, he said, and the Fade had been part of their natural world. They lost their immortality and most of their magic after the fall of their empire. Humans rose to ascendancy at some point after that. 

She wondered if he was offering this information as a way to explain his outburst from the night before. 

Whatever his reason for offering the history lesson, Helen was impressed with how both Solas and Cassandra discussed it. Cassandra made no excuses for the behavior of humans in general, and the Chantry in particular. Solas felt that modern elves were unwilling to make the societal changes needed to bring about true equality. 

They were honest and respectful towards each other. She made a mental note to herself that these two worked well together, should she ever need to mix up her ground team. 

That night was their last on the road before reaching Haven. After supper, Varric passed around a flask of brandy he'd been saving, as Helen read two more chapters from “Tale of the Champion.” 

Suffice it to say, Varric was perhaps not the biggest fan of Commander Rutherford. After reading Cullen's comments about mages, Helen was beginning to understand why. 

She realized halfway through the last chapter that she was now thinking in the Common tongue. 

That night, as she slept, she dreamed she was in the CIC of the SSV Trafalgar, her last posting. She was looking at the galaxy map. A small warning icon was blinking, so she touched it to see if there was a new hot spot she needed to get to. “WARNING: THEDAS UNDER QUARANTINE. AVOID CONTACT. REPEAT, AVOID CONTACT.” 

She pressed her comm to alert her officers. 

Silence. She looked up. The ship was empty. Nobody was sitting at their post. Where had everybody gone? 

Helen searched the CIC, calling out for her crew, but nobody answered. She walked onto the bridge. They were queued in front of a Mass Relay, but nobody was flying the ship! 

In a panic, Helen sat down in the pilot's seat. She didn't know how to fly a ship, and she didn't know how to send coordinates to a Relay! Where was the Flight Lieutenant? The comm array before her didn't make any sense. Its graphics morphed into runes and symbols that did not belong there. 

“Don't worry, sweetheart, I can fly the ship.” She looked over to the navigator's chair. Her father sat in it, while her mother stood behind him. 

“Just let me find the Captain,” she said. 

“No need,” he said, his eyes crinkling up with mischief the way they did when he was joking around. “Just let me through, and I'll take care of everything. We'll hit the Mass Relay and go home. We'll all be together again.” 

Helen's heart sank. No matter how grief stricken she'd ever been, no matter how much she had longed to see her parents once more, she'd never, ever, once forgotten that they were dead. 

“You can't,” she said. 

As soon as she said it, her parents turned into sparking, shrieking, blackened husks. Helen stumbled out of the pilot's seat and ran into the CIC. Husks filled the entire ship. Her crew hadn't gone missing—they'd all been captured by the Geth and husked! 

Helen charged through the CIC, as husks tried to grab her, sink their teeth into her. She reached for her Carnifax, but it wasn't there. She pushed open the door to the armory. 

Electronic chattering buzzed in her ears. The armory was filled with dozens of Geth troopers. Four of them held her shrieking Navigator down on a workbench. His torso had been sliced open. The Geth inserted tech into him while he sobbed in agony. “Stop!” she screamed. 

In unison, every Geth trooper raised its headlamp-face towards her. Several of them pulled out weapons and started firing, depleting her shields. She needed a weapon, now! 

She started to call up her barrier but a shriveled, blackened hand grabbed her from behind. She kicked and screamed and fought, but husks pulled her down to the ground, tearing at her clothing. One of them wore her mother's wedding band. 

They forced her down onto the other workbench. Just as a Geth trooper jammed a hose into her guts, Helen bolted awake. 

This time, when she left her tent, it was Varric whose watch she relieved. 

Cassandra confronted her in the morning. “You are not sleeping, Herald,” she said as she came out of the tent to find Helen, once again, making breakfast. 

“No,” Helen admitted. 

“Why not?” 

“Nightmares,” Helen said, as Solas joined then. 

“Still?” Solas asked. “Why did you not say something?” 

“You knew?” Cassandra asked him.

“I knew the Herald had a bad dream several nights ago. I was not aware until now that it was a recurring problem.” 

“It is just bad dreams,” Helen said. “This will pass.” 

Solas frowned, adjusting his cloak around his shoulders in the chill. “What are your nightmares about, if I may ask?” 

“My parents,” she said. She did not elaborate. 

“I see,” he said, his gaze softening. “Let me know if they continue.” 

She shrugged. She had not sought help for bad dreams since she was a child. She wasn't about to start now. 

They arrived in Haven to very little fanfare in the middle of the morning. She had forgotten how bad it smelled, and struggled to keep from wrinkling her nose. As soon as they entered Haven, her companions bid her farewell and went their separate ways. 

Helen went to her own cabin, to find the young servant girl already there, arranging some food on the table. 

She jumped up at Helen's arrival. “Welcome back to Haven, milady,” she curtsied. “This is from Ambassador Montilyet.” She handed Helen a note. 

“Thank you, ah...” Helen frowned. “I apologize, I do not know your name.” 

“Oh! It's Telina, milady.” 

“Telina. Thank you, Telina. I appreciate this.” 

The girl nodded awkwardly, then said, “If you want, just leave your travel clothes on the chair there. I'll get them cleaned proper for you, milady.” Telina she hurried out the door. 

Helen sighed, as she opened Josephine's note. 

     Dear Herald,

     A runner has informed us that you will arrive within the hour. I have made arrangements for a meal and hot water to be delivered to your quarters. Please take whatever time you need to wash off the road and to eat. When you are ready, if you would be so kind as to join the rest of the advisors in the War Room, we would all appreciate it very much.

     Looking forward to seeing you again,

     Ambassador J. Montilyet

Helen looked around. Sure enough, over on the hearth was a large kettle of steaming water. She locked the cabin door, closed all the curtains, and stripped naked.

Even if it was only a sponge bath, it was glorious. She washed herself head to toe, twice. She had plenty of hot water and soap, and privacy, which was clearly a prerequisite for bathing in Thedas under all circumstances.

When she was clean and dry, she put on her small and her leggings and looked in the wardrobe. Josephine had removed the silks and replaced them with outfits that looked much more sensible. Helen picked what she initially took to be a cream-colored, calf-length dress, but was, in fact, very lightweight leather armor. She bolted down the food and brushed her teeth. Then, for the first time in over a month, she picked up the mirror and looked at herself.

She was shocked by her reflection, and not just because she was still bald. 

Helen had always had an active life, but she'd never been deprived of anything. She'd always had plenty to eat, a bed to sleep in, and easy access to hygiene and medical care. Most of her adulthood had been spent indoors—on a ship or at a desk. Even combat missions had mostly happened in warehouses or compounds. And when she'd been outside, it was usually in sealed armor, fully protected from the elements. 

It had been a life of plenty, although she had not known it at the time. The day she entered cryo, an Initiative tech had mistaken her for being in her late teens. 

No longer. Five weeks of outdoor travel, fighting, and barely adequate food rations had tanned her skin and hardened the lines of her face. 

Helen stared at herself for a full minute, and searched for any sign of the young Alliance researcher that had once helped design the latest upgrades for wetware, who had ordered pad thai for lunch, who had cried with her friends over “Fleet and Flotilla.”. 

A sharp, deep ache stabbed through her as she placed the mirror back down. Don't cry, don't cry. You're a goddamn Marine. Don't fucking cry. 

Chapter 14

 

She walked around the cabin to calm down. God help her, she'd have given anything just then to see an Asari, a Turian, or a Salarian. She had more in common with any member of any Council race, than she did with every single human on Thedas. 

She understood what Solas had been trying to say a couple of nights before, about how the races on Thedas saw themselves as separate and unequal. It's not like the racism was hard to spot or anything, especially not his. 

But Solas didn't understand why they were all human, or at least, why they were all homo sapiens sapiens. None of them did. How could they? How could she explain that the shape of an ear was completely insignificant compared to the blue skin and crests of the Asari, or the mandibles and carapace of a Turian? The redundant nervous systems in Krogans? 

Well. It hardly mattered now. She was stranded here, probably for the rest of her life, short as it was likely to be. Helen took several deep, calming breaths and left her small, dirty cabin.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter fifteen

Every day, more recruits came to Haven to volunteer for the Inquisition's army. All sorts arrived: city elves escaping an alienage; dwarves from both the surface and Orzammar; mercenaries and old soldiers and people with nowhere else to go; even a handful of Dalish showed up, ready to start anew.

Cullen, Leliana, and Josephine sorted them all: Soldiers, Scouts, Support.

Most of the time, placement was fairly obvious. A middle-aged elven housekeeper who was fluent in Common, Orlesian and Tevene was placed in Leliana's spy network. The teenager from Orzammar who'd been disowned and could wield a mace as heavy as himself was placed in the Infantry.

Sometimes, Cullen and Leliana wanted the same people. A pair of extraordinary archers (A Dalish man and his human partner) wound up with Cullen because they refused to be separated. The Ferelden woman who could bash with a shield as well as she could spin daggers into blurs went with Leliana—but only after Cullen lost a coin toss.

Cullen stayed busy. His men respected him. The recruits were progressing, getting better every day. Some of them would be truly exceptional soldiers. He was lucky to be here, and he knew it. He was grateful to be useful, grateful to be part of the change that Thedas so desperately needed.

But Maker help him, his personal demons seemed to hound his every step.

His withdrawal symptoms didn't just continue, they got worse. Food had no flavor. Water did not quench his thirst. Ale, mead, and wine suddenly tasted like vinegar. Many nights, he either did not sleep, or he only had a few hours before the nightmares woke him.

He was never one to use prostitutes to satisfy his body's urges, preferring to take matters into his own hand. But even that no longer brought relief. If anything, it made his cravings for lyrium even worse.

Two weeks after the Herald left for the Hinterlands, Cullen was dragged into Josephine's office to meet Ivans' brother, a minor noble from some Free Marches pisspot.

Count Pisspot demanded justice for his dead brother and personal satisfaction from the Herald herself. Cullen explained that the Herald would not be charged in Ivans' death, and was, in fact, not even in Haven, Count Pisspot threatened to harm Cullen's family in retaliation.

In a flash, Pisspot was against the wall, Cullen's sword was against his neck. “Your brother was so despised that his fellow Templars left him behind when the Circles disbanded. I allowed him here as a personal favor to the Knight-Commander of Starkhaven. What I got for my generosity was a Templar so worthless that he died trying to kill a naked, shackled, unconscious woman.”

Sweat ran down the noble's temple, his eyes wide with fear. Cullen leaned forward and spoke in a low, menacing tone. "Threaten my family again, and I'll send your ashes back to the Free Marches in the same urn as your brother's."

Count Pisspot swallowed and looked at Josephine. "Ambassador," he said, his voice shaky, "you can't possibly stand there and let this dog lord treat me like this."

Josephine had not raised even a single, well-groomed eyebrow at the display. “Your brother openly discussed his plans to murder the Herald. His attack was witnessed by several people. All are in agreement that the Herald acted in self-defense. Had your brother succeeded in his plans, the sentence would have been a public hanging. This would have brought significantly more, ah, notoriety to your family name.

“We have tried to handle this as discreetly as possible, Count,” she continued. “But the fact remains, your brother did try to murder the Herald of Andraste, who is already becoming a much-beloved figure for her kindness and bravery. You have just threatened the family of the man who leads her Army. Perhaps a public airing of grievances is in order?"

The man swallowed again. “No,” he said finally, his voice tight. “No, I do not think that will be necessary. My apologies, Commander Rutherford. Your family will have no trouble from me or mine.”

Cullen held eye contact with the man for another heartbeat before sheathing his sword. Josephine, acting as if nothing unusual had occurred, gave Pisspot an urn with his brother's ashes, expressed her condolences on his loss, and sent him on his way.

“Well,” Josephine said, brightly, as she walked back to her desk and sat down, “that went better than I expected.”

“I nearly kill a man in your office and that's...better than expected?”

“I am Antivan, Commander,” she said smoothly. “It takes more than a blade pointed at somebody else's throat to fluster me.”

Cullen barked out a laugh. “I'll keep that in mind.” He started to leave, then thought of something. Although he had kept generally abreast of Cassandra's and the Herald's progress, he had never considered her subsequent reputation. “Is the Herald really becoming known for her 'kindness and bravery,' or was all that just verbal maneuvering?” he asked, rather skeptically.

“Oh, it's quite true, Commander. Both Leliana and I hear from our contacts that the Herald has freed slaves, fed and clothed refugees, closed rifts, and has generally acted as a force for peace.”

“Oh. Well. That's good then,” Cullen said, a bit lamely.

Josephine gave him a sympathetic look. “Commander, I know you and the Herald are not on the best of terms but if she is half as good as our reports say, I am sure you will be friends in no time.”

Cullen made a noncommittal noise as he left her office, and kept his doubts to himself. He was Cullen Rutherford, veteran of the two worst Circles in Ferelden's history. Most of his friends were dead, or mad from lyrium. His only real friend was Cassandra, and even she was more like a bossy sister.

Now he was the Commander of an army. He outranked almost everybody here. He couldn't afford to make friends.

***

Cullen,

You have not written as promised to keep me posted on your progress. Therefore, I will assume that you are not eating properly, and are yelling too much at your men.

I am certain you know by now that we subdued the fighting at the Crossroads. Mother Giselle should arrive in Haven shortly. We will stay here in the Hinterlands until we have located and defeated both the apostate and the Templar factions.

The Herald is doing well. She is quick to help people, and is learning our language and history. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge has come from Varric's book about Hawke. Perhaps, when we return to Haven, I will give her a copy of the Chant.

I must also confess that her magic sometimes terrifies me. I watched with my own eyes as she threw a slaver so high into the air that we lost sight of him. Maker knows, the man deserved it, but it was a very brutal form of justice.

We have encountered red lyrium growing here in the Hinterlands. After what you witnessed in Kirkwall, we have tried to destroy as much of it as we safely can.

Eat something.

C. Pentaghast

Cassandra was correct that he had not written like he'd promised. He was at least eating every single day, if not as much as he should, then at least more than he wanted. And some of the recruits were idiots. He was building an army. There was no such thing as, "too much yelling."

He read Cassandra's letter a second time. “Her magic sometimes terrifies me.” This, coming from the Hero of Orlais, who had both flown and killed dragons. What if the Herald became mad with power, or possessed? None of them had a way to neutralize her magic. What was to stop the Herald from becoming a tyrant, were she so inclined?

And she was using, “Tale of the Champion” as a world history text. Wonderful.

Cullen had read the book, too. Several events had been embellished and a few parts were just flat out lies.

But the parts about Knight-Captain Cullen Stanton Rutherford? All true. Varric had not made one single thing up at all.

It certainly wasn't the whole truth. Varric has left out that Meredith had once been charismatic, smart and politically savvy. Grand Cleric Elthina was kind but feckless. Viscount Dumar was completely incompetent. Orsino had studied and eventually succumbed to blood magic. Meredith might have ruled over Kirkwall with an iron fist, but the fact was that, until red lyrium became involved, she'd kept the peace in one of the most violent cities in Thedas.

But none of that—and very little of Cullen's personal history at Kinloch—was in Varric's book. No, all the Herald would read was, “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” followed by years of him never questioning Meredith as she wielded the brand for petty infractions, like falling in love and writing letters.

Cullen laid down Cassandra's letter, rubbed his eyes and thought of lyrium.

***

Slowly but surely, Cullen was building a reasonably sized, fairly disciplined army, his men learning not just how to fight, but how to count on each other.

Fights broke out, certainly, but Cullen had his ways of making soldiers work out their differences. It usually involved conquering a mutual enemy, even if that “enemy” was just a filthy stable that needed to be conquered with soap and water. He'd recently resolved one conflict by making three soldiers figure out a way to ice fish on the nearby lake.

If only every confrontation could be resolved so simply.

That swindler arsehole Seggritt was price gouging on everything. Cullen couldn’t give a damn about the trinkets and clothing, but Seggritt was also refusing to take anything except his asking prices on medicinal herbs for potions. Any attempt to reason with him (or, in Cullen's case, threaten him) resulted in an increase in price.

It was shameful, what the man was doing. He would sell a little to Adan, whenever Adan could afford it. The rest, he hoarded. When somebody needed potion because they were sick, or their loved one was sick or injured, Adan would have to explain why he lacked the ingredients.

The family would then go to Seggritt. Sometimes they could afford to the ingredients, and take them to Adan, who would make the potion, usually for free because they often had no money left after that.

If they could not, their loved one would suffer, and sometimes die.

Cullen wanted him thrown into the dungeon, and his stocks confiscated and distributed fairly. He was overruled by Josephine and Leliana. They had no other merchant set up at the moment. Throwing him in jail, or killing him, would make it that much harder for the Inquisition to make purchasing contracts in the future.

But the problems with Seggritt were nothing compared to the mages and Templars in Haven who, by way of luck or circumstance, had not been at the Conclave when it exploded.

Both groups were small, stubborn, and undisciplined. The Templars were running short on lyrium and temper. The mages were adrift without a First Enchanter. Arguments happened every damn day. Cullen was usually the only one who could prevent bloodshed.

One morning, as he was in the War Room writing reports, Josephine informed him that the Herald and her party had just arrived back in Haven. They would all have a meeting shortly. He put his papers away and left to go find Cassandra. He wanted to speak with her privately about her concerns over the Herald's magic.

He walked out of the Chantry, and into the middle of an argument between the mages and Templars, over who was most at fault for the death of the Divine.

Cullen broke up the fight, pointing out that they were all on the same side now, all part of the Inquisition. Tempers were running high, so Cullen had to both shove the idiots as well as shout them down.

Then he saw the Herald standing on one side of the crowd, frowning at the entire mess, while Chancellor Roderick stood to the other side, looking like his Nameday had come early.

Maker take me, Cullen thought, as he shooed the mages and Templars away like wayward school children. Roderick pontificated that the Inquisition was failing in its promise to restore order, and not so subtly offered himself as a “proper authority.” For good measure, he accused the Herald of both murder and heresy.

“I am not the Herald of anything!” she said, clearly exasperated. “I do not even believe in your Maker.”

Not surprisingly, this did not calm Roderick down. He added blasphemy to the charges of heresy and murder, and told her she should be tried and executed.

The Herald looked at Roderick, contempt in her eyes, and pointed to the Breach. “I have other duties, priest. You want to put me on trial, at least save your own planet first.”

Roderick sputtered in confusion at her odd response. Then, blessedly, he left.

The Herald looked at Cullen. “It has been like this every day, Commander?” 

 

Chapter 15

He couldn't tell if she was genuinely concerned, or just digging for a way to criticize his ability to lead. He gave a safe answer. “Mages and Templars have always been at each other's throats. And Roderick is a good indication of what to expect when you go to Val Royeaux.”

She quietly sighed in resignation, but said only, “We have a meeting now, yes?”

They walked towards the War Room in awkward silence, until Mother Giselle saw the Herald, and came over to give her a warm embrace. “Hello, child. It is good to see you again.”

Cullen continued to the War Room, gratefully leaving the two women behind to talk.

It took a few minutes for everyone to arrive—Josephine had to pull the Herald away from Mother Giselle, who appeared to be giving the Herald a list of herbs she needed. Once they were all present, Cullen expected Cassandra to open the meeting by giving an accounting of what they had accomplished in the Hinterlands.

To his surprise, the Herald did that. Pointing to the map, in heavily accented but mostly fluent Common, she set forth what they had done. Slavers, apostates and Templars, and where they'd been killed. The location and number of Inquisition camps they'd set up. A run in with a demon wolf pack. And rift after rift after rift.

It was hard to believe that this efficient woman had stood before him only a month earlier, in barbarian furs, barely able to speak the language.

She raised her eyebrows at him. “Commander?”

Oh, Maker, did I just said that to the room? He must have. Cassandra was glaring at him, while Leliana and Josephine looked amused.

“I just mean to say that, um, you seem to have become very fluent, very quickly.”

“I had help,” she said, “but thank you.”

They moved on to their next steps. Leliana and Cassandra wanted the Herald to head to Val Royeaux right away to meet with the Chantry mothers.

The Herald pushed back. “No. The ground team has been on the road for over 30 days. Varric and Solas are civilians. Either Cassandra and I go alone tomorrow, or we rest for three days and then go together.”

Cullen didn't like her snotty tone. “Technically, you're a civilian, too.” 

The Herald glared at him. “Technically, I was arrested, ordered to fight, and have never been paid. That makes me a conscript.” She thought for a moment, and asked, “Are Solas and Varric being paid?”

Cullen had never seen Leliana, Josephine, and Cassandra all flustered, all at the same time. They looked at each other as if hoping one of them would have an answer.

“That is not right!” the Herald scolded. “Those men risk their lives every day, and they have saved mine.”

“I will see to it right away, Herald,” Josephine said.

The Herald nodded once, and they moved to other topics.

Leliana had not found her bracelet (the Herald called it something else, some odd word in that incomprehensible tongue of hers), nor had her ship been located. However, weather had been bad, and Leliana's scouts had only been able to look for the last few days.

Cassandra discussed the needs of the people in the Hinterlands. Horsemaster Dennet needed security towers, there were bandits and mercenaries to put down, and red lyrium was growing all over the place.

Josephine listed the concerns of several noble houses. Cullen had no interest in the discussion, so his mind wandered. Judging by the look on the Herald's face, she felt the same.

The Herald wanted to inspect the infirmary. Finally, she announced that she and her team would leave for Val Royeaux in three days. Cassandra did not object.

The meeting adjourned. Josephine went back to her office, Leliana went back to her plotting and the Herald left the Chantry with Mother Giselle in tow.

Cullen closed the door to the war room, leaving only himself and Cassandra. “All right, I read your letter. How concerned are you about her magic?”

Cassandra looked a little confused. "She is not invincible, if that is what you mean."

“Is she dangerous?”

“Absolutely. She is incredibly powerful, and her magic is unlike anything I have ever seen.”

“What should we do?”

“Nothing.”

Cullen gaped at her. “Nothing?” he said, incredulously. “Cassandra, you specifically wrote to me just to tell me that her magic terrified you!”

“No, Cullen. I specifically wrote because you had not written to me, as you had promised to do,” Cassandra said, in an unnecessarily bossy tone. “But it is true that her magic is terrifying, just not in the way you are thinking.”

“What do you mean?”

Cassandra knit her brows in concentration. “What she does should be impossible, even for a mage. She jumps off cliffs and lands without injury. She crushes enemies inside their own armor. She has thrown men so high into the air that they would have cleared the tallest towers in Val Royeaux.”

“Is there any way to counteract it?”

“Brute force. She is strong but she bleeds like anybody else, Cullen. She has taken her share of injuries.”

“Do you think she is in any danger of possession?”

Cassandra frowned. “I do not believe so. Perhaps you should speak with the Herald directly, and let her know your concerns.”

His skepticism must have shown on his face because Cassandra got rather scoldy. “Get to know her before you decide to simply dislike her on principle, Cullen. She is not bloodthirsty, or proud, or violent. If anything, she goes out of her way to help. And she is committed to closing the Breach. That is all that matters.”

They talked for a bit longer. He told her about his symptoms and the run in with Roderick earlier. She complained about Varric, and said that the Herald's world sounded fantastical and strange.

They parted ways. Cullen headed to the training yard, and spent the rest of the day with his men. It helped, losing himself in the honest routine of hard work.

It didn't take away the craving for lyrium. But it helped. 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter sixteen 

The only good thing she could say about the infirmary (a collection of mismatched cots in filthy, weather-beaten tents) was that it was currently empty. 

The bad news? It was empty because its last patient had died from infection only a few days before. 

Dirty water. No soap. Nothing sterilized. Bandages were taken from the dead and reused without bothering to even rinse them out. And it reeked

She tried not to lose her shit, but there was really no other way to describe her reaction. She did have the presence of mind to lose her shit in English, so at least nobody was explicitly offended. 

Mother Giselle told her that most people either used mages as healers, or potions (or both). The handful of mages in Haven were either unable or unwilling to help, except Solas, who had been traveling with the Herald. Adan gave Mother Giselle as much potion as he could, but his supply was very limited. 

In either case, she explained to Helen, basic sanitation was not something that “the country people” were used to practicing. 

Helen found a runner and told him to bring Adan to her. 

While they waited, Helen called over Quartermaster Threnn. Helen explained that she needed to be able to clean and boil blankets, sheets, clothing, bandages and surgical instruments (which were little more than knives and bone saws) every day. What would that require in manpower and resources? 

Threnn told her, “We have the manpower, but there aren't enough laundry kettles in Haven as it is. We could purchase some, I suppose, but they won't be here for weeks. Maybe Harritt could make one? I'm not a blacksmith, so I don't know.” 

Adan arrived and explained that the primary reason he was unable to spare more than he did was because, “that greedy, buck-toothed bastard Seggritt has most of the ingredients I need. His prices start at 'robbery' and go all the way to 'sodomy.'” 

Helen thanked them all. Then she left to find Leliana. 

The good Sister was praying in her tent. Helen waited patiently until she was done. Leliana was apparently having a crisis of faith over the Death of the Divine. “What good is the Maker,” she asked, “if he can allow such things to happen?” 

Helen thought the Maker was superstitious claptrap, so her answer was mostly a shrug. After Leliana had calmed down, Helen explained the situation with the infirmary, and the mages, and Adan, and Seggritt. 

Leliana was already aware of the problem. “The mages tell me that they are afraid the Templars will attack them for using magic, and I cannot say they are wrong. 

“As for Seggritt, he is the only merchant willing to be here. He claims he's already selling at a discount, which complete nonsense. But he won't come down on his prices. Even Varric's connections won't bring anybody out here.” 

“I see,” Helen said, frowning. “Thank you, Leliana.” 

It was nearly sunset by now. She tracked down Varric. “Let's talk over dinner,” he said, and he took her to the tavern. 

Helen had not yet been to the tavern, figuring it would be dark, depressing, and full of people who whispered and stared at her. What she found instead was a bright, warm pub, where Varric was a celebrity. Helen received more than a few curious looks and one Chantry sister, deep in her cups, slurred out a blessing. But for the most part, she was ignored. 

Every few minutes, somebody would come over to their table, and start discussing shipments, or people, or intelligence, or whatever with Varric. She belatedly realized that Varric was conducting business. She quit trying to explain her situation and finished her dinner in peace while Varric held court. 

Finally, when the tavern was much closer to empty, she told Varric her dilemma about the situation with the infirmary, and Adan and Seggritt. 

Varric gave her a sympathetic look. “I'm as frustrated as anybody, but the fact is, nobody wants to come to the ass end of nowhere to set up shop right under the Breach. And we can't just take Seggritt's supplies, or conscript them, or whatever you want to call it. Because then he'll leave, and he'll be loud about it, and it won't go well for the Inquisition.” 

Flissa came over to check on them. Helen ordered an entire second dinner. 

“That's a hell of a lot of food,” Varric said. “You sure you can eat it all?” 

“Easily. But back to Seggritt—can we order the supplies directly from somewhere else?” 

Varric tilted his head to the side and stared off into the distance as he searched through whatever contact lists he kept in his head. “Maybe,” he said, but he didn't sound convinced. “If it was just elfroot, it wouldn't be a problem, but the best compounds come from places that aren't easy to get to, like the Anderfels, and the Hissing Wastes. Seggritt's a bastard and a crook, but he has sources. I'll look into it,” he promised. 

“Thank you, Varric.” she said. 

Her second round of calories arrived, along with another ale for Varric. Helen tucked in. “So. Ruffles stopped by today,” he said, oh-so-casually. “It seems that there was an accounting oversight, and I should have been getting paid.” 

Helen looked at him as she chewed, but said nothing. 

“I told our good Ambassador that I appreciated it, but I didn't need the money. And she said that it wasn't about need, it was about what was right. That I risked my life every day for the Inquisition, and that it would be dishonorable to take such a sacrifice for granted.” 

She raised an eyebrow over the rim of her mug. She wasn't sure where Varric was going with this.

“Got anything to say about it, Herald?” 

“Yes,” she said, tearing open a warm dinner roll and adding a pat of butter. “Did you take the first offer, or did you hold out for sick leave and a pension?” 

He gave her a slow smile and tucked some wayward bangs behind his ears. "You sure you're not part dwarf?” 

She smiled back. “I am sure.” 

“Well, I still turned it down. I don't need it, and the Inquisition does. But I want you to know, it means a lot to me that you asked.” 

“Of course, Varric. You chose to stay. I am grateful to you.” 

Varric kept her company while she finished her dinner, telling her about how Cassandra had first arrested him, and how some of the things that had actually happened to Hawke were so unbelievable that he'd left them out of the book. 

When Helen was done eating, Flissa came over to take her plates and handed them a bill. “Put it on my tab,” Varric said, but Helen stopped him, and told Flissa to put it on the Inquisition's tab. 

“I am not getting paid, either,” she explained to Varric. 

“No? Well...maybe you're not part dwarf.” 

** 

Helen woke up far too early the next morning. She told herself it was simply because she was now used to such hours, and not because of another nightmare. 

Just like before, Telina arrived with breakfast shortly after Helen got up. Helen thanked her and then thought of something. "Telina, how do you always know when I am awake?" 

The girl looked confused as if it made no sense. “Well... you light a lamp, milady. We can see it in the windows.” 

Helen nodded, then shook her head. She was asking the wrong question. “What I mean is, who is watching my windows to see when the light goes on?” 

“Sister Nightingale's people, milady. Somebody watches over your cabin all night, to make sure you are safe. When you get up, a runner tells me. I put your breakfast together, then I come here.” 

Helen found that answer alarming for a number of reasons, not least of which was the idea that her safety was at risk. And then there was the issue of Telina herself. “Wait. Did they wake you just to... bring me breakfast?” 

“Oh, no. Most of us in the kitchen have been up for hours already. Commander Rutherford and his recruits rise early, Harritt and his people are up, Flissa's usually awake, or about to be, anyway, to prepare for the morning crowd. And a lot of the Sisters eat before they go to morning prayers.” 

That made Helen feel a bit better, knowing that she at least wasn't getting this poor girl out of bed. “Thank you. That is good to know. I appreciate everything you do for me, Telina.” 

Telina looked uncomfortable, but she nodded her thanks and left. Well, at least she isn't curtsying and sprinting out the door this time. I guess that's progress. 

After eating breakfast and getting dressed, Helen walked down to the forge. Although it was still dark, Harritt and his men were all up and working hard even as the sun rose. 

"Heard you was back," Harritt said when she showed up. "Here. Come have a look." He showed her black leather armor, with chain mail, pauldrons and gauntlets armored in an opalescent metal. "And lookit this," he said excitedly. A wicked looking dagger retracted directly from the top of the right gauntlet. "You can remove it, like that, see? Take it out, clean it, sharpen it, what-have-you." He gave her strict care instructions and a flask of oil. Then he gently placed the armor in her arms, like a new father handing over his infant. 

After thanking him profusely, she asked him about laundry kettles, explaining why she needed them. “Hmm, yeah, I can spare the iron. But we'll need to build a mold first, which will take a couple of days. I'll have my men start on it.” 

Helen took her armor back to her cabin and thought about her next moves. She needed to talk to Leliana, and to Solas, and to Cullen. 

She decided to save Solas for last. The man liked his sleep and had been on the road for a month. 

First, she sought out Leliana. She updated her on the progress for the infirmary. Then she asked why her cabin was being watched at night. 

Leliana paused for a moment. “Because we have credible reports of at least four separate plots to have you assassinated.” 

“Oh.” Helen wasn't even sure how to react to that news. “Is...that a lot?” 

“It is four more than we want, but as long as the Inquisition is a player in Thedas politics, there will be plots. Most of the threats are just grandstanding and politics. The plot itself is the point, not your actual death. That is how the Grand Game is played. However, one of the plots is internal, right here in Haven.The guardsmen who were punished in the wake of Ivans death have been quite vocal about wanting to see you come to harm.” 

It took Helen's brain a moment to remind her that Ivans was the Templar who had tried to rape her while she was still a prisoner. Honestly, her entire memory of that day was mostly just a blur. 

“Is it a serious threat?” Helen asked, “Are they truly dangerous, or are they just complaining?” 

“They are dangerously stupid,” Leliana said. “It isn't what they plan that we worry about. These men are not thinkers. It is what they do on impulse that has us worried. If they were to attack you...” 

“I would defend myself.” Because killing one man in self-defense might be acceptable, but killing a few began to look like she was unstable or vicious. 

“You see the concern.” 

“I do. Thank you for telling me.” 

She stopped by Seggritt's table. “The answer's no, Herald,” he said as she walked up. “I know what you're going to ask. My prices are fair. Take it or leave it.” 

Helen looked at him for a moment, his little piggy eyes looking back at her. “We have a saying in my world. 'What goes around, comes around.'” 

“This isn't your world, Herald. It's mine.” 

Helen debated whether she should slap him into a stasis field to literally scare the shit out of him. But that was more likely to frighten the people she wanted to help more than it was to influence his prices. 

Next on her list was Commander Rutherford. She made her way down to the training yard, where all the ground pounders were trying very hard not to hurt themselves. 

Cullen was yelling at a recruit. "Right. Now block. Block. Block him! No. NO, dammit, not—don't do—Maker's sake, boy, IT'S A SHIELD, not a dinner plate. It protects you, not the other way around." The boy turned red but tried again. When he got it right, Cullen said, "Good! Keep at it," and then moved along the line. 

Helen had been expecting something like her old drill instructor from the Marines, lots of screaming and repetition and physical training. Cullen was certainly running drills, but his approach was more like an exasperated dad. He was...actually, he was rather good looking, when he wasn't scowling at her, or being a complete ass. 

 

Chapter 16 Cullen

 

She got close enough that he could hear her, but not so close that she was encroaching on the training grounds. “Commander Rutherford?” she called out. “Do you have a moment?” The look of warm pride on his face was replaced with a sneer, his eyes went cold and his shoulders tensed up, but he walked over. “Need something, Herald?” 

“Yes, please. I need advice,” she said, trying her best to keep her tone professional. Then she sketched out the issues with the infirmary. “The mages have said they will not use magic because they are afraid of being punished by the Templars. I have not spoken to either side, yet, and do not want to make accusations.” 

“All right,” Cullen said, looking a little impatient. “So what advice did you need from me, specifically?” 

“Do you believe the Templars would agree to leave the mages in peace so they can work in the infirmary?” 

“Doubt it,” Cullen said. “Mage healers never worked without a Templar because of all the blood around.” 

“Well,” she said, confused. “it is an infirmary, Commander. Of course, there will be blood." 

“Which makes it an ideal place to practice blood magic!” he snapped at her. 

Oh. Right. “I had not thought of that. Do you we could convince a mage and a Templar to work together?” 

“Why don't you go ask them yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me, Herald, I have men to train.” 

“Oh, for fuck's sake!” she shouted in English, then switched to Common. “Adan cannot make potion because Seggritt will not sell the ingredients at a reasonable price. Harritt is going to stop making weapons for a few days so he can make laundry kettles from scratch. The mages and the Templars refuse to work together because their mutual hatred is far more important than actual lives. 

"You are the Commander, no? Will you not even allow me to find a way to boil water? Then, by all means, hurry back to training your men, so that they can die bravely from sepsis! And dysentery!" 

The soldiers had all stopped training to watch. 

“And by the way,” she continued in a low voice, poking him in his breastplate, “your guardsmen? The ones you sent to bed without their supper? They have been openly plotting to kill me. Maybe, if you are lucky, you can add, 'allowed his men to kill the Herald of Andraste' to your resume.” 

Cullen stared at her, shock written all over his face. 

“Thank you so much for the advice,” she said, allowing her accent to get deliberately thick, and sketching a mock bow. Then she stormed off into the woods. 

** 

It took Helen a while to calm down. She used Singularities to create several dozen very large snowballs. Then, one by one, she Pulled them off the ground and Threw them into the sky. She gave some of them names. Clinton. Cullen. Seggritt. She muttered every curse in every Milky Way language she knew. 

She felt, more than heard, Solas approach. “Did Cassandra send you?” she asked, not turning around. 

“She told me the recruits were treated to a display of your fluency this morning. I came looking for you on my own.” 

Something about his cultured voice made her want to come apart at the seams; to sob uncontrollably, or to scream until her lungs ached, or to smash boulders into the mountainside—anything to unleash all of the anger and frustration and grief she had inside. 

But Solas had snapped at her more than a few times for saying or doing the wrong thing. Whatever he was, at the moment, he was no safe harbor for her. 

She used her biotics to gather the remaining snowballs into a little wall, then slammed a Shockwave into it. It churned up the ground along the way and pulverized the wall into a cloud of sparkling snow. 

“You do not use that spell very often,” he said, coming up behind her. 

"No. It is powerful but inflexible. Once it is unleashed, it cannot change direction, and it obliterates almost everything in its path, friend or foe. The destruction is satisfying, I suppose, but I prefer the skills that let me adapt to my environment." 

He paused for a moment, then said, “That is... surprisingly self-aware of you.” A moment later, he stood directly in front of her. 

She looked up at him. “Are you here to scold me?” 

“No. I was simply concerned for your safety.” 

“I think I am safe from the goats, Solas.” 

“From the goats, yes, but perhaps not from assassins.” 

“Ah. Leliana sent you after me.” 

His lips pressed into a line of exasperation. “Is it so hard to believe that I came here of my own volition?” 

“No,” she conceded. “But honestly, I would welcome an assassination attempt right now. I could use the fight.” 

“If I may make a suggestion, come back to town with me. We can spar in the training yard, ” he said. “The physical exercise will calm your spirit, and your advisors will not worry for your whereabouts.” 

She agreed and they started walking back towards Haven. She told him about her issues with the infirmary. “No healers. No medicine! No sanitation! Three things that could eliminate most infection and disease. Seggritt will not move on his prices. Cullen will not help with the mages and Templars. Harritt is helping with kettles, but that won't be ready for at least a few days. I had actually planned to come find you earlier, see if you had any advice, before I, you know...” 

“Told off Commander Rutherford, at the top of your lungs, in front of all his men.” If she didn't know any better, she'd say that Solas almost sounded proud of her. 

“Everybody seems to know there is a problem but nobody knows how to fix it. It is appalling. I lost my patience.” 

“Haven is poor, fuel is precious, and many people here are ignorant about such matters. But you are right to challenge the status quo on this issue, Herald.” 

“What would you do?” she asked. They had reached the lake edge of the training yard. Solas skirted around it so they did not interfere with Cullen's men. Cullen himself was looking over a report of some kind. 

“Talk to the mages and Templars, as the Commander suggested.” 

“But he never said—” Helen stopped for a moment, “he did actually make that suggestion. I heard his tone, not his words.” 

Solas raised his eyebrows at her but said nothing. They walked the rest of the way to the sparring area in silence. He went to a barrel of practice weapons, and choose a quarterstaff for himself, and a wooden sword for her. 

He brought the sword over and stood to face her. To anybody else, it would look like he was instructing her on how to hold a sword. 

 

Chapter 16 render

 

He said, in a voice so low only that they could hear, “The Commander is well aware of the issues with the infirmary. In fact, I heard that he wanted to throw Seggritt into the dungeon, and confiscate his stocks. I would also hazard a guess that the reason he is reluctant to approach the mages and Templars is because he has to break up arguments on a near-daily basis.”

“Then why did he speak to me like that?” Helen hissed, trying to keep her voice down. “I am only trying—”

“Because he is afraid of you, Herald.” Helen looked at Solas' face to see if he was joking. He wasn't.

“You are a woman abused by his own men, with magic he cannot overcome, from a world he does not comprehend. Now come,” he said, placing the sword in her right hand, “let us begin.”

“I do not know how to use a sword.”

“Then it is high time you learn.”

He spent an hour showing her the basics—stance, grip, footwork, and defensive moves. It was much harder than she thought it would be. She was famished by the time they finished. Most importantly, she had calmed down.

Serannasan Ma, Solas,” she said as they put the practice weapons away. “You are a good instructor.”

Ma ane a on lin'sila, Herald. 'You are a good learner.'”

And something about the new Elvhen words clicked into place in her UT.

Solas. His name meant “Pride.”

Helen made small talk with Solas as they headed back into town. She realized that this was, perhaps, the first time she had seen him walking for any period of time without a weapon strapped to his back. He walked with his hands clasped loosely behind him, talking casually but his eyes always on the move, taking in their surroundings at all times.

It reminded her of an Admiral inspecting a ship, looking for anything out of place. She wondered if it had anything to do with the threats against her.

“I understand I have you to thank for my new salary,” he said, as they neared her cabin.

“You do not need to thank anybody, Solas. It should not have been overlooked at all,” she said.

“Nevertheless, I appreciate it.”

They had reached the door of her cabin. Helen looked up at him. He was still scanning their surroundings. “Thank you, Solas. I needed” she almost said “a friend” but wasn't sure if that was the right term, “an ally today. It was kind of you to look out for me.”

Solas looked at her fully in the face. She didn't know if it was the sunset, or just because she'd never looked closely before, but his eye color was more purple than the blue she'd believed them to be. I wonder how often he hears that he has pretty eyes?

Then she remembered what had happened the last time she'd thought a man had pretty eyes.

Solas, unaware of her thoughts, inclined his head towards her just a little. “Good night, Herald,” he said, his expression gentle.

“Good night, Solas.”

She let herself into her cabin, and quietly scolded herself. You are only here to close the Breach. If she survived, she was going to get the hell out of Haven and never look back. If there was a spaceport on Thedas, she'd find it. If there wasn't... well, she really hadn't thought that far ahead, but wherever she wound up, it certainly wouldn't be Village Stinkhovel.

And if closing the Breach killed her, it wouldn't matter. Either way, she had no energy to spare for thoughts of pretty eyes on handsome men.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter seventeen

Observing the Herald and the effect she had on Haven was fascinating. It was like dropping a small stone into a stagnant pond and watching the ripples become stronger as they approached the shore.

She had secured a salary for him. (Solas accepted it, graciously thanking the Ambassador when she came to let him know. Most of his wealth was still locked behind eluvians, and he needed the liquidity if he was to expand his sphere of influence.)

The Herald had then demanded changes to sanitation practices in the Inquisition. And, for good measure, she had openly questioned the Commander of the Army in front of all of his men.

Cassandra had come to his cabin and told him about the confrontation between the Herald and Commander Rutherford. “I would allow her some privacy and let emotions cool,” she told him, “but I worry for her safety. And she seems to trust you the most.”

Solas had hiked out to the woods, half-annoyed at being asked to babysit, half-impressed with the Herald's ability to upset the established order.

He found her easily enough. All he had to do was locate the place where snowballs the size of a man's head were being launched into the air.

Her emotional turmoil was obvious. So, he counseled, and sparred, and used swordplay to divert both mind and body, as he had once done ages ago for another powerful woman frustrated at her subjects' own stupidity.

Then he personally walked her back to her cabin.

Both one of his agents, and one of the Nightingale's, were watching over it. He did not doubt the Herald's ability to defend herself but no person was invulnerable. Impressive as her barriers were, she did not cast them in her sleep, and he knew her biotics were no use against poison.

But for the moment, she was as safe as he could make her.

The Fade around Haven was busy that night. The Breach had calmed enough that spirits were beginning to return, like migratory birds after a natural disaster. Unfortunately, a couple of spirits had taken notice of the high emotions in Haven and were looking for a way across the Veil.

“You will not last long if you cross over, friend,” he told a Rage demon that was finding plenty of emotion to feed on. “The people here are not strong.”

Rage looked at Solas stupidly for a moment. “I'm strong,” it said. “Me. I'm strong.”

“But you won't be once you cross over,” Solas explained patiently. “Your host will die, and the Templars will kill you.”

“I'm strong,” it repeated.

Solas sighed, and reinforced what wards he could, where he could. The Rage demon would likely cross over at some point, either voluntarily through a mage or involuntarily through a rift, but the longer it could be avoided, the better.

Solas quickly monitored the occupants of Haven that mattered to him. All was well. Cassandra and Leliana were dreaming, but Solas did not invade their privacy. Varric's life force was as strong and dreamless as ever. The Commander was still awake, working late into the night. His handful of agents were safe, some asleep, some awake and working.

He concentrated on the Herald's cabin.

Nothing except the Mark. Just as always. He wondered why he continued to look.

**

He took Mor'Lanun out for exercise the following morning. The first part of the trip to Val Royeaux would take them north, through the treacherous slopes of the Frostbacks before they reached the Imperial Highway. Solas was curious to see how his mount would do on the icy terrain.

Mor'Lanun was relaxed, happy and aware, sure-footed on both ice and snow.

At the stables, he removed saddle and tack, and gave Mor'Lanun plenty of clean water to drink. Then he used a quick spell to wick away any sweat. The horse didn't even flick an ear in protest.

“What a wise beast you are,” he told the horse in Elvhen. Mor'Lanun nickered softly.

He left the stables to find mages and Templars standing in a semi-circle around the Herald near the sparring area. Cassandra watched from her usual spot by the practice dummies, her hand on Cullen's elbow to prevent him from interfering. Varric wandered to stand next to Solas.

The Herald was discussing the infirmary with the mages and Templars. It was filthy and spread disease. They were under-supplied. Nobody seemed willing to make necessary changes.

“This is why I need help from both mages and Templars,” she explained. “But it is not enough to tell me that you are willing to work together. You will have to show me that you can be trusted, to protect your patients and to protect each other.

“This is for volunteers only. If you do not want to do this, you need not explain your reasoning for me. Simply tell me you are not interested, and you may go with my blessing.”

After a moment, a Templar who looked like she was in her late 40s, stepped out and knelt in front of the Herald. “I'm too old,” she said. “The lyrium takes my mind a little more every day. But I'll take your blessing, Herald. Maker knows I could use it.”

The Herald looked momentarily horrified at the Templar's genuflection but recovered quickly. She knelt down in front of the woman, sat on her heels, and took the Templar's hands in her own. She spoke quietly with the older woman.

Was she doing it deliberately, going out of her way to make sure that she did not appear to be lording herself over others? Or was it an unconscious thing, simply part her nature? Before the Veil, he would have known her intentions immediately. Now, he could not tell.

The Herald leaned forward and whispered something in the Templar's ear. Then she stood and helped the woman stand up, as well.

The Templar stood to one side, as a couple of other Templars repeated the process. None of the mages appeared to want out. The Herald thanked them all, and they walked back towards town.

“Hey, Lanie,” Varric called out softly to the first Templar (because of course Varric knew who she was) “What did she say?”

Lanie wiped her eyes and said, “She told me she wasn't the Herald of anything, she was just a soldier like me. And that she was grateful to me for being honest with myself and her. Then she told me to forgive myself.” The Templar headed back into town.

“Forgive herself for what?” Varric wondered. “They've never even met before, have they?”

Solas, however, was too busy watching the Herald, who had divided the mages and Templars into pairs. She cast a barrier around herself and said, “This is my barrier. Listen to it for a moment.”

They did. “I can't hear anything,” an older mage said.

“Nor can I,” a Templar said, “What kind of magic is that?”

“It is not magic at all. This is called biotics.” She let her barrier condense down to a small rotating ball on her right hand. “There is no magic in my world. I am not a mage, no matter what people tell you.”

Keeping her right hand up with the little biotic ball, she brought up her left hand, as well. “This mark,” she said emphasizing with her left hand, “this is magic.”

Then she stood there for a minute, and let the mages and Templars reach out with their own senses and feel the difference between the two.

One of the mages, a young elf who looked barely old enough to have gone through his Harrowing, asked if he could touch the biotics, which she allowed. “Oh, my!” he said. “It's almost physical, isn't it? What are you doing, exactly?”

“At the moment, I am manipulating the molecules in the air to form a very small barrier.”

“You aren't pulling from the Fade at all?” a Templar asked.

“No.”

They continued to ask her questions about her biotics. A couple of the Templars even worked up enough nerve to touch the little biotic barrier. Solas glanced over at the Seeker and the Commander. Cullen still looked extremely unhappy, but Cassandra no longer needed to hold him back.

Helen vanished the little ball. “I am going to place a barrier over myself. Each team will have roughly a minute to take my barrier down. You may use any magic or weapon you see fit.”

“Wait. What?” Now the Seeker was the one that looked angry, and Cullen was holding her back.

A Templar with a giant red beard asked, “Wot's this got to do with healin' people?”

“Nothing,” the Herald replied. “Why don't you and your mage partner go first?”

“Right, then.” he said, pulling his long-sword out of its scabbard. “C'mon, Hester,” he said to a tired looking woman in vomit-colored robes.

“Do you want to discuss strategy together first?” the Herald asked. Neither did.

The Herald backed up to make sure they had plenty of room and were not too close to anybody else. Then she cast her barrier and said, “On my mark. Ready. Set. Mark.”

For the next minute, Redbeard wailed away at Helen's barrier, while Hester shot fireballs at it. “Your time is nearly up,” Helen said. “Five-four-three-two-one. Time.” Just as she got to the end, the Templar cast a Holy Smite.

Hester crumpled to the ground like an old sack of potatoes.

“Interesting approach,” Varric said.

The Herald made Redbeard carry Hester back to town. “Take her to Adan, please,” she said. “Good man. Now. Who is next?”

Team after team tried and failed to break through Helen's barrier. People that tried to talk to their partner ahead of time, were asked to stay. Teams that said nothing to each other but just started banging away at the barrier were thanked profusely, then excused.

In the end, she had two teams. The Templars were both men. There was Ser Kason, who looked like he was in his early 20s, and Ser Bennett, who was perhaps ten years older. The two mages were Rose, a middle-aged human female, and Owin, the young elf who had first asked to touch Helen's biotics.

“Congratulations. You four are now the Inquisition Medical Corps, 1st Division.”

The four of them looked at each other. Rose tentatively raised her hand. “Herald,” she said, “I don't think you ever even asked the mages if we even have talent for healing.”

“No, I did not.”

There was a long pause.

“I see. Well, you should know that I'm not a healer.”

“I will teach you,” the Herald said.

“But you said you wasn't a mage,” said Ser Kason.

“Correct.”

“Oh!” Owin said. “You don't have magic in your world, right? So you're going to teach us something else?”

The Herald nodded. “Yes. Follow me, and we will get started.”

She walked towards town, the four of them following her. Cassandra and Cullen both looked fed up, and followed as well.

“Herald,” Solas called out, unable to contain his curiosity, “may I join you?”

“Me, too,” Varric stated. Solas had no doubt the dwarf was mentally recording these details for his next book.

The Herald and her group stopped and waited for everyone to catch up. She made introductions, matter-of-factly referring to Solas as, “a member of my ground team. He is a healer, and a warrior and a scholar.”

It was, perhaps, the kindest description anybody had made of him in thousands of years.

The Herald led them to Mother Giselle, who was in the Chantry.

After introducing the new medics to Mother Giselle, the Herald then asked to see the new medics' hands. After inspecting all four pairs, she said, “Rose, your hands and fingernails are very clean. Tell me why.”

“Habit, I suppose,” Rose said, shrugging. “I'm a Free Marcher, but my father was Orlesian. He ingrained it into all of us growing up. By the time I went to the Circle, it was just something I always did.”

“I see. And how often do you wash your hands?”

“A few times a day. After I relieve myself, before I eat, like that.”

“Do you get sick often?”

“Och, noooo,” Rose said proudly, her Marcher accent getting a little more noticeable. “My family has always had a strong constitution.”

The Herald thanked her. Addressing the group, she asked, “What is the average life expectancy for the people of Thedas?”

“55, 60,” Ser Bennet said. “Most people won't live into their 70s unless they are wealthy, or live a fairly sheltered life.” Everyone nodded their general agreement.

“In my world, the average life expectancy for humans is 150 years.”

“Is it really?” Solas asked, as the others expressed similar degrees of skepticism.

“That's not possible,” Commander Rutherford said. “Not without magic.”

“We do not have magic in my world. We have science. People still fall victim to accidents, combat, war...but dying from an infection? It is nearly unheard of, and has been for centuries. Most diseases have been eradicated.”

She stood up a little straighter, warming to her topic. “Do you cook your meat?” she asked the medics. All four nodded.

“Why?”

Why?” Owin repeated, looking at her like she was stupid.

“Yes. Why do you cook your meat?”

“Because raw meat makes you sick.”

“Have you ever seen people pour brandy or spirits on a wound?” She glanced at Solas then, amusement in her eyes. He knew she was thinking about their argument in the Hinterlands.

Rose said, “Yeah. It can prevent the wound from festering.”

“Exactly,” the Herald nodded. “My people learned ages ago that heat, soap, and alcohol can prevent sickness and disease. Wash often, especially your hands. Clean medical instruments with soap and water after every use, then boil them for several minutes, or soak them in strong alcohol. Same with dressings and bandages.

“Rose and her family may have strong constitutions, but the fact that the entire family learned early to keep their hands clean likely prevented them from becoming sick in the first place. And when they did get sick, they probably recovered well before their neighbors.”

“That's true, now that I think about it,” Rose said.

The Herald told them what she wanted them to do. Work with Mother Giselle to make the infirmary, “a place to heal, not a place to die.” The mages would use the magical knowledge they already had—fire, ice, barriers—to boil water, wash out wounds, clean instruments, make cold compresses and to repel filth. The Templars and the mages would both practice basic first aid.

And, starting immediately, they were to begin washing their hands after every single trip to the latrines or use of the chamber pot, and before and after every meal, and after contact after or between patients.

Rose and Mother Giselle nodded in agreement. Owin and the Templars looked thoughtful.

“The four of you are your own unit now,” she told them. “That means you eat your meals together, learn from one another, look out for one another. Think about whether you want your own uniforms or insignia. Many people will not understand what it is you are doing, but if you do it together, they will be more accepting.”

In the meantime, she said, she and Leliana were devising a way to have Inquisition scouts locate and harvest sources of medicinal herbs when they were out in the field.

After a few more minutes of answering questions and giving directives, the Herald named Rose as “Senior Medic,” and left them in the care of Mother Giselle.

The new medics began talking among themselves, as the Herald started to leave the Chantry.

“Herald!”

She turned around. “Yes, Commander?” she said, her expression impatient.

“I would speak with you in private, if you please,” Cullen sounded like he was barely keeping his rage in check.

She glared up at him, only for a moment, before saying, “No.”

The Commander blinked once, incredulously. “No?

“We spoke yesterday. You told me you have soldiers to train. I would never keep you from your duties, Commander. Now, please excuse me, I need to speak with Leliana.”

And with that, she walked out of the Chantry and into the tent of Sister Nightingale.

Now that the show was over, Varric headed towards the tavern, slapping Cullen on the back as he passed. “I think you lost that round, Curly.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes and walked into the Ambassador's office, closing the door behind her.

The Commander looked nonplussed.

Solas would not pretend that he liked the man. Cullen Rutherford represented nearly everything that Solas felt was wrong with the modern age—an unreasonable fear of magic, a history of leadership within a corrupt and oppressive organization, well versed in anti-magic, not to mention the simple fact that he was human.

But there was at least one thing the Commander was feeling right now that Solas could sympathize with. “For what is it worth, Commander, she does this to all of us.”

“Does what?”

“Challenges us. Demands answers to questions most have never considered. Hardly a day goes without her offending someone, but she asks in good faith. ”

Cullen snorted derisively, and shook his head. Something about his dismissive attitude touched Solas' ire.

“Scoff as you will, but the Herald is trying to solve a problem that she did not create. She might not understand magic but she knows how to motivate people. If this experiment succeeds, the credit will be hers and hers alone.”

“And if it fails?” Cullen's tone was bitter.

“If it fails,” Solas' said coldly, “remember that she came to you for help, Commander Rutherford, and was turned away. Keep that in mind before passing judgment on her leadership.”

Solas turned his back on the Ferelden, and walked out. 

 

Chapter 17 Solas and Cullen argue

**

Cullen tried to come up with a witty retort as he watched Solas leave the Chantry. Nothing came to mind. You've just been put in your place by a hedgemage. Nicely done, Rutherford.

His mind went to the box in his tent, his “just in case” dose. Maker, he was desperate for some lyrium right then, and the security it would bring his mind.

He sent a brief prayer to the Maker for strength. Then he managed the only way he knew how—he went back to his work.

He trained the troops that day with only half of his usual attention. He kept thinking about the Herald, about what she'd done, what she'd said, what he'd said...Cullen didn't know what to make of any of it. He was just grateful that she was leaving for Val Royeaux tomorrow, and would be gone for a month.

That night, as he was getting ready for bed, he looked at his hands. There was dirt under his nails. There was always dirt under his nails.

Of course, there is. I'm a man, a soldier. He bathed once a week, as was Templar habit, and which was still more than most Fereldens. He tried to shave every couple of days, which usually meant his hands and face were subjected to soap and water every couple of days, too. And he may or may not use certain Orlesian products in his hair.

But washing his hands several times a day? Cleaning under his nails? It seemed silly.

Still—150 years. Cullen was thirty years old. Even if he survived the war, the Breach, and lyrium withdrawal, his life was already half over.

But in the Herald's world, it would be just beginning. What would I do, if I had that much time, or even just an extra ten or twenty years?

He found his soap and a flannel, poured water into his basin, and thoroughly washed his hands, making sure to scrape the dirt from under his nails. It took more effort than he'd expected. When he was finished, he looked at his hands.

Chapter 17 shirtless Cullen

They were still callused, and scarred, and ordinary. Across the depths of memory, his heard his mother tell him, “You have your father's hands, Cullen.” He'd only been six or seven when she'd told him that, and it had made him so proud. He still remembered how strong his father's hands had been, as he'd guided the plow deep into the soil.

Cullen's hands trembled, and he thought—lyrium.

He sighed and pushed thoughts of his parents away. He missed them deeply. He carried an ocean of regret over his absence after they'd died. But he would not deny that, at times like this, he was grateful that they were not here to see the depths he'd sunk to.

His parents had given him, their oldest son, to the Templars believing he would become the fierce and loyal protector he had always dreamed of becoming. And after eighteen years, the best thing he could say was that he had never actually committed abuse.

Even that didn't count, because Maker knew he had certainly never prevented any. How many times had he seen a mage kneeling before a Kirkwall Templar, who was unbuckling his sword belt? How many times had Cullen had walked quickly past, pretending not to see, telling himself that it was consensual?

And then there was his lowest moment of his entire life—arguing for the annulment of the entire Circle of Kinloch. The mages who had survived Uldred were innocent of any wrongdoing—he knew that now. But at the time, all he saw were blood mages, even the children as young as nine.

The look on Solona's face...well, not that it mattered much. She was the Hero of Ferelden, and had run off to Maker-only-knew where with her elven lover. Whatever she was doing now, he was quite certain she was not wasting her time wondering about him.

As for Kirkwall, if Cullen spent all of his time listing his mistakes in that city, he'd never have time for anything else. Even Hawke had told him to lighten up.

Both men had been close to people who committed atrocities right under their noses. But while Cullen had found his backbone in time to stand with Hawke in the end against Meredith, Garrett had killed Anders—his lover—by his own hand in order to protect Kirkwall from even further ruination.

So, yes—if anybody could relate to how Cullen felt, it was Garrett Hawke.

Cullen and Garrett had worked together after the Chantry explosion to rebuild the city. Hawke was smug, sarcastic, and liked to needle Cullen, but he was one of the few mages Cullen implicitly trusted to never succumb to either blood magic or possession.

That was why, when Garrett had shown up one day and said, “I'm leaving with Carver,” Cullen's only advice had been to make sure that they had a steady supply of lyrium for younger Hawke. The Hawke brothers had never returned, and the post of Viscount was still vacant.

Now Cullen found himself once more in the orbit of a powerful mage.

But unlike Solona Amell, whom he'd once fancied, and unlike Garrett Hawke, whom he'd genuinely liked, he had no frame of reference for the Herald of Andraste. She was strange, and dangerous, and seemed so very apart from all the rest of them.

She also hated him.

Cullen looked down at his newly clean hands, which were clasped together as if in prayer.

He blew out the candles and knelt down in the dark next to his cot.

“O Maker, hear my cry. Guide me through the blackest nights...”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter eighteen

Helen sat at her desk, running wetware algorithms that were supposed to simulate the presence of biotics, but her numbers were off, again.

Katarina Kowalski stuck her head in side Helen's office. “Hey, Trey! You hungry?”

“Always,” Helen grinned as she kept typing.

“It's noon somewhere. Let's eat.”

Helen stood up and turned around. Kat stood in the doorway, wearing iron-plated armor, with an eye etched into the breastplate. They headed towards the elevator. Owin passed them in the hallway, with a clipboard in his hand. Varric was signing one of his books for the very flustered, very star-struck receptionist.

She and Kat stepped into the elevator. Kat pressed the button for the ground floor.

Helen tucked her silver bangs behind her ears. Where were they going again? The elevator doors opened, and they stepped out into Haven.

“Hey, Kat? This is the wrong floor.” Helen turned to her co-worker, but Kat had vanished. The elevator was gone. Now she stood in front of the Chantry.

She walked through Haven, trying to remember what she was supposed to be doing. An Asari nurse stood in the infirmary, talking to Ser Bennet. A Salarian merchant manned Seggritt's table. Commander Rutherford and a Turian in heavy armor were training a mix of Inquisition and Hierarchy soldiers how to reload their service rifles.

Helen walked to the end of the pier. She was supposed to be doing something but she couldn't remember what it was.

The ground started to shake. Pebbles bounced around.

Then, with a blast of noise so loud it filled her entire being, Saren's dropship emerged from the Breach. 

 

Helen’s nightmare

 

The whole town started screaming. Helen tried to press her comms to call for her ground team but—goddammit, her omnitool was still missing! “Solas!” she cried out. She looked around for her companions. “Seeker! Varric!” Her voice was not nearly loud enough to be heard over the cacophony.

She jumped out to the frozen lake to get a better view on the ship, frantically trying to think of a way to save Haven.

Dozens of dragon's teeth shot up through the ice, knocking her on her back.

Searing pain pierced her gut as one of the dragon's teeth emerged from the ice directly underneath her, impaling her and raising her several feet off the ground. She looked down at her stomach. Her clothing burned away and her skin charred black, as blue electricity began to crackle from her body.

“No, no, no, NOOOOOOOO!”

Helen woke mid-scream. It took a few minutes for the shaking to stop.

She didn't want to light a candle and alert the kitchens that the Herald was awake, but neither did she want to sit in a dark cabin by herself until it was a more reasonable hour. She got dressed in the dark, slipped out the side window and snuck around the back. Using her biotics to give her a quick boost, she quietly climbed up onto the roof.

If she'd had her omnitool, she could have used her tactical cloak to be completely invisible.

But she didn't. Instead, she sat very still, and hoped nobody noticed the crazy lady sitting on top of a house in the middle of the night. 

***

Helen met with the advisers a couple of hours later, just before sunrise. She was tired. It was too early. She wanted more coffee, and was already hungry again even though she'd eaten everything the kitchens had sent.

Basically, she was in a super bitchy mood and trying hard not to show it. At least the new armor fit well.

Most of the advisors had something to say.

Cassandra opened the meeting by explaining once again who they were going to Val Royeaux to meet, and why she felt it was necessary.

Leliana informed the group that she and Helen had discussed the issue of Seggritt at length the day before. Rather than look for another merchant, they were going to ask scouts in the Inquisition camps to locate and, if possible, harvest medicinal herbs for the infirmary.

Josephine said, "Herald, now that you are largely fluent, you should learn to write the language with precision. It will also help you to grasp the subtleties of the language."

Leliana rolled her eyes. “What we want is for you to start sending your own reports from the field,” Leliana said.

Josephine looked a bit put out. “That is not true, Leliana, there are many reasons why it is in the Herald's best interest to learn more than just the basics of writing.”

Helen shrugged. “You want status reports in my own words, and you do not want my writing to look like a child's. It is all right, Josie, I understand this.” 

Josephine then counseled her on what to wear while she was in Val Royeaux to make a good impression. Helen's personal opinion was that what she wore was unlikely to change the fact that she was short, bald and utterly foreign. Still, Josephine was trying hard, and Helen would defer to the Ambassador's good taste.

The Commander said nothing. Not one single word.

And...after cooling off for more than a day, Helen could admit to herself that, no matter how angry she had been, no matter how unfair the Commander had been acting, screaming at him in front of his men had been extremely unprofessional.

When the meeting was over, and everybody started leaving, Helen asked Cullen to stay behind for just a moment.

 

Cullen Rutherford

 

His eyes narrowed a bit. She remembered what Solas had said, that Cullen was afraid of her, so she got straight to the point.

“Commander, I owe you an apology. It was wrong of me to berate you in front of your troops. No matter my feelings at the time, airing grievances in front of enlisted men is bad for morale, and disrespectful to you. I know better. I should have acted better.

“I am sorry, Commander. It will not happen again.”

He looked at her suspiciously for a moment, then seemed to relax his guard just a fraction. “Well, um...thank you, Herald.”

She nodded. “If you are willing, perhaps you could walk with me to the gates? It might help if your troops see us speaking like officers, instead of bickering like children.”

Cullen gave it some thought, his emotions plain on his face. He really didn't want to be near her, but he knew it would help his men.

After a moment, she raised a hand placatingly. “Nevermind, Commander. It was just a thought. I will see you when we return.”

As she started to leave, he said, “Wait.”

He looked awkward and a little annoyed, but he started walking with her.

After a full minute of him saying absolutely nothing, she said, teasingly, “I take it small talk is not your strong suit, Commander.”

“No,” he said seriously. “I leave that to Ambassador Montilyet.”

“No diplomacy training for Templars?”

“No.”

Note to self. Commander Pauldrons has zero sense of humor. If Helen had more time, she'd have taken it as a personal challenge to get him to crack a smile, but they only had a few minutes before she would be on her way.

So, she played it straight. “What sort of training do Templars receive?”

Here, finally, was a topic he liked to discuss. Templar education got them all the way into the training grounds, where his men were warming up in the early morning sun. Helen glanced over at the stables. Solas was there, saddling up his Forder, but Cassandra and Varric had not yet arrived.

“I still have a moment. May I ask you some more questions?” she said.

Cullen hesitated.

“It is only for a few minutes, Commander,” she said. “I will have little opportunity to learn about you after I leave.”

“You could just read Varric's book,” he said, his face neutral, but his tone caustic.

Helen wanted to take the bait but kept her posture relaxed. She and Cullen stood side-by-side looking out over the training grounds. To anybody watching, they looked like two commanders, overseeing the troops.

“Varric is a storyteller, not a historian,” she said. “I would rather hear your history in your own words, Commander.”

“My history is none of your concern, Herald.”

“That is true, but you have hated me from the moment we met. I would know why.”

Cullen's jaw flexed. His ears turned red, but he said nothing. He just stared resolutely ahead.

Stubborn man. Helen searched her experience for a way to make her point without making things worse.

"The first time I killed somebody, it was almost by accident," she said, speaking quietly. "I was in a pub, waiting for friends. Two patrons murdered the barkeep right in front of me, and then threatened to kill everyone else there. They were very drunk, and they had weapons that could have killed scores of people in less than a minute. I used my biotics, and killed them both."

 

Cullen and Helen

Cullen turned his face towards her. She certainly had his attention now.

“It horrified me, how quickly I had killed those men, how easy it had been to act without thought, even though it was exactly what I had been trained to do. Later, I locked myself away and sobbed for hours.

"My Gunnery Chief found me and scolded me. 'You took responsibility,' she said. 'That means being responsible.'"

Helen chewed her lip for a moment. “I do not know your history, Commander. I have not finished Varric's book. But I have seen enough to know that you are taking responsibility now. I think you want to do what you believe is right.”

He turned and faced her fully, hands on his hips. “I do,” he said, quiet but firm.

“I believe this,” Helen nodded. “I do not know why you hate me, Commander. But you should know that I do not hate you.”

Cullen exhaled loudly and looked at the ground for a moment. When he looked back at her, the angry, suspicious man was gone. In his place stood an exhausted general who felt personally responsible for the lives of every soldier under his command.

Helen knew how that felt. She straightened her posture, and said, in Common, “Officer on deck!” Then she snapped into an Alliance salute.

Cullen returned with an Inquisition salute of his own, his brown eyes solemn.

They both relaxed and Helen glanced over at the stables. The rest of her ground team was there, watching her and Cullen. “Best of luck, Commander,” she said, as she began to walk away. “I will see you next month.”

After a heartbeat, she heard him say, “Safe travels, Herald.”

**

The first day out of Haven was much harder than Helen had expected.

They spent nearly all of it picking their way around the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes. The road that would eventually take them out of the Frostbacks and towards the Imperial Highway was covered in a dangerous mix of ice, snow, and debris caused by the explosion and the Breach.

It quickly became apparent that Solas' mount was best suited to lead. Helen placed Solas in the front to act as their guide. The rest of them traveled slowly and carefully behind him, in single file.

It was bitterly cold. Evidence of the destruction and violence surrounded them. A few dozen dead—clerics, mages, Templars, scouts—still lay where they fell, half-buried in a shroud of snow. Their bodies had frozen to the ground before they could be moved. Now they could not be recovered until the thaw.

Helen had no idea when that was, or even what season they were in. But she knew the pain of not being able to bury your dead, and her heart ached for the families of the people they passed.

Cassandra spent most of the day looking like she was fighting tears. Varric looked immensely sad. Solas’ face was a grim mask as frozen as the landscape.

This devastation, all of this destruction and carnage—she was still the main suspect for this. The whole, “Herald of Andraste” propaganda nonsense may have convinced most people in Haven and the surrounding area of her innocence, but the audience they sought in Val Royeaux had not been there when Helen had closed the rift. From what Helen understood, most of them were going to be like Chancellor Roderick.

By the late afternoon, they had skirted around the ruins, and had passed almost directly underneath the Breach. Helen's left hand ached and tingled. The mark wanted to connect with the Breach. Several times, she had to stop her hand from involuntarily reaching up towards the sky.

She noticed, as they got close, that several enormous boulders seemed to be free-floating near the mouth of the Breach.

Nothing on this god-forsaken planet is normal, she thought. Why would gravity be any different?

But this was not the time to ask questions. Helen kept her thoughts to herself, and brought up the rear of her silent, somber group.

They camped that evening on the mountain side. Helen used her biotics to build a windbreak made of ice and snow, which had the side effect of clearing the ground for a campsite. They pitched the two tents together so that all four would sleep together and conserve body heat. The horses were kept close and under blankets. It was far from cozy but at least nobody would freeze to death.

They did not need to rotate a watch that night. Their location was too inaccessible for bandits and if a rift opened up nearby, the mark would alert them.

Supper was a quiet affair. Nobody suggested that Helen read any chapters from "Tale of the Champion." Cassandra went to bed as soon as soon as the sun went down. Varric, Solas, and Helen all sat around the fire, writing. Varric and Solas wrote in their respective journals, while the Herald slowly wrote a letter to her advisors.

Although she was right-handed, she frequently had to put her quill down to massage her left.

Finally, Solas said, “Herald, is the mark troubling you?”

She shrugged.

“When you are finished with your missive, I will look at the mark,” he informed her.

She did not argue. Their proximity to the Breach likely had not helped matters.

Within a few minutes, she packed her things away. Solas beckoned her over to him, and bade her sit on his right side. He took her left hand in both of his.

“No wonder you are in pain, Herald,” he scolded her. “The wards have nearly faded completely. Why did you not tell me this before now?”

“I am not a mage, Solas,” she reminded him. “I cannot tell when a ward is fading.”

He looked liked he was about to burst forth into a snippy lecture, but when he looked at her face, his expression softened. He wasn't looking her in the eyes, she realized. He was looking at the bags under them. Yeah, I bet I am a vision of beauty right now.

“Are you still having nightmares?” he asked.

She nodded.

Solas frowned, but said nothing. Concentrating on the mark, he sent a lovely, warm healing spell into her hand. Helen did not realize just how much her hand had been hurting until the pain had subsided.

Solas held her left hand in his own, and traced slow circles in the air above it with his right.

His eyes were closed, his breathing deep and steady. His new armor had a thick, soft, deep fur collar. And the man radiated heat.

She was distantly aware of Solas and Varric talking, their voices deep and soft. Somebody placed a blanket over her shoulders, but Solas never let go of her hand.

Helen drifted, warm and content, through a landscape of memory.

She was eight years old, at the top of the tallest maple on the farm, her father on the branch just below her. She was twelve, her mother showing her how to calibrate the wind turbines, and saying to Helen, "You're good at this." She was twenty-three, on the observation deck when she took her first trip to the Citadel, unable to speak in the face of the magnitude of what the Protheans had built.

The scene morphed. She was in the Ops center on the SSV Trafalgar, planning a joint mission with a unit from the multi-species Heavy Urban Search and Crisis Response. Helen's crew and the “Huskers” were going to infiltrate a Blue Suns compound on Zorya.

The Husker Commander, a Turian named Atticus, flirted shamelessly with Helen during mission prep.

The team got on the shuttles and headed ground-side. One of Helen's Lieutenants was leaning over the pilot's shoulder to look out the viewport as they approached the planet's atmo. "Lieutenant," she said. "Don't distract the pilot!"

He ignored her. “Lieutenant!” Nothing.

Helen stepped over to him, grabbed a shoulder and pulled back, spinning him around.

A pair of startled, violet-colored eyes looked back at her from behind the visor, his cleft chin visible in the open faced-helmet.

“Solas?”

The scene went very fuzzy, then vanished. “Herald,” Solas was saying quietly, trying to get her to sit up. “Wake up, Herald.”

“Why were you on the shuttle?” she asked him in English. Wait. She wasn't going to Zorya, she was going to Val Royeaux.

By the time she remembered exactly what was going on, Solas had maneuvered her into her bedroll. He lay down in the bedroll next to her. “Sleep well, Herald,” he said. She dropped back into sleep before she could say anything and did not dream again the rest of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter nineteen

“I am not a mage, Solas. I cannot tell when a ward is fading.”

Solas swallowed his temper. The Herald was not to blame for his bad mood. “Are you still having nightmares?” he asked and she nodded.

Solas worked on the Herald's hand, far more concerned than he let on. His wards should have lasted much longer.

He first pushed a healing spell into her hand to ease the pain. Then he began reconstructing his wards, carefully removing and replacing them, one at a time. After several minutes, he felt a warm weight all along his right side, breaking his concentration.

The Herald had fallen asleep against him.

“I don't think she's getting much sleep these days,” Varric said in a low voice, as he wiped the ink off his quill and rolled it back in its oilcloth. “I'm packing it in. You gonna be a few minutes with her hand?”

“More than a few, I am afraid.”

Varric ducked into the tent and returned with a blanket. He placed it over the Herald's shoulders. “Try not to wake the Seeker when you're finished,” he said. Then he went to bed.

Solas gently readjusted the Herald until her upper body was mostly cradled across his lap. This allowed him to keep his hands free. He covered her more fully with the blanket, taking care to tuck it around her feet so she would not get too cold.

Then he took her hand into his and went back to work on the wards.

Solas took more care this time than he had in the days after she had closed the Rift. Now that he had a better idea of how her biotics worked, he paid close attention to the nodules of the element zero in her hand.

The new wards looked stable, but when he stilled and concentrated on them for several minutes, he realized that her body was not dissolving his wards—it was absorbing them. Slowly, to be sure, but certainly apparent once he looked.

Between the Anchor, which wanted to escape the wards, and her own body, which was absorbing them, it would only be a matter of time before they failed again.

As he worked, the Herald sank further and further into sleep, relaxing against him. Solas meditated deep into his magic, looking at the spaces in between the Anchor, his wards, and her biotic element. He would need to reinforce the wards from the Fade side. When he had done all he could from the waking side, he slipped across the Veil.

He expected what he always saw when he looked for the Herald in the Fade—the Anchor, and nothing else.

What he found, what he felt, was so shocking, it almost startled him back into the waking world.

He was standing in a room with curved, dark walls that seemed to be illuminated from within. The only furniture was a large, oval table. A dozen people stood around it, listening to the Herald speak.

Except not all of them were actually people. One looked like a very tall, very skinny frog. Two women looked mostly human but their skin was blue and they had odd protrusions where hair should have been. A few others looked something like featherless birds of prey, or maybe like the raptors that Solas had seen in the wastelands far to the west.

The Herald was leading the discussion with one of the bird-men. Bird-man spoke in a dual-toned voice that sounded harsh to Solas' ear. The conversation was entirely in the Herald's native tongue. He did not understand a word of it.

The Herald and her humans wore dark gray armor. It was sleek and made of a material Solas could not identify. It lit up from within, like dwarven lyrium runes. Bird-man and his people wore dark blue armor, of a similar material but with a different design.

Two teams, one mission.

The Herald touched her right wrist. A translucent, orange gauntlet appeared. She tapped on it a few times. Over the center of the table, the schematics of a building popped up, which the Herald and Bird-man pointed to as they spoke.

Solas might not understand the language but he recognized when an infiltration was being planned.

Everybody carried strange weapons on their back and at their hip. He wondered if these were the range weapons the Herald had mentioned.

Bird-man looked down at the Herald and said something to her, his mandibles flaring outward as he did so. The Herald said something in reply, her eyes sparkling, and everybody laughed. Bird-man nudged her with an elbow. She nudged him back.

It was the most bizarre scene Solas had ever witnessed, in the Fade or out.

But what shocked him the most, all the way down to his ancient bones, was how it felt.

The Herald's emotions sang to him. Everything she felt was radiant, clear, and strong. She felt the anticipation of the upcoming mission, the caution of an experienced commander, and deep pride and affection for every single person in that room.

She did not feel awkward, suspicious, or uncomfortable. These other creatures were her peers, he realized. In the Herald's world, in the Herald's heart, this was completely and utterly normal.

And yet, the Fade was secondary to this space. These people, those objects, this memory that he was witnessing—they were not spirits or wisps reflecting her thoughts or emotions. This was all being created by her, without any assistance from the Fade at all.

It was as if the Herald had traveled to the Fade and found it lacking.

Solas stretched his magic out over the Herald's space, looking for the edges of it. He could not find any. It felt vast, larger than all of Thedas.

A desire demon sidled up next to him. “Don't do that,” it said. “Once she realizes she's dreaming, she wakes up.”

Solas glared at the demon. “How did you get here?”

“I followed the light.”

“What light?”

Desire looked at him, a smirk on its beautiful face. “You've been on the other side too long, Pride.” Its’ smirk faded as it watched the Herald speak to her crew. “Just look at her, though. It's such a shame she doesn't need me.”

“Who is causing her nightmares?” he asked.

“She creates her own,” it said. “Sometimes Despair shows up and makes them worse. But she never takes anything we offer. She knows too much.”

Then Desire looked shrewdly at him and ran a perfectly manicured nail up his arm. "She doesn't know too much about you, though, does she? I wonder if we could change that..."

Solas flicked a hand and banished the demon. It was a rude thing to do, and he knew Desire would eventually return, but he needed to observe the Herald without any distraction.

The Herald stood, her hip cocked and arms folded across her chest, listening to Bird-man speak. Her black hair shone. Her face and figure were slightly fuller than it was now. She looked comfortable here; her smile came easily, especially when Bird-man spoke to her.

Wait. Was Bird-man...courting her?

Before Solas could decipher the Herald's feelings on the matter, she issued a short, practiced command. Everybody placed helms on their heads and jogged out of the room. Solas clothed himself in a simulacrum of the Herald's armor and joined them.

The group took a stairwell down a couple of flights, armored boots clanging loudly on the metal steps.

The stairwell opened out into an enormous room, easily the size of the Chantry. There were two—carriages, perhaps?—with their doors opened. Bird-man stood next to one open door, and the Herald the other, waving their people inside. Solas slipped in with the Herald's group.

Some people sat down. Others stood and held onto handles that seemed to be there for the sole purpose of keeping one's balance. The Herald slid the door shut and took a seat.

Solas stood at the front, behind the driver. A long panel of runes stretched across the front of the carriage. As the driver tapped them, other runes would appear in the air right in front of him.

Fascinating. Was this more of the biotics that the Herald used? Or was it some other sort of –Solas’ thoughts were cut short when the wall at the far end of the room began moving. It opened up to reveal the night sky, darker than any Solas had ever seen before, but nothing else.

The carriage rose off the floor, like the aravels of old, and left the room.

And in the space of a single heartbeat, everything Solas had ever known crumbled into irrelevance.

They were above a planet.

Heart pounding, Solas leaned over the driver's shoulder for a better view. The planet hung before them in the sky. It was green and beautiful and completely, utterly terrifying.

Solas could hardly think. He could hardly breathe.

Bird-man's ship appeared on the port side and took the lead, two rectangular pipes of bright blue fire pushing it forward. As they flew towards the planet, Solas leaned further in to watch. As the planet loomed bigger and bigger, his eyes got wider and wider. His mind was blank with shock.

 

Chapter 19 render Solas

 

Then somebody roughly grabbed his shoulder and yanked him around.

The Herald glared up at him, her annoyed expression one he recognized, although she usually directed it at somebody else.

Then her brows knit together, annoyance melting into confusion. “Solas?”

Fenehedis.

He hastily removed himself from her dream and woke up. The campfire had mostly gone out. The Herald had curled up against him, their left hands clasped together. His right arm had curled around her body, pulling her even closer to him.

He gently began the process of sitting her up. “Herald,” he said quietly. “Wake up, Herald.”

She shifted and asked something in her own language, not really waking up. She let him guide her into the tent. Despite the cold, Cassandra and Varric had taken bedrolls the furthest apart from each other.

Solas lay her into the bedroll next to Cassandra and tucked her in. She was already drifting off again but he cast a mild sleeping spell over her anyway. Then he lay down, in between her and Varric.

He quickly slipped back into the Fade and looked for the Herald, now that he was not touching her.

Nothing but the Anchor, just as before.

Solas opened his eyes and studied her.

He knew her people had traveled among the stars. He knew they had worked with many different races. He knew their technology was vastly more advanced than anything in the modern age.

He knew. But he had not understood.

You old fool, he thought. You wretched, ridiculous fool.

Solas rolled onto his back and stared up at the tent walls until sunrise.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter twenty

It took two more days of traversing ice and snow before Helen and her ground team were out of the Frostbacks. The only good thing Helen could say about their journey was that her nightmares had not been as bad as usual.

Once they made it onto the plains, everything improved. It was warmer. They picked up where they had left off in “Tale of the Champion.” For a couple of days, they even followed a lovely stream that was so full of fish and starchy tubers that Helen did not have to dip into her trail mix. And once they made it to the Imperial Highway, they made even better time.

Everybody's mood improved—except for Solas.

Helen didn't notice, at first. They were too busy. Between closing rifts and pacifying bandits, the ground team skirmished several times a day.

She was also distracted by the first truly serious disagreement she had had with Cassandra. The Seeker wanted Helen to introduce herself to people as, “The Herald of Andraste.”

Helen refused but Cassandra would not take “no” for an answer. Their discussions grew increasingly heated. A week into the trip, they finally had it out after supper.

“Please, Herald.”

“No.”

“If you would just consider--”

“I have considered! My answer is still no. I will not do this.”

“But people saw--”

“People saw that they wanted to see. Look, Cassandra,” Helen said firmly. “I can say I am an agent of the Inquisition. I can use my real name. I can even use a military rank if you want to give me one. But I will not pretend I am a prophet of a god I do not believe in.”

Varric was shaking his head at Cassandra, so she turned her attention to Solas. “Solas, you do not believe in the Maker but surely even you can see the wisdom in introducing her as the Herald.”

Solas, who had been reading, looked up at them, his expression stony. He said, “Even I, a humble apostate, can see the harm in what you humans are doing. You present a useful fiction—that the Herald is both prophet and mage. She is neither. Yet all of her protestations to the contrary sound like modesty to the faithful.

“You have taken your lie,” he pointed at Cassandra, “and turned it into the truth. And you have taken her truth,” he pointed at Helen, “and turned it into a lie.”

And although his words accused the Seeker, his eyes were on Helen. Why is he angry at me? He knows I didn't ask for this.

But any question Helen had was short-circuited by Cassandra's protests. “I have done no such thing! This is a reasonable interpretation of what happened and it gives the people hope!”

“It gives the Inquisition influence, you mean,” Helen said.

“Which we will desperately need if we are to continue our work once the Breach is closed,” Cassandra said, completely unperturbed by Helen's characterization.

“Once the Breach is closed, I am leaving.”

“Leaving?” Cassandra demanded. “Where do you plan to go?”

“To find a way off this planet.”

Varric and Cassandra looked at her like she'd grown another head but Solas said, “Assuming, of course, that you survive.”

“Yes,” she said, “assuming I survive.”

Helen herself had doubts that she would survive the closing the Breach. Closing that rift in the Temple had nearly killed her. She truly did not see why adding more power through her nervous system was likely to improve her odds.

Still—it was a dick thing for him to say.

After that, she paid closer attention to Solas. He was as solid as always in combat. He answered questions. He was polite, for the most part.

Otherwise, though, he had gone quiet. He no longer participated in any casual conversations, or offered his spontaneous opinions when she read from “Tale.”

If anything, he seemed to be trying very hard to not engage with her. If they found themselves riding next to each other, he would soon find a need to speed up or slow down until they were no longer side by side. When she asked him questions, he would give the shortest possible answer, then turn away.

Helen could not think of anything she had done recently to give offense, so she left him alone. Solas had never hesitated to express his unhappiness before. If he needed to speak with her, he knew where she was.

**

They arrived near the outskirts of Val Royeaux and settled into a small, modestly appointed manor that Josephine had secured for them.

It had what passed for running water on Thedas (pumps in the kitchens and baths). They all had their own rooms. After two months in Ferelden, it felt unbelievably luxurious.

Everybody retreated to their own rooms for a few hours. Helen took her time getting clean. Then she responded to the missives from Haven that awaited her.

The first was from Mother Giselle.

Dear Herald,

I write to tell you that your Medical Corps are taking their duties quite seriously. Miss Rose managed to locate a copy of Brother Ian Avidcandler's “Anatomie of the Bodie Physick.” Chancellor Roderick was most upset by this, as the book has been banned by the Chantry since the Steel Age for its graphic illustrations. He dropped the matter once Miss Rose asked him rather loudly if he would like to know where she found it.

Master Harritt has completed one laundry kettle and is working on a second. The Corps has boiled the tent and cot canvas. At first, they believed this to be a waste of time, until they saw the resulting water.

However, we are still running short on supplies, detailed in the attached list. Perhaps you may come across them in your travels so that we can replenish our stock of unguents, poultices and the like.

May the Maker bless you in all His fullness and protect you during your journeys,

Mother Giselle

Not coincidentally, Josephine had written to tell her that the Inquisition had a modest line of credit at a couple of shops in Val Royeaux, should they feel the need to purchase sundries. Helen wrote them both back, thanking them profusely and stating that she would do her best to make purchases while she was there.

Then she opened the third and last letter, which was written in an angry, masculine scrawl.

Herald,

Did you really create 'Company Half-Wit' in the Hinterlands?

C. Rutherford, Commander, Inquisition Forces

Oh, yeah. Helen had forgotten about that.

She wrote the word, “Yes,” on the bottom of the Commander's letter and sent it back with the raven.

**

 

Chapter 20 Val Royeaux

 

They took a gondola into the city center of Val Royeaux the following morning. For five whole minutes, the beautiful buildings, the clean streets and the running water soothed Helen in a way nothing else had since she'd landed on Thedas. Finally, civilization. She stopped thinking about the political buzzsaw she was about to face and started wondering if any of the shops here sold toothbrushes.

Then she met the people that actually lived there.

On Omega, an old Batarian had once stood at the entrance of the Market District and preached anti-human religious claptrap. The “Mad Prophet,” they had called him. He'd point at humans and shout, “Repent! Humans are a blight upon the galaxy! You, human, you are a blight! The lesser races will be our downfall! The word is clear!”

The only people that had listened to his bullshit were either human tourists who got offended and argued with him, or people who had recorded his act for their own amusement. Either way, his audience found had themselves drawn into the Market District, where they could be more easily fleeced by Omega's merchants (or, as Helen liked to think of them, “thieves.”)

The Chantry Mother who stood before a crowd and denounced the Inquisition reminded Helen of the Mad Prophet—ugly, stupid, and loud.

Unlike the Mad Prophet, however, people took Chantry Hag seriously. She called Helen a murderer and a false prophet, then stated, “The Maker would send no mage in our hour of need!”

No shit, lady. “I am not a prophet or a mage!” Helen shouted back. “I am only trying to close the Breach!”

 

Chapter 20 Helen and Cass in Val Royeax

 

Cassandra backed her up, saying they only wanted to close the Breach before it was, “too late.” Anything else the Seeker might have said, however, was interrupted by a group of goose-stepping Templars.

Chantry Hag pointed at the Templars and triumphantly crowed, “It is too already too late!”

A Templar punched Chantry Hag in the back of the head and knocked her to the ground.

“Hey!” Helen flared her biotics around her hands—punching little old ladies was wrong, no matter how obnoxious they were—but Solas grabbed her right wrist and held her back. “Don't,” he spoke low in her ear. “You will only make it worse.”

Helen held her fire while Lord Seeker Lucius sneered his way through an egotistical monologue. One younger Templar protested for a moment but other than that, the Templars seemed to be in full agreement with the Lord Seeker.

Then he and his Templars formally vacated Val Royeaux.

Cassandra was visibly distressed. She knew him, she said, both personally and by reputation. This was very out of character for him.

And after all of that, Chantry Hag (whom Cassandra called “Mother Hevara”) still did not want Helen's help.

The group left the fountain area to head to the shops, and Helen turned to Cassandra.

Now do you see why I do not want to be called Herald? That young Templar saw an injustice but did nothing. That stupid, old woman would rather take a beating than help from a stranger. Your Chantry is rotten. I want no part of it.”

Cassandra looked livid. “I am not going to argue this with you right now, Herald,” she growled through clenched teeth.

“Well, you have to argue it with me sometime, Seeker, because I am not--” Helen was cut off by an arrow with a note attached landing on the ground in front of them.

Helen thought it was a rather clever way of getting her attention until she saw that the note was sending them on a scavenger hunt. She did not want the bother (“This is a giant waste of time,”) but Varric became unusually serious after he read the note.

“I'd take this person up on their offer, if I were you, Herald,” he said. Varric was never serious about anything, so they followed ridiculous bits of red cloth.

“A map to a courtyard at midnight. Seriously? Why not put that on the arrow in the first place?” She looked over at Varric. “All right, Varric, you know more about this than me. Do we spring this trap or not?”

“Yup.”

Helen trusted Varric but the ridiculousness of the situation was giving her a headache. “Fine. We will add 'ambush at midnight' to this evening's schedule.”

As they shopped, they were approached by a messenger. He had an invitation for Helen (and only Helen) to meet some Orlesian mage V.I.P. who lived in out in the countryside the following day. After the messenger left, Helen looked down at the card in her hands. It looked like something out of a costume drama, where even the cardstock was a status symbol. I'll bet you anything this isn't even recycled paper.

Finally, as they were leaving, a small, middle-aged woman literally stepped out from behind a statue and asked to speak with them.

Her name was Grand Enchanter Fiona. She was the leader of the rebel mages. And she was there in Val Royeaux to invite Helen to Redcliffe to speak with her group.

Helen raised an eyebrow. “I just spent a month in the Hinterlands. In fact, I tried to go to Redcliffe and was turned away. Why did you not approach me there?”

The answer was a Gallic shrug followed by some Templar blaming. Helen's patience was wearing thin.

“We could just talk now,” she pointed out.

Fiona demurred, saying she needed to leave immediately and that she would see her in Redcliffe.

As the gondola returned them to the mainland, Helen said, “So, to sum up: A noble mage used a messenger to invite me to a party. A stranger used an arrow to send us on a scavenger hunt. And the leader of the mage rebellion traveled all the way from Redcliffe just to deliver a message for me to meet her all the way back in Redcliffe, even though I was right there in front of her.

“Did I miss anything?”

Silence.

“It is amazing anybody on this planet found the time to build a city.”

Solas let out a surprised little chuckle. He caught her eye, his expression almost...fond. After two weeks of brooding, she counted it as a win.

**

To the surprise of exactly no one, the midnight courtyard rendezvous was a poorly executed ambush. At the end of it all stood a mad, manic archer named Sera who said she was there for “her people.”

“Your people?” Helen asked, confused. “Elves?” she guessed.

Sera snorted, “No, people people.”

“Oh, I like you already,” Helen said.

“Right?” Sera said, grinning infectiously at Helen. “Not like this tit,” she pointed to the dead noble on the ground.

Following Sera's line of thought was a bit like herding cats. Her “Red Jennies” seemed to be a loose group of activists with no unifying purpose other than, “stick it to nobles.” Helen's questions about what the Jennies could provide the Inquisition made Sera visibly anxious.

Finally, Varric gave a quick tug on Helen's sleeve. “Welcome to the Inquisition, Sera,” she said.

“Yes!” Sera pumped a fist. “Get in quick before you're too big to like.”

After she left, Helen looked over at Varric, her eyebrows raised. “All right, Varric, I am trusting your instincts on this. Tell me why you wanted her.”

“The Jennies are useful if they're on your side, and a pain in the ass if you're on their bad side. They'll be in places that my network and Leliana's network can't get to. Besides,” he sighed, “my knees aren't as young as they used to be. She's a good with a bow.”

It was almost sunrise when they got back to the manor. Everybody slept in. That afternoon, Helen took a carriage to meet with First Enchanter Vivienne.

It took a couple of hours to get there. Helen let her mind sort of blank out during the trip and just enjoyed the rolling hills and scenic vineyards.

The Chateau itself was surrounded by beautiful orchards and horrible statuary. Helen was announced as, “Lady Helen Trevelyan, of the Inquisition.” More people were wearing masks than not.

A couple of party-goers peppered Helen with questions and prattle. Helen remained polite and tried not to be obvious about the fact that she was looking for the buffet.

The stuffed shirt who called the Inquisition, “a load of pig shit,” was hard to take seriously, even when—or especially when—he challenged her to a duel. She had just finished saying, “Are you serious?” when the man was magically frozen, just as he was pulling his sword from its scabbard.

“Madame de Fer” came slinking down the main staircase, wearing a luscious catsuit and killer heels. Her penchant for vicious showmanship reminded Helen so much of Aria T'Loak that she kept expecting to see armed Batarian guards next to the topiaries.

Vivienne was upfront about her ambitions. She saw the Inquisition as not only returning Thedas to the status quo but also as an opportunity to expand her own influence. In exchange, she offered her talents as a mage, and, more importantly, influence in the halls of power.

Helen studied her for a moment. The beautiful clothing and posh accent did nothing to hide a hard as nails survivor. She was not sure she would like Vivienne but she wanted her on her team.

“What have you heard of me, Madame de Fer?”

Vivienne arched an eyebrow behind her mask. “That you are a foreign mage who barely speaks the language. That you practice blood magic and butcher children. That you, yourself, sailed across the heavens just to cause the Breach. That you were hand-chosen by Andraste herself.”

“Oh, I had not heard the one about butchering children, that must be new. And what do you believe?”

“What I believe is not important, my dear,” Vivienne started but Helen cut her off.

“No flattery. Before I bring you onto the ground team, I need to know your truth. Tell me, Vivienne de Fer, what do you believe?”

Vivienne's eyes narrowed and glittered. She did not like being put on the spot like this. “I believe you are no more a mage than that plant over there. I believe you are an agent of a foreign government, although I do not know which one. And I believe that the mark on your hand gives you untold power in every sense, which needs to be kept in check.”

Props to Vivienne for brutal honesty. Let's see how she likes getting it in return.

“You are correct that I am not a mage. I am a biotic.” Helen raised her right hand and floated a ball of biotics above it.

Vivienne reached out with her magic—Helen could tell my the look on her face—and frowned slightly at what she was not finding.

“I am from another world. I landed on Thedas by accident before the explosion. I think your religion is nonsense, your Chantry corrupt, and your Circles unjust. As for the mark, its power is far more likely to kill me than anything else. Honestly, I do not expect to survive sealing the Breach.”

Vivienne's eyes had narrowed again, but more with speculation than anger.

“I am also former military,” Helen continued. “I run my ground team hard. If you sign up, it will mean long weeks on the open road. I do not care if my crew complains but if you cannot keep up, stay home.”

Vivienne thought about it for a moment, then said. “I can meet you in Haven in ten days' time. Will that do, Herald?”

Helen gave a slight bow of her head. “It will. Welcome to the Inquisition, Vivienne.”

**

Helen made it back to their little manor to find everybody still awake. She changed out of her armor and headed to the kitchen. “I am making supper for myself,” Helen announced. “Let me know if you want to join me.”

“You didn't eat at the fancy shindig?” Varric asked.

“The fancy shindig required better manners and finer clothes, so I left.” Helen opened up the larder to see what was available.

Several bottles of wine. Eggs, butter, cheese, several vegetables she did not recognize, and corn.

Corn.

Helen picked up an ear and pulled back the husk and silks, to reveal dark yellow kernels.

Corn was one of the most genetically modified cereals in the entire Milky Way. The Initiative seed-banks had brought several dozen varieties because it was one of the few foods that both dextro and levo species could eat without causing an allergic reaction in either.

If she'd had her omnitool, she could have scanned it and compared it to the Initiative's seed-bank database. She could have even seen how many genetic mutations had taken place and calculated how long it had been since the parent plant had arrived on Thedas.

“You look like you expect that corn to talk to you,” Cassandra said, startling Helen out of her reverie. 

 

Chapter 20 render

 

“We had corn in our garden back on Earth,” Helen said, as she resumed making supper.

Cassandra leaned on the counter and watched Helen prepare her meal. “It occurs to me that I don't know much about you.”

“I don't know much about you, either,” Helen replied. She handed Cassandra a bottle of wine. “You pour the drinks, I'll make dinner, and we can change that.”

Helen made a veggie frittata with cheese and corn relish, which she shared with Varric. Cassandra and Solas did not eat but each took a glass of wine. Cassandra's history got them through supper, although it was clear she did not much enjoy herself as a conversational topic.

Even with Cassandra's terse delivery, the Seeker's personal and professional history was damned impressive. Not only had she slain a dragon and become the Hero of Orlais, she had also acted as Right Hand to the last two Divines. Cassandra downplayed her Nevarran nobility which, given what had happened with her parents and brother, Helen understood.

“So, to sum up,” Helen said, “you are a politically connected badass. And a princess.”

Varric let out a bark of laughter and Cassandra turned a bit pink. She pointed her finger at Helen. “Call me princess one more time, Herald, and see what happens.”

“No promises,” Helen grinned.

“And what of you?” Cassandra asked as she poured another glass of wine for all of them. “You said your parents were farmers. Did they grow crops? Raise livestock?”

“No, they owned a wind farm.”

After a beat of silence, Solas repeated, “A wind farm.”

“Yes. You know how the people here use windmills or water wheels to grind flour? We used wind power for our machines, communication, water filtration systems..all sorts of things.”

“When you told us you were raised on a farm, I just assumed you meant a real farm," said Cassandra.

“It was a real farm,” Helen protested. “We grew most of our own food. We had a chicken coop. We kept horses because interference from the turbines sometimes scrambled the engines of any vehicle that got too close.”

Varric shook his head. “You stopped making sense after the word, 'horses.'”

Helen found herself reaching for her right wrist and stopped half-way through the gesture.

“You do that a lot,” Varric said.

“I know,” Helen sighed. “I have had an omnitool for so long that I feel naked without one. It was the only thing I brought with me from Earth. It had pictures of my parents, the farm, Earth, space, other races...everything. It might have even recorded the explosion at the Temple of Sacred Ashes.”

Cassandra set her glass down on the table. “You truly do not remember what happened?” she asked, her voice quiet and sad.

Helen closed her eyes and thought back to that day. “My cryo unit was upside down when I woke up,” she said.

Then, for the first time, Helen recounted exactly how she had arrived on Thedas. She started at the beginning and didn't leave anything out, not even the embarrassing parts about Clinton or their history or her reasons for joining the Initiative.

Something about her companions' stoic acceptance allowed her to tell the whole story without bursting into sobs. She was grateful for that.

“I remember vomiting a few times. I had stopped shivering, which worried me. The very last memory I have is activating my tactical cloak and sneaking into the Chantry.”

“What is a tactical cloak?” Solas asked.

“It makes me invisible for a short period of time.”

“That...sounds quite useful. Why I have I never seen you use it?”

“Because I need my omnitool.”

The four of them talked through a second bottle of wine. Solas was more relaxed than Helen had seen him in weeks. He sat to her left and did not pull away when their knees touched. Whatever issue he had been having must have been resolved.

Varric talked about Kirkwall. Cassandra held more than a little hero worship towards Solona Amell, the Hero of Ferelden, who had also killed a dragon, thus ending the Fifth Blight.

“Did you have dragons on your Earth?” she asked Helen.

“No, although there were klixen Harvesters on Tuchanka, which were basically the same thing.”

Then Solas asked Helen, “What do you miss the most about your world?”

Helen looked down at her hands and thought about it. “I suppose I could say something easy, like hot showers, or toothbrushes, or having more than enough to eat,” she said, “but honestly, what I miss the most is the people. I miss being able to walk through any spaceport no matter how small, and see a half-dozen different races, all talking and working together.”

“But it was not always talking and working together, was it? Otherwise, you would not have spent so much of your career chasing slavers.” His expression was intense, as if her answer were extremely important to him.

“The races mostly worked together for common purpose, good or ill,” she told him. “Criminal organizations were usually made up of all different races. It was the same with law enforcement. Most races had separate militaries but they would still work with multi-species units when...when they needed...”

Something niggled in her memory. She looked at him, this man who “walked the Fade;” who had been so stunned to learn that she had dreamed her entire life.

And all at once she realized that a startled Lieutenant on that mission to Zorya had not been a dream at all.

“You son of a bitch.”

She stood up, stormed out onto the balcony and slammed the door behind her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter twenty-one

Two weeks earlier

Solas was an old man. He had known anger and joy, devotion and loss, triumph and defeat. He lived with a guilt so enormous that at times it seemed there was scarce room for anything else.

But never, not once, had he ever felt small.

Not until he had slipped into a human's dream and had learned that he was nothing more than a speck of dust in a world so vast he could not wrap his mind around it.

He spent that first day in a daze. He was grateful that he was still acting as the ground team's guide because being at the front meant that nobody could see his stunned, vacant expression.

The second day his mind seemed to start working again, albeit sluggishly. It no longer shied away when he thought of that giant, green planet hanging before him, in an inky black sky.

He found himself revisiting every conversation he had ever had with the Herald about her world.

She had said that travel to other planets was common among her people but he had not envisioned it being so physical. What had they been in, that could float above a planet like that? And what sort of mission would require such a thing?

Solas nearly pulled himself apart internally, as his desire for new knowledge warred with the overwhelming feeling that he had somehow been deceived.

By the third day, he was blindly, stupidly angry. Did the Herald think herself wiser than those she had met here on Thedas? She was a child. She lacked even a basic understanding of magic. Her presence was an accident, nothing more.

So he pulled away from the Herald. He knew she would eventually seek him out to ask him what was wrong. That is what children did in such circumstances. He even prepared a number of aloof replies in advance, in order to keep her at a distance.

She never asked him anything. She just ignored him. That made him even angrier.

When Rage demons began to greet him as soon as he fell asleep, he realized he needed to get his emotional state under control. He sought out Wisdom and showed it the Herald's dream from start to finish.

Wisdom was enthralled. Those creatures were fascinating. That technology was so unique. The Herald was well-suited to command.

When they got to the part that revealed they were above a planet, Wisdom actually applauded.

This did not improve Solas' mood.

Wisdom looked entirely too amused when the Herald confronted Solas in his disguise. "It is not like you to be caught unawares. Is that what has you upset?"

Solas froze the scene at the point where the Herald had recognized him and slowly circled it, his arms crossed. “My friend,” he sighed, “so much about this upsets me that I hardly know where to begin.”

“Then let us begin at the beginning. Show me again, please.”

Solas did. Wisdom stopped it after a few moments. The Herald and Bird-man were pointing at the schematics floating above the table. “This part did not upset you,” Wisdom stated.

“It did not. I was curious and startled by what I was seeing, but my overwhelming emotion at that point was surprise at the sheer depth of her emotions.”

“Which supports my theory, does it not?” Since Solas had awakened from Uthenera, he and Wisdom had argued more than once over whether the inhabitants of this new world were truly real.

“As the Herald is not from this world, I do not see that it has any bearing on your theory. In any event, that is an argument for another time, my friend.”

They watched the desire demon arrive and try to distract Solas.

“That one is trouble. You were wise to banish it.”

Solas shrugged. “It will be back soon enough. Although that reminds me—it said it had followed the light. Do you know what it meant?”

Wisdom raised an eyebrow. “Yes.”

“Care to enlighten me?”

It sighed impatiently. “You look but you do not see, Solas. It is something you must learn for yourself.”

Solas let the issue go. It was not important at the moment. “What do you think of these creatures of hers?”

Wisdom ambled around the table, looking with interest at everybody. “They are strange to us but not to her. She feels so comfortable with them.”

“Yes.”

“And that does bother you,” Wisdom stated.

“It does.”

“Tell me why.”

He looked at Wisdom incredulously. “Why? Look at them! They are animals. Animals! Yet she not only treats them as equals, she allows that one,” he pointed at the Bird-man who was running the mission with the Herald, “to openly court her.”

Wisdom shook its head. “No, not animals. Animals do not make plans.”

"It isn't even human!"

“If you truly believe that only the People are real, what difference does it make whom she courts?”

Solas had no good answer to that and was not inclined to explore the topic further. He allowed the scene to continue. Wisdom paused it at the point where the Herald had pulled him back but before she had recognized him.

“This part bothers you the most.”

“Yes,” he angrily gestured at the others in the carriage with them. “Look at them. All of them! They are... gossiping! Looking at their gauntlets! That one," he pointed at a soldier who had closed her eyes and rested her head on the shoulder of her fellow soldier, "is taking a nap! This wondrous thing is just outside their window!” He pointed to the emerald planet, then sighed and dropped his hand by his side, defeated. “And yet, they do not notice. It is ordinary to them. Boring. Even the Herald is focused on her command, on correcting her misbehaving soldier.”

He walked into the front of the carriage just to stare at the planet again.

“I had no idea a world could be so large. I honestly never thought of her other worlds as separate planets. I suppose I thought of them as endpoints on the far side of an eluvian.”

He gazed for a long time at the planet. “Is this what Thedas looks like, do you think?”

“I am not the one to ask.”

He looked at the incomprehensible technology that surrounded him. “Her world had no magic and no Fade. Yet her people accomplished wonders the Elvhen could never conceive.”

"They did," Wisdom agreed, "but you knew this already. Did you think her a liar when she told you where she came from?"

“No.”

“Then why does it bother you now, when it did not bother you weeks before?”

“Because it wasn't real before,” Solas said. Then he closed his eyes and exhaled.

He opened them again to find Wisdom bouncing smugly on its toes. He inclined his head once in its direction. “Well played.”

Wisdom looked satisfied, then asked, “What happened after you woke her up?”

"Oh. Nothing of consequence. " Solas showed himself waking up Helen and putting her to bed.

He had not noticed at the time how closely he had been holding the Herald, or how tenderly he had acted, making certain that she had enough blankets and furs to stay warm.

He was mortified, to put it mildly, and waved the scene away. Wisdom said nothing, for which Solas was grateful.

**

Solas watched the Herald differently after his talk with Wisdom. Whatever he had thought she was before, he now saw, well—at least a real person. Not one of the People, certainly, but real enough.

He could not say that he especially liked Val Royeaux, but he understood it. The masks, the political machinations, and the social posturing all felt as familiar to him as slipping on a glove. The Herald, however, grew increasingly impatient with the layers of malicious intrigue that characterized the Orlesian capital.

He had no real quarrel with Sera. She was obnoxious, immature, and in possession of far more talent than sense, but she would be useful in the field. He would have preferred the Herald to not invite Madame de Fer at all, although he understood how her political connections would be helpful, especially to an outsider like the Herald.

Regardless of his opinion, there was nothing about recruiting either woman that would derail Solas' plans, so he kept his own counsel. Now he sat with the Herald, Cassandra, and Varric, drinking a surprisingly good Orlesian red.

Cassandra shared her own heroic past. Solas wondered if the Seeker was aware of how closely Varric listened when she spoke.

And then, finally, the Herald told them how she had arrived on Thedas.

Her career had not originally been devoted to combat, she explained, but to research. A civilian had been hired by her military to assist with that research. He courted her and they became lovers. He had been manipulative and controlling. She ended the relationship, only to learn that he had used his expertise to spy on her and her military.

Her promotion was postponed, her research was taken away and she was sent to chase slavers and mercenaries. The ex-lover fled justice but still followed her everywhere, disrupting her life whenever he could.

In the midst of all of this chaos, her parents were murdered on Eden Prime. The Herald only briefly described the invasion that had killed her parents, not mentioning to Cassandra and Varric that they had been impaled and turned into undead.

She did, however, give a few more details about the invaders themselves, describing the Geth as “artificial intelligence.”

“I do not understand that term,” Cassandra said.

“I suppose the closest analogy would be like a golem. Geth are built, not born. They have a collective consciousness, like bees, only exponentially more advanced. I am not afraid of much,” she said quietly, her eyes troubled, “but I am afraid of Geth.”

She spent another two years running missions for her military, the ex-lover dogging her every step. At a memorial service on the second anniversary of the attack on Eden Prime, he showed up and accosted her. "I beat him nearly to death in front of hundreds of witnesses. That was the end of my naval career."

So she had joined the Andromeda Initiative but even there, he had managed to find her, asleep and unaware of his machinations. He was caught defiling the coffin-like box she was sleeping in. Then he moved her into an escape pod and launched it into space.

After discussing what she remembered leading up to the explosion, she seemed to be talked out for a bit. Varric opened another bottle, as he and Cassandra carried the conversation for awhile.

Solas felt relaxed. He had a nice glow from the wine. His knee rested against the Herald. He found it...companionable.

Then his own damn curiosity did him in.

Now the Herald was furious with him and he had a new mess of his own making to clean up.

“Chuckles?” Varric was asking him, “Wanna explain what that was all about?” 

Solas pinched the bridge of his nose. Everything you touch, he told himself. Every single thing you touch.

“My apologies to you both,” he said, standing up. “The fault is mine, not the Herald's. Please excuse me.” He followed the Herald out onto the balcony.

She stood at the railing, looking out over the Val Royeaux suburbs. She had put her hood up, hiding her face from him. She turned her head away at his approach.

He stopped a few paces behind her, took a deep breath and said, “Herald, I owe you an explanation.”

“An explanation?” She turned towards him. She was livid. Her biotics flared around her. Solas felt a spike of fear. The Herald was one of the few who could kill him while he remained in his current weakened state.

You invaded my mind! You violated my privacy at a moment when I was powerless to stop it!”

Her biotics calmed, and she said, “I think the lesson I'm learning here is to never, ever fall asleep around men.”

It took him a moment to realize that she was comparing him to her ex-lover and to the Templar who had tried to rape her.

“I had no intention to harm you that night,” he said indignantly. “I wanted only to reinforce the wards from the other side of the Veil.” Which, he realized, he still had never done.

"By intruding on my dreams? My memories?" Her biotics flared again. "Solas, those memories are all I have left of my old life. My thoughts are my own. They are not yours for the taking."

He closed his eyes and sighed. “No, they are not. And you should know what happened.” He told her everything. 

 

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition

 

She heard him out at least, although she kept her face hidden from him. He wished she would turn around and look at him.

Helen ran her palm over the balcony rail. “I thought you were one of my Lieutenants, distracting the pilot. My dreams often mix this world and mine, so I gave it no thought. Honestly, I was just grateful that I did not have a nightmare that night.”

The silence between them strained into awkwardness, until she asked, "Is this why you have been acting like such a pill the last two weeks?"

Solas did not completely understand that analogy but he understood it referred to him. “Yes.”

“Why?”

Solas sighed. “I have walked the Fade for so long that looking for people important to me is second nature. Not for the purpose of invading their privacy, but simply to check their life force, to make certain that they are well. Then I leave them be and I explore the Fade in other ways. I look for memories or talk to my spirit friends.

“I have been looking for you in the Fade since your arrival,” he told her. “I found only the Mark. I could not understand it. Here you were, a person of obvious intelligence and drive. Yet without any connection to the Fade, I believed you... emotionally incomplete.” 

“Well of course you did,” she said, scathingly.

“I was wrong,” he said quickly. “It was not the things I saw in your dream that shocked me, Herald, not at first. It was your emotions.”

He remembered what he had felt that night. “You were confident in the mission you were planning; proud of your team; and deeply fond of everybody in the room, especially that...large bird-man.”

“Turian. They're called Turians,” she said, her voice getting thick but it held a smile. “That was Atticus. He flirted with me over open comms that entire mission. It wasn't serious; he just liked to tease. But he was fun. And a hell of a shot. I liked him.”

"You liked them all," Solas noted. "Everybody in that room was your peer. I begin now to understand why you view elves, dwarves, and humans as the same race."

She finally turned to face him, frowning. “Is that why you have been so upset with me? Because I am not racist enough?”

“What? I... no! The reason I became upset is because of what I saw when we were in that carriage.”

“You mean the shuttle?” She blinked, searching her memory. “Nothing happened in the shuttle.”

Solas pushed himself off of the balcony railing he'd been leaning on and stalked towards her. “You were above a planet!” he hissed, some of his anger coming back to him. “No magic, no Fade! To you, ‘nothing happened,’' but to me, it shattered everything I have ever known about myself, my world and my people!”

The Herald looked a bit perplexed. “Well...yes. We do not have magic or the Fade. We have science. You knew this already, Solas, so why is this such a problem for you now?”

“Because you humans and those creatures—“ Solas stopped himself from saying more.

“Oh, I see. It isn't that we did without magic that truly bothers you. It's that 'we humans and those creatures' did it at all. And your people did not.”

She looked at him, not a trace of sympathy in her expression. “Well... at least your name suits you. I'll give you that.”

Solas felt off-balance for a moment as that sank in. “Wait, how did... Herald, I never told you the meaning of my name.”

The Herald raised an eyebrow. “And?”

And, how could you have possibly known that?”

She gave a sharp, cynical laugh, as she leaned against the balcony and crossed her arms. “How could the 'emotionally incapacitated' human with no magic possibly learn anything without your help? Like I said, your name suits you.”

Solas ran both of hands over his head and linked them behind his neck as he looked up at the sky. Everything you touch.

“So, Solas. What happens now?”

He dropped his hands and looked at her. "Now, I have to inspect the wards again and check them in the Fade. One of the many mistakes I made that night was failing to reinforce them from the other side of the Veil."

He could tell from her expression that she did not like this idea much. “You will still be awake,” he added hastily.

“What will you be able to see?”

“I might pick up on your emotional state but I will not be able to read your thoughts. The only thing I will look for is the wards.”

She chewed her lip for a moment before finally nodding her agreement. Solas led her back into the manor. Cassandra and Varric had turned in for the night, and none of the lamps were lit.

He sat them both down on the settee, with the Herald on his right. Like before, he took her left hand in both of his and checked the wards. And just like before, they were slowly being absorbed.

Solas slipped across the Veil—and nearly drowned in the Herald's emotions.

He could feel everything. Her heartbreak. The anger. Her deep love for the people and the culture she had lost. Her profound loneliness.

This young woman, barely more than thirty summers old, was buckling under the weight of a million ghosts.

He wanted to turn around and embrace her spirit, comfort her—but he had promised her privacy. And he still had work to do.

Once he inspected the wards, he saw they were reacting to the eezo. Specifically, they were redirecting the energy of the wards around the eezo and into the Mark. He changed the wards from healing energy to barrier energy. They seemed to stabilize, although he would need to check again in several days' time.

Solas opened his eyes. Helen was still sitting next to him, her hand still in his, her expression carefully neutral.

Everything he had just felt, she was holding behind a mask she struggled to keep in place.

He reinforced the new wards. “The nodules in your hand were redirecting the energy of the wards back into the Mark. I have established new wards but will need to inspect them in a few days time to see if they hold.”

When he was finished, he continued to hold her hand. “Does the mark always pain you?” he asked.

She hesitated, then nodded.

He gently pressed both of his thumbs into the palm of her hand, applying healing magic while he softly massaged the area around the Anchor. She gave a small sigh of relief but unlike last time, she did not lean against him and fall asleep, believing herself safe in his presence. 

Render by https://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/ for "The Half-Life of Element Zero."

 

“I have done you a disservice, Helen. I suppose we all have, to some extent, but myself most of all.”

He continued to absently-mindedly touch the palm of her hand, although she no longer needed healing. “In asking you to save this world, we give almost no thought to the fact that you have lost your own. When we do bother to ask, we treat your history as little more than fanciful stories. They are valued for their entertainment, their novelty, instead of as an account of the remarkable woman who lost everything in coming here. I knew better than anybody else what was taken from you, yet I thought only of how it had affected me.”

He stood up, helping her to her feet, as well. Her hands were shaking, so he took both of them in his. “Ir abelas, Helen. I will not be so thoughtless again.”

She stared at their clasped hands until she had regained her composure. “Thank you, Solas. I will see you in the morning.”

Then she slipped away into her room. Solas stepped back out onto the balcony. He stared at the stars, lost in thought, until the need to sleep became too great to ignore. He let himself back into the manor and went to bed.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter twenty-two 

The second night on the road back to Haven, Helen finished reading the final chapters of “Tale of the Champion.” 

She gasped out loud when Hawke gave Anders the mercy killing his lover had begged for. “That is a terrible thing for Hawke to have on his conscience,” she said. 

Varric nodded, staring at the campfire but clearly seeing Kirkwall. “At the time, I thought it was the wrong decision. Whatever else Anders deserved, it wasn't fair to ask that of Hawke. But now?” He shook his head. “Choir Boy would have razed Kirkwall to the ground. Either way, Hawke was going to have blood on his hands.” 

Commander Rutherford had, in the end, turned against his own CO and stood with Hawke to defend the city. As a former military officer herself, Helen understood how hard a decision that must have been. History was filled with far more tales of soldiers reluctantly obeying unjust orders than it was with defying those orders for the common good. 

Helen also began to understand why people feared blood magic. Orsino's transformation into a multi-corpsed ball of death was right out of a bad horror vid. 

When she asked whether that really did happen, Varric responded, “Kiddo, there are no words that can describe just how awful that shit really was.” 

It also raised more questions for Helen about magic. Why was lyrium important? How did it work? Was blood magic inherently evil, like everybody seemed to think? Merrill was a blood mage but she had seemed all right. She was kind of a ditz and obsessed with that mirror but certainly not evil. 

Still, how could anybody look at what happened to Leandra Hawke and not feel like the practice should be banned outright? 

She wanted to ask Solas about it but refrained. Blood magic, as she was learning, was incredibly taboo. Best to wait until nobody else was around to hear. 

And, honestly, Helen needed more time to figure out how she felt about Solas digging around in her mind. 

Well, that wasn't strictly true. She already knew how she felt about the “digging around in her mind,” part. She hated it. It might not be as egregious as what Clinton had done, or what Ivans had tried to do, but it was still a deep breach of her trust. Solas damn lucky she hadn't Thrown him halfway across Val Royeaux. 

What she needed was more time to figure out how she felt about Solas

Helen felt like her eyes and her brain were never quite in agreement about him. He pointed his bigotry at everybody, even other elves, yet he never hesitated to help the downtrodden, regardless of who they were. He was an apostate hermit from a "small village to the north," who also had impeccable table manners and deeply informed opinions about the political affairs of nations. She sometimes caught him staring at her with troubled eyes before he smoothed his face into that neutral mask he seemed to take on and off at will. 

The mage had wisely kept his distance since leaving Val Royeaux. She did, at least, believe that he would not trespass in her head again. Not if he valued his life, anyway. 

Then a minor miracle happened, and she forgot all about Solas for a while. 

Her hair came back. She woke up one morning and felt a fine dusting of hair where bare scalp had been the night before. 

“Cassandra!” she shook the still-snoring woman. “Cassandra, wake up!” 

The Seeker bolted awake. “What? What is it? What is wrong?” 

“I need you to look at my head.” 

Cassandra blinked at her, then narrowed her eyes. “Why?” 

“Because I need you to tell me if my hair is really growing back.” 

Cassandra protested but allowed Helen to pull them outside, both of them wearing only their form-fitting under-armor that also doubled as sleepwear on the road. 

The sun was just beginning to rise. Varric, who'd had last watch, was putting breakfast on the fire. Solas was going through his morning stretches. 

“Well?” Helen said as she bent her head down so Cassandra could see her scalp. 

Cassandra made an impatient little noise. “Yes, Herald, your hair is growing back. It is also white.” 

Helen squealed and hugged her. Solas only seemed mildly interested but a rich smile formed on Varric's face. 

“That is, hands down, the girliest thing I've ever seen either of you do,” Varric said. Cassandra rolled her eyes and grumbled as she reentered the tent. 

“Don't worry about her,” Varric said as he handed Helen a cup of coffee. “Happy looks good on you.” 

Later that day, Cassandra remarked, “Your hair was black when I first saw you.” 

Helen nodded. “The white stood out. I colored it black in the hopes of making it harder for Clinton to find me. It did not work but at least it was useful on infiltration and undercover missions.” 

Helen's good mood lasted for days. She grinned like an idiot for hours on end. She knew it was vain but didn't care. Although her baldness was technically Clinton's fault, Helen had linked it in her mind as just one more thing to hate about Thedas. The Herald of Andraste was bald but Helen Trevelyan had hair. Even her nightmares seemed less intense. 

It wasn't until Solas approached her one evening that reality came crashing back in. 

She had first watch that night. They were at the foot of the Frostbacks and expected to reach Haven within a few days. Cassandra and Varric had gone to bed. Helen set up her watch as Solas walked the perimeter to place his security wards. 

She expected him to go to sleep, as he usually did. Instead, he sat down beside her. “My apologies, Herald, but it has been several days since I last checked the mark.” 

Reality settled heavily back onto Helen's shoulders. She sighed and held her hand out to Solas. 

He clasped it between his hands. “Are you still having nightmares?” 

“Yes, but not like before.” 

“Does the mark still pain you?” he asked. 

Helen nodded, and then felt the warmth she associated with Solas' healing spells flood through her hand as the ache dissipated. 

She watched his hands as he worked. His left hand held hers while his right seemed to be doing all of the work. Sometimes he would make movements with his right hand—swipe, pinch, reverse-pinch—that were so much like using a haptic interface that Helen wondered why she had not noticed it before. 

After a couple of minutes, he said, “I need to check from the Fade side. I will only stay as long as necessary.” 

She reluctantly gave permission. 

He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly through his nose. A small noise escaped him, almost like a soft grunt of pain. After a minute, when he opened his eyes again, they were filled with regret. 

“It appears that these wards are holding up much better than the last set.” 

“Oh,” Helen was surprised at this. He looked so upset, she half expected him to tell her she was about to lose her hand or something. “Is that not good news?” 

“Yes, it is good news. I am just...,” he gently placed her hand back in her lap and scrubbed his face with his palms before continuing. “You seemed to be feeling more optimistic this past week. It is disorienting to feel the weight of your true emotions.” 

Helen was unsure what to say to that. She could not deny how she felt because he would know she was lying. On the other hand, he was part of the cause for her inner turmoil and he knew it. She finally ran a hand over her peach fuzz and said, “It is vain, I suppose, that just having my hair back would make such a difference. But I really did not like being bald.” 

“Is there something wrong with being bald, Herald?” Solas asked. His tone was serious but his eyes twinkled. 

Is he...teasing me? “Not if you're an old man, no,” she gently teased back. 

Solas’ lips twitched. Then he studied her features for a moment. “I did not realize that it bothered you so. If you like, I know a spell that could grow your hair out in moments.” 

Helen tried to stay calm. “Does it hurt?” 

“No.” 

“How does it work? Does it use resources from my own body?” She really wanted this but not if it would pull on her already scarce energy stores. They'd had so little combat over the last week that she was finally regaining a bit of the weight she had lost. 

“No. The spell only replicates what is already there.” 

Helen almost asked where he got the mass for that sort of replication but decided, fuck it! Don't care! 

“Yes, please.” She held her thumb and finger about an inch-and-a-half apart. “Just this much. Any longer and people will find it odd.” 

Solas got up onto his knees and had her do the same, facing him. “Close your eyes and hold very still,” he warned. 

He placed his hands on her head, starting right at the hairline. A green light emanated from his hands and he slowly ran them over her scalp. It felt like somebody pouring a carbonated drink underneath her skin. 

When he was finished, he placed his hands on her shoulders but said nothing. 

 

Render by https://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/

 

Helen opened her eyes. Solas was staring at her, his expression tender. 

“How do I look?” 

He gazed at her for another moment before he finally murmured, “Young.” He slowly sat back on his heels, his hands sliding down her arms until he let go. 

Helen moved until she was sitting with her legs crossed and tentatively ran her fingers through her hair.

When she pulled down her bangs, she could see her hair, back to the platinum blue-white color that it had been since she was sixteen. She let out a quiet, surprised laugh. It had been so long since she'd seen this color that her eyes began to water. “Nuvas ema ir’enastela, Solas,” she sniffled. Goddammit. Don't cry. 

Lasa halani.” He shifted until he was sitting in front of her, mirroring her posture, the knees of their crossed legs almost touching. “What troubles you?” he asked, a worried expression on his face. 

She giggled a bit, through her tears. “That is a very long list, Solas. If I get started, we will be up until sunrise.” 

“I know,” he quietly acknowledged. “And I am so sorry for causing you pain, my friend.” 

“Friend?” Helen looked up at him, unable to hide her surprise. “Is that what I am to you? You mostly treat me like a disobedient child.” 

He did not deny it. Instead, he clasped his hands together in his lap and stared at them, as if he were having to choose his words carefully. Finally, he said, “Friendships in the Fade are just as deep and rewarding as they are in the waking world but they are also easier, less complicated. 

“People in the waking world are much harder to read, and none more than you. I misjudged you. The fault for that is mine, and mine alone.” 

Helen considered him for a moment. “Do you have anybody in the waking world, Solas? Family of any kind?” 

He met her gaze with grief-stricken eyes. “No,” he said, “not for many years now.” 

She reached over and lightly placed her hands on his. “Ir abelas, Solas.” 

Tel abelas, Helen. I appreciate your kindness.” 

They both stared at their clasped hands for a moment, before Helen said, “I should not keep you awake, Solas. It is my watch.” 

“I do not mind. I have missed our talks.” 

“So have I,” Helen said, surprised to hear herself not only say it but mean it. She had missed talking to him. “Well, since you are here, I do have questions.” 

They talked quietly through all of her watch and some of his. According to Solas, blood magic was not inherently evil. However, because it was often used as a last resort by desperate mages, it was associated with evil or morally questionable acts. 

Horrors like Orsino's Harvester were only possible with blood magic because such a construct was based in the flesh, not the Fade. Blood magic lessened one's connection to the Fade, which is why Solas did not use it himself. 

Something else she learned. Blood was the actual fuel for blood magic, which was pretty fucked up, in Helen's opinion. Truly evil mages would sacrifice the unwilling to increase their fuel supply, so to speak. 

Lyrium, on the other hand, gave a mage more access to the Fade but was not, in and of itself, a power source. It was also expensive, addictive to some, and too many mages used it as a crutch. 

When she finally started yawning too much to ask questions, she stood and brushed off the dirt from her pants. Solas stood as well. 

Helen ran her fingers through her new hair. As apologies went, it was pretty good one. “Thank you again, Solas. This was kind of you.” 

“It was the least I could do. On nydha, Helen.” 

On nydha, Solas.” 

** 

A few days later, when they returned to Haven, Josephine was waiting for Helen in her cabin. The ambassador was standing at Helen's little table and unpacking a small bag of toiletries. 

“Josie!” Helen exclaimed, surprised to see her there. 

Josie looked up at Helen and clapped. “Herald, welcome back! Oh, it is true! You do have hair!” 

Helen laughed. Finally, somebody was as enthusiastic about this as she was. "Yes! I do. Unfortunately, it stinks as bad as the rest of me. So unless you want to watch me bathe, you'd best be gone." 

Josephine waved a hand. "If it does not bother you, Herald, it certainly does not bother me. Antivans are not so modest as our southern brethren. And I also brought you some shampoo, a conditioning rinse, some new soap. Oh! This is a product from Antiva which will make your hair more manageable. Here is a comb and a brush..." 

Josie talked non-stop while Helen prepared her sponge bath, and got undressed. She didn't bat a single eyelash as Helen stood buck naked by the hearth and unceremoniously dumped a half-pan of water over herself. 

The shampoo smelled like lavender and mint. Helen washed her hair twice, then used the rinse that Josie handed her. 

“We were told that your hair was white but I did not believe it.” 

“Told by who?” Helen said.

“One of our scouts spotted you earlier today. They sent a raven letting us know of your arrival. There is already a rumor that the shock of falling through the Breach turned your hair white.” 

"Sure," Helen said, as she scrubbed her face with a soapy flannel. "Let's go with that." 

Josie kept her company as she finished bathing, asking her how she liked Val Royeaux, weren't the fashions in the city just lovely, and what did she think of Madame de Fer's estate? 

It was like having a little sister or a gossipy roommate. Helen loved it. She got dressed, then Josie handed her a comb and mirror. Helen took a deep breath and looked. 

Solas was right. She did look young. And not young like, “Wow, she looks amazing for her age.” She was now sporting a look like, “Hey, who gave that little boy a dagger?” 

Josie showed her how to use the hair product which was like hair serum. It didn't do anything to make her hair stick out less but at least it smelled nice. 

They headed to the War Room to meet with the other advisors. Everybody agreed that, yes, Lord Seeker Lucius' actions were bizarre. Beyond that, however, none of them could agree on what steps to take next. 

Cullen still wanted to chase after the Templars. Leliana and Cassandra thought she should go speak to Fiona. Josie made some rather pointed remarks that the Inquisition still lacked the influence necessary to approach either group successfully and suggested that Helen begin working harder on recruiting agents. Helen told them (politely) to make up their damn minds and ended the meeting. 

Then the requests started. 

Leliana asked her to track down a Grey Warden named Blackwall in the Hinterlands. 

Some apple-cheek merc invited her to the Storm Coast and meet with his boss. 

Solas wanted to go back to the Hinterlands for some artifact that he thought would strengthen the Veil.

Plus, bandits had taken over an old keep in the southern Hinterlands and threatened to undo everything Helen and her ground team had accomplished. 

And, for good measure, a local Avvar tribe had captured Inquisition soldiers in a place descriptively called the Fallow Mire. 

Still no sign of her escape pod. Still no sign of her omnitool. 

Helen could only bite back so much impatience. “I know our resources are stretched thin,” she said at yet another meeting in the War Room, “but how can you not find an escape pod? It's the size of this room!” 

The advisors all looked at her awkwardly, like she'd said something ignorant. 

Cullen finally cleared his throat and said, “Quite honestly, Herald, we aren't certain how you managed to get into the Conclave. You say you landed north of there and snuck in through the back but there are no roads in that direction. The terrain is deadly at the best of times.” 

Helen searched her memory. “I never found any roads. Mostly, I just remember a lot of climbing and being very cold. To the extent I remember anything at all.” 

“The point is,” Cullen continued, “it isn't an area that lends itself to exploration. We get snowfall at this altitude year-round.” 

Helen sighed and reminded herself that scanners, shuttles, and satellite surveillance did not exist here. 

“As for your bracelet,” Leliana said, “it is a small thing, easy to hide.” 

“It is not a bracelet,” Helen muttered. They gave that the same sort of credibility as her protestation that her biotics were “not magic.” 

At least her Medical Corps was getting something accomplished, despite continuing problems with supplies. The four of them proudly showed off the clean tents, the two laundry kettles, and notes of recent patients. Rose had made them matching white armbands with the symbol of the Templar sword overlaying that of the Magi Circle. 

Helen told them all they were doing a remarkable job under difficult circumstances and headed to Leliana's tent to discuss the supply issue. 

Leliana was ordering an assassination. Helen interrupted her. “Wait, why are we doing this? Who is this man?” 

“A traitor,” Leliana spat. This man, Butler, had not only killed one of her best agents, he also knew the identity and location of other Inquisition agents. A quick assassination would protect both the lives and the identities of her spies. 

“Would the Inquisition be better served by his capture and interrogation?” 

Leliana almost looked offended. “No, Herald, we would not. Butler is a master of escape. By killing him now, I save the lives of a dozen others.” 

“Ah,” said Helen. “Well then, carry on.” 

Leliana issued instructions to her scout, who nodded once and left. Then she looked at Helen, not bothering to hide her surprise. “You approve, then?” she asked. 

Helen shrugged. "I am in no position to disapprove. The Alliance sent me on scores of missions where the enemy would resist with lethal force. We would respond in kind. The Alliance would never call those missions 'assassinations,' but the end result was the same." 

They talked a bit more about supplies. Then Helen checked in with Harritt. Mother Giselle. Threnn. 

Vivienne arrived, followed by Sera. Helen made sure they were properly settled in. 

After three days in Haven, Helen's head spun with the weight and volume of her duties. Every time she talked to somebody, she was handed another task. She couldn't even find the time to make a list of the things she needed to do. 

She ducked into Josephine's office. 

“Hide me,” she begged, and then explained about her ever-increasing task list and her inability to get it organized. 

 

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition

 

“This is not a problem, Herald. Follow me, please.”

Within minutes, Helen was sitting in the War Room, with blank scrolls, quill and ink, a basket of sandwiches and several bottles of hard cider.

“Nobody should bother you here, Herald.”

“Josie, have I mentioned that you are my favorite? Because it's true. You are my very favorite person on this whole planet.”

The ambassador smiled. “Thank you. Do let me know if you need anything else.”

Josephine closed the door as she left. Helen dipped the quill into the ink and got to work.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter twenty-three

 

Cullen, Leliana, and Josephine held an operations meetings a few hours after the Herald left for Val Royeaux. After going over new staffing, supply lines, and other various issues, Cullen remembered something that had been nagging at him.

“The Herald said that guardsmen were openly plotting to kill her. Is that true?” he asked, his question pointed squarely at Leliana.

The women exchanged worried looks. “What?” Cullen said.

After a very long pause, Leliana said, “Commander, this is the third time we've discussed that topic.”

Cullen felt all the color run from his face. His hands started to shake. “Is it, really?” he said weakly.

They both nodded. Other than Cassandra, only Josephine and Leliana knew he had quit taking lyrium.

“If you'll recall, we three had a discussion right after they had completed their punishment. We discussed it a second time a week or so ago, after Flissa overheard them in the tavern,” Leliana said, not unkindly.

Cullen frantically searched his memory for something that would trigger a response, but there was nothing there about this at all. Nothing.

“Maker,” he whispered. He had to support himself on the War Table to prevent his knees from buckling. “My apologies to you both. I thought I had a better handle on my symptoms.”

Leliana looked sympathetically at him. “Cullen, please do not fret. Neither day was one where I would have described you as well-rested.”

"Or well-fed," Josephine added. "I understand the desire to push yourself as much as possible, but you still need to take care of yourself, Commander."

“What else have I missed?” he demanded.

“Small details here and there,” Leliana said, “but nothing that has interfered with your ability to train and move troops.”

“And the guardsmen?”

Leliana quickly sketched out the situation for him. They were resentful and tended to drink, but were not plotting anything specific. The danger was not so much that they posed a credible threat, but that they were too stupid to recognize that the Herald could kill them with little more than a gesture.

“The Herald is aware of the situation,” Leliana reassured him. “I have little doubt that she will handle it appropriately, should they be foolish enough to attack her.”

“Does she know that I've stopped taking lyrium?”

Leliana shook her head. “Not that I'm aware.”

“If either of us felt that you were no longer fit for duty, we would have said something. You have our full support, Commander,” Josephine said briskly, then she deftly changed the topic.

He managed to get through the rest of the meeting without embarrassing himself, but concentration was not easy when he kept wondering, how much of today will I forget? Meanwhile, every heartbeat pulsed lyrium-lyrium-lyrium.

That night, when he knelt by his cot to pray, he asked for the first time, "Maker, am I doing the right thing?"

**

“Did you really create 'Company Half-Wit' in the Hinterlands?”

In hindsight, it wasn't the most professional thing he'd ever written.

Cullen learned about Company Half-Wit from Corporal Vale, who had sent a raven to Commander Rutherford, asking whether Half-Wit had to do everything together, as the Herald had decreed, or could he start breaking them up into smaller teams?

His response to Vale (“What in the Maker's name is Company Half-Wit?”) was sent via raven in the morning. By late afternoon, he received Corporal Vale's gleefully colorful description of how the Herald had formed the six-man unit.

Cullen had stormed into Leliana's tent and thrust Vale's letter into her hands. "Did you know the Herald formed Company Half-Wit?" he demanded.

“Of course, I did.”

“And you didn't tell me?”

“I assumed you already knew.”

He lowered his voice for a moment and checked to make sure they were alone. “Is this one of those 'small details' that I was told about and simply forgot?”

“I don't think so,” she said.

Good. He could go back to being angry with the Herald. Cullen worked himself up into a lather as Leliana read the letter, laughing out loud at a couple of places.

“It isn't funny!” he snapped.

“Beg to differ,” she said brightly, as she handed the letter back to him. “Good luck, Commander!”

Cullen scrawled off his one-sentence note to the Herald and sent it to the Inquisition's safe-house Val Royeaux. It would be waiting for her when she arrived.

By nightfall, he had calmed down somewhat and re-read Vale's letter.

According to Vale, the Herald had ordered Half-Wit to do “everything” together, beginning with digging pit latrines. Tempers ran very high for a few days. Arguing led to such shoddy work that the first two pits had to be abandoned halfway through.

When the rest of the camp started calling them, “Company Half-Pit,” the unit finally buckled down and finished the job properly.

Their Corporal then sent them to other Inquisition camps, ostensibly to dig more pit latrines per the Herald's orders. Cullen thought it far more likely that their Corporal just wanted them gone.

Between campsites, Half-Wit had to fend off bandits, bears, and wolves. The local citizenry asked for help with various small problems, viewing the six of them as a single unit of the Inquisition, not a random collection of hotheads. A handful of local maidens claimed to have eagerly given their virginities ("or what was left of it," Vale opined) to the better-looking soldiers in Half-Wit.

By the time they had made it to every secured Inquisition camp in the Hinterlands, Company Half-Wit was a tightly-knit unit. Their camaraderie was contagious, Vale said, inspiring others to work together for the Inquisition.

Now, however, the Inquisition had all the pit latrines it needed. Vale wanted to break the unit up into teams of two or three to more efficiently scout the surrounding area.

Cullen recognized that he and the Herald used similar techniques on their men (although Cullen told himself that he would never have done something as demeaning as labeling his men “half-wits.”)

In the morning, Cullen scratched out his answer—it was all right for Vale to break Half-Wit up into smaller mission teams but keep the unit together as a whole. Cullen closed the letter with, "Feel free to change their name."

Several hours later, he received Vale's response. “Not a chance, Ser. They'd never forgive me.”

**

The advisors met in the War Room to go over the Herald's report from Val Royeaux. Her short but disturbing account of what had happened in the market square had all three advisors alarmed.

Cullen sympathized with the Templars' frustration. The Chantry had long taken Templars for granted. Mother Hevara's assumption that the Templars would blindly support her grandstanding was precisely a case in point.

But punching the old woman in the head? Abandoning Val Royeaux? It was madness.

The Herald also reported that she had recruited First Enchanter Vivienne and an elf archer who claimed to be a Red Jenny.

“Strange days we live in, bringing such different people into the cause,” Cullen mused. “Still, I suppose it is a good thing that the Herald convinced them to join.”

Leliana snorted. "I can't speak for the Red Jennies, but I promise you, Madame de Fer needed no convincing. Some 'arcane advisor' has all but replaced her at Empress Celene's court. She's here because she is seeking another sphere of influence."

“Still, her interest means the Inquisition's influence is on the rise,” Josephine pointed out.

They moved on to other topics. The newly formed Medical Corps was up and running, and nobody had yet died or been possessed. Haven's population was increasing on a daily basis with recruits. The three advisors divided the new people up by talent, discussed temporary housing and the need for a larger food supply.

After the meeting was over, Cullen read his personal correspondence. He had written to Cassandra to let her know about the gaps in his memory.

          Cullen,

          Why do you think I am always after you to eat something? Not getting enough food and rest will affect anybody's memory, no matter the circumstances. I do have faith in your ability to overcome this but not if you're an idiot about it. If you are truly worried about forgetting things, keep a journal—like I have also suggested.

          You should listen to me more,

          C. Pentaghast.

Cullen smiled. He had to admit, just reading Cassandra's bossy words made him feel a bit better, and he placed her letter into his small collection of important personal papers. If a Seeker of Truth had faith that he could do this and had said so in writing, he was not so foolish as to throw such words away.

          Herald,

          Did you really create 'Company Half-Wit' in the Hinterlands?

          C. Rutherford, Commander, Inquisition Forces

Written underneath it was a single word. “Yes.”

Cullen sighed and rubbed his eyes. Right. Well, ask a stupid question, eh, Rutherford? He started to place the Herald's letter in the trash. At the last moment, he put it on top of Cassandra's letter.

**

He had not recognized the Herald at first when she'd returned to Haven. The mop of short, white hair gave her the appearance of a teenage elven boy. Indeed, his first thought was that the person standing next to Ambassador Montilyet reminded him a great deal of Fenris.

Then he overheard her talking. Fluent as she had become, there was still no disguising either her strange accent or the gravelly timbre of her voice. It had a way of cutting through sound, even when she wasn't speaking loudly.

He heard quite a lot of that voice over the next couple of days, as the Herald expressed frustration with the advisors for being unable to decide what to do next.

She also did not seem to fully appreciate why her stupid ship and bracelet were not at the top of everybody's priority list.

Late one night, he headed to the War Room to retrieve the reports he'd left there by accident earlier in the day. Ordinarily, that would not bother him, but ever since he'd learned that there were blank spots in his memory, every little thing seemed portentous. Was this lyrium madness or just the usual reaction to a stressful job?

He also had a blinding headache, and he knew—he knew—that a single dose of lyrium would melt it away. Is this suffering truly worth it? The question was now on his mind all the time.

He opened the door to War Room, only to find the Herald, her back to the door, sitting alone at the table.

"Herald! Forgive me; I did not mean to intru—"

“Shhhh!” She jumped up, and yanked him in the room by his arm, quickly closing the door behind him.

Cullen looked down at her like she’d gone mad. “I beg your pardon!

The Herald looked up at him apologetically. "I am so sorry, Commander, I should not have grabbed you like that. I am just hiding from everybody until I can get my work finished."

Cullen looked at the War Table. A basket of sandwiches and several bottles of cider covered up most of Orlais. Scrolls, lists, and place markers were scattered across Ferelden. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to figure out how to be in several places at once,” she sighed, sitting back down in the chair she had occupied.

“I see. Well. I'll get my reports and leave you to your work,” Cullen said. He walked around the table top the bookshelves and started fishing through the stacks of papers.

The Herald was comparing the map on the War Table to it to a list written in a language he did not recognize. “Do you happen to know if there are ferries that cross Lake Calenhad?” she asked him.

“Why do you want to cross Lake Calenhad?” Where in the Maker's name were his damn reports?

“I'm not certain I do. I am just trying to find a faster way from the Storm Coast to the Hinterlands than the Imperial Highway.”

He put down one stack and picked up another. “There are ferries that can take you around Lake Calenhad, but not many are capable of carrying mounts. Check with Harding, though. She might be able to make arrangements to have mounts waiting for you at port."

Ah, there were his reports. He turned around to leave. The Herald leaned over Orlais and grabbed the basket of sandwiches and a bottle of cider. She held them out to him and said, “I’ll share my supper if you will answer my questions about places I am going.”

He hesitated. All he wanted was to go to his tent, finish his reports and lie in the dark for several hours. Maybe even sleep.

“Please, Commander,” she said quietly. “I do not want to make the wrong decision because I lack the information everybody else takes for granted.”

Cullen wasn't sure what shamed him more—the fact that she felt the need to beg her advisor for advice, or the fact that he still desperately wanted to tell her no.

“You don't have to give me your own food, Herald. I'll answer your questions.” His tone came out a little harsher than he intended.

She studied him for a moment, then handed him the cider. “Drink this, at least. You look dehydrated.”

Cullen sighed impatiently but put down his reports and took the cider. He pulled the cork and took a long swallow. Then he stood next to the Herald and looked down at the map.

“What are you trying to accomplish, exactly?” he said, gesturing towards her lists and scrolls.

It took her several minutes to explain everything she needed to do. She needed to go to the Fallow Mire and rescue Inquisition soldiers. She needed to go to Redcliffe and meet with Fiona and the rebel mages. Leliana wanted her to locate a Grey Warden in the Hinterlands. The Iron Bull's Chargers wanted a meeting on the Storm Coast. And she had over a dozen, smaller errands for the Inquisition.

Finally, she got to the end of her list, saying, "Plus, I need to find more people for the ground team besides just Sera and Vivienne. Varric, Solas, and Cassandra have been going non-stop with me since the beginning. It is not fair to them."

He had not realized they had thrown quite so much into her lap. He stared at the map and mentally ran through all of the various paths she could take.

“Top priority?” he asked.

“The Fallow Mire. I do not like the idea of our soldiers being held captive.”

“Lowest priority?”

“Meeting with Fiona. She had the time to travel from Redcliffe to Val Royeaux, just to set up a meeting back in Redcliffe? She must not be in any rush.”

He studied the map. "Crossing Lake Calenhad by ferry would probably save you a couple of days," he said, "but if I may, I would suggest you travel the roads. We have reports of rift activity all over the Imperial Highway, and you are the only one who can close them. "

She nodded and scribbled something down on a piece of paper. He took another pull from his cider, only to find it empty. The Herald slid another cider towards him. Before he could thank her, she said. “What should I expect on the Storm Coast?”

"Rocky beach. Basalt cliffs. Smugglers. Perhaps some minor darkspawn activity."

She helped herself to a sandwich. “I thought darkspawn were only active during a Blight.”

Somehow, the basket of sandwiches wound up in front of him. He took one.

“Darkspawn never really go away,” he said, around a mouthful of mutton-on-rye. “Between Blights, they retreat underground to recover, until they can find another Archdemon to corrupt. Even so, small numbers wander to the surface every now and again, especially near Dwarven ruins.”

“Why there?”

“The darkspawn destroyed the Dwarven Empire ages ago,” he explained. “Now they inhabit the old Thaigs.”

She scribbled down something else. "Thedas certainly has no shortage of horrible things," she said shaking her head. "I have fought many enemies in my time, but most of them were just other people."

Cullen walked over the bookshelves and perused the titles there. He pulled An Anatomie of Various Terrible Beasts by Baron Havard-Pierre d'Amortisan and Tales from Beneath the Earth by Brother Genitivi. “Read these to start,” he said. “D'Amortisan was a bit fanciful in his descriptions but not inaccurate.”

“Thank you.” She looked at the books for a moment, then put them down next to her lists.

Cullen looked at the map again. "The Fallow Mire is mostly bog. The terrain alone is going to make that an exhausting mission. You'll want fresh legs for it. If it were me, I'd wait until I'd recruited more people. I appreciate the concern for the soldiers, but if the Avaar truly wanted them dead, they'd be dead already. You're the one they want. Be strong when you meet them."

Cullen drank some cider and wiped his mouth. “Maker, I just remembered. Corporal Vale sent word about Company Half-Wit.”

“And...what have you heard?” she asked cautiously.

He opened his mouth to berate her—and realized that he wasn't angry about it anymore. At all. So what he said instead was, “That the Inquisition digs the finest pit latrines in all of Thedas.”

She laughed, just for a second, and grinned at him. Cullen updated her on Company Half-Wit, relating what Corporal Vale had told him, including the parts about seducing local maidens.

“Oh. Good,” she snorted. “Toilets and bastards,”

“Truly, the Inquisition is a gift to all of Thedas,” he chuckled. It felt odd smiling like that, with his whole face. It was like he was out of practice or something.

He cleared his throat and moved back to more professional topics. “The Chargers have a good reputation. If you recruit them, it should fill out your ground team quite nicely.”

“Do they?” she asked. “All right, I will keep an open mind.”

They continued to discuss where she needed to go and what she needed to do. In the end, the Herald had a tentative but workable plan. Go to the Storm Coast to speak with the Chargers. Travel to the Hinterlands to locate Warden Blackwall, stopping in Haven along the way if needed. Then head south to the Fallow Mire and rescue the Inquisition soldiers. Finally, she would backtrack to Redcliffe and meet with Fiona and the rebel mages.

“How long do you think this will take?” she asked him.

“Couple of months, I'd guess,” he said. “Even if you skip all of these smaller errands, rift activity is going to slow you down.”

“Two months,” she said, almost to herself.

It occurred to Cullen that the one person on her ground team who would not be getting any rest was herself. He picked up another sandwich. “Let me ask you something. You once called yourself a 'conscript.' Is that how you truly feel?”

“'Conscript' is probably not the right word anymore. 'Victim of circumstance,' perhaps.” The Herald looked down at her left hand. The mark was faintly visible. “Commander, if I had closed the Breach right away, what would have happened to me?”

“The Chantry would have tried to drag you to Val Royeaux for a trial,” he said.

“Will they try once the Breach is finally closed?”

He thought about it as he chewed, then swallowed and said, “Maybe not. You've cleared the Crossroads, closed a lot of rifts, helped people. The Inquisition is gaining influence. It's much easier to arrest some foreign mage than it is the Herald of Andraste.” He took a huge bite of sandwich.

“I am not a mage.”

Cullen stopped chewing and just looked at her flatly. 

 

 

Chapter 23 Cullen

 

She gave an exhausted sigh. “Yes. I know. To most of you, it is a distinction without a difference. To me, it is an absolute fact. I am not a mage. I am not the Herald of Andraste. My omnitool is not a bracelet. The more I speak my truths, the less your people believe me.”

Cullen reached for another sandwich, but the basket was empty. "Right, the ship that doesn't sail and the bracelet that isn't jewelry," he said. "Why are they so important to you?"

"The ship isn't, not really, except for two things. One, the engine core is leaking and probably poisoning the groundwater. Two, it proves I am telling the truth about my origins. Leliana still does not believe me. Neither does Vivienne. If my own team thinks I am mad, or a liar, it makes what I am doing much harder than it already is.

"As for the omnitool, I suppose I could explain all the useful things it does, but since nobody believes it's anything more than a bracelet, I don't know why it matters."

She chewed her lip and stared at the War Table for a long time. “In truth, I don't give a damn how helpful it would be for the Inquisition. I want it back because it has my parents’ voices on it, telling me they love me.”

Maker. “Herald, I didn't mean--”

She raised a hand to stop him. “No apologies, Commander. It is not your fault. My parents died long before I came to Thedas. Anyway, I should not keep you any longer. Thank you for talking to me. I appreciate the help.”

It was a polite opening for him to leave. He took it before he could put his foot in it again. "Of course, Herald. Let me know if you require anything further."

He picked up his reports and left.

Later, when he was in his tent and had finished his work, he stared at the candle on his desk and thought about the last few days.

Cassandra, Leliana, and Josephine had been after him for weeks to take better care of himself. Sometimes he listened but usually not. He'd been ignoring bossy older sister-types since birth.

The Herald did not act like a bossy older sister, nor was she his friend. Yet she had managed to get more food and drink into him in the last few hours than he'd eaten in the last week. His headache was gone. He had willingly cooperated with her mission planning, giving her information that he thought she would find useful. He'd even lost his anger about Company Half-Wit.

Cullen looked through his stacks of papers and books until he found a blank journal. He wrote the date at the top of the first page. He listed a brief description of his day. He included what he'd eaten, who he'd spoken with, and made a list of things he needed to remember (including the guardsmen who were holding a grudge against the Herald.) 

 

Render by https://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/

 

The last two entries on the list read as follows:

“Herald's ship. Poison leak.”

“Herald's bracelet. Parents' voices.”

He did not know what to think about a world like the Herald's, where something like a ship could be so quickly discarded. Even if she could not use it to return to her people, it was a ship, for Maker's sake!

But the bracelet?

If he'd owned something that had the voices of his late parents on it, he'd want it back, too.

Cullen got some sleep that night. He woke up with the usual lyrium cravings and a mild headache but some of the bone-draining fatigue of the last several weeks had lifted. He forced down his breakfast, even though he wasn't hungry.

It was early morning when the Herald and her ground team of Cassandra, Sera, and Vivienne left Haven. Just before they departed, Cassandra walked over to him. “You will write to me,” she said. It was not a request.

“I will,” he promised.

“Good. Be well, Cullen.”

“And you, Seeker.”

Minutes later, as the Herald's ground team left on horseback, she caught his eye and gave him one of her own, fingertips-to-eyebrow salute. “Good luck, Commander,” she said.

He saluted back. “Safe travels, Herald.” Then he turned his attention back to his troops.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter twenty-four 

The morning she left for the Storm Coast, Helen dreamed she was back at the Initiative medical facility where she'd had surgery to replace the L3 implant with the new L5. 

In her dream, the surgeons had instead surgically inserted a green, glass dagger through the palm of her left hand, then sent her back to work at her old office in Vancouver. She kept knocking her hand into everything from elevator doors to countertops. She became very frustrated that she could no longer use her hand normally. Although nothing in the dream had been especially frightening, the pain was so intense it woke her up. 

Her left hand was throbbing and hot to the touch. When Telina arrived with breakfast, Helen reluctantly asked the girl to wake Solas and bring him to her. 

He knocked on the Herald's door a few minutes later. She answered it, looking apologetic. “Solas, I am so sorry for disturbing you.” 

"It is no trouble. I understand your hand is bothering you?" he asked as he stepped inside. She nodded, and they sat at her small table. 

Solas took her left hand in both of his. After a moment, he said, "The mark is fine. The wards are keeping it contained. The tissues and nerve endings in your hand, however, are inflamed." He sent a healing spell into her hand. Helen placed her right arm on the table and rested her head on it in relief. 

“The pain must have been great for you to send for me. It is not like you to seek help,” he said quietly. “Did something trigger this?” 

"I am not sure. I had a very odd dream, but I do not know if the dream caused the pain or the other way around." 

"Tell me about your dream." He turned her palm over and sent a healing spell through the back of her hand. Helen talked as she watched him work. He asked her she meant by "implant," so she explained that too. 

“Your people cut you open and placed a foreign object in your brain when you were a child.” His tone of voice made it clear he did not approve. 

“They did not cut me open, exactly. They used endoscopy,” she used the English term, as it simply did not translate into Common. “Thin, flexible instruments that they ran through my sinus cavities.” 

“And your parents allowed this?” 

She glanced up at him. “Of course they did. It was the safest thing to do. The implant gives a biotic much greater control over their abilities.” 

Solas had a deep frown on his face. “Can the implant be used to control you?” 

“No.” 

“How can you be certain?” 

“Because I spent several years in research and development of biotic implants. It was one of the reasons I was willing to risk another surgery for the new L5 when I joined the Initiative. I know exactly what is in that implant, Solas. Some of it is my own work.” 

Solas looked thoughtful. "I suppose when I envision you in your world, it has always been as you are here, fighting to protect others. I forget that you were also a scholar." 

She wondered if he was sending additional healing into her as even her minor aches and pains began to dissipate. 

She found herself tempted to drift back to sleep. To stay awake, she discussed her immediate plans. Sera, Vivienne, and Cassandra would accompany her to the Storm Coast. Next, she would go to the Hinterlands to locate a Grey Warden. Then she needed to lead a mission in the Fallow Mire to rescue Inquisition soldiers who had been captured by the Avvar. Finally, she would backtrack through Redcliffe to meet with the mages. 

“Could you meet me in the Hinterlands? We can look for your artifact while we are there. I would also like to have you with me in the Fallow Mire.” 

“I am at your disposal for ground missions, Helen. Place me wherever you see fit.” He gently let go of her hand. “There. You are healed. You will send for me immediately if it becomes this painful again,” he ordered. 

“I will give my ground team the rest they need and deserve, Solas.” 

“And what of the rest you need and deserve?” he asked. 

"I get none of it in Haven, this close to the Breach. Unless the pain gets so bad that I cannot fight, I will send for you once we leave for the Hinterlands and not a moment before." 

Fel'sounathe da'len,” he said, just below his breath. Stubborn child

She grinned. “Did you just insult me?” 

“Yes. I called you a stubborn child.” 

She sat up, yawned, and luxuriously stretched her hands over her head. She opened her eyes to find Solas' gaze tracing the line of her torso, breasts, and up along her throat. His eyes widened just slightly when he noticed that she was watching him watch her. 

Helen wasn't completely blind. She recognized when somebody was admiring her body, rare as it had been in her life. But Solas

Keeping her voice neutral, she said, “Thank you for healing me, Solas. I will write when we are leaving the Storm Coast.” 

“You are most welcome, although I suggest you write to me before then. Your handwriting could certainly use the practice.” His tone had suddenly become pedantic and formal, almost rude.

Helen tried to hide her disappointment. She'd seen this before, when a member of one race found themselves with an unwanted or unexpected attraction to a member of another race. She just never thought that the first time it affected her directly, it would be from another human. 

“All right, Professor,” she sighed, as she picked up her travel pack. “I will write to you.” 

“'Hahren,'” he corrected as they left her cabin. “The word you are looking for is 'hahren.' Travel safe, Herald.” 

** 

The trip out of the Frostbacks was as depressing and grim as before. Being so close to the Breach returned Helen's hand to its usual state of a dull, constant ache. 

The carnage around the Temple of Sacred Ashes was unchanged. Cassandra stared ahead stoically. Sera clicked her tongue, shook her head and would occasionally mutter things like, “poor bastard.” 

Vivienne looked unflinchingly at every single body they passed. It took Helen a bit before she realized why. Vivienne was looking for faces she recognized. 

That evening, as the four of them huddled in the tent on the side of the frigid mountain, Vivienne confronted Helen. "You will explain to me, right now, how you survived that explosion." 

Helen stopped fishing through her pack and looked stonily at the mage. “I do not follow orders, First Enchanter. I give them. If you have a question, ask it. But speak to me like that again, and you will pack your things and leave.” 

Cassandra and Sera watched Vivienne and Helen's mini-standoff. 

Vivienne was not the least bit intimidated by Helen. She was, however, apparently weighing her options to see whether a challenge to Helen's authority was worth her trouble. Finally, she said, "My apologies, Herald, I will rephrase. How did you survive the explosion?" 

“I have no idea. I do not remember the explosion.” 

“Wot?” Sera asked. “None of it?” 

“Not of the explosion itself, no. I can tell you what I do remember.” Helen gave them a somewhat truncated version of her own history and of how she had wound up at the Conclave. Cassandra occasionally interjected with her own memories, as well.

By the time Helen finished, all four of them were in their bedrolls. "It is a terribly exciting tale, Herald, but it still does not explain how you survived," Vivienne said as she smoothed her blankets. 

Helen shrugged. Telling her story again had left her feeling drained. “I cannot explain what I do not know.” 

I believe you,” Sera said. “Shite's too weird to make up.” 

** 

As before, everybody cheered up once they had made it out of the Frostbacks and into better terrain and milder weather. 

Helen and her team had traveled this part of the Imperial Highway already, so it was free from rifts and criminals. This gave them some time to talk and get to know one another. 

Sera was loud, immature, and fun. She was brutally efficient with her bow, often snagging their dinner in poor light and from very far away. “How the hell did you see that without a scope?” Helen demanded the first time Sera shot a pheasant that Helen would have needed binoculars or a visor to see. 

“Er...I dunno, I just did. Elves have better eyes than humans, yeah?” 

Sera seemed uninterested in Helen's past. Helen wasn't nobility and was willing to help the downtrodden. That was enough for Sera. 

Vivienne did not believe Helen's backstory but did not raise the issue further. She also had a deep knowledge of the politics and powers behind current events. In a single afternoon, Vivienne explained more about the political situation in Ferelden and Orlais to Helen than anyone else had done in the last two months. 

Sera and Vivienne loathed each other. They bickered far more often and with considerably more venom than anything Helen had seen between Cassandra and Varric. The more Sera tried to get under Vivienne's skin, the more Vivienne got under hers. 

Helen was sorely tempted to order them to shut up, at least for her own sanity, but there was something fascinating about watching Sera's incoherent anger break uselessly against the rocks of Vivienne's disdain. Helen decided to let the women work it out between themselves, at least for now. 

In the evenings, Helen read the books on monsters that Cullen had loaned to her. She wondered, not for the first time, how the hell these sorts of creatures could exist. Were some of these species native to Thedas? Had they been genetically designed? Were they Milky Way species that had evolved in response to an alien planet? 

Some of them came from the Fade, which raised an interesting question. “Vivienne, do creatures reproduce in the Fade like they do in the physical world? Do they have parents who give birth to them?” 

Vivienne blinked twice, as if she was processing a question she could not believe she had heard correctly. Then she said, very deliberately, “No, Herald. Demons do not have parents.” 

Helen took the hint. Vivienne felt magic was a subject to be treated with fear, not curiosity. 

The person she ought to be asking was Solas. She just...had so many mixed emotions about the man. Every time she felt like she knew where she stood with him, he did something or said something, which shifted the ground underneath her. 

Keeping her emotions in check around him was hard. She liked Solas. More than once, she'd wanted to just curl up on his lap and sob until she was all cried out. 

But she'd seen his face when he realized he'd been caught ogling. He would never allow it. It stung more than she wanted to admit. 

It doesn't matter, she told herself. He had declared his friendship. That alone was probably an enormous step for him. She reminded herself that was not here to cure Solas of his bigotry. She was here to seal the Breach. Don't cry. Don't bitch. Don't blame. 

          Dear Hahren Solas, 

          We have made it to the Imperial Highway. Vivienne has been discussing politics with me. I think my questions about monarchies took her by surprise. 

          My questions about the Fade certainly shocked her, so I will not ask her any more of them. I will ask you, instead. Where do new spirits come from? Do spirits court each other and fall in love and have families? 

          Sera shot a pheasant that must have been at least 400 meters away. I do not know how she could even see it, much less kill it. She says elves have better eyesight than humans. Is that true? 

          I do not like using a quill and ink. It is too slow. 

          Sincerely,

          Helen

**

          Herald, 

          “Hahren” literally translates as “elder,” not “professor.” Therefore, the correct salutation would be either “Hahren” or “Solas” but not both. In hindsight, I could have explained this more clearly before you left. 

          What question about monarchies did you ask, that so surprised the First Enchanter? 

          Spirits do not court one another. Nor do they fall in love, or have families, although sometimes they will reenact the memories of such events from the waking world. New spirits are "born," if you will, from the Fade itself. Any number of events can trigger such a birth. It might be an abundance of will in that part of the Fade. It might be the press of strong emotion from the physical realm. And it might be simply that the Fade has need of individual spirits at any given time.

          I am not surprised that your questions about spirits shocked the First Enchanter. The Chantry in general, and the Circle, in particular, have long taught that spirits lack a soul, that they should never be trusted and are always to be feared. Few Circle mages have ever bothered to ask the questions you have. I am delighted that you have done so and if you ever have more questions, please do not hesitate to ask me.

          I am not familiar with a “meter” as a unit of measurement. I will assume for the sake of this discussion that 400 of them is impressive. In the event, Sera is correct. Elves have superior vision to humans and dwarves, particularly at a distance and at night.

          The more you practice with a quill and ink, the faster you will become. What are you accustomed to using?

          Please write back and let me know if the mark is troubling you.

          Safe journeys, my friend,

          Solas

 

It took five days to reach a part of the Imperial Highway that Helen had not traveled before. Unsurprisingly, they frequently encountered both bandits and rifts from that point forward.

It was disconcerting to see somebody as well-dressed as Vivienne throw herself right into the middle of a melee, especially since her barrier was shit. Other than that, she acquitted herself well. She had a preference for cryo effects and a magical weapon called a “spirit blade.” Helen did not quite understand the mechanics of it but gave a standing order that Vivienne was to immediately neutralize rage demons or any other hostiles that used incendiaries.

Sera's greatest talent lay in her ability to kill from distances that would have been impressive in any galaxy. She was fast, accurate and lethal. And while she could throw a punch when necessary, hand-to-hand combat was a risk for her against an enemy who was even lightly armored. Helen made her the team's sniper and ordered her to stay at range whenever possible.

After five days of uninterrupted travel, suddenly skirmishing every few hours seemed to have tired both Vivienne and Sera. Both had gone quiet on that first day of fighting. Helen decided to make camp early to give them a chance to rest.

“So. This not-magic you use,” Sera said after they had eaten supper.

“Biotics,” Helen answered.

“Whatever. Looks a lot like magic to me.” Sera's tone held a hint of accusation in it. 

Helen half-expected Vivienne to interject with some exasperated comment about Sera's ignorance but the mage stayed silent. 

“The only time I used magic today was when I closed those rifts,” Helen said. “And that is the mark's magic, not mine.” 

“Not that. That part was fine. Well, I mean, not fine but, you know, closing it and all, you have to do that, right? But you, with your biotical whatever...” Sera struggled to find the right words. 

“I protected myself and my team when we were attacked, just like you did with your arrows.” 

“My arrows don't make people float in the air and shit themselves!” 

“My biotics don't shoot a man through the eye-slot of his helm. And they all shit themselves, Sera. Yours just waited until they died.” 

“That's not—it isn't about—you aren't—UGGGGGGHHH!” 

Chapter 24 Render

 

“What Sera is trying and utterly failing to articulate,” Vivienne said, “is that your biotics are quite alarming to witness.” 

Cassandra spoke up. "I felt the same way, at first. You will get used to it. The Herald's methods are unorthodox, but she has never failed to protect her own people." 

“Thank you, Cassandra,” Helen said, touched by the Seeker's words. 

Vivienne's head was slightly tilted as she looked Helen up and down, almost inspecting her. “How do your people train? Do they have anything like Circles?” 

"We once tried something like a Circle, but it was a complete disaster. It was shut down after only a few years. By the time I came into my biotics, training was voluntary. Some did nothing. Others went to Grissom Academy. Most of us joined the Alliance." 

“I see. And what is the Alliance?” 

Helen explained the Systems Alliance and how it fit into the Milky Way's military and political structure to Vivienne. Sera got bored and went to bed. 

Vivienne politely but thoroughly cross-examined Helen about her background. Who were her parents? What country was she from? Any connection to nobility? How old was she when her biotics manifested? Siblings? Spouse? Children? Political connections? Wealth? 

Helen answered all of her questions, mildly amused by the woman's ability to ask completely irrelevant questions. Vivienne never once enquired about the other races, the Citadel's government, or anything that would even acknowledge that Helen was from another galaxy. 

At the end of it, Cassandra announced that she had first watch. Vivienne stood up and brushed the non-existent dust off her immaculate robes. "I want to thank you, Herald," she said, her tone aloof and polite. "This is the most interesting conversation I have had in many years." 

Helen could not tell if she was being sincere or sarcastic, which was probably the point. “You are most welcome, Vivienne.” 

**

          Dear Solas, 

          I hope this letter finds you well. We have reached the northern banks of Lake Calenhad. Travel has slowed because we are skirmishing so often. Rift activity and banditry are common here. Is there a connection, do you think? 

          I do have other questions about the Fade. You once said that the Veil prevents people in the Fade and people in the physical world from understanding each other. Why? Have there ever been attempts at diplomacy between the two realms? 

          The question I had asked Vivienne was whether her people had ever considered a form of government other than Chantry-supported feudalism. She said they had not. 

          I prefer to write with a keyboard. It allows me to tap out letters and marks at a significantly faster rate than handwriting. 

          Sincerely,

          Helen 

          P.S. A question Vivienne asked me reminded me of one I wanted to ask you. How old were you when your magic manifested? 

** 

          Herald, 

          Your letter arrived yesterday. I am fine, thank you, and I hope you are, as well. It did not escape my notice that you failed to say whether the mark is bothering you. Please let me know how you fare. 

          Now, on to the questions that you have asked. 

          Yes, it is very likely that there is a connection between criminal activity and the rifts. Death and strong emotion cause spirits to press up against the Veil. It thins out, in a manner of speaking, making it more likely to tear. 

          This relates, albeit tangentially, to your questions about the Veil. 

          The Veil prevents understanding between spirits and the physical realm because the Fade is a place where intention matters far more than form. If one diplomat (to use your term) sees a spirit of wisdom, while his successor sees a pride demon, what would that do to treaty negotiations? Mortals crave a constancy that does not exist in the Fade, and their desire to make it constant could eventually corrupt whatever good they were trying to do.

          None of this, of course, addresses the problem of possession. As long as spirits wish to cross the Veil to join the living, there can be no permanent peace. But your questions are insightful, and it is important that you have asked them. 

          Your queries to the First Enchanter regarding politics raise several interesting points. 

          First, it is not in the nature of most people to question the systems around them, no matter how unjust those systems might be. 

          Second, the First Enchanter is incorrect that no other forms of rule have been seriously considered. The Free Marches is a loose collection of city-states. Antiva is a plutocracy. Tevinter is a magocracy, although the constant power struggles limit the ability of the Magisterium to rule effectively. 

          These are but a few examples. I would argue that all of them are easily abused, and none of them do anything except protect those already in power. 

          Third, beyond your brief description of your people's military and "the Council," you have not discussed the politics of your world. I am quite curious to know what governance was like in such a place. 

          I cannot give you an exact age for when my magic manifested. My people did not keep track of such things as Namedays. I must have been very young, as I cannot remember a time in my life without magic. When and where did your biotics manifest?

          The technology you describe for writing sounds efficient—almost like a printing press, perhaps—but I prefer the older forms of communication. Handwriting can be as artistic as it is practical. The more you use it, the more it becomes a part of you. I would encourage you to take every opportunity you have to work on such a skill. 

          Safe journeys, my friend

          Solas

**

Helen had no time to admire the natural beauty of the Storm Coast. The Iron Bull and his Chargers were clashing with thirty or so Tevinter hostiles on the beach. She suspected it was a set-up designed to impress her but nevertheless, she joined the battle. They made quick work of the Tevinters. 

Helen talked to the Iron Bull and felt something inside her click into place. For the first time since she'd landed on Thedas, here, finally, was somebody who registered on her mental radar as, “not human.” 

Oh, she had little doubt a scan with her omnitool would have shown that his DNA was a derivative of homo sapiens sapiens. His basic structure was humanoid, and he was too male to have an Asari-based genetic code. 

But whether Qunari had naturally evolved in response to the environment on Thedas or whether they'd been genetically altered, Bull's massive build, gray skin and that fantastic set of longhorns gave him an “otherness” that she found deeply comforting. 

The fact that he was a spy was something she saw as Leliana's problem, not hers. 

The Chargers shared their wine and their stories with the Inquisition scouts that evening, which made them instantly popular. Supper was much livelier than usual. 

“So,” Bull said, coming to sit next to her as they were eating, “rumor has it you're from another world.” 

“Rumor has it right,” she said. 

His one eye stared intently at her. "Mind if I ask you some questions?" 

Helen sighed. "No, I do not mind. But I can tell you, having done this several times already, this will go much faster if you would simply list for me what you've heard, and I can confirm or deny." 

Bull had mostly accurate information. A military officer from another world. Asleep for thousands of years. Crash landed at the Conclave. The only thing she had to correct for him was that she was not a mage. 

She answered questions for about a half-hour. At the end it, Bull seemed satisfied that she was who she said she was, or at least that she was sticking to her story about it. 

Helen excused herself, found Vivienne and tapped her on the shoulder and said, “May I borrow you for a moment, please?” 

“Of course, Herald.” 

Helen led Vivienne to the ocularum that overlooked the beach and explained what it did. “Have you seen anything like this before?” 

“I'm sure I haven't. It's revolting magic. I take it your apostate did not know what it was?” 

“Solas? No. He said he was unfamiliar with such magic.” 

“You could fill many volumes with the magic an apostate is unfamiliar with, my dear.” 

“I wouldn't know,” Helen pointed out. “I am not a mage.” 

The ocularum, as always, gave Helen a vicious migraine. She hastily marked the map and went back to camp. Vivienne was no healer, but she did spell both the tent Helen slept in (to muffle sound) and a damp flannel (to stay cold). 

Helen drank a healing potion, placed the flannel over her eyes and tried to sleep. It wasn't nearly as effective as Solas' healing spells, but it was way better than nothing. 

In the morning, Cassandra and the Chargers left for Haven. Bull stayed behind to help the ground team find Inquisition scouts that had vanished after investigating a merc group that called themselves the Blades of Hessarian. 

About an hour later, they found several Blades milling around a group of dilapidated shacks. It took minimal effort to put them all down. 

The bodies of the Inquisition soldiers had been stripped of valuables and discarded in one of the abandoned shacks. Bull took all of the bodies outside, where Vivienne and Helen burned them to ash. 

Helen found the ocularum shard on the roof of one of the cabins. She climbed down feeling like it had been a relatively productive morning. 

Then Bull handed her a note he'd found: 

          “It’s not our place to disagree. They’re attempting to set themselves up along the shore, and we have orders. We are the sword, not the hand that wields it. You taught me that.
          “If they’re worthy, let them come with the Mercy’s Crest. The Blades of Hessarian will listen. You will only get yourself cast out—or worse.”

Helen shook her head. “I do not understand what that means.” 

“It means they don't like their leader and want a better one. If you're wearing Mercy's Crest, you can have safe passage into their camp.” He handed her another piece of paper. Mercy's Crest was a pendant. The paper had instructions for how to make one. 

They would have to return to the forward camp, make the stupid Mercy's Crest from scratch, and then come back to the area to challenge the leader of the Blades. “This fucking planet,” she muttered in English. “Why does everything have to be so complicated?” 

Switching back to Common, she said, “All right, if we're going to be delayed, let's at least go close that rift further up along the beach.” 

As they trekked down the far side of the encampment and found a pathway to the beach, Helen realized that what she had believed to be distant thunder was something else entirely—like boulders rolling down a mountain and an angry beast roaring. 

“What is that?” she asked her companions. They came out of the foothills and saw a giant. 

Fighting a dragon. 

“Holy shit,” she breathed. 

 

Dragon and giant

 

Helen had seen the klixen Harvesters of Tuchanka. They flew and breathed fire, but otherwise bore little resemblance to the dragons from fairy tales of old. Harvesters were giant, flying bugs. Helen had found them revolting. 

This dragon was glorious. It's reptilian scales looked like jewels, as they flashed purple and white and orange. When it spat lightning out of its throat, all of the ridges along its neck glowed blue from within. 

She did not hear her companions exclamations. She was too focused on the fact that all of the adventure stories her father had read to her as a little girl had just come to life in front of her very eyes. 

Helen realized with a fair bit of embarrassment that the mad giggling she kept hearing was her own. She composed herself and moved the team forward to get a better look. After watching the giant and the dragon battle with neither gaining the upper hand, Helen whispered, "Sera. Shoot that giant." 

“Uh, Boss?” Bull said. 

It was too late. Sera's arrow had flown and, as her arrows tended to do, it hit the giant in the eyeball, which made it very, very angry. It turned its attention to the ground team as the dragon took off and flew away. 

The giant picked up a boulder and hurled it in their direction. It fell short, likely because an arrow was affecting its depth perception. 

Helen threw a barrier over everybody, except for Bull, who had pulled out his maul and charged the giant, screaming something in Qunlat that her UT translated into, "I HAVE A HUGE, FUCKING HARD ON!" 

She sprinted after Bull, getting him under a barrier just as the giant swiped at them both, knocking Bull down and only barely missing Helen. 

The giant smelled like someone with a hangover had thrown up on a pair of dirty socks. It noticed her and picked up another boulder as Helen desperately backpedaled away. Depth perception hardly mattered if she was right in front of it. When the giant had fully raised the boulder over its head, Helen slammed a Throw into it. 

The boulder sailed into the ocean. The giant looked around to see where its rock had gone. Bull stormed up on the giant's blind side and slammed his maul into its foot. The giant grabbed its toes and hopped on one foot, roaring in anger and pain. 

"BULL!" Helen bellowed. "MOVE!" 

As soon as Bull was out of the way, Helen unfurled a Shockwave. It tore up the beach and knocked the giant flat on its ass. It rolled over onto its hands and knees. 

Bull jumped onto its back, hollering, “FUCK, YEAH, ASSHOLE!” He smashed his maul into the giant's skull. One more blow and the giant was dead. 

Bull stood triumphantly on top of the giant's back and yelled more Qunlat war cries, all of which were variations on, "SEE MY ENORMOUS BONER!" Sera came running up to celebrate with Bull. 

After catching her breath, Helen walked back down the beach towards Vivienne, who was as unruffled as ever. 

“I've seen you execute better battle plans, my dear.” 

Helen laughed, a wave of relief and mild embarrassment rushing over her. “True.” 

They both looked back at Bull, who was cutting off one of the giant's tusks for a trophy as Sera squealed in delighted disgust. 

“Well,” Vivienne sighed, “at least the children are happy.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter twenty-five

With the Herald gone, Solas struggled to find ways to occupy his time. 

He continued his search for the orb, mostly through his agents. There was still no hint of its whereabouts. 

He also spent a day or two making discreet inquiries about Helen's omnitool. It made sense, he told himself, now that he understood how useful it was. It could make her invisible, which would be an enormous asset during combat. That it would make her happy was entirely beside the point. 

His search came up empty, which was unfortunate but not unexpected. Prisoners' possessions went “missing” all the time. Far too often, jailers and guards helped themselves to the belongings of those who had been arrested. That Helen's things had been stolen was not especially unusual. 

What was unusual was that nobody was looking. Helen was not some low-level criminal who had little recourse in such matters. She was the figurehead of a growing power in Thedas. If nobody was searching for the belongings of the Herald of Andraste, it meant they weren't missing at all. 

And if the advisors weren't looking, that most likely meant Leliana either had it or knew who did. 

It was possible, he supposed, that Ambassador Montilyet or Commander Rutherford knew the whereabouts of the omnitool, but Solas found that unlikely. The Ambassador was well-versed in the Game but was neither devious nor cruel. She was also genuinely fond of the Herald and had no reason to hold something back like this. As for Rutherford, the man was an open book. He had no talent for deception at all. 

That left Leliana. 

Solas' desire to get the omnitool back for Helen was not so strong that he was willing to make himself the focus of the spymaster's gaze. Leliana's acceptance of his cover story had depended as much on circumstance as it had on his ability to hide in plain sight. Her attention was focused on targets all over Thedas. It needed to stay there. Solas shelved the issue for the moment. 

He wondered if Helen would write to him. 

Fel'sounathe da'len,” he had called her, as she'd sat before him. Stubborn child. And a child is exactly what she'd looked like, with her short hair, her petite frame and her head laying on one arm. He'd had a mad urge to pick her up, tuck her into bed and tell her stories until she fell asleep. 

Then she'd drowsily sat up and stretched that lithe, little body of her hers, her breasts pressing against her tunic. Something stirred in him that he had not felt in many ages. Carrying her to bed took on an entirely different meaning. 

When his gaze met hers, he knew that he'd been caught ogling. He'd covered up his embarrassment by hiding behind a role Helen was already familiar with—the chronically disappointed teacher. 

He did not want to return to that role, in truth. His declaration of friendship to Helen had been sincere. His gift of regrowing her hair had been only for her happiness, nothing more. 

But finding a human physically attractive was just unacceptable. It was a step too far. He could not allow it. 

The irony was not lost on him. In his youth, he had quite gleefully seduced people he had utterly despised. He had done so as a means to get information, to distract them while his allies moved, or sometimes just for political leverage. 

Helen was young, inexperienced, and desperately lonely. Solas had little doubt that, were he to press the issue, he'd have her on her back in no time. He could be the elven lover of the Herald of Andraste, giving him access and influence. A young Fen' Harel might have once done just that, even if it had meant swallowing his disgust that she was not Elvhen. 

But Solas was no longer that man, and Helen was not some social climber playing the Game for selfish ends. His momentary attraction to her was born from his many years of isolation, nothing more. It would pass. 

He received his first letter from her a few days later. He wrote back, keeping his tone suitably pedantic and asking her questions that would require her to write long letters. His criticism of her penmanship had mostly been to divert attention away from himself, but the fact remained, her handwriting was atrocious. 

Then he twiddled his thumbs for days. There was little to do in Haven. 

He chatted with Varric every morning, listening to the author's lies, tales, and business dealings. 

He exercised Mor'Lanun, taking the horse out into the glen around Haven. 

He stopped by the infirmary to see how Helen's Medical Corps was faring. They had not yet had much to do beyond minor injuries—burns from kitchen workers, sprains from soldiers training too enthusiastically, and a broken jaw from a fight in the tavern. 

Neither mage had any natural talent for healing magic, but the older one, Rose, was quite knowledgeable about anatomy. Young Owin was industrious and creative. He told Solas some of his ideas for field surgery. A couple of them, such as using fire magic to cauterize internal bleeding or sleep spells for painful procedures, had potential. Solas gave encouragement and advice. 

If nothing else, the infirmary was clean. Few others in Haven had heeded Helen's push for improved sanitation. Flissa, apparently, was preaching it with the verve of the newly converted. Commander Rutherford was also on board, bellowing orders at his charges to wash their hands after using the privy.

Most people, however, ignored the new washing stations and carried on as they always had. 

At least once a day, Solas would wander through Adan's lab and ask obtuse questions, just to see how long it took before the words, "Maker's balls, mage, leave me be!” erupted from the alchemist's mouth. His goal achieved, Solas would lazily take his leave. 

Chapter 25 render

He still had far too much time on his hands. 

One night, he entered the Fade and found a very annoyed Desire demon waiting for him. 

“You are an incredibly rude person,” it pouted, as it ran its fingertips underneath the curve of its left breast. “Do you know how long it took for me to find my way back after you banished me?” 

“Not long enough, it seems. Please go away.” 

“Why? Aren't you glad to see me?” It walked towards him, swaying its ample hips in an exaggerated fashion. 

He sighed impatiently. “I have work to do. Leave me in peace before I banish you again.” 

Desire scoffed. “Oh, please. What work? You are bored out of your skull here in this little town of mortals.” 

“And you have nothing to offer that I would find either useful or diverting.” 

"Are you sure about that?" The demon held out a hand, and an image of Solas' orb floated above it. 

Solas rolled his eyes. “Young one, if you truly knew where that was or understood what it represents, the last thing you would do is tease me with it.” 

"How about now?" Desire turned itself into Helen, looking drowsy and content, holding the orb casually on her hip. "I know you like her,” it said. “I don't blame you. I like her, too, but she doesn't talk to me. She talks to you, though. Thinks you're her friend.” 

He began to lose patience. “You are wasting your time. More importantly, you are wasting mine. Now leave me be.” 

Desire vanished the orb but gave Helen perky, pointed ears that stuck out charmingly from her short, white hair. 

Solas stared harder and longer than he should have. 

Desire-Helen-elf pressed itself up against Solas' chest, looking up at him with Helen's large, dark eyes. “Please, Hahren. Teach me everything you know,” it purred, using Helen's raspy voice. 

He placed his hands on its hips and pressed into it, allowing just a moment of pleasure to spike through his groin. “I will admit, I have seen worse efforts,” Solas said, giving it a seductive smile. Desire-Helen-elf licked its lips in anticipation. “But my purpose is not so easily corrupted as others you encounter.” 

He bent his head down, placed his lips right next to its perfect little ear and angrily whispered, “Never play with her face ever again.” And using all of his will, he pushed Desire away, banishing it once more. 

He opened his eyes, now wide awake. The first full erection he'd had since waking from uthenera pressed against his belly, demanding his attention. 

Fenedhis lasa. He was not going to allow Desire manipulate him into something as inappropriate as lust for Helen. 

He tried to meditate. He tried ancient breathing exercises. He tried solving complicated harmonic equations in his head. Nothing worked. 

Sighing in defeat, Solas took himself in hand. Determined not to think of Helen as he satisfied his physical needs, Solas trawled his memory for previous lovers and exhilarating trysts. Arlathan's most beautiful and seductive paraded before his mind's eye as he worked and worked. 

He could not find relief. In desperation, he even allowed himself to think of Desire-Helen-elf, telling himself that it was not really Helen, and so did not count. Yet even that brought him only frustration. 

Solas, angrily throwing the covers off of his bed, stood up and did something he had not had to do for thousands of years. He coated his naked body in a thin layer of ice from the chest down. 

His blood vessels constricted all at once, forcing blood flow away from his extremities and into his internal organs. It was crude but effective. His body was finally under control. 

Filled with self-loathing, Solas magicked the ice away and got dressed. He glared at the walls of his cabin until the sun rose. 

Helen’s second letter arrived later that day. It caused him both delight and remorse in equal measure. Delight, for her marvelous questions about the Fade, about politics, and about his own magic. Remorse, because his inappropriate attraction towards her had sullied even his platonic role of teacher. 

He spent almost a full day responding to her letter, starting over several times. He made certain that his tone was pompous, his answers supercilious. 

Then he went outside and forced himself to look at the Breach. 

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition for Chapter 25 of "The Half-Life of Element Zero."

He needed to remind himself of who they were. Helen was mortal and human and innocent. 

He was Fen' Harel and forever guilty. That would never change. 

** 

Owin, the young mage, knocked on his door one evening. 

“Master Solas, I apologize, I know it's late, but,” he fidgeted, wringing his hands, “there's a patient. In the infirmary. I don't know what to do.” 

“Lead the way,” Solas said. As they walked, Solas asked what the symptoms were. 

“Easier to just show you, Ser.” 

They ducked into the healer's tent. One of the Templar medics, Ser Bennet, stood inside. On the cot lay a human woman, perhaps twenty-five years of age. 

Solas knelt next to the cot. The patient was unconscious, and her hair was falling out in clumps. 

“Explain,” he said. 

“She's one of the maids. Name of Cecelia,” Owin said. “She came in a couple of hours ago, complaining of fatigue and nausea. We gave her fluids and checked for fever. She couldn't keep anything down. Ser Bennet,” he indicated the Templar standing at the door, “asked her if she could be pregnant.” 

Bennet nodded. “She had a Templar lover a few months back. We would see her come and go from the barracks.” 

“But she wouldn't let me check,” Owin continued. “She kept saying she just had a bug or something. Then her hair started falling out. Now she won't wake up. I came and found you.” 

Solas ran a quick detection spell over Cecelia. “She is with child, about four or five months along, I would say but...” 

He allowed his magic to course through her bloodstream and... 

He swore quietly. Cecelia also had eezo poisoning, although it was not nearly as strong as Helen's case when he had treated her. 

Solas quickly cast a silencing spell inside the tent, then looked over at Bennet. "Who was this young woman's Templar lover?" 

Bennet hesitated, then said, “It was Ivans, Messere.” 

Solas placed his hand over his mouth, thinking furiously. “Who else knows about her illness?” he asked them. 

“Just us, as far as I know, Master Solas,” Owin said. “As soon as I noticed she was losing her hair, I came to find you.” 

Solas turned to the Templar. “Young man, please go find Commander Rutherford and bring him here right away. Do not speak to anybody else about this matter. If the Commander asks why you need him, tell him that it concerns the Herald and that I will explain more when he arrives.” 

“Yes, Ser,” Bennet said, bowing his head once at Solas. Then he departed. 

Solas turned back to the patient again and concentrated on the element now poisoning her body. Unlike Helen, Cecelia had no nodules in her system that Solas could use to contain the eezo. 

Solas also checked Cecelia's wrists to see if she happened to have the omnitool. She did not. Then he checked on the fetus. Surprisingly, it was doing fine. 

“What's going on, Master Solas?” Owin whispered. 

“I am not at liberty to say.” 

Bennet returned to the tent, with the Commander in tow. 

Rutherford took in everything at a glance. “Who's she?” he asked, pointing to Cecelia. 

Solas answered, “Ivans' lover.” 

Cullen made a noise at the back of his throat like he was trying not to spit. “Maker save me. All right, tell me what's going on.” 

“We should speak privately, Commander.” 

Cullen raised his eyebrows in surprise but did not take offense. Instead, he turned to Bennet and Owin and said, “If the two of you would be so kind as to wait outside, please. Don't let anybody into the tent.” 

As soon as they were gone, Solas said. “Firstly, she is pregnant. The timing coincides with her relationship with Ivans. Secondly, she suffers from the same poisoning that the Herald had when she arrived at the Chantry after the Conclave.” 

"The Herald said that poison came from her ship. Are you sure it's the same?" 

“Quite sure.” 

The Commander sighed and thought carefully for a minute. "Can you cure her?" 

Solas shrugged. “The Herald's nervous system was equipped to neutralize the poison. Hers is not.” 

“And the baby?” 

“It survives for now.” 

Rutherford folded his arms across his chest and stared at the unconscious patient. “Is it safe to revive her? I'd like to ask her some questions.” 

Solas sent a restorative spell into the young woman. She stirred and slowly opened her eyes. She blinked in confusion for a moment, then looked around the tent. She froze when she saw the Commander. 

“Cecelia, is it? I'm Commander Rutherford.” 

She gave a harsh, cynical laugh. “Yeah. I know who you are. Fuckin' traitor's what you are.” 

Cullen kept his face impassive. “I'd avoid using words like traitor, if I were you, given the situation you're in. I take it that's Ivans' baby you're carrying?” 

She dropped her head back onto the cot. “I told that little shit not to check.” 

I checked you,” Solas said. “Young Owin maintained your privacy.” 

“So? Pregnant ain't no crime.” 

Cullen said, “I'm not here because you're pregnant. I'm here because you've been poisoned.” 

She looked at Solas pleadingly, tears in her eyes, her hands reaching over her lower belly as if to protect her unborn child. "Poison?" 

"Yes," Solas answered. "You have a unique poison in your system. I have only encountered it once, when I treated the Herald after the explosion at the Conclave. The element in your body comes only from her world and nowhere else." 

Cecelia tried to hide her panic behind false bravado. “Don't believe you. You're just tryin' to scare me!”

Cullen said, “You should be scared. Your lover tried to kill the Herald. It makes me wonder if you've been part of some plan to kill her from the beginning.” 

Cecelia now looked utterly terrified. “I din't know what he was up to, I swear! He said, 'Here, hide these,' so I did! Then he died. I din't know what to do! I done told her that already. She said I could keep the clothes! Just ask her!” 

Solas bit his tongue while he waited for Cullen to put all of the pieces together. 

"Who is 'she?" Who said you could keep the clothes?" Cullen asked. 

“Sister Leliana.” 

Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose and said something under his breath that sounded a lot like “Fuck.” After he composed himself, he asked calmly, “Ivans' stole the Herald's things?” 

Cecelia nodded. 

“And Leliana knew.” Cullen stated it as a fact. 

She nodded again, more tears spilling from her eyes. “I gave her everything. She only wanted the bracelet, said I could keep the clothes, I swear!” 

Solas asked, “Have you been wearing them?” 

She nodded and sniffled. “Like long underwear. Keeps me warm.” 

“For how long?” Solas asked. 

“Until last week. I'm too fat to wear it now.” 

“That explains the poison,” Solas said to Cullen. “It's probably been leaching out of the clothing and into her.” 

“Where's the clothing?” Cullen asked. 

“My quarters, under my bed.” 

“And where are your quarters?” 

She told him. 

Cullen stormed out of the tent. Owin and Bennet walked back in, looking confused. 

Well, Solas had done all he could to set things in motion. He sincerely hoped the Commander had the fortitude to stand up to Leliana and get Helen's omnitool back. He wondered if Helen would show it to him if she were to— 

“Is the baby all right?” Cecelia's weepy voice interrupted his train of thought. 

“Your baby is fine so far,” he told her. “I am more concerned about you.” 

Solas told the medics only that Cecelia had a toxin in her system but said nothing for how she had received it. Cullen had not asked him to be discrete, but the man was hardly a master of intrigue. He doubted Cecelia would say anything, either, unless she wanted to announce her thievery. 

While he worked, tears dripped from Cecelia's eyes. “'s not fair. He said he'd take care of me and the baby. Then she murdered him.” 

“She most certainly did not,” he said coldly. “I was there. The Herald acted in self-defense after your lover tried to rape her.” 

"Don't believe you," she said, but there was no real conviction behind it. 

In the end, Solas could do little except strengthen her immune system and hope for the best. He left instructions with the medics to send for him if she worsened, then went back to his own cabin. 

** 

He received another letter from Helen the following day. 

          Dear Solas, 

          I hope this letter finds you well. 

          We are leaving for the Hinterlands tomorrow. 

          The Storm Coast has been very exciting. I met and hired the Iron Bull and his Chargers. We saw a dragon fighting a giant. We killed the giant. The dragon flew away. 

          I challenged the leader of a mercenary cult called the Blades of Hessarian. It was a few dozen people all living in a filthy compound. Not one person there came to their leader's defense. I do not feel bad about killing him—he had ordered the murder of Inquisition soldiers, so his life was forfeit—but I do regret the loss of his dogs. 

          Now, these cultists work for me. They were all Herald-of-Andraste this and Chosen-of-Andraste that. I quite hated it. "Cult leader" is never something I aspired to be. 

           Is your question about government back in the Milky Way just a sneaky way of making me write more? Because honestly, Solas, a complete answer to the political systems of every species in the entire galaxy would (and did) fill several libraries. I will be happy to discuss this in detail when I see you but writing it out would take me several lifetimes. 

          For the record, however, most species had some variation on a parliamentary system that they used for their own people. 

           At the galactic level, the Council consisted of a single representative from the four most influential space-faring species—Asari, Turian, Salarian, and Human. Four people made decisions that affected trillions. Needless to say, it bred resentment. 

           My biotics manifested at home, as I worked on a wind turbine. I was sixteen years old and feeling very resentful toward my mother, who'd demanded that I complete my chores before going out with my friends. I had climbed all the way up to the gear shaft before realizing that the tool I needed was still on the ground. I yelled in frustration, and suddenly it was there in my hand. 

           It startled me so much that I dropped it. When I tried to consciously Pull it towards me, I nearly brained myself with a socket wrench. Not very graceful at all. 

           I have a question. How do you and Vivienne step through the Fade? What are the mechanics of it, exactly? Do you focus on a far point and use the Fade to pull yourself there? Does the Fade bend the spacetime around you? 

           I asked Vivienne, but she was not inclined to tell me, saying that it was, "dangerous even for talented mages." I think I would like to try something similar with my biotics. 

           Travel safe, my friend. I will see you in the Hinterlands.

           Helen

**

           Dear Helen, 

           This is the third time you have failed to inform me about your hand. I am beginning to think that you are doing it deliberately to hide your symptoms from me. I sincerely hope this is not the case, for if it is, it is exceedingly dangerous and I 

 

A knock on the door interrupted Solas' written rant to the Herald. He answered it. Commander Rutherford, who looked exhausted, stood outside his door. “Do you have a moment?” 

Solas stepped aside and allowed Cullen inside. As soon as he closed the door, Cullen said, “Can you silence the room, please?” 

Solas raised a silencing spell. “All right, Commander, we have privacy.” 

“When are you leaving to meet the Herald?” 

“In four days.” 

“Could you leave now?” 

“If necessary.” 

Cullen fished into his pocket and handed Solas a thin, rigid bracelet. “It was as Ivans' lover said. Leliana has had it from almost the beginning. She sent it to an arcanist for testing and...well, that's not important right now. What is important is that Dagna sent it back weeks ago. Leliana had been holding onto it in case she needed leverage over the Herald. 

“Josephine and I have been arguing with her almost non-stop since last night. Leliana has finally agreed to let you take it to the Hinterlands to give it to the Herald. But Maker save me, I just know that if you wait another four days before leaving, that bracelet will 'go missing' once again.” 

Perhaps Rutherford was more perceptive than Solas thought. "I expect you are right, Commander," Solas said. "Are there any messages I should convey to the Herald?" 

“Yes. Tell her that I hope she hears her parents' voices again.” 

“I will,” Solas said. The Commander nodded once, then left. 

Minutes later, Solas quietly rode out of Haven, the omnitool safely tucked into the leather thong that held the wolf's jawbone that hung around his neck.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter twenty-six

The last several days on the road had been both exhausting and revealing - exhausting because Helen's left hand ached so deeply that it routinely woke her up; revealing because watching Sera, Vivienne and Bull interact was better than any soap opera vid.

Sera and Vivienne still despised each other. There was at least one super bitchy exchange a day. At best, Sera could bring the mage to a draw, like,

          “They'll never really like you, Vivvy.”

          “Sera, dear, whatever has your scattered mind conjured now?”

          “Those nobs in Orlais. They barely like their own kin. And you're a mage.”

          “Your failing—among many—is that you presume I desire approval. Power does not require that I be 'liked.'"

          “Well. Halfway there, then.”

Usually, the round ended with Sera blowing raspberries or tossing off a vulgar insult that only highlighted her inability to crack Vivienne's icy control.

Vivienne's manners were both shield and weapon. Every silky, polished insult was wrapped up in “darlings” and “my dears.”

Sera quite liked Bull, though. They egged each other on and bonded over stories of the hot babes they'd bedded. Sera couldn't hold her liquor at all but that didn't stop her from trying to keep up with Bull.

Bull, for his part, had a barely-contained energy about him that reminded Helen so much of a Krogan that she kept expecting him to refer to his “quads.”

His few attempts at flirting with Vivienne had been painful to witness. Vivienne shot him down hard. Now he followed her around like a puppy and called her, "Ma'am." For all of his issues with magic, he had nothing but respect Vivienne. He even took her word over Helen's that Helen's biotics were not magic.

Bull did not welcome Helen's questions about the Qunari, but she asked them anyway. Their religion—if it was that, Helen wasn't clear on who they worshiped—sounded more like a stringent social order. 

Technology was a much safer topic for Helen to ask questions about. The Qunari were more technologically advanced than most of the other races on Thedas, except for perhaps the dwarves. And unlike the dwarves, the Qunari built ships. 

“Do the Qunari have a Navy?” she asked Bull one day. 

“No. We have an Army that uses ships.” 

“I see. What sorts of ships does your Army use?” 

“Why do you want to know?” 

“Are you joking? Bull, I am a former naval officer. I love ships.” 

“Yeah?” His eye glanced at her with interest. “What was your favorite ship?” 

“That I've ever seen or that I've ever served on?” 

“That you've ever seen.”

“The Destiny Ascension. It was the largest dreadnought in the Asari fleet. It was massive.” 

“Wait till you see one of the Qunari dreadnoughts. Those babies can blow through fortress walls!” 

Helen did not have the heart to tell him that the Destiny Ascension was so large that it had a crew of 10,000 and had as much firepower as the rest of the Asari fleet combined. Still, she had to ask. "Bull, in all of your travels, have you ever heard of anybody leaving the planet?"

He'd stared at her in disbelief, then looked to Vivienne. The mage issued a long-suffering sigh. "Just answer the question, darling. Trust me; it's not the strangest one she's asked."

Bull had turned back to Helen, his gaze hard. “No.” She just nodded and let the subject drop.

Helen missed Solas more than she wanted to admit. Whatever hangs up he had about race, he was still the only person she had met on Thedas that did not treat her curiosity as a character defect. She was grateful to see him already at the forward camp when they arrived in the Hinterlands.

Helen introduced Solas to the Iron Bull. The two men sized each other up suspiciously. “So. You're the creepy fade mage.”

“And you are the hulking Qunari spy.”

A dick measuring contest? Already? Yay me.

Helen sighed and turned away. She was too tired to make anybody play nice, and there was still too much work to do. Vivienne headed back to Haven with a handful of scouts and Helen saw them all off safely.

Then she talked to the requisitions officer. Helen was running low on travel rations and had expected to resupply here, but the provisions of nuts and dried fruit had gone missing. Helen wasn't particularly upset about the theft itself. Security was hardly an exact science on Thedas, and these sorts of things were going to happen. But she really couldn't afford to lose any more weight. A scout was sent into the Crossroads to find any honey or dried fruit for sale.

She checked reports. She sent an update to the advisors. She mediated a minor dispute among the soldiers. 

After the scout returned from the crossroads with a small amount of honey and nothing else, Helen liberated several cups of oats from the horses' feed bag to use for trail mix. She was going to make it herself but the camp cook, an ancient surface dwarf with zero charm, told her, “I'll flay you alive iffen you come near my cook-fire and don't think I won't.” He took her ingredients from her and shooed her away.

Helen ate her supper (mutton stew) standing up as she listened to yet another report—this time of the new and growing bandit threat in the area.

Finally, just after sundown, she was done. Every report had been read; every question had been answered. She was exhausted. All she wanted to do was wash her face, brush her teeth and go to sleep.

Then Solas walked up to her and said, “Something came up in Haven while you were away. Commander Rutherford asked that I bring it to your attention. We should speak privately.”

Helen looked longingly at the tent where her bedroll awaited her. “Now?”

“It is a matter of some urgency.”

Helen nodded and followed Solas. She expected he would stop not far from camp and tell her whatever it was that needed telling. Instead, he led her down the hill until they reached a little, round shack. He opened the door and held it open for her.

Helen crossed her arms over her chest. “There a difference between speaking privately and complete privacy. What is going on, Solas?”

"I apologize for the secrecy, but this is an issue that we should discuss away from prying eyes as well as ears."

Helen frowned but stepped inside. Solas closed the door behind them and waved his hand. Several candles lit up.

He gestured to a small bench against the wall. They sat down, and he took her left hand into both of his without bothering to ask. 

“I learned more about how much the mark has been paining you from the Qunari I just met than I have from the woman who has borne it for months and whom I call friend.” 

She looked at his face while he looked into her hand. He looked angry, almost. 

“I did not speak of it to the Iron Bull or anyone else, Solas.” 

“He is a spy. He observed you hiding it.” Good lord, he's in a tetchy mood tonight

“Solas, has it occurred to you that the pain will never go away? That perhaps this is just something I must learn to live with?” 

The anger faded from his expression. “Yes,” he said quietly. Still not looking at her, he released a healing spell into her hand that nearly made her moan out loud in relief. 

While he worked on her hand, Helen looked around the cabin. It had been abandoned for some time. Ferns and grass grew through what was left of the rotting floorboards but the furniture was free of dust, and the hearth had been lately used. 

“Somebody has been staying here recently,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed, now looking mildly amused. “Me. I arrived here a few days ago. My presence makes your scouts uncomfortable, so I decided to gift them with my absence.” He released her hand. Then he turned sideways on the bench, keeping one foot on the ground and the other tucked under his knee. “But I did not bring you here to scold you about your hand.” 

She turned to face him, mimicking his posture, and waited. 

"While you were in the Storm Coast, one of your medics requested my help with an unusual case they had in the infirmary. They received a young woman who complained of nausea and fatigue. As she was known to have recently had a Templar lover, pregnancy was the most likely cause of her symptoms, but she would not allow them to check. 

"However, when her hair began to fall out, they asked me for help. I examined her and discovered that not only was she with child, but she had also been poisoned. Specifically, she had eezo poisoning." 

Helen's eyebrows raised. “And?” 

“And I sent for Commander Rutherford. He questioned the young woman, who revealed that she was, in fact, Ivans' lover. He had stolen your belongings from the Chantry and asked her to hide them. Leliana discovered this within a week.” 

Helen sat up a little straighter. “Wait. Within a week of my arrest?” 

“Yes. The young woman was allowed to keep your clothing and wore it until quite recently.” 

Which was why stupid Ivans' stupid girlfriend had eezo poisoning, but all Helen cared about was, 

Where's my omnitool?” 

"Leliana kept it. She sent it away for testing, but it was returned to her quite some time ago." 

Helen's heart started to race. 

"I do not know all the particulars, but Commander Rutherford was able to retrieve it from her." Solas fiddled with the jawbone he always wore around his neck. "He sends it with the message, 'I hope you hear your parent's voices again.'" 

And there, in Solas' elegant hands, lay her Savant BIO (Biotic Initiative Omnitool), made specifically and exclusively for the biotics of the Andromeda Initiative. 

Helen gasped. Her hands shook so badly, she was afraid to drop it as she slowly removed it from Solas' palm. 

Please still work please still work please still work...she breathed the words over and over like a prayer. 

She slipped it over her right wrist. The omnitool chirped once as it recognized the sub-dermal nanosensors and read her DNA. Small dots of orange light blinked in a running pattern as it booted up. 

The haptic interface bloomed into existence, bathing herself and Solas in its orange glow. “Greetings,” said the VI's voice. Helen's heart throbbed at hearing her own tongue, no matter how impersonal or mechanical. 

Her eyes were so glazed over with tears that the interface was a blur, but still, her left hand tapped out the file location unerringly, the muscle memory a part of her. 

She scrolled past the vids of a dozen crews, of office parties in Vancouver, of goofing off in basic training. She ticked past them all until she found the one she needed to hear most. 

The recording came to life in full color above Helen's right hand. The camera was pointed at her father, his dark gray eyes and dark brown beard smiling. Helen realized with a shock that she was older now than either of her parents had been when the vid was recorded. 

          “In today's episode of 'The Adventures of Raising Helen,' we face a new problem: how did the 8-year-old get stuck in the tree?” He turned the camera around and focused it at the foot of a sweet gum maple. Dozens of wind turbines twirled lazily in the background. 

          Mom stood at the bottom of the tree. A little girl could be seen near the top branches, at least four stories off the ground. 

          Daddy joined her “Your fault,” Mom said, wryly. “You taught her how to climb.” 

          “Sweetheart,” Daddy said, clearly amused, “what are you doing?” 

          “Oh,” 8-year-old Helen was trying to sound casual, “just looking around.” 

          “And how's the view?” Daddy asked. 

          “It's good. There's a frisbee on the roof.” 

          “Do you want to come down now?” Daddy asked.

          “Yes.”

          “Do you want to do it by yourself or do you want me to come help?”

           Helen seemed to give it some thought. “I might need some help.”

           Daddy swiftly climbed the tree. Moments later, he was in the swaying green branches looking at a little girl wearing denim cut-offs and a faded t-shirt that said “Arcturus Station, Future Resident.”

           Helen did not look the least bit scared. If anything, she looked terribly pleased with herself. 

          “Hi, Daddy.” 

          “Hello, Helenmelon.” 

          “There's the frisbee,” she grinned, pointing to the red disc on the roof. 

          “There's the frisbee,” Daddy agreed. There was a pause. You could hear the moment he cottoned on. He let out an exasperated breath. “Oh my god, you didn't.” And when Helen threw her head back and laughed, you could see every single tooth she'd lost. 

          “Helen Trevelyan!” Daddy was doing a poor job of sounding angry. 

          “I just made you climb a tree!” 

          “I can't believe I fell for that!” he groaned. “How long have you been able to get up and down without help?” 

          “A week,” Helen giggled. 

          “She tricked me!” Daddy yelled down to Mom. 

          “Shocker!” Mom yelled back. A minute later, she was there, too. She let go of a branch just long enough to fist bump her daughter. “That's my girl! Outwitting the men.” 

          The camera turned back to Daddy. "Outwitted? Outnumbered is more like it." But the love and joy in his eyes shone clearly. Then he turned the camera back around, so his wife and daughter were in the foreground, looking over their farm. 

          They stood there for a moment. It had been a beautiful summer day. Daddy leaned over and kissed first Helen's head and then Mom's head. 

          “Love you guys,” he said.

          “Love you, too, Daddy.”

Helen, her face streaming tears, tapped her omnitool again. The interface vanished. 

She clapped both hands over her face to keep all of the screaming inside. That life, that beautiful life, with loving parents and honestwork—Helen had wanted that for herself so badly. She could never get her parents back, but she could go to Andromeda and honor them by building a new home. She could have shown her own children that vid someday and told them stories about their grandparents. Would her children have had her father's eyes or her mother's freckles, as Helen did? 

She would never know. That path was forever closed to her now. 

A sob escaped her. She couldn't help it. Solas tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder. Another sob, and then a third. 

“I don't belong here,” she whispered. Solas slid his arm around her and gently pulled her into an embrace. 

The dam broke. Helen wept and wept, mourning the loss of her family, both past, and future. 

Solas rocked her like a child, murmuring words of comfort in Common and Elvish. She lost all sense of time as some of the pain she had been hoarding for so long emptied out.

When she finally calmed, Helen realized that Solas was cradling her against his chest. She was too wrung out to be embarrassed, but it occurred to her that Solas might feel differently.

“Solas. I am so sorry,” she said, as she started to sit up.

“There is no need to apologize,” he said. He did not stop her from sitting upright but neither did he seem interested in pushing her away. Helen rested her head against his shoulder. They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes.

“You favor your mother,” he said quietly.

“Thank you.” Thinking again about what her own children might have looked like brought fresh tears to her eyes, although she was much calmer this time.

“I can never have children,” she whispered. It felt like a confession. “Everyone who joined the Initiative agreed to a reversible form of sterility. We wanted to make certain our habitats were sustainable first, that we could feed everybody before we started families.

"But I do not know how to reverse the sterility. The people that did know died thousands of years ago."

Solas wrapped his arm around her shoulder again and pulled her close. “Ir abelas, my friend.” 

Tel abelas. It certainly isn't your fault. And it hardly matters now. Even if I do survive the Breach...”

Helen sat up fully, tapped the omnitool and scanned her left hand. The scanner hummed. Solas said nothing but his attention shifted, became more focused. 

Chapter 26 render

Finally, the scanner beeped. The results flashed in front of her. “UNKNOWN PLASMA.”

“That makes no sense at all,” she said.

“What makes no sense?” Solas asked.

“The scanner is telling me the mark is an unknown plasma, but plasma would have burned my hand away in seconds.”

Solas said nothing as she asked the VI in English, “What's today's date?”

“11 July, 12,469 Galactic Standard.”

Four months. Helen checked the security files since she'd landed on Thedas. There were several, beginning with one that was over six hours long on the day she'd arrived. The others lasted anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. In all, she had over ten hours of security feed she needed to go through, preferably in private.

And then there was the matter of trying to find out what had happened to the Initiative. It must have succeeded on some level, or Thedas wouldn't exist in its current state.

But for the moment, Helen had more important priorities than the details of the Initiative's early days. 

“Run full medical scan, please.”

“Acknowledged.”

“And engage combat protocols.”

“Acknowledged.”

The omnitool magnetized itself to the nanosensors and eezo nodules under her skin, making it much harder for the omnitool to be taken from her or knocked off.

It also routed the VI's vocal articulations through Helen's UT, keeping her communications with the VI private.

Helen tapped it back off.

“Fascinating. What did you just do?” Solas asked.

"It's running a medical scan. I engaged combat protocols to make it much harder for anybody to remove the omnitool without my consent. And I asked what the date was." Helen shook her head. "I have been here four months, and my life has been pulled so far out of shape I hardly recognize it."

Solas shifted back a bit and turned his head to look at her. "Not so very far," he said. "I saw you in camp today. You gathered new intelligence, made decisions, coordinated your personnel. You have long practice with command, and it shows. Nothing you did today appeared unfamiliar to you at all."

Helen gave a small smile. “The ability to sift through military bureaucracy hardly qualifies as leadership. But I take your point. And thank you for saying so.”

“How will you explain the omnitool to the others?” 

“No idea. Trial and error, I expect.”

After a moment, she stood up and said, “We should head back before they send out a search party.”

“Agreed.” He stood up as well.

They looked at each other for a moment. Something had again shifted between them. Solas looked older somehow, as if the mask he was used to wearing all the time no longer fit very well. 

Chapter 26 Helen and Solas after omnitool

“Thank you for bringing me here, for allowing me this privacy,” she said quietly. “It means a great deal to me.”

Sathem lasa halani, Helen. It was the least I could do. Solas waved the candles out and opened the door. The walked side by side as they headed back to camp. 

Helen went to bed exhausted and heartsick. 

She woke up furious

          Advisors, 

          Solas has returned my omnitool to me. 

          Had I been informed immediately that my belongings had been located, a young woman would not be suffering from radiation poisoning. Nor would her unborn child be at such risk. In utero exposure to element zero is exceedingly dangerous. Biotic abilities such as mine are rare. Stillbirths, brain tumors, cancers and other congenital disabilities are far more common. 

          Once I can examine the young woman, I will be able to tell you more about her condition and the condition of her unborn child. Until then, please tell the Medical Corps that the mother should remain in quarantine for at least a week. She needs to drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids and should bathe at least once a day. Her urine, fecal matter, and wastewater need to be disposed of away from the rest of the population, and in a manner that will not contaminate the local water supply. 

          Likewise, my clothing should be buried far away from any water source. Do not, under any circumstances, burn the clothing. 

          Let the spymaster know that she and I will need to speak privately as soon as I arrive back in Haven. 

Then she made a point of signing her name and all of her titles in English. She rolled up the scroll, attached it to a raven and sent it away. Then she took a fresh scroll and wrote, 

          Commander, 

          It was good to hear their voices again. No matter how angry I am at your spymaster, please know that I bear you no ill-will whatsoever. Whatever happens, you have my deepest gratitude.

          I am in your debt,

          H. Trevelyan

That one was sent on its way as well. Then she wrote the only one that hurt. 

         Dear Josie,

         Did you know?

She didn't want to think Josie would have hidden something so important, but the fact was, Helen had spent hardly any time in Haven, and didn't know any of her advisors very well at all. Josephine had known Leliana for years. Why wouldn't she be more loyal to her than to Helen?

Didn't change the fact that it hurt. Helen adored Josie and considered her to be one of the only true friends she'd made on Thedas.

As Helen and the ground team packed up and prepared to leave, the VI privately read Helen the results of her medical scan.

 

It was worse than she had known. She had lost 11% of her body mass. Her bone density was down by 8%. Gum disease had set in. She needed better nutrition and a better way to clean her teeth, and soon.

Some of the tissues in her left hand were undergoing changes at the cellular level. It did not surprise her, but it was still damned inconvenient knowledge. Even if she survived the Breach, the mark would eventually lead to cancer, or gangrene, or god only knew what else.

The VI finished its private intonation of her doom by suggesting she check in with the nearest Alliance medical facility. "This fucking planet," she muttered, in English, as she fastened the cinch on her horse's saddle.

 She must have been louder than she intended. Solas, who was saddling up his beautiful Forder, looked over at her. “Is something wrong, Herald?” he asked.

Helen did not want to share her anger with the others, but she also did not want to pretend around Solas. "Vin,” she said. “Ar ema ir nin. Yes. I am very angry

He said nothing as Sera and Bull ambled over to put their gear on their own mounts. Helen walked her horse to the edge of camp to wait for the others. Solas joined her a moment later. "Tell me what angers you this morning," he said quietly.

She told him how she woke up furious with Leliana, as well as the results of her medical scan.

Solas frowned and got all pedantic again. “Helen, there is no reason for you to become malnourished. You should have spoken up before now. It is no burden on your ground team if we need to hunt a little more game or gather a few more resources like berries and apples.”

At the word, "apples," Mor'Lanun rested its head on Solas' shoulder. Solas absentmindedly reached up and stroked the horse's nose and scratched behind its ears. He murmured to it in his native tongue. "Yes, yes, you poor little thing. You have such a hateful disposition. If you do not immediately become more affectionate towards me, I will have no choice but to give you more sugar.

Helen laughed.

Solas looked over at her, confusion on his face. “I am sorry, Solas, but I cannot help it. Look at him! You have spoiled your horse rotten.”

Solas' expression turned haughty. “You shall not mock my horse in my presence, Herald. He is neither spoiled nor rotten, and he was a gift from a dear friend,” he said, as Mor'Lanun drooled onto his armor.

Helen's smile went wide. “How thoughtless of me. My sincerest apologies, Ser Mor'Lanun.”

Sera and Bull walked up with their mounts. “Where to, Boss?” 

Helen looked at Solas. “You know where this Elvhen artifact is?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Then lead the way.”

Helen, her anger forgotten for the moment, mounted her own horse and headed out into the countryside with the rest of her team.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter twenty-seven 

Solas had been more than happy to take Helen's omnitool to the Hinterlands. Haven was an oppressive, boring little town. Traveling alone allowed him to drop his mask for several days.

He took the opportunity to examine the omnitool. He had never seen the metal before. He did not recognize the maker's mark, nor the language used. He scanned it with his magic. He found two tiny nodules of element zero embedded at each end of the bracelet, and even that was only because already knew how to recognize eezo.

Discerning nothing else, Solas turned to the other problem with the omnitool—whether to give it to Helen in front of the others or to pull her aside and deliver it in private.

Giving it to her in front of the others was risky. Solas had strong opinions about allowing a Ben-Hassrath to even know it existed. He also did not think Helen would want the others to see her reaction to getting it back.

For she would react to it. He had seen her reach for it every day. He knew, better than anybody else, how she struggled to keep her composure in front of others. The return of something so important would shatter that control. Privacy was almost certainly what Helen would prefer. 

Privacy was what Solas preferred, too. That was the problem.

**

He should not have been so happy to see her again.

She arrived with Sera, Vivienne, and one of the oddest Qunari that Solas had ever seen. Had he not already known the Iron Bull was Ben-Hassrath, he would have mistaken him for Tal-Vashoth. Bull carried a thick layer of suet around his middle that indicated a fondness for drink and rich foods. His relaxed manner made him appear open and friendly.

Solas did not trust him for one moment. 

Helen looked exhausted but her smile, when she saw him, was genuine. He allowed himself a small smile back.

She introduced him to the Iron Bull.

“So, you're the creepy fade mage.”

“And you are the hulking Qunari spy.”

Helen's smile vanished. She made a small noise of disgust and walked away to focus on her duties.

Solas regretted his tone. Whatever issues he had with the Qunari, he had not intended to make Helen's job any harder than it already was.

“You know about her hand, right?”

Solas, who had watched Helen walk away, turned a cold gaze onto Bull and raised his eyebrows. He said nothing, lest he snap in frustration that yes, you mindless fool, I know about the Herald's hand! 

"She's good about not letting it show, but she's in a lot of pain." 

“I suspected as much when she failed to answer my questions about it. Does the First Enchanter lack even basic healing skills?” He said it loud enough that Vivienne would overhear him. 

The First Enchanter stopped talking to an Inquisition Scout long enough to look Solas up and down with distaste. “My skills are no concern of yours, apostate.” 

“As I appear to be the only mage capable of assisting the Herald with the mark, perhaps you are correct.” 

Vivienne's eyes narrowed and glittered. “The Herald asked for my assistance outside of combat exactly once—for a headache caused by one of those horrid skulls. Had she requested help for any other injury, I would have rendered whatever aid I am capable of giving. As she asked for nothing, I let the matter lie, something you would do well to consider.” 

“And is that your role? To do only what is asked and nothing more? I suppose I should not have expected anything else from a Circle mage.” 

Vivienne gave him a smile of false indulgence. "Is that what you imagine my motives are? To save myself the bother? Solas, darling, whatever else she is, the Herald is a grown woman who knows her own mind. I am not her mother, and she is no child. I will not treat her like one." 

Then she turned her back to him. 

Solas let the matter drop. Vivienne was correct. Helen was not a child. 

But it was hard to remember that a few hours later when she fell to pieces in his arms. 

He had not been overly surprised by the omnitool's capabilities, given the advanced state of technology he had glimpsed from the Herald's dream. Yet even without the emotional resonance of the Fade, even without understanding the language, the clarity of her father's memory was both astounding and heartbreaking. Helen had been a precious child. 

He had allowed himself a small kindness—just a hand on her shoulder, as any friend would do. It was appropriate and safe. 

Then she'd whispered, "I don't belong here," and he gave up any concerns about propriety. Solas might be a man out of time, but Thedas was his home. Helen was a stranger and an orphan with no touchstones left to her. He was her friend. He could comfort her in this. 

chapter 27 render

For a space of time, he did not worry about the orb or the Breach. He told her that he had her, that she was safe here, ir abelas, falon. Ir abelas. By the time she calmed down, he was cradling her, her face buried in his chest and their arms around each other. She became aware of herself and sat up, apparently worried about his disapproval.

He did not disapprove but let her set the boundaries for where she was comfortable. She told him about her inability to have children.

Then she did something he never expected. She used the omnitool to scan the Anchor.

Solas could say with absolute certainty what anybody on Thedas might see when they examined the mark. He understood what it looked like both mages and non-mages, to mortals and Elvhen. He could not say what Helen would find, with her outsider's perspective and a set of tools he could have never anticipated.

Fen'Harel was intensely interested in the results of her scan. Would it reveal something he could use? Would it reveal something she could use against him? Either way, it was yet another reminder to him how profoundly dangerous and critical Helen was to his plans.

But the expected thrill of danger in getting caught and the pleasure he had always taken in using his wits to keep discovery at bay did not materialize. He only felt tremendously old and tremendously sad. She was just one more good person the Dread Wolf would eventually chew to bits. 

Solas realized that some part of his facade had fractured open. He did not think he would be able to close it again.

**

The following morning, as they worked their way through the Crossroads of the Hinterlands towards an Elvhen artifact, Bull tried to talk Sera into letting him throw her across the field of battle during combat.

Sera—immature, reckless, obnoxious Sera—said no. Solas was pleasantly surprised by this uncharacteristic burst of wisdom from the elf. Stupidity seemed to be her strong suit.

Then Helen, with far too much enthusiasm, said: "I'll do it."

“Herald!” Solas snapped, appalled and angry.

She did not hear him over the exuberance of Bull's response and Sera's encouragement. Helen insisted to Bull that they practice it outside of combat first.

“Oh, of course. Practice. How wise of you,” Solas said.

"The practice is for Bull's benefit, not mine. He will need to learn to compensate for the force of a biotic push. Otherwise, he will lose his balance just as we enter combat." 

“As if that makes the whole idea less unreasonable!”

He stayed in an ill temper until an Inquisition scout warned them about some unusually well-armed bandits in the area. They were soon fighting again. Whatever else he could say about the Iron Bull or Sera - and he could say plenty - they were extremely skilled.

They approached the entrance of the ruin and found a Dalish mage with June's ugly markings battling a rage demon. They killed the demon before they'd even dismounted. After tying the horses under a copse of trees, they introduced themselves to her.

The Dalish mage was none other than Mihris, First Fool and sole survivor of the ironically named Clan Virnehn. Given the part she had played in keeping control of the eluvian network away from Solas, part of him wanted to strike her down where she stood. How different would things be now if he had the eluvians back? Would he have been able to find a better solution than Corypheus?

Felassan would still be alive, at the very least.

Solas gripped his staff and kept his face impassive. Still, when Mihris lied to Helen about why she was in the Hinterlands, he could not stay completely silent.

“You lie, child,” he said in Elvish. She changed the subject.

Rubble blocked the entrance to the ruin. Mihris called him, "flat-ear," and all but dared him to use his magic to move it. 

Helen's eyes narrowed at the Dalish mage, but Solas was glad to hear it. It meant that Mihris had no idea who he was. He resolved only to speak Elvish when addressing her directly. Let her wonder about the "flat-ear" who knew more of the People's tongue than a Dalish first.

Just to make a point, he not only removed the rubble, but he also returned the stones to their original places in the wall. 

Demons attacked them as soon as they entered the tomb. Helen's barrier protected all five of them. Mihris' eyes widened at Helen's biotics.

Once the demons had been dispatched, Mihris said stalked over to Helen and demanded, “How did you make that barrier?”

Helen showed Mihris her little biotic bubble. “What kind of shem magic is that?” Mihris asked, her voice suddenly full of venom.

“It is not magic at all, shem or otherwise,” Helen said. She lowered her arm and joined Bull and Sera, who were already poking around the chests along the back wall. She did not look back to see whether Mihris accepted her answer or not.

Solas heard a whisper from the brazier by the archway. He looked at it, puzzled for a moment, then...ah. Yes. He had heard of this Veilfire. It was remarkable how the modern elves had adapted to the Veil and used it for new purposes that he could never have foreseen.

He lit the brazier, explained what it was, and ignored Sera's complaints. They descended into the tomb, fighting several more demons that tried to block their passage.

There, finally, was one of the thousands of devices he had used to create the Veil.

Solas beckoned the Herald to his side. “Any mage can activate this by touching it with a bit of the Fade,” he explained. “I am curious as to whether you can do the same using the mark.”

Helen raised her left hand towards the artifact. It sparked to life, and within seconds, its shielding wards swirled their prismatic reflections around it. He felt the Veil around them thicken and smooth. 

"Well done," he said, but his eyes were on the artifact. His greatest achievement and his greatest failure, symbolized in a bit of discarded metal. How many centuries did it sit in this tomb, used as the focal point for the dead, instead of shielding the living?

 

Chapter 27 Solas elvhen artifact

 

"It is quite beautiful, isn't it?" Helen said. She studied it with interest, a small smile on her face. She started to reach for her right wrist, but Solas stopped her. He glanced at Mihris, who was digging around in an urn, then back at Helen. Helen nodded her understanding.

Mihris stood up, holding something in her hand that called to Solas. It was an ancient, enchanted pendant, containing a minuscule amount of pre-Veil magic. Such items had been as common as dirt in Arlathan. The Elvhen would wear them to give a minor boost to their focus, nothing more. Even as a slave, Solas had used and discarded hundreds of such items with no thought at all.

Now, it was a small bit of precious power that he desperately needed.

Mihris bragged about the good fortune of her find. Announcing that their alliance had concluded, she began to leave.

Solas loomed over Mihris, blocking her path. “You asked us for help. You are now in our debt,” he said in Elvish, as he held his hand out.

Mihris looked up at him, as she took in his height, the width of his shoulders, and his hard, violet eyes.

Felassan warned you that you would not want to meet his clan, did he not? He could smell her fear, which was fine with him.

“I...perhaps you are right,” she said, handing him the amulet. “Go with Mythal's blessing.”

“May your path be victorious,” he said dismissively, again in Elvish, in as he closed his fingers around the pendant.

Mihris fled.

“Daft bitch,” Sera said.

Solas privately agreed. He slipped the pendant over his head and tucked it under his tunic, next to his skin. It recognized him immediately as Elvhen and released its power into him. It wasn't much—just a drop in the ocean he would need—but it was more than he'd had when he awoke this morning. 

Helen stood by the artifact, looking at it carefully. "Everybody, I need to speak to you all, please."

Solas sighed. It was obvious that Helen was about to disclose the existence of the omnitool to Bull and Sera.

Personally, he thought it a mistake to allow anybody to see it, especially a Ben-Hassrath spy. It would make her even more of a target than she already was.

Once all three of them gathered around her, Helen said, "Bull, Sera, I must show you something, but before I can, I need your oaths that you will not discuss it with anybody outside of the ground team, at least not yet."

Sera shrugged. “Yeah, all right. I can keep a secret.”

Helen nodded, and looked at Bull. "Bull, it is important that my own advisors see this before the Qunari learn of it. Once I return to Haven and meet with them, you can tell your people anything you like. But until then, I need your word that this goes no further." 

“You got it, Boss,” Bull said easily. Solas rolled his eyes. The word of a Ben-Hassrath spy was worthless. 

Helen, however, had more to say. “I am not asking for your word as a Qunari. I am asking for your word as a Charger. If you cannot give me an oath of temporary silence, that is fine. I will not hold it against you. However, I will need you to wait outside, please.” 

Clever girl, appealing to his professional pride like that. A man like Bull would want to be in the know, but if word got out that Bull had broken a term of a contract, business would dry up. 

Bull looked at Helen, no doubt calculating his risks. Finally, he held out a giant hand. “All right, Boss, you have my word.” 

Helen grasped him by the wrist and forearm and shook. Then she started talking.

"Something important was stolen from me not long after my arrest, but it was recently recovered. Solas kindly returned it to me last night." She raised her right arm up and activated her omnitool. 

Sera and Bull startled when it turned on. Sera giggled nervously. Bull's eyes went from the omnitool to the Elvhen artifact, then back to the omnitool. "Is it magic?" he asked. 

Helen shook her head. “No. It is technology. We call it an omnitool.” 

“What's it do?” 

"Mostly, it interfaced with other technology, none of which is on Thedas. Its practical use is going to be relatively limited here. But I wanted you to see a few of the things that it does do, so you know what to expect. For example...” 

She tapped on it again and vanished from sight. 

“That is the tactical cloak you mentioned before,” Solas stated. 

“Yes,” she said, reappearing. 

Sera laughed. “Nice! That's better than any of my powders. Can you make one for me?” 

Helen shook her head. “No, unfortunately.” 

Bull looked troubled. “Is that...can you use it as a weapon?” 

"Yes, although my best weapon is my biotics. The omnitool has a blade function similar to a dagger. It has other offensive capabilities as well, but I am not very good at them, so I don't use them. Mostly, it scans and stores information." She turned around and scanned the artifact, much like she had the mark the night before. 

The omnitool chirped and beeped. “What did it tell you?” Solas asked. 

Helen tapped. An image of the artifact that she'd just scanned popped into view over her wrist. “'Composite metal, unknown. Radiation source, unknown.' Anything I scan—plants, animals, anything—the omnitool will catalog them for me.” 

“Pfffft, boring,” Sera said. “We've done that already, yeah? They're called books.” 

"Knowledge for its own sake is never a waste of time. And this will let me compare it to what we had back in the Milky Way." 

She tapped her wrist again. The interface vanished. 

“Is that all it does?” Bull asked. 

"It holds many of my memories and information from my own world. I would...rather not go through it all piece by piece. Once we are back in Haven and I speak with the advisors, I can show everything to everybody all at once.” 

Sera was losing interest and had started glancing around the tomb with an eye for looting. 

Bull, however, had crossed his arms across his chest and studied her. “I want to see that dreadnought you told me about.” 

“The Destiny Ascension?” Helen had a little smile on her face. “Yeah, all right.” 

She pulled the orange interface back up and spoke into it. After a moment, the ship popped up over her omnitool. It rotated slowly, showing it to be in the shape of a sleek, upside down cross. 

Sera left to pick locks on the chests. 

“That is an...odd shape for a ship,” Solas said.

“It was not designed for water. It was designed for outer space. The crew alone numbered 10,000.”

She tapped on her omnitool. The size of the projection grew until it almost touched the ceiling. “Do you see all of those lines of lights?” Bull, who had gone speechless, nodded. “Those were all separate floors. The Ascension was almost 500 stories tall.” 

 

Chapter 27 Destiny Ascension

 

“Remarkable,” Solas said. “How long did it take your people to build this?” 

“My people didn't build it; the Asari did. Construction lasted a little more than ten years.” 

She said it like that was such a long time. Ten years to build a floating fortress which could hold an entire city? That was not a long time. That was barely a heartbeat. 

His earlier conflict with Mihris suddenly seemed petty and beneath him. Solas felt a pang of shame for how he had treated the Dalish woman. Whatever sins she had committed, his were far worse. 

Helen let the image of the Destiny Ascension float in the air for a moment longer before asking, “Bull? Are we good?” 

Bull had been staring at it with his mouth open, his arms hanging slack by his sides. “Yeah. We're good.” His voice was subdued. 

Helen tapped the omnitool off. Bull looked like he'd been walloped on the head. 

After a moment, Helen said, “Your word, Bull.” 

Bull closed his eyes and shuddered. “Shit. If I told my people about that, they'd recall me and put me into re-education. I'll wait until everybody knows and everybody sees, so they don't think I've lost my fucking mind." 

They spent a bit more time helping Sera look for anything useful. Solas re-lit the Veilfire torch and found a recipe for a fire rune on the wall. He showed it to Helen. She scanned it with the omnitool, both with and without the Veilfire. 

Finally, the Herald said she needed a bit of time alone to look through “personal information.” She asked for them to please wait for her outside. 

Solas did not like the idea of leaving her alone, but he was hardly in any position to complain about the need for solitude. 

As they were leaving, Bull asked, "So that's why you took off with her last night? To return that thing?" 

“Not that it is any business of yours, but yes. That is exactly why we left.” 

“I thought maybe you were just, you know,” he waggled his eyebrows suggestively, “really glad to see her.” 

“The Herald is my friend, Bull, nothing more. I am always happy to see my friends.” He kept his voice neutral. 

Come on, Solas, you know what I mean.” 

“Oh, he knows what you mean, all right” Sera said. “He's just too elfy to do anything except be boring. The elf always takes the elf so that banging bits will mean something.” 

“This is hardly an appropriate topic for discussion.” They stepped outside. Solas wondered if it was too much to hope that Helen could not overhear any of this. 

“Sex is always an appropriate topic for discussion,” Bull said. “What do you mean by 'mean something,' Sera? Like, marriage? Commitment?” 

Sera said, “Oh, you know, like,” she started thrusting her pelvis in a manner so vulgar it made Solas wince. “Drop 'em and rebuild the empire!” she shouted. Then she roared loud enough that his eardrums hurt. 

Solas closed his eyes and took a deep breath. 

“See?” Sera said to Bull. “Nothing. Like I said. Elfy and boring.” 

“Hey, man. No judgment here. You like what you like.” 

“Thank you, Bull,” Solas said, exhaling. He opened his eyes and moved into the shade of the ruined portico. 

“Besides, if you aren't interested, that means the door's open for me.” 

“And me. Although, I dunno, she's kind of plain, yeah? Looks better with hair, though.” 

The two of them walked over to where their horses were waiting. Solas stayed near the entrance and leaned against a wall. It was shady and cool. It was away from Sera. And he wanted to make certain that Helen was all right when she rejoined them. 

He would not let what Sera and Bull get under his skin. It was none of his business. Besides, Solas doubted a woman as thoughtful as Helen would choose anybody as immature as Sera, regardless of race. 

As for Bull, the very idea of somebody as tiny as Helen with that enormous Qunari... 

If you truly believe that only the People are real, what difference does it make whom she courts?” 

Wisdom's words came back to him. He contemplated them until he heard Helen's footsteps. She walked out of the ruin, her eyes solemn and worried. He pushed himself off the wall as she joined him. 

“Thank you for waiting for me, Solas.” She sounded distracted, her eyes focused on her thoughts. 

They joined Sera and Bull, who had pulled out lunch. As they ate, Helen remained quiet, only picking at her food. 

“You OK, Boss?” Bull asked. 

Helen looked up, blinking a few times as she brought herself back to the present, then took a deep breath and exhaled. "My apologies," she said. Then she started eating her lunch with a bit more of her usual enthusiasm. "So. Do we leave to track down this Grey Warden or do we check the area first for more bandits?" 

No, Solas decided, it does not make any difference whom she courts. Not because she was human, but because she was a kind woman sacrificing her own future to save Thedas from his blunders. If she found peace in the arms of another, Solas would be happy for her and give his blessing. 

That is what friends did, even when it felt like a hollow, empty lie.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter twenty-eight

Helen watched the ground team leave the tomb, then opened the haptic interface. She scrolled through the security files and looked for one dated 9 March, 12,069—the day she arrived on Thedas.

She needed to know the answer to Vivienne's question. How had she survived the explosion at the Conclave?

The omnitool had started recording as she'd left the escape pod. Most of the footage showed nothing but ice and snow. She fast forwarded past it and started normal playback at the point where she'd activated her tactical cloak to sneak into the Temple of Sacred Ashes.

The VI had helpfully recorded all of Helen's vital signs. It now displayed them in the bottom right-hand corner of the vid.

Sweet Jesus, she'd been in bad shape. Severe dehydration. Both her blood pressure and body temperature had been dangerously low. After being indoors for a few minutes, Helen had started to shiver—a good sign, normally—but her teeth had chattered loud enough to be heard. More than one guard had looked in her direction with a frown on their face. If it hadn't been for the tactical cloak, she would have been caught in no time.

Even worse than the noise was Helen'sconfusion. She'd been half-delirious, retracing her steps several times without realizing it. She'd opened doors without scanning them first for traps, or to see if there was anybody behind them. A couple of times she'd even muttered, "Where's a goddamn water fountain?" when it should have been evident that none was available.

Helen had descended further and further into the Temple, finding herself in front of a closed door. Her omnitool had recorded voices.

“Why are you doing this? You, of all people?” That must have been Divine Justinia.

“Keep the sacrifice still.” It was the dark, hateful voice that had come from the rift at the Temple of Sacred Ashes.

“Someone! Help me!”

Helen watched herself open up the doors—again without scanning it first like she was some FNG.

Divine Justinia floated in mid-air, trapped there by human mages in matching armor.

The evil voice belonged to a monstrosity of a man, three meters tall and utterly deformed by the red lyrium growing out of his body. His skin was stretched to such extremes that much of him was exposed bone and sinew.

He held a glowing ball in his hand.

Helen's tactical cloak failed as she'd opened the door, overloaded in the presence of all of the ambient energy. The man, shocked at Helen's sudden appearance, turned his grotesque face towards her.

Helen heard herself demand in English, “What's going on?”

"Kill the intruder."

Justinia smacked the orb right out of his hand.

Then Helen, in her delirium, reached for it.

The orb bound itself to her hand. The omnitool had recorded Helen’s screaming, which lasted right up until the explosion.

The omnitool’s sensors had shorted out for several moments, showing only static. Then they came back online, Helen lay unconscious on her back. The room she had just been in had vanished. The omnitool showed a green sky full of floating boulders and stone monoliths.

The audio picked up footsteps. Then Divine Justinia's face appeared. "Come, my child. This is the Fade. It is not safe here."

Helen had been slow to wake. When she did, she'd rolled over onto all fours and retched up bile. Justinia helped Helen to stand.

“What happened? Where are we?” Helen asked her, her voice sounding slightly hysterical.

Justinia tugged her hand to make her walk. "I do not understand you, but we must hurry!"

Helen had stumbled after the Divine through shards of red lyrium and wet, green rocks. They were heading towards a rift in the distance. "Run!" Justinia said, "They are coming!"

Helen looked behind her. The omnitool showed undulating balls of energy following them.

But what Helen had screamed was, “GETH!”

Justinia found a steep stairway that led to a rift. As they climbed it, Helen could hear herself getting both more exhausted and more panicked. She'd kept saying, “Please-no-not-the-Geth, please-no-not-the-Geth.”

Justinia had reached the top first. Instead of going through the rift, she had waited for Helen. “Hurry!” she'd yelled. “The demon!”

Then she had grabbed Helen by the hand and pushed her towards the rift. “Run!” the Divine cried out. “Warn them!”

The omnitool captured Justinia's fate. The balls of energy that had been pursuing them swarmed the Divine, and she had fallen.

Helen stumbled through the Rift and plunged to the ground. Her automatic barrier had not activated. Her head hit the ground with a loud crack, fracturing her skull and knocking her unconscious.

Guards had come over and carried her off.

“Didja see that woman in the rift?”

“Maker, who's she?

“Have you ever seen clothes like that?”

“What is that on her hand?”

“Somebody fetch the Seeker!”

Helen watched the rest of the vid at an accelerated speed as she was carried away. She saw nothing but the sky, torn apart by the Breach, with faces occasionally coming into view. Cassandra's angry visage appeared above her for a few minutes. Cullen's did, too, only briefly looking at her with a frown on his face.

Finally, they placed her on a cot in the Chantry dungeon. The recording ended when Leliana removed the omnitool.

Helen rewound the vid to one spot. A bright figure, in the shape of a slender woman wearing Justinia's hat, had looked down at Helen just before the rift had closed.

Helen turned the omnitool off.

She had never believed that she'd been chosen by the Maker or Andraste or anything like that. Still, she might have preferred that to the truth.

What was one of the very first things the Alliance taught about any contraband or unfamiliar tech? “Scan it first!” “Don’t touch the tech!” “You don’t know what you don’t know!”

Is that Alliance toaster really a Blue Suns bomb? Don’t touch. Out of place duffel bag in the corner? Scan it first! Is there a yahg in that box, Lieutenant Epstein? Don’t touch it, scan it first!

She may have been injured, dying, and delirious, but that orb was obviously offensive tech. And Helen had reached for it, like a fucking rookie. Hello, Thedas. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Redshirt Schmuckatelli, Herald of Andraste.

She rewound the vid and watched the scene where she had interrupted the sacrifice. Were those mages Grey Wardens? Helen didn't know that much about them, except that they stopped Blights. Maybe this Blackwall they were meeting would have more information.

And where she'd seen Geth, the omnitool had seen only energy. Had she been hallucinating? Was this one of those Fade things that Solas had talked about?

Helen wanted to return to Haven immediately and show it to the advisors, but that would delay the rescue of the soldiers in the Fallow Mire by at least two weeks. In the meantime, maybe she could find some answers.

She walked back outside. Solas leaned against a wall, waiting for her. Helen functioned on autopilot for a bit, only marginally aware of joining the others. She didn't shake herself out of her daze until Bull asked her if she was all right.

Helen and the ground team spent the rest of the day clearing the area of bandits. They also located another suitable place for an Inquisition forward camp.

It did not take long for the ravens to locate them.

“How the hell does Leliana train these birds?” Helen asked.

“I know! Friggin' creepy, innit?” Sera said.

Josie's response arrived just after supper.

          Dear Helen, 

          I would have never kept your bracelet from you! Never! Had I known it was right here in Haven, I would have returned it to you myself. I swear this on my honor as an Antivan! 

          Whatever you need from me to make this right, please tell me. I will make it happen. 

          I am so incredibly sorry,

          Josephine Montilyet

          Ambassador, Inquisition  

Helen started to pull out her quill and ink, then she remembered—oh yeah. omnitool. She found a blank scroll, laid it flat and scanned it.

“Is this paper IRP receptive?” she asked her VI. Infra-Red Printing allowed omnitools, printers, PDAs and any other number of devices to use a laser to burn content onto a page instead of using ink. However, not all paper was suitable for IRP.

“Affirmative.”

Well, that just made my life easier. Helen fished out the primer that Solas had helped her create all those months ago. “Uploading alphabet of local tongue. Designation, 'Common.' Cross-reference with UT. Flag conflicts.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Who are you talkin' to?” Sera asked.

“My omnitool.”

“Uh, you realize it isn't talking back to you, right?” Bull asked.

“It is, actually,” Helen said, distractedly, her head swiveling back and forth between her omnitool and the book. “Directly into my ear canal.”

She scanned the primer and a few pages of one of the books on monsters that Cullen had loaned her.

“What are you doing, if I may ask?” Solas wanted to know.

“I am teaching my omnitool the Common.”

The omnitool displayed the scanned pages to her. Helen spoke each highlighted word out loud, one by one, as the omnitool cross-referenced everything in Helen’s UT. It did not take long until the omnitool indicated that it had enough for direct translations.

Helen opened up the QWERTY interface and started typing in English.

         Advisors, 

         A group of well-armed and well-organized bandits was embedded east of the Crossroads. We have cleared them out and found their orders. I include a copy with this missive. 

         As you can see, my omnitool still functions. Having it back should make correspondence much easier on all of us. 

         Sincerely,

         H. Trevelyan 

She translated the entire thing into Common and made a few corrections. She scanned the bandit's orders, and included that, as well. Then she held the paper still, pointed the omnitool at it and said, in English, "Print."

A moment later, her letter had been burned neatly into the scroll. Helen grinned, and signed her name with the quill and ink, just so the advisors would know it was really her. 

Sera had gone to bed, but Bull and Solas watched with interest. 

“Holy shit, can I see that?” Bull asked. 

Helen handed him the scroll. Bull looked at it, then picked up the bandit's orders and compared it to Helen's letter. “Is this how your people wrote letters?” 

“We did not usually use paper,” Helen explained. “We sent them to each other's omnitools.” 

“I take it that is the 'keyboard' method you told me about,” Solas said. 

“It is.” 

“Does it make pictures, too?” Bull said. “Like, that ship you showed us earlier?” 

Helen pulled up an image of the Destiny Ascension, found another blank scroll and said, “print.” A few seconds later, she handed it to Bull. 

He held it with reverence. Then he smiled at Helen so genuinely, he looked about ten years old. 

"Herald," Solas said, "I believe it is time for the first watch." 

"Is it?" Helen looked at the sky. The moon was higher than she'd expected. "What's the watch order tonight?" 

Bull said, “Solas, me, you, Sera. I'm turning in. See you in a few hours, Solas. And Boss?” He rolled up the image of the Destiny Ascension and placed it very carefully into his travel pack. “Thanks. Seriously. That is just...thanks.” 

“My pleasure, the Iron Bull.” 

He winked at her, then crawled into his tent. 

Helen pulled up the interface again, this time to respond to Josie's letter. 

          Dear Josie, 

          Thank you for letting me know. Don't apologize; you did nothing wrong. 

          I could use some help, though. My travel rations were stolen before I arrived in the Hinterlands. I am making do with some of the horse feed, but it isn't enough. 

          Also, does anybody make toothbrushes? I am in danger of losing my teeth. If not, do not worry yourself. You are still my favorite person on Thedas.

          Very truly yours,

          Helen

"It is fascinating to watch you interact with your own world's technology." Solas stood several feet away. He had planted the butt of his staff into the ground and now held onto it with both hands, allowing the staff to support some of his weight comfortably.

"Fascinating how?" Helen said as she rolled up the scroll. The ravens had all moved as a group far up into the branches of the trees that overhung their campsite. No overnight post on Thedas, it seems.

“You have struggled for months to master the basics of using a quill and ink. Tonight, in less time than it would have taken you to write a single letter, you taught your omnitool a new language, composed a missive, and created a gift for Bull.”

She could not tell from Solas' tone whether he was upset by this or not. He often had a roundabout way of making his point, so Helen waited.

He gathered his thoughts for a moment longer. “It makes me wonder what you will be capable of if our world ever becomes as familiar to you as your own.” 

"I suppose we will have to see if I live that long," Helen said, looking at her left hand before she stood up and placed the scroll into her travel pack. She had questions for Solas, but she was exhausted. The questions could wait. She yawned and picked up her pack. "On nydhea, Solas.” 

On nydhea, Helen.” 

** 

Helen sent her letters in the morning. She still had no damn idea how those birds knew where to go and who to find. 

After breakfast, she opened up the scanner, but before she could go any further, Bull said, “You know, Boss, you probably shouldn't use that thing where lots of people can see it.” 

“I agree,” Solas chimed in. “Many people will mistake it for unknown magic or a dangerous enchantment, which could make you more of a target than you already are.” 

“Or worse, they'll understand that it's very advanced technology,” Bull said, “which also makes you a target.” 

That both men gave the same advice gave Helen pause. She'd mostly thought about what the omnitool could do and why she'd wanted it back. She hadn't given much thought to how it would be received. 

Otherwise, it was the only thing that Bull and Solas agreed on over the next several days. Solas viewed the Qun as little better than slavery. Bull saw Ferelden and Orlais as “sick.” 

They'd argue. Solas would get the last, bitter word. Bull would think about it; then he'd be back with new counter-arguments. 

Helen and Sera stayed out of it, although Sera would sometimes mimic being hanged by the neck. 

Helen, meanwhile, got into the habit of taking samples of flora, fauna, and minerals they came across. Every night, when she was in her tent and shielded from view, she would scan whatever she'd found. 

Sera bitched about it because the light from the omnitool kept her awake. Helen did it anyway because when else was she supposed to do this?

 

Chapter 28 Render

  

After a couple of days, Helen had learned a few things. 

Not surprisingly, all of the minerals she came across had Milky Way counterparts. Iron was iron. Onyx was onyx. Obsidian was obsidian. Oddly enough, drakestone was also obsidian, with “unknown contaminant.” 

Embrium, spindleweed and blood lotus seemed to be native to Thedas, or at least, had no counterpart in the Milky Way. Same with nugs. 

Everything else she'd encountered, however, at least so far, were all descended from flora and fauna in the Milky Way. 

The druffalo was a genetic hybrid of the American Bison and the Texas Longhorn, with some gene therapy for fertility, docility and milk production. 

Rams, bears, dogs, and foxes were unmodified descendants of Milky Way species, although several thousand years of natural selection on Thedas had made bears far more aggressive. 

Elfroot was a highly modified type of oregano, with its antimicrobial properties enhanced. Helen asked Solas if it was safe to chew on the leaves. 

He looked at her strangely. “Why?” 

“I am trying to keep my teeth.” 

“Ah. Chew the root, then. And yes, it's safe, in moderate quantities.” 

The plants and animals had branched off from their Initiative DNA core between 9000 and 9500 years ago. 

One night, Sera was using her knife to chop her bangs. Helen asked for a bit of Sera's hair. 

“Why?” Sera asked suspiciously. 

“I want to scan it.” 

Sera shrugged and handed over a piece of blond hair. Helen ran it under the scanner. 

                  Homo sapiens sapiens, unknown variant . Do you want to sequence? Y/N.

Helen hit “Y.” 

“Wot's it say?”  

“That we're basically the same race.” 

Sera snorted, “Don't tell Solas. You'll ruin his whole life. No, wait. Do tell him!” 

Sera was nursing a grudge against Solas. They had closed a rift the day before, the first one they had come across since Solas and Sera had been on the same ground team. 

Before the rift, Solas had ignored Sera as much as possible. Now, he pestered her with questions. As one of “our people”, what did she see when she looked at the Breach? What did she hear when he spoke “our people's” language? Was she moved by the fact that they were in an area where “our people” used to thrive? 

Sera was having none of it. The more Solas tried to get her to self-identify as an elf, the more Sera pushed back. Her antics and insults got under Solas' skin. He took her rejection of Elven culture very personally, which Sera viewed as a sort of victory. 

A few minutes after Helen and Sera had gone to bed, Helen's omnitool beeped in her ear, letting her know that Sera's DNA analysis was complete. Helen rolled over, her back to Sera, and opened up the screen. 

Well. It certainly made for interesting reading. 

Sera's DNA was homo sapiens sapiens. However, the elven phenotypes that Helen had assumed were the result of natural selection—ears, eyes and facial structure—were, in fact, genetic modifications. 

Humans had been using gene therapy for generations, either in utero or within hours of birth. Everything from neurological disease to astigmatism had been or was being eliminated when Helen had left the Milky Way.

What she was looking at now weren't corrections of defects in the genetic code. These were enhancements

Ears were larger and longer, and the ear canal contained more hair cells to improve hearing. The sinuses cavities had been pushed forward slightly to accommodate bigger eyeballs. The eyes, in turn, had wider irises, with more rods and cones on the retina. And there was the addition of a tapetum lucidum behind the retina, giving elves their superior night vision. 

But the most significant change was to the nervous system. There were millions of special receptors for...Helen had no idea. But they were there. Most of Sera's appeared to be dormant. 

These traits were recessive alleles, which explained why human-elf parents had human children. 

It was all highly illegal. At least, it had been back in Helen's time. 

“Oi! Turn that friggin' thing off! Tryin' to sleep here.” Sera had dramatically thrown her arm over her eyes. 

“Sorry,” Helen said, tapping it off. It plunged the tent back into darkness. 

“Why do you hafta look at that all the time, anyway?” Sera asked. 

“Force of habit. I was a researcher back on Earth. I suppose I am looking for answers to questions I have.” 

“Now you sound like Solas,” she mumbled. 

Sera meant it as an insult, but Helen just grinned in the dark and said, "No. This sounds like Solas.” In a low voice, she said, “Pala adahl’en, da'len1.” 

“Wot's that shite mean?” 

“It means, 'Go fuck a forest, little girl.'” 

Sera giggled and took her arm off her eyes. “Where'd you learn that?” 

“Solas curses a lot during combat.” 

“I'll bet he does. It's always the proper ones, innit?” 

Considering most of the English Helen had uttered on Thedas had been pure blasphemy, she just hummed in agreement. 

** 

They reached Upper Lake camp the following evening. A lovely supply of trail mix, jerky, and dried fruit was waiting for Helen, along with a letter from Josie. 

          Dearest Helen, 

          It should not surprise you to hear that your letters made quite an impression. I would not have believed your bracelet capable of it had you not sent me the proof yourself. 

          I have spoken with the other advisors. We will make sure that the Inquisition camps do a better job of keeping your provisions safe. 

          As for a toothbrush, it isn't that I have never seen one. It is just that they are considered to be, shall we say, luxury items. I will check with my contacts, however, and see what we can find. 

          Please stay safe, Helen. I am so looking forward to seeing you again soon! 

          Love,

          Josephine

They located Blackwall outside a fisherman's shack, showing a group of young men how to use their shields. 

Blackwall appeared to be in his early 40s. He was tall and broad. He was sturdy but not overweight—what her mother would have once called "big-boned." A luxurious beard covered most of his face. 

Helen didn’t know much about the Grey Wardens, but she did understand military organizations. Equipment tended to be uniform in both quality and design. Insignia and logos were open and evident for all to see. The mages in the Conclave recording had all worn matching armor. 

Blackwall's equipment, by contrast, was a hodge-podge. He carried a low-quality shield but a high-quality sword. His armor looked nothing like the armor Helen had seen in the vid and appeared to have been poorly repaired in the field. In fact, the only thing that Blackwall wore that identified him as a Grey Warden was the griffon stamped onto his ill-fitting breastplate.  

Chapter 28 Blackwall with his conscripts

To her eyes, Warden Blackwall looked like a solo merc who had looted his equipment from the dead.

Helen walked out into the open with her ground team and announced her presence. “Blackwall? Warden Blackwall?”

Blackwall barely had time to get defensive before they were ambushed.

The fight did not last long. Helen deliberately held back, using only her barrier to shield the others. She wanted to observe.

Whatever his crappy equipment said about him, Blackwall moved with a fluidity that belied his large size. Cassandra tended to use brute force in a fight. Her shield was a much as weapon as her sword. Blackwall, in contrast, was all about timing and precision. He hardly needed his shield. In fact, he even dropped it at one point in favor of using a two-handed grip.

Once the fight was over, Blackwall told his “conscripts” to take back what had been stolen and to return to their homes. “You saved yourselves,” he said.

After the boys had left, Blackwall turned on Helen. “You're no farmer,” he said. “How do you know my name?” He paced the ground like a bear in a cage.

"I'm an agent of the Inquisition. We are investigating whether the disappearance of the Wardens has any connection to the murder of Divine Justinia."

Blackwall stopped pacing. The look of shock on his face indeed seemed genuine.

He said he didn't know that "they" had disappeared but "we" sometimes do that because there wasn't a Blight. He insisted that the Wardens couldn't have been involved in murdering the Divine because "our purpose isn't political."

He explained that, as a Warden, he was allowed to conscript people. He had “conscripted” the young victims of the bandits, taught them how to defend themselves and then let them go. “Next time, they won't need me.”

He answered Helen's questions about the treaties quickly enough. However, he hedged his answers about where the Wardens had gone and why he hadn't disappeared along with them. He wasn't sure. Maybe they went to HQ. Maybe a runner got lost or something.

About the only thing he said with any confidence was that he had planned to be on his own for years.

Helen didn't know what to do. This guy was hiding something, but his confusion about the Divine's murder and the Warden's whereabouts seemed authentic.

Oh, fuck this noise. Leliana was the one who wanted me to track him down. He's her problem.

“As there's no Blight,” Helen asked, “would you consider lending your talents to the Inquisition? We're receiving young recruits every day. We could use your experience teaching others how to fight.”

Blackwall decided that was a good idea.

“Lovely. Welcome to the Inquisition. Do you know how to get to Haven?”

“Yes.”

“Good. When you get there, ask for Sister Nightingale. Tell her that Trevelyan sent you.”

“Haven. Nightingale. Trevelyan. Got it.”

“Good. Safe travels. See you in Haven.”

 

 

 

1Thank you, Project Elvhen! https://archiveofourown.org/works/3553883/chapters/7826705

 

Chapter Text

Chapter twenty-nine

The Herald usually entered combat with a muted emotional spectrum, borne of both experience and a natural self-control. Solas had only seen that calmness truly shattered during her first encounter with a despair demon.

Perhaps that was why her reaction to the giant spiders had been so entertaining.

They were making their way south when a cluster of giant spiders blocked their path forward, waving their front legs menacingly at the team. A couple of the spiders audibly clicked their mandibles.

Helen—grounded, calm, practical Helen—let out an ear-piercing, "EEEEEEWWWWW!" In the blink of an eye, she had Warped, Thrown or Pulled every single spider into paste. Then she pointed at the remains, a look of absolute disgust on her face, and squealed in dainty outrage.

Sera and Bull howled with laughter.

“Oh, Maker, you were like,” Sera did a credible imitation of Helen's screams.

"Try not to shit your smalls, Boss!”

Even Solas couldn't help but get a just a little bit of a dig. “It is astonishing, Herald, how quickly your biotics recharge when you panic.”

Helen's cheeks and the tips of her ears were bright pink. "I'd sell you all out for indoor plumbing right now. I hope you know that."

But her bright smile belied her words. She approached the nearest carcass, and gingerly scraped a bit of hair from a spider leg to scan later in the privacy of her tent.

The scans were beginning to seriously annoy Sera. Sera, on the other hand, was beginning to seriously annoy Solas.

Sera had been fostered by some human noble in Denerim, but she carried herself like street trash. Solas had all but written her off, until he saw her reaction to a rift.

Sera had fought as she always did—with juvenile insults and uncanny accuracy. But Solas had seen something flare to life in Sera when they were near the rift. It was if her spirit was trying to reach for the Fade.

After the rift was closed, he looked at Sera using his mage-sight. Sera was no mage, but she carried an echo of magic within her, a sensitivity that marked her as different, as exceptional. 

Was there more potential in the modern elves than he had first been willing to accept? Had Felassan died for nothing? 

Sera was doing everything she could to put his mind at ease on that front. She was rude and impatient. She drank to excess. Elven life was, “backwards and boring.” Most people were “stewpid.” Solas himself was “stewpid and boring.” 

Lately, she had gotten into the habit of repeating everything he said in a mocking voice. It was infuriating. 

Then there was the Iron Bull. He seemed intelligent enough—for a Qunari, anyway—but Bull was in service to a morally bankrupt religion. He had no qualms about being Ben-Hassrath. 

Solas utterly despised the Qun for the way it demanded absolute obedience to its precepts, that it punished freedom of thought. 

The wiser part of him knew it was pointless to argue about it, that in a few short years, all of these mortals would die, Qunari and Andrastrian alike. But he argued with Bull, anyway. Solas just could not help himself. 

He could feel Helen's eyes on him during these discussions. She never said anything, not in defense of him or of Bull. And she never asked them to stop arguing. He could never tell what she was thinking, and it made him uncomfortable.  

Still, it could hardly be a surprise that he preferred the Herald's company to Sera's and Bull's. 

He rode next to her now, the giant spiders long behind them. She explained how the Systems Alliance Parliament had worked. Representatives were elected from the homeworld, as well as the colony planets. The Parliament itself was located on a space station, so that no one planet would have what she called a “home field advantage.” 

He bombarded her with questions. How were elections held? Who was allowed to run for office? Who was allowed to vote? How did they enforce the laws they passed? What did the Prime Minister do? 

Solas had not had such an interesting discussion outside of the Fade in ages. But as engaged as he was, he made sure that he did not stare at her for too long. He never allowed himself to look at her mouth, or her breasts, or her bottom. 

When she was done talking about Parliament, she said, “My turn. I have more questions about the Fade.” 

“I would be happy to answer them. Hopefully, we will have a quiet trip to the Fallow Mire.” The words had not been out of his mouth but a moment before they were set upon by a pack of feral dogs. 

The rest of the day was like that. Dogs, bears, and bandits beset them at every turn. Their progress south slowed to a crawl. 

It was a sign of things to come. Bandits attacked their camp that night. 

It happened on Helen's watch. One moment, Solas had been in the Fade sifting through memories. The next, he felt his wards violated, followed by Helen's piercing call to arms. 

Solas and Bull bolted out of the tent to find three bandits trapped in a Singularity, while Sera was yanking an arrow out of the face of a fourth. A fifth bandit lay dead on the ground. 

A sixth bandit ran up behind Sera, inexpertly holding a sword, when Helen appeared out of thin air right in front of him. 

The bandit screamed in terror, dropping his sword. Helen grabbed him by the throat and slammed him onto the ground. After placing him in a stasis field, she sat on top of him. “Bull, Solas, kindly take care of this man's associates, please,” she said, indicating the singularity. 

Solas froze the bandits, and Bull smashed their skulls. Sera prowled the perimeter of the camp, her bow at the ready. Solas began to pat down the bodies, looking for anything of interest. 

The Herald released the stasis-field on her captive. “How many in your group? Are there more of you?” she demanded. 

“Six!” a very young voice stammered out behind his faceplate of the helm. “There's only six of us.” 

Helen pulled the helmet off, to reveal a very young, very terrified elf. “Child, how old are you?” 

“Fifteen.” 

Helen sighed, got off of the boy, and helped him stand up.

Solas found unsigned orders in the pocket of a dead bandit. He handed the crumpled paper to the Herald. She read it out loud: 

          "'The patrol pattern is not negotiable. Upon any encounter resulting in injuries, mark trail and withdraw to the villa. We must remain in fighting condition to apply appropriate force and keep refugees clear from the area.' 

“Well, your friends aren't in fighting condition any longer, are they? What's your name?” 

“Revas.” 

“Of course it is,” Helen said. “So, Revas, ever killed anyone before?” 

“Maker, no!” he whispered, tears in his eyes. “I didn't want to kill anybody.” 

“Then why take a job that that asks you to kill people?” 

“They never said anything about killing people,” he said. “They were in the alienage in Redcliffe, recruiting elves for night work. The money was good. They hired me a few weeks ago. Mostly, it's just been patrols after dark. This was my first raid.” 

“And your last, at least with this group. Who do you work for?” 

“The East Road Company. They're up in that big villa south of here.” It was the same group they had faced a few days earlier, the day they had met Mihris. 

“Why are they here?” 

“I don't know. Something to do with the Carta.” 

“The Carta?” Solas said. “Are you sure?” If the Carta was involved, there was far more involved here than just mere banditry. 

The boy nodded. “Yes, Hahren, I'm sure.” 

Helen was reading the orders again. “So why change the patrol pattern now? Why not, 'mark trail and withdraw to the villa' like the orders state?” 

Revas swallowed. “Because my patrol leader,” and he glanced over at one of the dead bandits, “wanted to make a name for himself. His orders were, 'Capture the Herald, kill her companions.'” 

Sera snorted, finally putting her bow down. "Got it a bit backwards, din't ya? All your friends are dead, and the Herald captured you!” 

"She's got a point, kid," Bull said. Revas' eyes got even bigger when he saw the Qunari stand behind Helen. 

“When is your patrol due to return?” Helen asked. 

“Just before dawn.” 

Helen glanced over at the bodies, then looked back at Revas. “I don't kill children, no matter how bad their judgment. Do your parents know where you are?” 

"My father died last year. My mother told me not to join up, but we're starving. At least with this job, I can send money home." 

Helen slowly raised an eyebrow. “And have you been paid?” 

"Only half of what they promised me." 

“You should work for better people, kid,” Bull said. 

“Could...could I come work for you?” Revas asked, hopefully. 

Helen shook her head. "No. I don't kill children, but I don't hire them, either." 

“I'm not a child!” he said, petulantly. 

“The Herald is correct, da'lin. You are not of age,” Solas admonished. 

“Hahren, please!” he pleaded at Solas. “You know what it's like in the alienage! No work, no way out. Besides, if I go back to Redcliffe, and East Road finds me there, they'll kill me! Or worse, they'll hurt my family!” 

“By the time you get back to Redcliffe, they'll all be dead. Now here, take this,” Helen pressed a few coins into the palm of the young man's slender hand, “and go home to your mother. I am sure she is worried sick about you.” 

The child looked down into his hand and nodded forlornly. He muttered his thanks and started to leave. 

“Oi! Eedjit!” Sera yelled, as she ran over to him. They spoke in low voices. He left looking a bit happier. 

“Offer him a job with the Jennies?” Helen said. 

“Don't be nosy, you,” Sera grinned. 

They burned the bodies, broke camp and were gone before sunrise. 

The next few days were a near-constant fight for their lives. The East Road Company were well equipped and gave no quarter. A rift in a cave had far stronger demons then they usually faced. And they could hardly go more than an hour without running into bears or packs of feral dogs. 

At least wolves left them alone. Helen still wore the Token of the Packmaster that Solas had given her months ago. 

Finally, they cleared the area enough to establish another Inquisition forward camp. As soon as Inquisition Scouts arrived and set up camp, the entire ground team collapsed into tents and took long naps, even though it was still morning. 

They planned their next steps that night after supper. The Grand Forest Villa, currently acting as headquarters for the East Road Company, lay directly in their path south to the Fallow Mire. 

One of the scouts had done a little reconnaissance. “The Villa isn't fortified,” she told them, “but they've added siege equipment. Two giant trebuchets right out there on the patios. A third under construction. Guards posted at the northern entrance. There's a score of them in the Villa itself at any given time. Mostly heavy weapons but some archers, as well.” 

Helen decided they would attack the Villa before dawn the following morning, when the inhabitants were more likely to be asleep. 

“I hope this goes quickly,” she said to Solas as she headed to bed, “Getting out of the Hinterlands is beginning to feel like a prison break.” 

** 

It did not go quickly. 

They spent most of the morning fending off some of the largest bears any of them had ever seen. These bears had ridges all along their back, like a quillback, and were half-again as large as the other bears in the Hinterlands. 

By the time their path to the compound was clear, the morning was gone. Instead of a frontal assault, Helen approached the Villa from the west along a ridge that gave them some cover. Bull and Sera kept watch while Solas and Helen crept onto an outcrop that had enough vegetation to provide them with some cover. 

Helen and Solas looked out over the front of the compound—and fate finally gifted them with a small favor. 

Feral dogs were attacking the bandits. 

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition

 

More bandits ran out of the Villa to aid their compatriots. 

Helen and Solas quickly returned to Bull and Sera. The team scurried up the edge of the compound, following an animal trail that gave them both access and cover. Just as they got to the edge of the Villa, Helen said, “Wait for my signal,” and activated her tactical cloak. 

The signal came in the form of a screaming, heavily armored bandit that sailed through the air and landed in front of them. He was likely dead as soon as he hit the ground but Bull smashed his skull in anyway. 

Solas, Bull, and Sera sprinted through a trellised courtyard towards three confused and angry bandits. He couldn't see Helen, but he felt her barrier go over all of them. Two bandits fell backwards as if being pushed by an invisible hand. 

Her voice, just above their heads on the trellis, called out, “Archers!” as three archers ran in from the east. 

One of the archers swiftly pointed his arrow at the location of Helen's voice and let his arrow fly. It bounced off her barrier, but it also deactivated her cloak. She dropped off the trellis as another arrow flew her way. 

Helen trapped the archers in a singularity field. Sera swiftly took them out, counting “one-two-three! All done!” 

Solas and Bull had their hands full with one of the most massive humans Solas had ever seen. The man was as tall as Bull, and nearly as heavy. His high-quality armor had been enchanted to resist magic. 

He swung his mace at Solas' head. Solas Fade-Stepped out of reach at the last second. Bull kicked the man while he was off balance, and sent him sprawling. 

Bull followed up with an overhand swing of his own, but the bandit rolled out of the way and nimbly hopped back up onto his feet. Solas's fireball only made the bandit laugh. 

Helen warped the bandit's armor. Bull's next swing cracked the armor open. Solas sent a surge of electrical energy into the man's body, stopping his heart. 

The men that had fled the Villa to help fight off the dogs returned now in force, weapons drawn. Helen led the charge down the grand staircase and met them head-on. 

 

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition

None of these were as heavily armored as the bandit that Bull and Solas had struggled to kill. It did not take long for the last man to fall.

Helen and Bull rushed to the front entrance to check for stragglers. None appeared. It was over.

Solas and Helen stripped the bodies of weapons, armor, and personal effects. All of them were male. Most were human, although an elf and two dwarves were in the group.

Before burning them, the Herald scanned each and every corpse. Solas asked her why. 

"I am looking for information."

“About?” 

“About your planet, your people. About why Thedas is the way it is.” 

Not my people, but he did not say it. “What sort of information does your omnitool show you?” 

“I am looking at,” and then she spouted off a few words in her own language, then shook her head a bit in frustration. “There is no translation in your language. I suppose the simplest explanation is that I am looking at these individuals' biology.” 

“And what will that tell you?” 

“I don't know yet. The more I learn about Thedas, the less I understand it,” she said, tapping the omnitool off. “Every time I get a new piece of the puzzle, I learn the puzzle is much larger than I thought.” 

“That is often the path to wisdom,” Solas told her. “New knowledge brings new uncertainty.” 

They burned the bodies to ash. Helen looked drained. 

A search of the compound showed that young Revas had told them the truth. The East Road Company had been working for the Carta, which was conducting some kind of business in Valammar. 

“What is Valammar?” Helen asked. 

“It's a Dwarven thaig,” Bull said. “Sounds like the Carta is doing something they prefer to keep to themselves.” 

The mercenaries had treated the Villa like an outdoor camp. There were few furnishings, beyond new desks in the quartermaster's office and the master bedroom. There were no beds, although a dozen or so filthy bedrolls were haphazardly stacked around the Villa. Helen scanned them, made a face and ordered them burned. 

Sera found a few boxes of potions. Bull discovered a wine cellar that the bandits had not completely depleted. Solas located the larder, which stored as much poison as it did food. 

Helen found running water, or the potential for it, anyway. Many of the pipes were broken or missing. 

They also found several caches of weapons and armor. Working for the Carta came with some perks. A weapons rack in the quartermaster's office held dwarven weapons of extremely high quality, including a few unusual staves with twisting veins of lyrium embedded all along its length. 

Solas picked one up and felt his connection the Fade dramatically increase. The lyrium inside of it gave off a faint echo of the Old Song. 

He tested the staff for weight and balance. It was top-heavy, and lighter overall than he preferred. Those problems could be somewhat ameliorated with the addition of a blade or weight at the butt of the staff if need be. 

Curious, he aimed a single fireball at a small boulder on the mountainside. The rock glowed red. Solas quickly launched an ice spell at it. The boulder shattered into gravel and rained down the slope. 

Yes, this will do nicely. “We should keep these for the Inquisition's battlemages,” he said to the Herald. “They are far superior to anything Master Harrit can produce in Haven.” 

“I can see that,” she replied, with a small smile. 

He looked down his nose at her. “This amuses you.” 

Her smiled deepened. “Weapon upgrades are a source of universal happiness, Solas.” 

“Yes. Well,” Solas sniffed, hiding his own smile as he pretended to inspect the head of the new lyrium staff. “I will check the ocularum.” 

They worked throughout the afternoon. Helen stopped several times to point her omnitool at things. The trebuchets, the ocularum, the tower, correspondence from the desk in the master bedroom. She spent some time in the quartermaster's office to print up a few scrolls, and several long pages of text and pictures. 

Towards evening, a dozen Inquisition scouts appeared to help set up a base camp. Ravens were sent. 

Supper that night was more extravagant than they usually got on the road, as they cooked not only sausages, cabbages and cheese from the larder, but also fresh fish from the nearby pond. 

When Helen saw Bull come up with the several bottles of wine and liquor, she immediately ordered the Corporal to have half of the scouts abstain so enough people were sober for the night watch rotation. 

By the time supper had ended, the sober scouts were patrolling the compound, while the rest were getting quite drunk. Bull enjoyed the attentions of a human female who sat on his lap and tittered over his horns. A supremely inebriated Sera giggled into the neck of a dwarven girl. 

Solas nursed a glass of the wine too sweet for his tastes, and wondered if he would be able to find a place quiet enough to fall asleep. 

An elven scout, a skinny alienage woman who reeked of liquid courage, plopped herself next to Solas. “Hey, you. I'm Maisie.” 

Solas kept his face and voice polite. “Hello, Maisie.” 

She blinked at him. “And you are?” 

“A member of the Herald's ground team.” 

She playfully rolled her bloodshot eyes. “I know that, I was at the forward camp last night. D'ya have a name?” 

Solas sighed. “Solas.” 

“See? 'twasn't so hard, was it? So, Solas,” she tried to say his name seductively but it came out slurred.

Then, much faster than he would have thought possible, she slid onto his lap and placed her arms around his neck.

“Betcha hear this all the time, but you're handsome.” She gave him a drunken, sleepy smile. 

Solas tried to lean away, so he wouldn't have to smell her breath, while also keeping his hands out to his sides, so as not to touch her, while also trying to find a way to politely reject her. 

And then Helen, bless her, came to his rescue. "Solas,” she called out from across the courtyard, “we need to set wards. Do you mind?” 

“Not at all, Herald. Maisie, if you'll excuse me.” The girl got off his lap and swayed in place. Solas picked up his staff and stood, as well. Maisie's eyes slid back and forth between Solas and the Herald who was walking towards them. 

“We should start at the northern entrance,” Helen said, all business. 

“Agreed.” 

As they left the courtyard, they heard Maisie yell at Sera accusingly, “You said he din't like shemlen!” 

Solas cursed under his breath and risked a look at Helen. She did not look offended. Amused, definitely, but not offended. 

“So?” Sera responded. “Doesn't mean he has to like you.” 

Once they were out of earshot, Solas said gave a small sigh of relief, “Thank you for the intervention, Helen.” 

“Worth it to see the look on your face when she sat on your lap. Although we really do need your wards. Half this lot is so piss drunk they'll be worse than useless if we get ambushed.” They began to walk the perimeter. 

"So tell me why your new staff is better," she said. They leisurely walked the perimeter as Solas set defensive wards, and discussed lyrium, mana and harmonization with the Fade. 

By the time they made a full circuit around the property, the party seemed to be winding down. 

“Here, come with me,” Helen said. She led them to the quartermaster's office, only to find that it was locked. Bull's booming laughter and the squeals of at least two women could be heard inside. One of them sounded like Maisie. 

Helen sighed, and headed back towards the entrance to the Villa. "Dammit. I really wanted to get behind closed doors and scan your new staff. Maybe we can look at it once we're on the road. Would you be willing to let me scan while you heal my hand, or cast a spell? I want to see what magic looks under the spectrometer." 

Solas found that he suddenly wanted to see what magic looked like under the spectrometer, too, although he had never heard of one before. 

“Yes, I would like that. Will you share your results with me?” 

“Share them? Solas, you'll probably have to explain them. Of course, I'll share.” 

They had wandered to the wooden bridge that gave passage over the pond. Helen sat down and began unbuckling her boots. Solas sat on her left. He removed his both of his footwraps with a single swipe of a spell. 

“Showoff,” she grinned. She pulled off her first boot and began unbuckling the second. 

Solas plunged his feet into the water. "I seem to recall someone invisibly running across a trellis today." 

Helen chuckled as she pulled off the remaining boot and eased her feet into the pond. She gave a grateful sigh. “That was not showing off. That was using the terrain to the best tactical advantage.” 

They sat in comfortable silence. He made waves with his feet and watched the lily pads move. Helen sat back on her hands and looked up into the night sky. Solas allowed himself this moment of peace. 

“Solas?” 

“Yes?” 

“What happens on Thedas when somebody dies?” 

He looked over at her, confusion knitting his brows. “What do you mean?” 

Helen was still looking at the night sky. “When someone dies, what happens to their soul?” 

“That depends on the person who has died.” 

“Does it?” She looked at him. “Then I will be more specific. If I die on Thedas, will I go to the Fade?” 

Her eyes were bright and serious. This was no idle question. "All souls pass through the Fade when they die. For most, it is a fleeting journey on their way to another place." 

"Another place?" 

“Nobody is certain what that might be. Every religion has its own ideas and beliefs.” 

“Do souls ever get stuck in the Fade?” 

“Rarely, but it does happen. Helen, why are you asking these questions?” 

She hesitated before saying, “You're the Inquisition's expert on the Fade. I expect you'll learn about this soon enough, anyway, but this needs to stay between us for now.” 

“Of course.” 

A heavy sigh. “The omnitool recorded the explosion at the Conclave, and my escape from the Fade.” 

Solas gaped at her. “All of it?” 

“All of it.” 

Solas' mind began to sort through various scenarios, as he tried to sift through every possible consequence. Keeping his tone calm, he said, “And what did it show?” 

“Everything from the moment I entered the Conclave to the moment Leliana took my omnitool. Remember when I stayed behind in the ruin last week? I watched it, well parts of it, anyway. I've been wanting to talk about it with you for days, but we've had no opportunity.” 

Solas listened with a mask of patience as Helen told him how she had entered the Temple of Sacred Ashes, freezing, delirious, and dying from radiation poisoning. She briefly described interrupting Corypheus' ritual, reaching for the orb and inheriting the anchor. She told him how Justinia had led her out of the Fade. 

The orb. She's seen the orb. The advisors will see the orb

Would any of them recognize it as Elvhen? 

“Justinia didn't know me,” Helen was saying, sorrow in her voice. “All she knew was that I was some foreigner responsible for the explosion. Yet she led me to safety and sacrificed her own life for mine.” 

Solas forced himself back to the present. “What do you mean, 'you were responsible for the explosion?'” 

Helen looked at him incredulously. “Solas, one of the first things we learn in the Alliance is to never touch strange technology or contraband until we know what it is! This is something I have had ingrained into me for my entire career. 'Scan it first!' 'Don't touch the tech!' 'You don't know what you don't know!' 

“I landed on a strange planet, and what did I do when the first piece of tech came bouncing my way?” She shook her head in disgust. “I reached for it, like some brand new recruit who didn't know one end of her weapon from the other.” 

Solas was almost as thrown by Helen referring to his orb as “tech” as he was by her misconception that she was somehow at fault for this. 

She flexed her left hand into a fist. “Guess I'm paying for it now. I just wish all of Thedas didn't have to pay for it, too.” 

“No.” He picked up her left hand and, almost by habit, sent a healing spell into it. “Helen, what happened at the Conclave was not your fault.” 

“I detonated a bomb. I might not have meant to, but I did.” 

There was no way for him to reassure her without revealing how much he knew. He also wanted to see if there was any clue about the orb on the omnitool. “What looked like technology to you sounds like magic to me. Show me the recording tomorrow, once the quartermaster's office is unoccupied.” 

“I would like that, assuming I can stop being the Herald for a few hours.” 

“If you run out of time, perhaps we can look at it on the road.” 

Helen shook her head. “No. I am not comfortable with Bull seeing any of this yet, at least not without the advisors' input. This isn't about the omnitool. This is about Thedas. This is magic and religion and war. I like Bull a great deal on a personal level, but his allegiance isn't to me. It's to his government.” 

Maybe his arguments with Bull had not been a complete waste of time, after all, not if Helen was listening more closely than he'd realized. “I see your point.” 

They sat there for a while in silence, Solas' inner calm now long gone, as he tried to map out all possible paths to recovering the orb. 

"Solas?” she said quietly, as she gently squeezed his hand. He had not realized he was still holding onto hers. “Do you think I will survive closing the Breach? Tell me true." 

Helen wasn't worried about the orb. Why would she? To her, the orb was just one more thing in a series of events that was leading to her own death, possibly in just a few weeks. 

He held onto her hand a bit tighter. “I would be lying if I said I was not worried. Your body does not react well to the mark.” 

“No. It certainly doesn't.” 

Solas did not know how to respond to that, so he simply held her hand as they dangled their feet in the water.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty

three weeks earlier, in Haven

Cullen left the healer's tent and headed to Cecelia's quarters.

She bunked in a small cabin with several other single women who worked in Haven. He knocked on the door. It was opened by one of Flissa's barmaids.

The barmaid's eyes went wide with delight when she saw him. “Commander Rutherford! Oh my goodness!” She struck a pose that showed off her cleavage to its best advantage. “How can I help you?”

“Your friend Cecelia is sick, and I need to retrieve her things. May I come in, please?”

Her face fell. “Oh. Sure. Cot's over there.”

Cullen thanked her and stepped into the cabin. He went to the cot the girl had pointed at and looked underneath it. There, pushed up against the baseboard, was a linen laundry sack.

Cullen grabbed it, stood up and opened the bag. Inside it was a pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt so filthy he could not tell what the original color had once been.

“So, you and Cecelia, eh? She's got a thing for Templars, don't she.”

“What?” Cullen turned around to stare at the young woman. “Maker, no. Not me and Cecelia.”

“Oh!” The smile reappeared at full strength. “Well! Glad to hear it! So, um, are you busy later?”

“I am afraid that all of my spare time is taken up preparing the Inquisition's forces and dealing with administrative matters.” He'd said it so often since arriving in Haven that it had become almost rote to him by now. And there was just no way to politely tell a girl that sex would only make his craving for lyrium worse.

“Oh, I won't take up much of your time, Commander,” she said. Cullen gave her a tight, polite smile that did not reach his eyes, and left in a hurry.

He did not go immediately to Leliana and confront her with the physical proof that she'd been lying about the Herald's belongings. Instead, Cullen went to Josephine and did what little brothers had done since the dawn of time.

He tattled. 

Oh, he would never admit to it, of course. He was, “bringing a grave security matter” to the attention of the Ambassador. He showed her the Herald's clothing and explained what had happened. He delivered his information in a clipped, military tone. He kept a frown on his face. 

None of which changed the fact that he was tattling on Leliana. 

Josephine was, of course, indignant that Leliana would do such a thing. She sent for the spymaster and tore into her.

“I cannot believe you, Leliana! Helen has done everything we have ever asked her to do. Everything! The only two things she has ever asked for are the whereabouts of her ship and her bracelet! You have made liars out of us all!” 

Leliana was unapologetic about her actions. “The Herald kept telling us that her bracelet was a tool, that it was special. For all I knew, it caused the Breach! I sent it away to have it tested.” 

“Tested?” Cullen asked, “Tested by whom?” 

“To a dwarven arcanist I once knew.” 

“Wait. Dagna?” Cullen was aghast. “You sent it to Dagna?” 

“Oh, that's right,” Leliana said. “I forgot you would have known her at the Circle of Ferelden.” 

Of course, I knew her! She blew up the kitchens because she 'wanted to see what happened' when she added lyrium to biscuits!” 

“And that research eventually led to a lyrium formula that is more stable in the field! She is highly qualified to inspect unknown magical artifacts!” 

Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. What did she find?” 

“Nothing,” Leliana said. “She said it isn't magical, it isn't enchanted, and she could not get it to respond in any way. It seemed completely inert. None of which matters. It's the only leverage we have over the Herald.” 

“Leverage for what?” Cullen asked. 

Leliana looked at him like he was an idiot. “Leverage exists for its own sake, Cullen.” 

They argued for hours. Well, Josie and Leliana argued. Cullen sat in a chair and leaned back against the wall. Mostly he kept his mouth shut, although he did interject with facts Leliana found inconvenient, like, “Solas knows. He'll tell the Herald if you don't.” And, “What if she threatens to leave unless you give it to her?” 

Render by https://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/

Leliana finally agreed to give it back but became very cagey about when. Her suggested deadlines gave her loads of time to “misplace” the bracelet. 

Josie finally demanded that Leliana immediately turn the bracelet over to Solas, who was leaving in a few days to meet the Herald. 

“I'll take it to Solas,” Cullen offered. “I need to speak with him anyway.” 

Leliana finally sighed in defeat, and said, “If this blows up in our faces, I'm blaming the two of you.” She reached into a hidden pocket and handed Cullen a thin, rigid bracelet. He nodded once and headed towards Solas' quarters. 

Leliana's furious reaction when she'd learned Solas had left for the Hinterlands told Cullen everything he needed to know about her intentions. 

After that, he didn't think about it again. Why would he? He was up to his eyeballs in training, reports, and withdrawal symptoms. 

Cassandra returned with the Chargers. Cullen spoke at length with Cremesius Aclassi. Krem seemed all right—for a Tevinter, anyway—and the Chargers were well-trained, if very, ah, colorful. 

The Herald's first letter to the advisors after she received her omnitool was not what he expected. She was angry with Leliana, which was not exactly a shock. But passages like, 

          "In utero exposure to element zero is exceedingly dangerous. Biotic abilities such as mine are rare. Stillbirths, brain tumors, cancers and other congenital disabilities are far more common," 

made him uncomfortable. “Element zero.” “Biotic abilities.” “Congenital disabilities.” Even though the letter was in the Common, nobody else talked like that. It was strange. She was strange.

Her next correspondence was even more bizarre. When Leliana first showed it to him and Josephine, Cullen thought somebody had ripped a page from a book. It was printed, not handwritten. Then he started reading.

          Advisors,

          We have cleared the area east of the Crossroads of mercenaries. This group was both well-armed and well-organized. I found a note on one of the bodies. I include a copy with this missive.

          As you can see, my omnitool still works. Having it back will make correspondence much easier on all of us. 

          Sincerely,

          H. Trevelyan

He re-read the letter again, this time looking at the print. Was this normal for her people, to correspond like this?

Over the next several days, more of these printed letters arrived, noting the ground team's progress through the Hinterlands. 

          Advisors, 

          We have located Warden Blackwall. He had little information about the Wardens. However, he should be an asset to the Inquisition, both on the ground and in training. He is traveling to Haven now and will present himself to the spymaster when he arrives. 

         The ground team is pressing south, but you should know that we have encountered heavy resistance by mercenaries. Wild dogs and bears also seem to have taken a personal dislike to us. Our progress has been slowed as a result. I will continue to send word as I am able.

          Sincerely,

          H. Trevelyan 

          PS—Why did nobody warn me about the giant spiders?

**

          Herald,

          If you'll recall, I gave you a book.

          In fact, I gave you two

          Welcome to Thedas,

         C. Rutherford

**

          Advisors.

          We were ambushed last night by mercs. No injuries on the ground team. I interrogated one of our attackers, a 15-year-old named “Revas,” from the Redcliffe alienage. He informed us as follows:

         The mercenaries call themselves the East Road Company. They have been recruiting elves for night work. Their objective is to keep the area clear from both refugees and Inquisition forces. They use Grand Forest Villa as their base. And he thinks they are working for the Carta.

          I sent the boy back home to his mother, along with some coin. (His employers had not paid what they had promised. Shocking, I know, that bandits would act so dishonorably.)

          His former co-workers perished during the attack.

          Sincerely,

          H. Trevelyan

“I should be with them,” Cassandra said.

“I am sure the Iron Bull is holding his own, Cass. He is a mercenary himself, after all,” Leliana said. “I will have my agents in the Redcliffe alienage look into the East Road Company, and let the elves know that they don't pay as promised. And I'll talk to Varric about this lead on the Carta.”

The advisors moved on to other matters. When Josie and Leliana began discussing the Ambassador's efforts with nobility, Cullen shut the entire discussion out completely. He unrolled the Herald's scroll and read it again.

It was printed in small, neat type. She mostly wrote in a formal, military style, but there would be an occasional flash of dry humor. It made his last letter to her seem a bit bratty by comparison.

Still, who referred to dead bandits as “co-workers?”

“Cullen.” Cassandra's voice tore his attention away from the Herald's letter. Josephine and Leliana had left. The door to the War Room was open.

The meeting had ended and he had not noticed. He wondered how long Cassandra had been trying to get his attention, but he was afraid to ask. Lyrium. Lyrium would fix this.

“We will go have supper now,” Cassandra ordered.

He followed her out of the Chantry and tried to push away the temptation to use lyrium. 

**

Warden Blackwall arrived in Haven. He and Leliana spoke privately for quite some time.

At the next advisor meeting, Leliana told them that Blackwall had no information about the Wardens but that she wanted him to stay, “even if he is not what we expected. He is a good man, and he has experience we need.”

Cullen located Blackwall the following morning and asked if he was willing to help with training. “Just put me where you need me, Commander,” was his response.

As they walked towards the training yard, Blackwall said, “So, that woman I met, the one with the white hair. That's the Herald of Andraste?” 

“Yes,” Cullen frowned. “I thought you met her in the Hinterlands.”

“I did,” he said, “but she never said she was the Herald. I didn't make the connection until yesterday when I was speaking with Sister Nightingale.”

“The Herald is not Andrastrian,” Cullen said. “She doesn't believe she's the Herald of anything.”

“Does she really tell people she's from another world?”

Cullen sighed. It still sounds so ridiculous. “Yes.”

“And...they believe her?”

Cullen wasn't sure he liked Blackwall. “Does it matter? She has the mark on her hand. She can close rifts.”

“Of course it matters! The Inquisition says she's the Herald of Andraste. She says she not. You people are sending that slip of a girl to close rifts and fight demons, and Maker knows what all else.”

“Don't let her appearance fool you,” Cullen said. “Whatever else she is, the Herald was a military officer and a combat veteran long before she joined the Inquisition.”

“I thought she was a mage.”

Cullen sighed again. “It's a long story.”

They had arrived at the training yard. Cullen brought the sword-and-shield recruits over to observe the sparring with him and Blackwall.

Blackwall fought like a chevalier, relying on precision and timing instead of strength. “Watch the Warden's footwork,” Cullen ordered the recruits. “His feet always know where my sword is going to be.”

When they were finished sparring, Cullen assigned the most promising soldiers to Blackwall for more advanced training. As long as the man was in Haven, they might as well use his expertise.

**

          Advisors, 

          We have taken the Grand Forest Villa from the East Road Company. Its members and leader are dead. 

          Correspondence (attached) confirms they were under contract with the Carta. A key to the Valammar thaig has been recovered. Please advise if I should send the key to Haven.

          There is siege equipment here: two complete trebuchets, and one still under construction.

 

Screenshot from Dragon Age Inquisition

 

         I have scanned the trebuchet schematics for Commander Rutherford's information. Those will be sent under separate cover.

         The Villa has a non-functional plumbing system.

         In my opinion, the Villa is not defensible as a military installation. Granted, the view is lovely but the merc leader was an idiot to set up here. Trebuchets are useless if a small strike team can sneak in through the gardens.

         Recommendations: fix the plumbing, block off access to the west side of the property, and use the Villa as a resupply or medical station.

         Sincerely,

         H. Trevelyan

The picture was incredible, more accurate than any drawing.

The schematics arrived a few days later. The Herald had also sent a document called, “The physics of catapults: Calculating acceleration, trajectory, and force using Newtonian mechanics.” It set forth Newton's First, Second and Third laws, and explained how to calibrate a catapult to get the projectile where it needed to be.

He did not know who this Sir Issac Newton was, but his laws were elegant, and the accompanying formulas practical. Cullen could use them right away on the siege equipment they were building here in Haven.

He began spending what little free time he had on the trebuchets. Calculating trajectories and working with his hands soothed him in a way nothing else had since he'd stopped taking lyrium. It felt like scratching an itch he had never been able to reach.

Soon enough, his duties would call, and he would be back on to barking orders, signing papers and teaching the recruits how not to fall on their swords. But for whatever small amount of time he was able to devote to calibrating the trebuchets, the lyrium did not call to him.

Maybe, he thought, after we close the Breach, after the war is over, maybe there's a way out for me after all. Oh, Maker. Please.

Please.

 

______________________________________

A/N: Thank you, as always, to my incredibly patient betas, Dreadlordcherrycake and Duinemerwen. Thank you, as well, to the fantastic render that ProcrastiKate did, of Cullen watching Leliana and Josephine argue. “Half-Life” is a group effort.

And finally, thank you, all of you, so much for leaving all of your comments and reviews and kudos. I am so incredibly grateful to all of you for sticking with Helen on her journey.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-one

Helen did not get to show the vid to Solas the next day. Instead, the rising sun revealed empty bottles, scattered litter, and puddles of piss baking into the flagstones.

Helen roused Sera, Bull, and every single hungover scout and bellowed her orders in the bright, bright sunshine. Most of the scouts winced and looked a little green, but none dared argue with her. Bull looked at her approvingly.

Only Sera tried to get out of it. “Why can't Solas just magic it all away?” she whined.

“Because Solas didn't make the mess.”

Sera grabbed a bucket and rags like everybody else but muttered under her breath about Helen being stupid and boring. Finally, she said, loud enough for everybody to hear, "Ugh, gross! This piss is all dried up!"

Her dwarven companion from the night before said, “Then you shouldn't have peed there, Sera. I told you not to, but you wanted to show everybody your bottom.”

"Oh yeah," Sera cackled. "Forgot about that." She continued to complain about the mess, but her ire was no longer directed at Helen.

Bull got his own clean-up duty—the Quartermaster's office—but not before Helen closed the door and did a quick scan of the bodily fluids. The room reeked of stale booze and sex. She left as soon as the scans were complete.

Taking the scans made her a bit uncomfortable; she felt it was toeing over an ethical line. Sera had allowed Helen to scan her hair. The dead mercs Helen had scanned yesterday had no consent left to give.

Bull and his partners, however, had not consented to Helen doing anything with their bodily fluids.

On the other hand, they'd left generous deposits of their DNA on the desk, the weapons rack, the wall and on top of the filing cabinet. At worst, it was abandoned property. At best, they wanted to share.

She wondered if Solas would be willing to let her scan him. The omnitool didn't require fluids or hair. That's just what people tended to leave behind. She could scan his body directly, as she had with the dead mercs, assuming he agreed to it. As for getting bodily fluids from him...

Solas, be a dear and wank off into this cup.

Helen had to hide a terrible case of the giggles for a few minutes until a scout handed her a report from Corporal Vale. She went back to work.

They left the Villa in the early afternoon. It would take the rest of the day to travel up the switchback that took them over the mountain and out of the Hinterlands. As they saddled up their horses, Bull's companions from the night before came over to say their farewells. Bull gathered them in his arms and said, in Qunlat, “I enjoyed seeing my ejaculate on your breasts. In my language, that means, 'You have both given me deep joy.'”

Solas leaned over to Helen and murmured, “In fairness, Bull's translation might not be accurate, but it is certainly true.”

“I don't doubt it,” Helen replied. “I saw the quartermaster's office.” Solas let out a quiet chuckle. Helen filed away the fact that Solas spoke Qunlat.

Solas and Mor'Lanun led the party up the switchback. Helen brought up the rear, mostly to make sure that Sera (who still bitched about her hangover) didn't fall too far behind.

By the time they reached the top of the mountain pass, it was late afternoon. They only had a couple of hours of light left. Helen assumed Solas would be in a hurry to find a suitable place to camp for the night.

Instead, he lingered, looking over the Hinterlands.

Chapter 31 Solas overlooks the Hinterlands

"Solas." She said it quietly as if they were sitting next to each other. His ear twitched in her direction just before he turned his head and looked at her. He glanced at Bull and Sera, who had ridden well past Helen.

He swung his horse around and joined her. “Apologies.”

"None necessary," she said. Solas nodded once, and they continued their journey south.

**

Compared to fighting their way out of the Hinterlands, the trip to the Fallow Mire felt like an actual holiday.

Helen wanted to get to the captured Inquisition soldiers quickly, but the fact was, the ground team needed a breather. Sera was tough, but she was city-tough. This sort of extended march through the wilderness was utterly foreign to her. And even with their military backgrounds, Solas and Bull looked worn out, dark circles beginning to form under their eyes.

So, Helen set a moderate pace. They set up camp an hour earlier than before and got up an hour later in the morning. Helen let them linger a bit over lunch. Bull had swiped a few bottles of rum from the Villa before they left, which he shared with Sera (Helen and Solas mostly abstained).

Few people lived in the southern riverlands of Ferelden, which meant no bandits. The wildlife here left them alone. They only skirmished when they came across a Fade rift, and for a couple of days, they didn't come across any at all.

It was a much-needed change.

Helen took advantage of the break to learn some new combat moves—like having Bull throw her across the battlefield.

Bull's original idea of running into combat with Helen perched on his horns or shoulders did not work. He couldn't turn his head quickly, which left his blind side exposed.

Sera's suggestion—having Helen make a running jump into Bull's hand so he could throw her like a shot-put—worked much better. Adding her own biotic Push to the kinetic energy of Bull's throw allowed her to go even farther and higher.

It was not a practical move. Bull had to see her, which meant she couldn't use her tactical cloak. Her velocity was hard to predict. It was unquestionably dangerous for them both.

But god help her, it was fun. They practiced every day after lunch. Sera whooped and hollered out suggestions (“Do a flip!”) while Solas vibrated with disapproval.

So she asked him to teach her how to Fade Step. That mollified him a little bit.

She couldn't do an actual Fade-Step, of course. The way Solas explained it, waves of Fade energy pushed him forward. Helen tried to create a biotic field behind her to Push her forward but had better luck focusing on a point in the distance and Pulling herself towards it.

At night, Helen continued to run scans. It was slow going. She only used the omnitool for a short while each night, because otherwise, Sera couldn't get to sleep. Still, even with her limited time, she was able to learn a few things.

Nearly all flora and fauna were Milky Way species, either directly descended or genetically modified. (Personally, she wanted to go back in time to sucker punch the asshole that made tarantulas the size of shipping containers.)

Dwarves showed just as much genetic modification as elves, perhaps even more so. Thicker bones. Shorter, broader bodies. Slightly larger brains and nasal passages. Like the elves, it had all taken place around 9500 years ago.

Every human she had scanned was a descendant of the Andromeda Initiative. A couple of them had some elven traits—namely, an enhanced nervous system—but the traits were recessive. Three humans, otherwise unrelated, shared an ancestor from around 4000 years ago. Helen wasn't sure what that meant, but it was something to file away for future reference.

Bull's DNA was a clusterfuck.

The elven and dwarven genomes might have been tweaked in a lab, but they were still homo sapiens sapiens. Elves and dwarves were, at their most fundamental level, human in every respect.

The Qunari were modified elves, and even the term “modified” was not accurate. Entire portions of the DNA had been replaced with the DNA of a species the omnitool could only identify as, "Archosauria, unknown variant." She had to look up "Archosauria" in the omnitool's encyclopedia because damned if she knew what it was.

Archosauria was a subclass of reptiles—specifically, birds and crocodiles. Somebody, on a planet with almost no advanced tech, had managed to marry reptilian DNA into the elven genome less than 2000 years ago. Nor was it elegantly done. It did not have the precision of the tweaked genomes of elves and dwarves. This looked more like the sort of Frankenstein's-lab horror story that the Sudham-Wolcott Genetic Heritage Act had been passed to prevent. 

When they had time—if they had time—Helen wanted to ask Bull about the history of the Qunari.

For now, though, she added “Qunari DNA” to the growing list of things she'd learned about Thedas which left her with more questions than answers.

**

The night before they were to arrive at the forward camp in the Fallow Mire, Sera pointed at Helen's wrist and asked, “Are you gonna stare at that stupid thing again tonight?”

“Yes,” Helen said.

“Please, not tonight!” Sera whined. “I'm soooo tired.”

“You are hungover, Sera,” Solas pointed out, less than helpfully. “That is hardly the Herald's fault.”

Sera gave him a rude hand gesture before turning back to Helen. “Can't you just, like, I dunno, take a break from that thing?”

Helen started to say, of course, Sera, when Bull interjected, “You can bunk with me, Boss. I don't care if you look at it.”

“Uuugh, no! I'm not sharing a tent with Solas.

“That is correct, Sera. You are not sharing with me,” Solas sniffed. “You can share with Bull, assuming, of course, that the Herald agrees.”

“It's all right with me.”

After supper, Helen stripped down to her underarmor in the tent she now shared with Solas. As she washed her face and cleaned her teeth, Solas sat on his bedroll and wrote in his journal. He wore only threadbare leggings and his jawbone necklace, his gloriously sculpted chest on full display.

Goddamn, Solas. What else are you hiding under those raggedy-ass clothes?

Her mind traitorously answered DNA samples. She started snickering around her makeshift toothbrush.

“What amuses you, da'len?” Solas asked without looking up from his journal.

Helen pulled the stick and flannel out of her mouth and gestured at his naked torso. "I was just feeling a bit sorry for poor Maisie, is all."

His lips twitched as he kept his gaze on the page. “Maisie seemed to find ample consolation in the company of another.”

“Yes. Ample. An apt description, after what I found in the quartermaster's office. Still, you were her first choice. And now here you are,” Helen teased, as she sat down on her own bedroll, “half-naked in a tent with one of those shemlen you don't even like.”

“I can put on more clothing if this makes you uncomfortable,” he suggested, as he started to dip his quill into the bottle of ink.

“Good lord, no. I ran far too many ground missions for the Alliance to have any sense of modesty left. You're all lucky I don't strip naked every night and bathe in full view.”

Solas paused his writing, just as Helen remembered that this was the same guy who had once scolded her for wanting to bathe in a stream. He did not look at her as he put his quill, ink, and journal back into his travel pack. She was beginning to worry she'd offended him when he said, "You mentioned a few nights ago that you wanted to scan your hand as I healed it."

That's right, I did.

She turned on her omnitool, activated the spectrometer app, and held her left hand out. Solas sent a wave of warm healing energy into her hand. The constant ache vanished.

The spectrometer told her that Solas was bathing her hand in a range of infrared light. “How are you changing the wavelength to infrared?” she asked him.

“I am not certain what you mean, exactly. I focus the raw energy of the Fade into healing energy. What do you see?”

“Technically, I don't see anything. It's beyond the visible spectrum, at least for me. Here, I'll show you.”

She used the spectrometer's prism function to cast a small dispersion rainbow, about seven inches long, onto the top of Solas' bedroll. “Point to the first and last colors visible to you.”

Solas placed one fingertip at the end of the red color band and the other an inch beyond the end of the violet color band.

“Interesting,” Helen said. Keeping the omnitool up with her right hand, she stretched over Solas' bedroll with her left and pointed to the end of the violet band. “Humans only see to there. Can all elves see in ultraviolet?”

“As far as I know, yes.”

Helen touched the area of the bedroll past the red band. “There’s a range of light here called infrared. The naked eye cannot see it, but the spectrometer can”.

Helen closed the prism function and sat back down on her bedroll. She replayed the scan of Solas healing her hand, using the infrared filter. It looked like water flowing through the cracks of a sponge.

Solas was transfixed. “Tell me what this looks like to you,” he said.

“I see infrared energy. This makes sense to me because infrared was used in a lot of medical technology back home. How do you change Fade energy into healing energy?”

“With my will. The Fade responds to intent. If I intend to heal your injury, you will heal. If I intend to cause you injury, you will be injured.”

“So, when you heal a cut, how does that happen?”

Solas opened his mouth to answer, then closed it and frowned. Then he had to think about it. “I suppose the simplest explanation is that I tell the tissues to repair themselves and regenerate new tissue when necessary.”

Helen rewound, zoomed into the cellular level of her and watched it again. Solas was not merely reducing inflammation. He was repairing some of the cellular damage that the ionization from the mark was causing.

Helen replayed it in slow motion. Solas, who had been sitting to her left, placed his right hand behind her to better lean over and see the screen.

“Can any mage do this?” she asked him.

“In theory. Most mages have one or two areas of magic that interest them more than others. It is easier to focus your will when the subject already interests you.” His voice was lower than usual, his chin almost touching her shoulder.

Helen turned her head to glance at Solas. His intense gaze met hers. For a very confusing moment, Helen was sure he was about to kiss her.

chapter 31 tent scene

Then his eyes slid to her ear. He sat back. "It is getting late, falon. Perhaps we should continue this discussion another time.”

She nodded and tapped off the omnitool. Solas extinguished his candle. They both settled into their bedrolls.

Helen felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. A physical relationship held little appeal to her, at least at the moment. Given the choice between sex with Solas and a hot bath, she'd ask Solas to kindly hand her the soap.

On the other hand, it hurt to see such a thoughtful man beholden to his own bigotry. Fair or not, she expected better from him.

It doesn't matter, remember? Close the Breach. Worry about Solas' bigotry if you survive. Until then, don't cry, don't bitch, don't blame.

Helen took a deep, cleansing breath, and settled into sleep. Just as she drifted off, Solas said quietly, “Do you remember what we discussed the other night? About your recording of the Conclave?”

“Yes.”

“I know a way for you to share it with me in a manner that would maintain your concerns about privacy.”

“Oh?”

“While we sleep, I could meet you in the Fade. You could show it to me there. We could discuss anything you like, and nobody in the waking world would overhear.”

Logically, it was a good idea, but the very thought of Solas poking around in her brain made her deeply uncomfortable. "Let me think about it."

"Take whatever time you need, falon. Consider it a standing offer.”

“I will. On nydhea, Solas.”

"On nydhea, Helen.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-three

In the Alliance, any time a shore party returned to the ship, they had to go through decontamination. For such an important safety process, it was actually very low-tech. The ground team stood in the decon chamber, in full kit, while UV beams scanned them for a couple of minutes from all sides.

Only then were they allowed onto the ship. Usually, they would head straight to the armory. Weapons were disassembled, cleaned, and tagged for repairs. Armor was removed and placed into automated lockers that scanned the armor, making minor repairs and sanitizing everything inside and out.

They'd called it the “Rattle Down.” If the shore party had engaged in combat, it was the “Battle Rattle Down,” and for a large shore party, the “Cattle Battle Rattle Down.”

The entire process was tedious but necessary. Not only did it find and locate hidden damage to weapons and armor, but it also killed microbes that might cause infection or disease to sweep through the ship.

Only after the Fallow Mire did Helen appreciate how much it had kept armor from smelling like a week-old pile of dead bodies. Because by the time they left the Fallow Mire, there was no way around it—they were ripe.

          Advisors, 

          The Inquisition troops held captive in the Fallow Mire are free. I have ordered them back to Haven for a full debrief.

          The Avaar idiot who captured them is dead, as are his followers. I did recruit one member of his tribe, a warrior who goes by the name, “Amund, Watcher of the Sky.” I asked him to report to Commander Rutherford when he arrives in Haven.  

          We are now headed to the Grand Forest Villa and should arrive in five days. Once there, the ground team will take two full days of rest before proceeding to Redcliffe.

          I realize this is short notice, but the four of us desperately need replacement armor and clothing. Between the Avaar, a Revenant, and hordes of undead, not only is our armor is beyond repair, it smells exactly like you would expect after fighting corpses in a bog.

          If Vivienne could kindly meet us at the Dusklight camp in eight days, that would be helpful. I would like her there when we meet with the Grand Enchanter.

          Sincerely,

          H. Trevelyan

          PS--just curious, but is there some strategic value to having a hold in the Fallow Mire? The place is, and I mean this sincerely, an absolute shithole.

 

The constant stench made for a much less pleasant trip back to the Hinterlands. None of them slept in tents, preferring instead to sleep out in the open near the campfire. It meant Helen couldn't use the omnitool but at least the smoke masked some of the stink.  

Meanwhile, she thought long and hard about Solas' proposal to “meet in the Fade.”

Meeting him there would allow them some privacy that they otherwise did not have in the waking world. Helen could show Solas the memories of the vid from the Conclave. More than that, she could express her deepest fears—becoming a husk, or having her soul get stuck in the Fade.

Ever since the Fallow Mire, these fears were getting harder to suppress.

But...allowing Solas access to her innermost thoughts bothered her. Her memory of the dream he'd invaded had faded somewhat, as dreams tended to do.  What she did remember was that she had not even realized he was present until the very end. How could she know he would not trawl through her mind?

And then there were her growing concerns about Solas himself.

That Revenant had called him “cousin.” Twice.

It was so bizarre, so out-of-place, that it had registered even as the Revenant backhanded her face into hamburger.

Of course, any concerns about Solas had instantly faded into irrelevance as deep, hot pain flooded her skull and neck. Her omnitool had helpfully informed her that she’d broken her jaw. She’d suffered massive lacerations to her face. She’d herniated disc C6/C7. She should report to an Initiative medical facility immediately.

There was no SmartArmor on Thedas, no medi-gel. Nobody carried pain blockers into battle.

Solas had used magic alone to heal her, and the process had been exquisitely painful.

As Solas had performed what amounted to reconstructive surgery in the field, Helen had used some half-remembered Asari breathing techniques to help with the pain. She had zoned out for a bit, fully aware of the pain but calm enough to let Solas work.

Getting her face cracked open by the Revenant had one positive benefit--it knocked away the last of Helen’s melancholy. Sera and Bull had the right of it, she decided. Irreverence would get her through this mission. Moping would not. She'd told Bull to throw her, knowing full well Solas would not approve. But she had needed to do something bold, something life-affirming in the moment. She was still alive, at least for now. She should act like it.

But later, after they left the Fallow Mire, Helen found herself looking once again at the disconnect between Solas' words and his actions.

Solas had revealed so little about his personal life that Helen could list all of it on one hand. He was an apostate from a village to the north. He had been alone for many years. He liked the Fade and the spirits who lived there. He had once been a soldier.

He sometimes referred to himself as a “humble” apostate, but “humble” only described his clothing.

Solas was anything but humble, and not just because he was completely incapable of letting anybody get in the last word. He carried himself like a high-ranking military officer. He spoke with ease about multiple subjects. He was fluent in at least three languages, and Helen suspected he was a true polyglot.

Maybe people on Thedas only saw the shape of his ears or his shabby appearance. But the longer Helen looked at Solas, the more his “humble apostate” label seemed like a cover story.

If it was a cover story, she'd certainly seen worse (Blackwall sprang to mind as a recent example.) She just didn't know why he needed it, and it brought her no closer to understanding why the Revenant saw him as kin.

And in any event, revealing to Solas that she’d understood what the Revenant would also disclose the existence of her UT.

Helen kept all of these thoughts to herself as they traveled. We'll be at the Villa in a few days, she decided. I'll show him the Conclave vid then.

But until she knew more about who Solas was, her dreams would remain her own.

**

They arrived at the Villa in the middle of the afternoon.  Everybody gave them a wide berth. Even the stablehands wrinkled their noses at the smell. The head groom ordered them to drop their bedrolls outside the stable and shooed them away.

But what awaited them inside was so marvelous that Helen nearly wept with joy when she heard.

The Inquisition had fixed the indoor plumbing.

The Villa now housed five full baths, which all included a toilet, a sink, and bathing facilities.   

A scout—in fact, Helen was pretty sure it was the woman who had partied with Maisie and Bull—led Helen to the master bedroom. The room had been cleaned out. The walls were newly whitewashed and boasted a few bookshelves.

“Oh, Maker, Herald,” the woman said, with a hand over her nose. “No offense.”

“None taken. Try living with it for five days.”

“There's the bath,” she said, pointing with her free hand. “Whoever owned this place before, they knew how to live, I tell you. There's a dwarven rune that heats the water as it comes out. It's the handle on the left. Just throw your armor and clothing out here. What do you want to do with it?”

“Burn it? Send it to our enemies, piece by piece? I don't care, as long as I don't ever have to wear it again.”

The scout giggled. “I'll have it burned.”

“Good. And thank you, Scout...?”

“Arling, Herald. I'm Scout Arling.”

“Nice to meet you, Scout Arling. And thank you again.” Arling left, closing the door behind her, as Helen inspected the bath.

The shower was a single shower head, about two meters above a drain, and open to the room. The floor was covered in plain, light-colored tiles. Opposite the shower sat a pull-handle toilet with no lid, and a sink with a small mirror above it.

Helen thought it the most beautiful room she had ever seen. A skylight let plenty of natural light. A stack of clean towels sat on a shelf, and a basket held soap and shampoo.

She stripped herself naked, dumped everything she had been wearing on the floor of the bedroom, and locked herself inside the bathroom.

Then she took her first hot shower since before she'd entered cryo back in the Milky Way. She washed everything twice, just to get clean. She washed a third time, just because she could.

She left the bathroom wrapped in towels to find clean clothes and armor waiting for her on a cot. Helen put on the smallclothes and underarmor, and then read the note that lay on top of the armor.

          Dearest Helen,

          The Fallow Mire sounds horrid! I do not know how you endured such a revolting place.

          Master Harritt sends this armor for you to wear until your return to Haven. In the meantime, Master Harritt has asked me to inform you that he will begin making a new set of armor for you immediately.

          I feel I should apologize for the ugliness of this armor. I promise that it was was the best I could do on such short notice.

          At least the armor for both Solas and the Iron Bull is presentable. I chose it with an eye towards cultural significance. Hopefully, it will tell the mages in Redcliffe that the Inquisition takes any worthy candidate, regardless of race or background.

          Try not to work too much during your days of rest. I know how easy it is to ignore your own counsel. And write to me personally and let me know how you are doing.

          Ever yours, 

          Josie

The armor was black leather with mint-green plating, and a bright, white scarf. Helen put it on, then she combed her hair. Her hair had grown out in the last several weeks, and now her bangs fell into her eyes. 

 

Chapter 33 Vicious Girl Scout

 

She didn't think the armor ugly, but she did think it made her look like a vicious Girl Scout.

Helen tucked Josie's letter into a pocket and walked out onto the balcony. She saw Solas on the opposite walkway, pacing slowly. She left the master bedroom and walked across the adjacent courtyard until she found him standing in his new armor, with his eyes closed.

Even standing still, the man managed to look put-upon. 

 

Chapter 33 Solas does not like his armor

 

His last armor had resembled a bathrobe. This armor looked like almost ceremonial, with lots of braided leather, and decoration. It was beautiful, and it emphasized his broad shoulders and narrow waist.    

“That is lovely armor, Solas,” she said. 

Solas opened his eyes and said, through gritted teeth, “It is Dalish.” 

Helen was unsure why that was a problem. “Do the Dalish make shoddy armor or something?” 

“The armor itself is fine. But I am not Dalish,” he said with an air of forced patience, “as any Dalish who sees me will know by my lack of vallaslin.” 

“I see. Josie thought, well, here. Read for yourself.” She handed him the note that Josie had written to her. 

He read it. His lips pressed together tightly. “Of course, the human ambassador lumps all elves together as if we are a monolithic culture!” he snapped. 

Personally, Helen thought he was overreacting. On the other hand, she was not about to get involved in an argument about Thedosian culture wars, especially not with this man. 

“If it offends you so, go downstairs and exchange it with the quartermaster,” she said, using the I-am-your-reasonable-commander tone of voice she'd once used with members of other ground teams in a different galaxy. “You can wear standard Inquisition armor until we return to Haven. Perhaps you can write to Josie and explain why she's being insensitive. She is a diplomat. She'll appreciate the correction, especially if it means she avoids another misstep.” 

He just glared at her. 

Cranky. Helen held her hand out for the note from Josie. He gave it back to her. “Try and enjoy your time off, Solas,” she said neutrally. 

She headed downstairs and talked to the Logistics Officer, a middle-aged surface dwarf named Gurden. 

Gurden was deeply proud to be part of the Inquisition. He had been at the Villa for only nine days, but already he and his team had repaired much of the plumbing, set up a small forge, and blocked off access to the western side of the property.   

“I love it here, Herald,” he told her sincerely. “There is so much potential.” 

The plumbing included a clever drip system that would water any hanging plants on the trellises. Most of the smaller pipes were damaged or rusted shut, so they would need to be replaced, but the few that still functioned were slowly dripping water into potted medicinal herbs. When he was finished, there would be cooking herbs on the balcony off of the kitchens. 

What most impressed Gurden, however, was the septic system. It had only needed minor repairs to be fully functional. Helen's family had had a septic system on their farm. She and Gurden spent a very relaxing half-hour discussing water filtration techniques and waste disposal. 

When her stomach started growling, she left`` Gurden to his work and headed to the mess. Along the way, she bumped into Bull. 

Solas might have loathed his new armor, but Bull openly preened in his. “Check it out, Boss!” He turned back and forth so that she could admire him from all angles. 

Chapter 33 Iron Bull in new armor

 

“That's fantastic armor, Bull. You look amazing,” Helen told him.

They chatted as they made their way to the mess area and ate supper. “Where's Sera?” Helen asked him, as she was finishing her second bowl of stew.

“Asleep. She got cleaned up and went straight to bed. Between you and me, I think being on the road has been a lot harder on her then she wants to admit.”

Helen snorted into her mug of cider. “That, and a certain somebody encouraging her to keep pace with his drinking.”

“Hey, she's a grown woman, she makes her own decisions.”

“She certainly does. But Bull, you must know how much she looks up to you.”

“Yeah, well...” Bull had an almost fatherly smile on his face, “I like her, too. I mean, she's a mess, but she's got a lot of sweet in her. Just don't tell her I said so.”

Scout Arling was headed in their direction, her eyes on Bull. “Not in the quartermaster's office,” Helen warned him. “I have work to do tonight.”

“No problem, Boss.”

Helen picked up her plate and left, nodding at Scout Arling as they passed. After placing her dishes in the mess tub and snagging another bottle of cider for herself, Helen headed down to the quartermaster's office.

She closed the door, sat down at the desk and began to look at the results of her scans in the Fallow Mire.

First, she examined at the flora and fauna she'd scanned. Bogfishers were descended from the Batarian colony of Lorek, a dump of a planet that really stretched the term, “garden world.” Lorek, tidally locked to its sun, had once belonged to the Asari. The Batarians stole it, as they tended to do, and the Asari never put much effort into getting it back.

Then she looked at all of the DNA she had scanned from the corpses.

She had scanned over one hundred individuals in the Fallow Mire. Five had been elves—three males and two females. Two of the men had been brothers. Both had the genetic markers for the extra receptors in their nervous system. Unlike the other elves she'd scanned so far, these receptors were not dormant.

The rest of the DNA belonged to humans, many of them closely related. Based on what the DNA was telling her, the area had been settled within the last few hundred years by about thirty settlers. Their descendants had brought in enough new blood from outside the colony to keep the genetic stock reasonably diverse. Helen saw little evidence of inbreeding.

More interesting was how many people, including those not descended from the original settlers, shared ancestors around 4000 years ago. It was something she had seen before with a few of the bodies of the East Road Company.

The pathogen that had swept through the area and killed its inhabitants had been an extremely virulent form of tuberculosis. It had been a little too effective. It had killed its victims so quickly that nobody had survived long enough to carry the pathogen elsewhere.

The fact that most of the corpses showed signs of chronic malnutrition might also explain why they had been so susceptible to the--

Somebody knocked on the door. She turned off the omnitool. “Come in.”

Solas, still in his new armor, opened the door. It was fully dark outside. “I hope I am not interrupting?”

“No. How late is it?”

“First watch is nearly over.”     

She'd been in here for hours. “Sorry, I lost track of time. And actually, I know it's late, but do you have a moment?”

Solas closed the door behind him. “You want to show me what happened at the Conclave,” he guessed.

Helen nodded, and Solas dragged a chair over next to her. He turned the chair around backwards and sat with his arms resting on top of the back.

She routed the omnitool's audio out of combat mode, so that Solas could hear it, too, but kept the volume extremely low.  

Resting her right arm on the desk, she played the vid for Solas. She skipped most of the walking through the ice and snow, showing him only when the video started, just so he could understand where she had started from.

At first, he asked questions. What was that blinking at the bottom of the screen? (Her vitals) Who was that speaking? (The VI) What was it saying? (Get help.) What was she saying? (Where's a water fountain.)

But when they got to the part where they heard Justinia's voice, Solas went utterly still. They watched the rest of the video in silence.  

When it was over and she turned it off, Solas let out a heavy exhale, as if he had been holding his breath the entire time. He wiped a hand over his skull and down his face. “That is...highly unnerving to witness,” he said, his voice quiet and shaken. “It is a wonder you survived at all.”

“Justinia survived, too. Had she not sacrificed herself for me, she would still be here.”

“Had she not sacrificed herself for you, nobody would be alive to close the Breach.”

“Which was still my fault ,” Helen whispered, desperately trying, and failing, to keep her emotions in check. She dashed the back of her hand against her eyes to wipe away the tears that were forming against her will.

“Helen, no. Listen to me,” Solas reached over and placed his hand on her shoulder. “That orb, the one you thought of as technology? It is elven. I have seen such things before. They were foci, used to channel ancient magicks. That mage, whoever he was, was trying to unlock it and harness its power. The explosion would have happened no matter who touched it. That it happened to be you was just—”

“Bad luck,” Helen interrupted. “And my own stupidity.”

“Our good fortune,” Solas replied firmly, as he picked up her left hand. “Do you really think that a man who would sacrifice Divine Justinia would be using this mark to repair the world? To free slaves and help the common people wherever he could? Whatever he intended to do with this mark, I doubt it was to make the world a better place.”  

Helen shrugged.

“What were you saying in the Fade, when you and Justinia were being chased?” Solas asked.

“I was saying, ‘Please, no, not the Geth.’ But all the omnitool showed were balls of light.”

“They were fearlings, reflecting the fears of those around them. You told me once that you were not afraid of much,”

“But I am afraid of Geth,” Helen completed his sentence. “Yes. I am.”

“I do not know why the Grey Wardens were involved,” Solas mused, as he let go of her hand. “Nor am I certain how people will react when they learn of the orb's origin.”

“What do you mean?” Helen asked.

“If the Chantry learns an elven artifact destroyed the Conclave and killed the Divine,” Solas wiped both his palms down his face again. “I shudder to think of what they would do in retaliation.”

“Well, nobody will hear it from me,” Helen said. Solas let out a small sigh, and his shoulders visibly relaxed.

They were silent for a moment. Helen thought about Justinia's soul looking down at her. “What would happen if my soul did get stuck in the Fade?” she asked.

Solas looked at her with sympathetic eyes. “Helen, such occurrences are extremely rare. I do not think it is likely to happen to you.”

“Humor me. When it does happen, what is it like?”

Solas looked at his hands as if he were avoiding her gaze. After a long moment, he said, “In theory, it depends on the person. The Fade is shaped by intention and will. A soul of strong will and peaceful intentions could create a place of harmony for themselves.

“In reality, however, the few souls that become trapped often find the Fade frightening, or confusing. They wish only to return to the living and their loved ones. Many go mad, and that madness is reflected in the Fade that surrounds them.”

“I see.” Well, hearing her deepest fear confirmed as a possibility did not make her feel any better. Helen turned in her chair to face him. “Solas, I want you to promise me something.”

“What is it?”

“If I die closing the Breach, or, well, anywhere, for that matter,” she cleared her throat before she continued. “If I get stuck in the Fade, promise me you'll come find me, and get me out of there.”

Solas exhaled, then stood up and turned his chair around. When he sat back down, he faced Helen. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and took both of her hands in his. “I cannot promise that, falon . That is not how the Fade works, particularly not with you.”

“What do you mean, 'not with me?'”

He frowned, looking almost confused. It was not a look she was accustomed to seeing on him. “You affected the Fade in a way I have never seen before. The space around you, your thoughts and feelings, felt almost physical. Massive.

“And yet none of it was of the Fade. The only reason I could even see it at all was because we were physically touching. If your soul remained after you died, I would have no certain way of finding you.”

Helen felt her spirits sink. She lowered her gaze to try and keep her emotions under control.  If she were trapped here, neither alive nor dead, she could not think of a worse fate.

“May I ask you a question?” he said.

Helen nodded. “Yes.”

“When you dream, are you aware of that fact?”

Helen thought about it. “Not exactly, although there are certain realities that I am always aware of, no matter the dream.”

“Such as?”

“My parents' deaths. My biotics. My time in the Alliance. Things like that.”

He nodded. He let go of her right hand and opened the palm of her left, cradled it in his hands. “There is something that might help,” Solas said, as he gently ran his thumbs over the mark. “Allow me to meet you in the Fade. I can show you how to recognize the Fade in a conscious way. It may help you learn which paths to avoid when the time comes.”

She was about to say no, had opened her mouth to say it, but something in his voice caught her ear. She glanced up at him.

Helen had once asked him if he had any family in the waking world. He had looked at her with such bottomless grief in his eyes that she had known his answer before he'd given it.

That same expression was on his face now, and it was there for her.

He's helping me in the only way he knows how. Whatever painful or embarrassing memories Solas might witness, and whatever her concerns about him personally, all paled to the fear of being trapped in the Fade for all eternity.

“All right,” she said. “Let's meet in the Fade.”   



Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-four 

“All right,” she said. “Let's meet in the Fade.”

Solas suggested they wait until they were back on the road, pointing out that Helen had done very little actual resting since they had arrived. Helen agreed, and they parted ways for the night.

What he left unsaid was that waiting would provide less opportunity for gossip. Sera and Bull might understand that Solas and Helen were not lovers, but rank and file Inquisition scouts would not.

His low expectations were confirmed the following morning. He sat on a bench reading a book he had found in the Villa's kitchen (“The Medicinal Herbs of Ferelden and Orlais: A Compendium by Sister Julia DuRoche”) when a sardonic voice said, “Well. Aren’t you fancy in your new armor.”

“Hello, Maisie,” he said, turning to face the scout.

“Oh, look at that. You remember my name.”

The playful softness she’d displayed the other night had been born of alcohol and desire. Now that she was sober, and in the presence of a man who had rejected her advances, Maisie was all hard edges and suspicion.

He could use that.

Solas looked her full in the eyes and allowed the barest, secretive smile to touch his lips.

“Walk with me.” Then he turned and casually strolled towards the western half of the property.

She followed him, as he knew she would.

“If you're looking for a roll now, you missed your chance,” she said.

If I wanted you, he thought, you would be spread naked on a table in the mess, begging for me in front of the entire camp.

Telling her that, however, would be counterproductive. 

“I assure you, I am not looking for 'a roll,'” he said, as he led her to the western edge of the Villa. “I am here to offer a job.” 

She pointed at the Inquisition sigil on her uniform. “Already got one of those, thanks.” 

“This would not interfere with your duties for the Inquisition,” he said quietly. “In fact, I am offering this job to you because you are Inquisition.” 

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you out of your mind?” she hissed in a barely audible whisper. “I don't just work for the Inquisition. I work for the Nightingale !” 

“A fact of which I am well aware. I have no interest in bringing the wrath of Leliana down onto you or any other elf.” He slightly emphasized the last word. 

She blinked. Her expression smoothed out a bit, but she remained cautious. “What would I be doing, exactly?” 

“Nothing taxing,” he said, as he fished several coppers from his pocket and handed them to her. “I do not want you to do anything that would jeopardize the Inquisition or yourself. Fulfill your duties to the spymaster as you ordinarily would. I am more interested in rumors you might hear among the scouts and soldiers. Anything that seems odd or unusual.” 

“Odd or unusual in what way?” 

“Enough for you to notice. I am not looking for anything specific. I only need a pair of sharp eyes and open ears.” 

Maisie stared at the coppers in her open palm for a moment as she contemplated Solas' offer. “Why?” she asked after a moment. “What's your goal?” 

“At the moment? To seal the Breach. After that?” He chose his words carefully. “The Inquisition offers a unique opportunity for the progress of the People. You can help make those paths clear.” He gave her a couple of his drop locations and instructions on how to reach him. 

The coppers disappeared into a pocket. Maisie crossed her arms and studied him. “You know, if I'd known you were with the Herald, I'd have never acted the way I did. Sera told me explicitly that you were not into shemlen .” 

“As shocking as it is for me to say this, Sera was correct.” 

Maisie rolled her eyes. “You were locked up in the quartermaster's office with the Herald until early morning.” 

“I am one of her advisors and the Inquisition's expert on the Fade. We were discussing matters concerning the Breach. The Herald is a good person and a dear friend, but we are not romantically involved.” 

“Uh-huh. Friends don't hold hands in the moonlight while they dangle their bare feet in a pond.” 

“Enough, da'len,” he said, allowing just a hint of impatience into his tone. “The Herald risks her life to save us all from the Breach and asks nothing in return. Her own people are lost to her. I feel no shame in giving such a small comfort to a friend so far from home.” 

Maisie raised a skeptical eyebrow. 

“You know how to reach me should the need arise,” Solas said. He nodded his farewell and headed back to the Villa. He kept his expression neutral and his pace casual. To any observer, he was the very picture of serenity. 

But Maisie's words rankled more than Solas wanted to admit. 

** 

Solas saw little of anybody else for the rest of the day. Nobody sought him out, except for Helen, and even then only in passing. 

He had been sitting alone in the mess, pretending to eat, when Helen walked in with the Logistics Officer, a dwarf so garrulous that he made Varric look shy. Helen never broke her stride, nor did she interrupt the man's enthusiastic speech about the support structure of the Villa. 

But as she passed Solas, she dropped off a small bundle of papers without saying a word. 

          “A Short History of Spectroscopy, from Prisms to Quantum Mechanics. Copyright 2177, 5th ed. Arcturus Publishing, Science Division, Systems Alliance Navy.” 

He looked up, but she had already left the mess. Solas abandoned his food, picked up the papers and spent the rest of the evening reading. 

It was astounding. Over the course of only a few centuries, her people had gone from casting rainbows with glass to mastering travel between galaxies. 

The section on what her people called “quantum mechanics” both fascinated and confused him. They spoke of existence in terms of probabilities. They had managed to measure things with incredible accuracy, yet they also seemed to believe that there was only so much that could be predicted. 

Solas could sink deep into his own magic and see the forces that held the physical world together. He knew that what appeared to be a solid, physical thing—a lump of iron, for example—was a latticework of interconnected points of energy.   

This had once been common knowledge among the educated of Arlathan, but much of this wisdom had been lost over the centuries. Here in the south, Circle mages were punished for delving too deeply into the mysteries of their own magic. Still, the knowledge was there. It had always been there, observable to any mage who made the effort. 

Her people, without any magic at all, had gone even more in-depth, learning things about the very nature of existence that he had never considered. They had discovered it for themselves using only the power of their intellect. 

If this is what her people did without magic, he wondered, what would they have accomplished with it

** 

The four of them left the Villa the following afternoon. Helen wanted to look at another astrarium. They would camp overnight there, then meet Madame de Fer and travel to Redcliffe. 

Once they were underway, Solas trotted up next to her. “Thank you for the treatise on spectroscopy. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.” 

“You're welcome.” 

“I wanted to ask some questions about 'quantum mechanics.'” 

“I don't know much,” Helen warned him. “I never went to university. The physics classes I took in the  Alliance were practical, not theoretical.” 

“I understand, and am grateful for whatever knowledge you can share,” he assured her. “The paper mentioned something called The Standard Model but never set forth what it is.” 

They talked the rest of the afternoon. Helen explained that the Standard Model had started out as a collection of theories that described the tiniest particles of existence. Eventually, it became comprehensive enough to explain the most astronomical bodies in the universe, such as galaxies. 

“The discovery of element zero answered some questions about how gravity and dark energy are connected but raised others.” 

“What's dark energy?” Bull asked. The question surprised Solas. He had not though the Qunari would be interested in such matters. 

“Energy that we couldn't see with our instruments. We could only see its effects. This would be easier to explain with my omnitool.” 

By the time they had arrived at the astrarium, Helen had declared that he had exhausted her knowledge of physics. “I have more articles and books in my omnitool's library,” she told him. “I will print some up for you when we get back to Haven.” 

After camp had been set up, Solas and Helen hiked to the astrarium. Helen scanned it as discreetly as possible, then listened intently to whatever the omnitool was saying into her ear. “Interesting,” she said after a few minutes. Then she solved the simple constellation puzzle and made a note of where it pointed. 

“What did you learn?” Solas asked her, knowing the answer. 

“That underneath all of that ugly glazed tile, it's one of those Veil artifacts we've been activating.” 

“That is interesting,” Solas said, neutrally. “The artifacts help strengthen the Veil. If many of them have been re-purposed like this, it might explain why this area has seen so much demon activity.” 

“Should we fix it?” she asked him. 

Yes, he wanted to say. We should. We should gather them all and take them to Tarasyl'an Te'las. It is the only place where I could study them properly and find out what those damned Tevinters did to my work

“I would hardly know where to begin,” he told her instead, “and such a process would require time we do not have.” 

Helen nodded, taking his word for it, and headed back to the campfire to help make supper. After a moment of looking at the astrarium, Solas followed her, leaving the small monument to his failure behind him. 

** 

That evening in their tent, after they were ready for bed, Helen asked, “So, how do we meet in the Fade, exactly?” 

Solas extinguished the lamp and said, “Lie down on your back, please.” 

She did, and so did he. “I am going to cast a mild relaxation spell which will help you to remain asleep the first time you walk the Fade.” She nodded her permission, and he cast the spell. 

“Think of a place that is emotionally neutral to you, that holds neither great heartache nor great joy, yet offers a sense of calmness.” 

After a moment, she said. “All right.” 

He gently took her left hand in his right and led her through some breathing exercises. He kept his voice low and soothing, slipping into the ancient Elvhen words he had once used to train other Dreamers long ago.   

It did not take long for her breathing to smooth out and slow. He waited a few minutes to make sure she was asleep, then slipped across the Veil and into the Fade. 

He found himself in the largest city he had ever seen. 

Helen was jogging on a wide walkway that ran all along the waterfront. Her clothing—short pants, a breast band, a loose, sleeveless shirt, socks and sturdy shoes—would have scandalized the Chantry but was the norm here. Her white ponytail bounced and swayed as she jogged. 

Her emotional state was calm and unfocused, a result of his relaxation spell, no doubt. Yet even here, her left hand glowed green with his mark. 

Solas made her the center of his focus, giving the appearance of her running in place while everything moved around them. It allowed him to observe everything here without having to chase after her, as well. 

The city was magnificent! Impossibly tall buildings, sleek and gleaming, nestled up against a waterfront that bustled with life. A nearby pier housed a structure with a roof that looked like white sails. Shuttles soared through the skies. All of this had been done without any magic at all. 

She shared the walkway with pedestrians, with other runners, and with people who skated by on wheeled boots. Everybody was human. 

Solas subtly pushed against her dream to see if anything changed. Nothing did. He pushed harder. Still nothing. He tried pushing against it with all of his will. Nothing. 

Curious, he reached for the Fade and tried to pull it through into her dream space. Helen's dream remained as physical and solid as the waking world. 

He propped his hand up under his chin and tapped his mouth with one finger. This was quite fascinating. In the dreams of most people, Solas had to barely issue a thought for his will to override the dream, or at least influence it. Here, he could not even get her attention. Her will was reality, and his was irrelevant. 

Solas tried pushing his own emotions at Helen, like smoke signals. Pride. Desire. Despair. One after another he tried to attract her notice, but she remained as oblivious to his efforts as if she had been in her own galaxy. 

The only thing he had to show for his efforts was one too-familiar Desire demon. “I must admit,” it said lazily, “that I enjoy watching you struggle.” 

“Why are you here?” he asked it. “Surely you do not want to be banished a third time?” 

“If you didn't want Desire, you shouldn't have shoved all of yours in her direction. I can't help what you feel.” 

Solas sighed. “You make a fair point. I apologize.” 

“Besides,” Desire said as it watched Helen run, “I already told you. She never takes anything we offer her.” 

Solas gave it a sharp look. “How often are you making 'offers'?” 

“None of your business. You banished me from your space, not hers.” 

Solas ignored the demon and considered his options. He clothed himself in what the males here wore, and placed himself further up the path so that she now ran towards him. 

Helen noticed him moments later, confusion on her face as she got closer. She stopped in front of him, recognition in her eyes. 

“Solas.” She looked around. “I had forgotten you were coming,” she said, her accent a bit thicker than in the waking world. “Is this the Fade?”   

“This is you. We are in the Fade but what you have created here is apart from it,” he said. “Where is this?” 

“The North Shore in Vancouver. I worked here for several years.” She turned around and pointed to a wide, pale building. A large, stylized arch and three stars were painted on the side of it. “That's Alliance headquarters. I would go jogging a few times a week over my lunch break when the weather was nice.” 

Then she looked him over. “Athletic gear suits you,” she told him, a smile tugging at her lips.   

“Yes. Well.” He ignored the urge to preen, especially with Desire so close. “I appreciate the compliment, but we need to focus on the task at hand. What does this place mean to you?” 

Helen's emotional state turned introspective and curious. “Purpose, I suppose. I had friends here. I am proud of the research I did. But I also made some choices that I regret. When I feel homesick, it isn't Vancouver I miss.” 

Chapter 34 render Vancouver

“For a place you do not miss, you know it quite well. This is an astounding level of detail. May I ask you some questions?” 

“Of course.” 

“How do you make those things fly without magic?” he demanded, pointing up at the shuttles. 

“There’s a small mass effect core in every shuttle. Thrusters provide direction.” 

“I see,” he said, a bit disappointed. “You make it sound so ordinary.” 

“It is ordinary, at least to me. Humanity achieved flight almost two and a half centuries before I was born, before we’d discovered eezo, even. I can show you, if you’d like. It’s all on my omintool.” 

“I would like that very much.” 

“Anytime, Solas, you only need to ask.” Her dark, happy eyes sparkled up at him. 

He kept his hands clasped tightly behind him and looked away for something to ask after. He found it in the blue sky behind her. “Is that one of your moons?” 

She glanced over her shoulder and then turned around to face it. “That is our only moon.” 

“Just the one?” he asked, stepping closer to stand next to her. 

“Just the one.” 

“It is so small!” he exclaimed. 

“Well, it’s further away from our planet than your moons are from Thedas. Still, it’s not a bad little moon. We have a colony there, and the Alliance has a base.” 

“People live there?” 

She nodded. “Over four million. On a clear night, you can sometimes see the domes of Armstrong from Earth.” 

“Have you been there yourself?” 

“Several times.” 

“Can you see your world from there?” he asked. 

“Yes.” 

“How wonderful,” he breathed. 

She smiled at him tenderly. Her feelings were as bright as the sunshine itself. There was curiosity, yes, and an undercurrent of caution about Solas himself. But mostly what he felt from Helen was deep fondness and admiration, even a little bit of attraction. And all of it was unburdened by political intrigue or hidden motives. 

She cared for him. As a person. 

Solas wanted to bask in her warmth, wanted to smile at her, as open and caring towards her as she was to him. 

“I apologize,” he said, trying to rearrange his emotions into something more appropriate. “We are here to teach you how to navigate the Fade, not sate my curiosity.” 

Helen’s smile melted away, and she sighed. “You are right, of course. So. What do I do?” 

Solas looked out over the city. “The reality you have created presents a unique problem. How do you leave a dream if you are not aware of what it is?” 

She blinked as she thought about it. “I am not sure what you mean.” 

“You believe we are here. Therefore, here we are. How do we leave? 

Helen looked a bit exasperated. “I don't know! I've never shared a dream with anybody before, much less tried to escape from one. If you have a suggestion, I'll hear it.” 

“This is as new to me as it is to you, da'len. Normally, I can go into the Fade and control my dreams in whatever way I choose. I have done it for ages. Yet I cannot change one thing about what you have made here.   

“So tell me. How do we leave this place?” 

She looked out at the cityscape for a long time. Then she said, “Oh!” and the city vanished. They stood in the raw Fade. Solas put himself back into his regular clothing. Helen's appearance, including armor, was just as it had looked earlier that day. 

“Well done,” Solas said. “Tell me what you did.” 

“I pulled it all back into my head.” 

“Can you return us?” They stood again on the North Shore. Solas pushed against it with all of his magical might. It remained unwavering. 

“Now pull it back.”  It vanished. They stood once again in the Fade. “Your willpower is quite formidable, Helen. I cannot decide if I am disappointed that you are not a mage, or relieved that you are not a Templar.” 

Helen shrugged. “I doubt I am very different from any other human in the Milky Way. If you weren't here, I'd just be drifting through whatever my mind conjured up for me.” She looked around. “Is this what the Fade is like for you?” 

“No,” he chuckled. “Would you like to see how I explore the Fade?” 

“Of course.” 

“Ferelden has deep memories of battles and bloodshed going back for centuries. I am certain we could find something.” 

“Lead the way.” 

So he did. He found the memories of a family of minor nobility who had raised their own mage children at home instead of carting them off to the Circles. None had been powerful mages, but they did possess a talent for domestic magic. 

For over a century during the Exalted and Steel ages, the area became known for bountiful crops, healthy babies, and its residents' longevity. 

Then the Templars appeared. The adult mages used what few combat skills they possessed to give their non-mage family and servants time to escape. One of the non-mage daughters argued with her father, the patriarch of the family. “Templars don't put people into Circles for harboring apostates,” he told her. “They just kill them. Now go.” 

Every mage died, except for the two young children who escaped with their governess. The Templars razed the estate. The surrounding area quickly slid back into the rural poverty that marked most of Ferelden.    

Helen had observed much of the dream with a solemn look on her face, but when the Templars attacked, her biotics flared around her hands. He reached for her wrist to stop her. “Sorry,” she said. “I know logically that this is in the past, but it feels very present.” 

He kept his hand on her wrist and did not object when she laced their fingers together. 

Once the dream was over, Solas said, “I must take my leave. My watch is starting soon.” 

Helen nodded. “Thank you, Solas, for doing this for me.” 

“It was my pleasure.” They were facing each other. Solas was surprised to realize that he was holding both of her hands clasped in his, and cradled against his chest. He wished to brush her bangs out of her eyes, the better to gaze into them. He even had a mad moment where he thought he was about to slide his hands around her waist to pull her closer. The urge was so strong that he glanced around to see if Desire was nearby causing mischief. 

It was not. 

Helen looked puzzled, feeling both hope and caution in equal measure. Her eyes sketched back and forth between his. “Solas?” 

“Ah,” he said, forcing his panic down, “sleep well, my friend.” Then, like a coward, he popped out of the Fade. 

He awoke. Helen was still in her bedroll. He, however, had practically wrapped himself around her like some lovesick fool. 

Render by https://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/

He quickly cast another mild relaxation spell before disentangling himself. It meant she would not wake up for her watch but a few hours of lost sleep was preferable to her waking up in his arms.

Render by https://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/

He put his armor back on and stepped out of the tent. Sera warned him that some feral dogs had come up to the edge of camp earlier, and then she went to bed. 

Solas walked the perimeter and checked his wards. Then he watched the skies and tried in vain to focus his thoughts on any subject that did not involve Helen. Or how her eyes looked when she was curious. Or how her voice shaped his name. Or how she'd felt in his arms. 

“Palan'em,” he muttered. 

Fuck me.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-five 

Helen awoke that morning to an empty tent and the light of sunrise bleeding through the canvas walls. 

Shit. She'd missed her watch. She threw on her armor and scrambled out of the tent. 

Solas sat at the campfire, making the ground team's breakfast. “Solas!” she said, surprised. “Did you cover my watch?” 

“I did,” he replied, as he began to pour her a cup of coffee. “You needed the rest. You got little of it at the Villa.” 

“Thank you,” she said. She did feel more rested than she had in the five and a half months since she’d arrived on Thedas. “And thank you for showing me how to manage the Fade.” 

“You showed yourself, my friend. I only provided the opportunity to learn.” 

“Still, I appreciate it.” 

He handed her the coffee and their eyes met. Solas' expression was neutral, but his cheeks and the tips of his ears were very pink. Helen had a momentary flash of a moment in their shared dream—Solas, gently pulling her quite close, and holding both of her hands against his chest. 

Bull stumbled out of his tent, yawning and adjusting his eye-patch. Helen greeted him, and the morning continued as usual, and soon they were on their way. 

They met Vivienne at Dusklight Camp, and then the five of them set off for Redcliffe. Sera needed to go to the alienage (Helen suspected it had to do with the Jennies). The rest of her current retinue would meet with Fiona. 

They had barely started before Vivienne implied that, as an apostate, Solas lacked the training to handle everything they might face. Solas pointed out that he had figured out how to seal the rifts at Haven, while Vivienne had not been there at all.

And so it began. For the next twenty minutes, they bitterly argued. Solas believed the Circles were prisons. Vivienne saw them as absolutely necessary. Solas accused Vivienne of using the Circle as a way to increase her own power. Vivienne readily agreed, arguing it wasn't her fault other mages didn't work the system to their advantage. Solas chided her for ignoring the plight of her fellow mages.     

Back and forth they went. All the while, Helen, Bull, and Sera looked at each other helplessly as two powerful mages, each with a boomstick on their back, viciously baited each other.   

It almost made Helen grateful to see the rift outside of Redcliffe's gates. 

The gratitude didn't last. The rift twisted the kinetic energy around it, creating spots where one moved very fast or very slow. 

Helen became stuck in one of the distortions where it felt like she'd landed in molasses. It was an odd feeling. The effect did not tire her, but it frustrated her to see everybody else move so much faster.

 

Chapter 35 . Helen stuck in a temporary distortion. Render by anna-trocity.tumblr.com.

“What just happened?” Helen asked after she sealed the rift. 

“Temporal distortion, perhaps?” Vivienne asked. “None of my reports mentioned anything like that.” 

Solas agreed, noting that the Veil here was much weaker than in Haven, and “altered in a way I have not seen.” 

As soon as they entered the gates, they learned that, firstly, nobody knew they were coming, and secondly, some Tevinter magister now fancied himself in charge.   

Helen kept her grumbling to herself. Sometimes missions started off on the wrong foot and never got back on track. She couldn't do much about it except plow forward. 

Redcliffe had the feel of a frontier town. Cords of lumber and pallets of stone were evident on most corners. A castle, home to the local Arl, sat on an island in the middle of the lake. 

Helen pointed at the ruins of a town that lay just across the narrow inlet. “What happened over there?” 

"Possession and the Blight happened, my dear," Vivienne answered. She explained how the Arl and his wife had concealed their young son's magical abilities. Without proper training, the boy had become an abomination. 

"Darkspawn and the undead attacked the village," Vivienne continued. "The Hero of Ferelden and her friends rallied the townsfolk. Most of the buildings were destroyed, but many lives were saved that night, no doubt because Solona Amell was a highly trained Circle mage.” 

"Who found the shorter lifespan and inherent danger of the Grey Wardens preferable to the tyranny of the Chantry!" Solas retorted. 

Goddammit. Helen stopped walking and turned around to face her mages. 

“We. Are on. A mission," Helen's voice was icy and quiet, "and you two are arguing politics. Stop bitching. That's an order." 

Solas and Vivienne stared at her with identically affronted expressions on their faces. Oh, look, they have something in common

Helen turned on her heel. They walked the rest of the way in stony silence. As soon as they arrived at the square, Sera skedaddled for the alienage. Helen could hardly blame her. 

The ground team garnered quite a few stares. Well, more accurately, people stared at Bull, Solas, and Vivienne. Helen looked relatively ordinary in comparison. It allowed her to observe the locals without really being noticed. 

She saw Circle mages standing around in fretful little clusters, while the townsfolk treated them with intense distrust. 

They heard that the Arl had been run out of town. And nobody, Circle mage or not, seemed to like the Tevinters.

Fiona awaited them inside the pub and greeted them cautiously. Vivienne pounced, gleefully telling the former Grand Enchanter that she looked "dreadful."

Chapter 35 Gull and Lantern

Fiona gave a small shrug as if Vivienne's opinion was the least of her concerns. She turned to Helen and said, "Why have you come here?" 

“Because you asked me to,” Helen said. 

Fiona looked at her blankly. 

“You came to Val Royeaux as the Templars were leaving. You asked me to come to Redcliffe and talk with you.” 

Blank stare. 

“Even though you were right there! In Val Royeaux, ” Helen said, not bothering to hide her exasperation at the convoluted machinations of Thedas. “Your request is the only reason I am here.” 

Fiona protested that she had not heard the Templars had left Val Royeaux. In fact, she had not been to Val Royeaux since before the Conclave but, gosh! That sure did sound strange! 

They were interrupted by the entrance of a short, smarmy man. A younger, much less smarmy man followed him. 

This, Fiona explained, was Gereon Alexius, the magister to whom the mages had sold themselves into indentured servitude. Bull, Vivienne, and Solas took turns explaining to Fiona why slavery was a Very Bad Idea. 

Helen pinched the bridge of her nose, and whispered in English, “Begin passive recording.” 

“Acknowledged,” the VI said into her ear. 

Alexius introduced the younger man as his son, Felix. Alexius glossed over the terms of the mages' servitude (slaves were so expensive!) and his reasons for usurping the Arl (for safety, of course). 

Mostly, though, Alexius stared at Helen - and only Helen - with oily intensity. 

Helen felt adrift. She had come here to talk to Fiona and secure the mages for the Breach. Instead, she was talking to an agent of an arguably hostile foreign power. 

Your mission objective is to close the Breach.

With that in mind, she invited Alexius to sit down and negotiate. 

They had barely begun when Felix stumbled towards them, aiming himself right at Helen. She jumped up to catch him. As he apologized, she felt him discreetly tuck something into her gauntlet. 

Alexius, meanwhile, transformed from creeper asshole to frightened dad. He grabbed Felix and Fiona and hustled out of there. 

Helen sighed and fished out whatever Felix had just stuffed into her armor. 

It was a note. “'Come to the Chantry. You are in danger.'” She switched to English.God forbid that anybody on this stupid planet ever communicates in anything other than the most roundabout, bullshit way possible.” 

“Muttering in your own language is getting us nowhere, my dear,” Vivienne said serenely. 

Helen switched back to Common. “'Getting nowhere' is the national sport of Thedas. I'll fit right in.”   

They spoke with a couple of the Circle mages in the tavern. One was already gloating about the power mages would have in the Imperium. “It’s slavery,” Helen pointed out to the woman. “Just how much power do you think you’re going to have?” The young woman rolled her eyes and sneered. 

The other mage was a Chantry loyalist who hated Tevinter and wanted the Circles reformed. Vivienne liked him a lot. 

They started to leave but a young man with a starburst tattoo on his forehead—no, not a tattoo, a brand —stopped them.   

In a flat tone of voice, he introduced himself as Clemence. He was Tranquil, he explained. Alexius had ordered the Tranquil to leave Redcliffe, and he had nowhere to go. Could the Inquisition perhaps use his skills as an alchemist? 

Helen's earlier annoyance drained away. The advisors had briefly explained Tranquility to her not long after she’d arrived on Thedas. She’d heard it mentioned in passing, and Solas had railed against it once or twice. And, of course, she’d read Varric’s books, but she’d assumed he was taking some artistic license in his descriptions of the Tranquil. 

He hadn’t. Talking to Clemence was quickly filling in quite a lot of missing information. 

"Yes, we could," Helen told him. "Here, let me write up some orders." 

Helen fished out quill, ink, and paper from her pack, and wrote two orders. One would go to Cullen to explain Clarence's situation. The other would go with Clarence himself. "Take this to one of the Inquisition scouts at the front gates," she told him. "They'll make sure you get back to Haven." 

Vivienne unexpectedly took the note and pinned it to Clemence’s chest. “Keep this here until you get back to Haven,” she said to him in a maternal tone of voice. “Don’t talk to anybody other than Inquisition, understand?” 

He said he did. Vivienne made him repeat the instructions back to her before she seemed satisfied. 

He thanked them, saying it was good to be useful as long as one still lived. 

After they had stepped outside the tavern, Helen turned on Vivienne. “That's a Tranquil?” she hissed furiously. “ That's what the Chantry does to mages they deem inadequate?” 

“It’s far better than the alternative, my dear,” Vivienne said serenely. “A single abomination can wipe out an entire town. If you don’t believe me, just look across the lake.”   

“You’ve lobotomized him!” Helen exclaimed, using the English medical term. There was no equivalent in the Common.   

Solas frowned at her reaction. “There are Tranquil in Haven. Have you not seen one before now?” 

“I've hardly been in Haven,” Helen pointed out. “Most of my time on Thedas has been in the field.” 

She pushed her anger down. They could deal with this later. Right now, she needed to spring a trap in the Redcliffe Chantry. 

Whatever she had expected when they opened the doors, it was not the rift, the demons and the mage who was fighting them. 

“Good! You're finally here!” he said, cheerfully. “Now help me close this, would you?” 

Helen threw a barrier over all of them. The kinetic distortions they had encountered outside the gates of Redcliffe were here, too. Solas was caught in one that slowed him down. He Fade Stepped out of it. Vivienne, on the other hand, seemed to know where the faster distortions were and Fade Stepped into them. Helen became stuck in one of the slow spots again.   

Once the demons were dead, she closed the rift. The stranger studied her with his hand under his chin.  When she finished, he walked over. 

He and Helen sized each other up. Helen saw armor that valued style over protection. A glorious physique. Pomade in his hair and mustache. Guyliner. He was beautiful, and he knew it. 

“What sort of magic are you using, exactly?” he asked her. “I’ve never felt a barrier like that before.” 

“It isn’t magic. And it’s a long story. Now, who are you and why are you here?” 

He introduced himself as Dorian Pavus, a mage from the Tevinter Imperium. He was here to stop Alexius from using time magic. 

“From using what again?” Helen looked at him carefully to see if he was having her on. 

No, this man was quite seriously suggesting that Alexius had used time travel to take the mages away from the Inquisition. 

“Time travel?” Helen asked, incredulously. “Time travel,” she repeated.   

Solas, surprisingly, did not dismiss the idea out of hand, although he did express concern over the danger. 

Helen raised an eyebrow but otherwise, kept her mouth shut. She knew that time travel was physically impossible, but this was neither the time nor the place to discuss it. 

Instead, she questioned Dorian about himself, about Felix, and a bit about Tevinter. 

Finally, Felix himself showed up. He told her that his father had joined a cult of Tevinter supremacists. Not only did Felix believe time travel was possible, but he also claimed that his father was using it to get to Helen herself. 

"Why me?" she asked. Neither man knew for sure, although Dorian suspected it had to do with the mark on her hand. 

Finally, Felix had to leave. Dorian told Helen that, if she went after Alexius, he wanted to be there. He bowed with a flourish and left. 

As soon as they were alone, Helen let out an exasperated breath. “What a load of unadulterated bullshit.” 

“What do you mean?” Solas asked. 

“That nonsense about time travel. It’s physically impossible.” 

“It is improbable,” Solas said. “I would caution, however, about dismissing such a claim out of hand. You saw yourself the way time twisted around the rifts here, did you not?” 

"That wasn't time distortion; it was kinetic distortion. Here, I'll show you." 

She held up her wrist. “End recording.” 

“Acknowledged.” 

She pulled up her omnitool and fast forwarded it to the part where they were fighting in the Chantry. “See? Look here. I was stuck in one of those slower distortions, but the timer on my omnitool was not affected at all. Time moved as it always moves planetside—in one direction, and at the same pace.” 

“What do you mean, ‘planetside?’” 

"Time does become distorted when you approach the speed of light, which you can only do in space. Even that is more perception than anything. It isn't time travel in the sense that—" 

What in Andraste’s name is that? ” 

Vivienne stared with anger and fear at Helen’s omnitool. 

"Oh, um, right." Helen had forgotten that Vivienne had not seen it before. "This is my omnitool. I gave it a voice command in the tavern. It has been recording everything until just a moment ago when I turned it off." 

Vivienne said nothing, although her eyebrows had reached her hairline. 

Helen rewound the vid and showed them talking to Fiona. They watched it for a few moments, just long enough for Vivienne to get the idea. 

“Are you planning to travel back to Haven with us?” Helen asked Vivienne. 

“Yes.” 

“Then you'll see me use this in the field. We've been trying to keep it somewhat discreet, at least until the advisors have seen it. I would appreciate the same discretion from you.” 

“You shall have it,” Vivienne said. The enchanter's expression had gone from angry to speculative, as she scrutinized Helen. 

“Questions?” Helen asked. 

“Dozens, my dear, but we have more pressing issues right now.” 

Helen nodded and turned the omnitool off. She looked around the Chantry. 

The only other Chantry she'd seen had been the one in Haven. The Haven Chantry was plain. It had reminded Helen more of a VFW hall than a house of worship. 

The Chantry here in Redcliffe looked like her grandmother's Catholic church. It had an altar, incense burners, and several stained glass windows. 

She walked up to the altar to get a better look at the stained glass. 

Helen Trevelyan was an atheist, like her parents. She'd paid no attention to religion back in the Milky Way. Likewise, she'd paid almost no attention to religion here on Thedas. 

Now, as she looked at the stained glass, she realized just how bloody the Chantry's founding had been.

Chapter 35 Vivienne explains the Chantry history to Helen

“What does that show?” she asked, pointing at the first panel. 

“The corruption of the Golden City,” Vivienne explained, who then gave a quick but thorough overview of each of the seven panels. “Andraste's Herald should know her history, my dear.” 

Helen, who had been staring at Shartan, looked Vivienne in the eye and said, “I am not Andraste's Herald.” 

I know, darling, but that hardly matters. People believe you are, which gives you power far more fickle than that mark. You must understand what that belief entails, lest you end up having more in common with Andraste than anybody would wish.” 

Helen sighed and looked up at the panel of Hessarian ending Andraste's suffering with his sword. A group of people on the Storm Coast were now loyal to her, an atheist from another galaxy, because of their belief in a woman who died centuries before.

Thousands of years, she thought, forlornly. Thousands of years and a whole new galaxy and all we did was make the same damn mistakes

“Thank you, Vivienne,” she said turning away from the gory tableau. “I appreciate the history.” 

“Anytime, my dear.” 

The left the Chantry and found Sera was waiting for them. “D'you 'member Revas?” she asked Helen. “The boy that attacked us that night?” 

“Yes.” 

“His mum wants to talk to you.” 

“About?” 

“To thank you, I think. I was there to talk to ‘im about the Jennies, but I couldn’t tell her that, obviously. So I just acted like I was checking on him to make sure he was all right and things. Now she wants to meet you.” Sera scratched her nose. “It's just the alienage, yeah? Not like a dungeon or a rift or anythin'. Just don’t mention the Jennies to her.” 

“I will stay here and speak with the mages,” Vivienne said. “I expect there are more loyalists to be found. Shall I meet you back at camp?” She left without waiting for an answer. 

Helen looked at Bull and Solas. “You two don't have to come with me.” 

“I will accompany you, at least for the moment,” Solas said. 

Bull just shrugged. “I'll go. Got nothin' else to do.” 

Sera led them to an open, unattended gate that was in poor repair. They walked right through. “The 'Vints must be spread pretty thin,” Bull said. 

“Agreed,” Solas said. 

“What do you mean?” Helen asked. 

"By law, elves are not permitted to arm themselves inside an alienage," Solas explained. "Normally, Sera and I would have been ordered to surrender our weapons at the gate. On the other hand, there are no guards to prevent the Tevinters from raiding the alienage for slaves." 

“I see,” Helen said. 

Unlike the rest of Redcliffe, the buildings here were more like shanties. The occasional plank of wood had scorch marks. Indeed, it looked as if the alienage was repurposing wood from the ruins across the inlet to rebuild their homes, while the rest of Redcliffe had gotten new lumber and high-quality stone. Clotheslines stretched across second story windows, and a sidewalk doubled as an open sewer. 

It wasn't the worst slum Helen had ever walked through—nobody here was in a gunfight, or giving blowjobs in alleys for a hit of red sand—but it was the worst place she'd seen on Thedas so far. 

As Helen looked at the alienage, the alienage looked at her, or, more accurately, her companions. Elves stopped what they were doing and openly stared at them, and none more than Bull. 

Solas, usually so talkative about elves and elven culture, was strangely silent. After several minutes, he said, “If you will excuse me, I have business to attend.” He broke off from the group and vanished down an alleyway. 

Sera snorted and mimicked Solas. "‘I have business to attend.' Git. He even makes going to the brothel sound like a chore.” 

The what now? 

"How do you know he's going to a brothel?" Helen asked. 

“Nothin’ else down that alley.” 

Ah.

Helen brutally shoved away the disappointment bubbling up inside her. Solas owed her nothing. Nothing. Besides, it wasn't as if she'd made herself available for a physical relationship. At least now she knew where she stood with him. It made things more straightforward. And anyway, it was none of her business. 

Don’t cry. Don’t bitch. Don’t blame . Especially not when Bull was watching her reaction so closely. 

Sera finally stopped outside a shanty which looked like every other shanty on the block. Young children who had been playing tag became very quiet. One sucked her thumb as she stared at Bull. 

Sera rapped on the door once. “Marta!” 

A middle-aged elven woman too skinny for her height answered the door. Revas was behind her, peering at them all with open curiosity. 

“That's her,” Sera said, gesturing at Helen. 

Marta wordlessly pulled Helen into an embrace, which Helen returned. “Thank you,” Marta whispered. “Thank you for returning him to me.” 

"He returned on his own. All I did was knock some sense into him." 

Marta chuckled and pulled away, wiping her eyes. “Revas, boy, what do you say?” 

“Thankyouforsavingme,” he mumbled. 

"Thank you for coming back," Helen said. Marta led herself and Helen onto a bench, and they sat down. 

"I was sorry to hear about your husband," Helen told her. They spoke for twenty minutes or so about Marta's life and family. Neighbors came out to listen, or to stare at Bull. While Marta was distracted, Sera tugged Revas around the corner to talk for a minute. 

The thumb-sucker toddled over to Helen. “Up,” she said. Then she popped her thumb back in her mouth. 

Helen picked the toddler up and put her on her lap. The little girl alternated between sucking her thumb and playing with Helen's silly scarf. 

“Have the ‘Vints come into the alienage?” Bull asked. 

"Not yet," Marta said, "but that's my biggest fear." 

“I didn't send your son back home just to be captured by slavers,” Helen said. “I'll send word to the Inquisition tonight to see what options we have.” 

Marta shrugged, apparently not expecting much. 

It was getting late. Helen stood up, and they all said their goodbyes. They left the alienage and headed back to camp.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-six 

The port city of Asariel looked deceptively optimistic at night. Street lamps, a beautiful lighthouse, and lanterns strung along the docks all cast the city in a flattering glow.   

Dorian knew better. He had lived here for several years while he’d trained with Gereon Alexius. Magisters and merchants alike used the city’s lax enforcement of tariffs to smuggle everything from lyrium to slaves. 

The sheer amount of wealth that exchanged hands in Asariel allowed for indulgence on a scale hard to find outside of Minrathous. Dorian himself had lost more time than he cared to admit at places like “The Slippery Ring” and “The Back Door.” 

That had all been years ago, before Alexius had rescued Dorian from what would have otherwise been a short life of wasted potential. 

Alexius had become both mentor and friend. Once upon a time, Dorian had genuinely believed that Alexius would help bring long-overdue reforms to Tevinter. 

Then Felix had become infected with the taint. Gereon obsessed over finding a cure, and instead had lost his way. Had it only been four years since Dorian had stormed out of the Alexius estate right here in Asariel, vowing never to return? 

Now he was back in this stain of a city. He hated being here, hated the memories of hope gone sour, but he had needed a place to stay. His friend, Maevaris Tilani, had holdings throughout the Imperium. She had permitted him to live at any of her properties, should the need arise. 

And Dorian most definitely had the need. After barely escaping his father's wicked grasp, Dorian had forsaken his inheritance. Now he wandered the Imperium, imposing on the good graces of friends like Maevaris. 

The door of the balcony opened behind him, interrupting his dark thoughts with a flood of warm lamplight. “Brooding doesn’t suit you, you know,” Maevaris said. 

“I am not brooding,” Dorian said, in mock protest as he turned to face her. “I’m increasing your property values with my gallant presence.” 

Maevaris smiled. “The arrogance certainly suits you. Come inside, amicus, and pour me a drink. We need to talk.” 

Dorian followed Maevaris into the salon, which had once been the favored room of her late husband, Thorold Tethras. Thorold had liked to conduct business as well as entertain in here. His influence could still be seen in the dwarven furniture and the hearthstone fireplace. Maevaris had added her own exquisite touches since his passing, replacing the bronto hide upholstery with richly-colored tapestry, and adding heavy, silk draperies to the once-bare windows. 

More impressive than the room’s furnishings, however, were the silencing runes in the walls. Once the doors closed, the runes linked up to create a web of privacy almost impossible to penetrate from the outside. 

Dorian headed to the small bar. He poured red wine for himself and a sweet Rivaini brandy for Maevaris. They sat down on the divan, and he gave Maevaris her drink. 

She took a sip, then pulled a letter from the pocket of her dress.  "A courier arrived not long ago. Felix has finally sent word." 

She handed the letter to Dorian.   

          Maevaris, 

          I hope this letter finds you quickly. Father has lost his mind. He's joined up with some cultists that call themselves the Venatori. They want to restore the former glory of the Imperium or some such rot.

          Now he's dragged us down to Redcliffe. It all has something to do with the so-called "Herald of Andraste," but I don't know what.   

          Find Dorian. Tell him to come to Redcliffe now. Father's using the time magic they used to study. It warps the Veil here in Redcliffe, and I fear for all of Thedas if he isn’t stopped. 

          Maker save me, you can see the Breach even from here.

          Felix A.  

 

"He must be very anxious," Maevaris mused. "His letters are usually so polite." 

Dorian got up and started rummaging through the bookshelves until he found a map of southern Thedas. "What have you heard about the Breach?" he asked, bringing the map over to the little table in front of the settee and sitting next to Maevaris. 

“The same as you, almost nothing. It’s just Kirkwall all over again, isn’t it? As long as the southern mages are oppressed, they will continue to--” 

“No, no, no, not the politics, Maevie. I mean the Breach itself.” Dorian traced a finger from the tiny dot that represented Haven and traced it over to the Imperial Highway that led to Redcliffe. “I’d just assumed it was an overgrown rift. But if it’s visible even in Redcliffe…” 

Maevaris raised a delicately manicured hand to her mouth and gasped. “It must be enormous .” 

"The Veil must be thinner than lace down there," Dorian said. "And Alexius is using experimental time magic? He'll tear the whole world apart." 

Maevaris stood up, walked over to her desk and released the spell that kept it locked. She began pulling out papers and pouches of coin. "I will secure passage for you through the ambassadoria. You'll have to go by ship, but they can get you there as quickly as possible." 

Dorian felt a rush of affection for his friend. He hadn’t even needed to ask. “I’ll go pack,” he said. 

** 

He left early the following morning. As he traveled south, the rich, flowing accents of Tevene gave way to the clipped, guttural accents of Nevarra and finally, to the broad twang of Ferelden.   

Everybody in Tevinter knew about the war between the southern mages and Templars, but Dorian had not fully appreciated just how much damage the war had caused until he arrived in the Nevarran port city of Cumberland. 

Tevinter magisters derisively referred to Cumberland as, “Minrathous for dead people,” but as a necromancer himself, Dorian had quite liked the city. It was the cosmopolitan center of the South, and its cultural heritage rivaled Minrathous itself.   

Dorian had assumed that a city as large as Cumberland would be immune from the mage-Templar war. Yet as his carriage passed the Sun Dome, home of the Cumberland Circle, Dorian could see pitting and scorch marks visible on the famous landmark. 

Later, as he waited in line to board his ship in the Cumberland port, he found himself the recipient of angry glares and suspicious mutters. He was unsure if it was because he was a mage or because he was from Tevinter.    

His concerns about the war temporarily vanished once the ship set sail across the Waking Sea. Dorian spent most of the trip in steerage, drinking one tonic after another in vain hope of keeping the nausea at bay. The only good thing he could say for the trip was that everybody, passengers and crew alike, talked non-stop about this "Herald of Andraste." 

Everybody “knew” the truth about the Herald, it seemed. She was a mage. No, a warrior. No no, you sods were all wrong, the Herald was a rogue. She was bald. She was scarred. She was hideously ugly. 

Some rumors were beyond ludicrous. His personal favorite was that the Herald was from another world, and could invisibly throw grown men over buildings. 

Finally, he arrived at Redcliffe’s docks in the middle of the night. He was smuggled into a small, filthy hut, which had nothing to recommend it except that it was on solid ground. He sent word to Felix that he had arrived, and then he fell asleep. 

Dorian was still in the Fade when the cabin door burst open, bringing the bright, Ferelden sunshine right into his tired eyes. 

“Maker, Dorian, you look terrible.” 

“Lovely to see you, too, Felix. Now shut that blasted door.” 

Felix chuckled and closed the door. He lit the lamps, then handed Dorian a large sack. It contained food and drink. After days of seasickness, Dorian was famished. He devoured everything as Felix brought him up to date.  

It was worse than he'd imagined. Alexius had made multiple attempts to travel back in time. Felix still had not figured out why, but it revolved around the explosion at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and the surviving "Herald of Andraste." 

"They're obsessed with her," he said. "Father altered time to get to the mages first, before she could. Several reports saw the Herald talking with Grand Enchanter Fiona in Val Royeaux. But Fiona was here, Dorian. Father secured the mages just as the Templars were about to wipe them out." 

“Convenient,” Dorian mused. “What do we know about the Herald?” 

"Rumors, mostly. Best I can tell, she's a mage. I've spoken to a couple of people who saw her fight at the Crossroads north of here. They said her barrier was so strong no Templar could breach it. Apparently, she'll tell anybody who asks that she doesn't believe in the Maker. And some of the elves here in Redcliffe swear she's an abolitionist." 

Dorian let out a surprised cough of laughter. “Not playing the popularity card, is she? Right, well, what’s the plan now?” 

“For now, we wait,” Felix said, “and see who she upsets next.” 

So, Dorian waited. And as he waited, he learned that he intensely disliked the South. 

It was cold. It smelled like dog. Everybody here was entirely too devout. Every morning, he awoke to hear Chantry sisters proclaim the Chant of Light with indecent fervency. 

Dorian was staying out of sight, so he had to wait inside the appalling accommodations. The Fereldens' idea of hospitality consisted of a hunk of cheese, a bottle of ale, and a filthy mattress in the corner. 

After two days of this, Felix stopped in again. "I can't stay, but she's at the gates." 

Dorian scrawled off a quick note. “Get this to her somehow, and meet us in the Chantry when you can.” 

Dorian snuck himself into that dreary little Chantry. He'd been sitting there, contemplating the ugly stained glass, when a rift opened up above him. 

"Really?" He pulled his staff off of his back and killed the demons that poured forth. 

The time around the rift warped and twisted, some places moving faster, others slower. Maker, Alexius, what have you done here? 

Dorian fought through several waves of shades and wraiths, each a bit stronger than the one before.

Just as he was getting tired, a plain, little girl, with white hair and a green hand entered the Chantry, bringing two mages and a Qunari warrior with her. 

“Good! You're finally here! Now help me close this, would you?” 

The little girl had done this sort of thing before. She called out positions to her friends, then covered everybody in the most substantial barrier he had ever witnessed.    

Her magic was bizarre and utterly soundless. She trapped two shades in a swirling vortex, leaving the party free to focus on other, more immediate threats. It was so effective a means of crowd control that it made Dorian wonder why nobody had thought of it before. 

When the fighting was over, Dorian watched the little girl closed the rift. 

Dorian intro

“What sort of magic are you using, exactly?” he asked her. “I’ve never felt a barrier like that before.”

“It isn’t magic. And it’s a long story.” She crossed her arms and sank slightly back into one heel, putting most of her weight on one hip. “Now, who are you and why are you here?” she demanded. 

Her rough, heavily accented voice carried the weight of experience. Dorian took a closer look at her features and noticed the fine lines around her eyes and mouth.    

Not such a little girl, then. 

As Dorian introduced himself, he gave a quick glance over the Herald and her companions. An elf mage so powerful that the Fade practically danced around him. A human mage whose exquisite fashion sense marked her as none other than Court Enchanter Vivienne de Fer. And a Qunari warrior wearing scandalous armor and an eye patch.   

Dorian explained his reasons for being there. The more he talked, the more suspicious the Herald looked. 

time travel skeptic

 

"Time travel?" she asked, incredulously. "Time travel," she repeated. "You honestly expect me to believe that." Her accent marked her as a foreigner but damned if he could tell from where. 

"I know what I'm talking about," he protested. He explained how he had once been Alexius' apprentice and the research they had done back in Minrathous. He pointed to the temporal distortions they had just witnessed as evidence.    

The Herald just shook her head. 

She didn't believe him. Damn. This was not going well at all. 

Then Felix arrived, bless him, and backed up Dorian's story. Felix explained that his father had joined the Venatori cult. The Herald did not dismiss that threat out of hand, at least. 

Madame de Fer inspected her nails. 

The Qunari slowly looked him over and, just as slowly, licked his lips. 

The elf, at least, took Dorian's claims a bit more seriously, although he, too, expressed skepticism. 

In the end, Dorian had to walk away. He'd delivered his warning, and he needed to leave before Alexius discovered he was here. 

But this wasn't the end. His own magic was being used the tear the world apart. Dorian had many problems with the name of Pavus but he would damned before he would allow his family to be associated with the destruction of all of Thedas. 

When the Herald made her move, he would be there, whether she wanted it or not.

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-seven

‘I have business to attend.' Git. He even makes going to the brothel sound like a chore.”

Solas overheard Sera's comment. He had imagined Bull would be the one to say something, but no matter. Neither Sera nor Bull had even a passing familiarity with the concept of discretion.

Solas had counted on one of them announcing it within Helen’s hearing, which would hopefully cause Helen to distance herself.

And Solas needed Helen to pull away. He was no longer confident he had the wherewithal to do it on his own.

He had spent the morning bickering with Vivienne as much to keep his mind off of Helen as to show the First Enchanter the multiple errors of her ways. Righteous indignation was an old, familiar path. Solas welcomed the distraction the same way a drowning man welcomes a rope.

Then Helen, damn her, had tossed her head, eyes flashing in anger, and scolded them both like recalcitrant children. She’d issued her orders, spun on her heel and marched off, her pert little bottom taunting him with her every step.

Solas wanted to apologize for causing her distress as much as he wanted to run his tongue over her flank.

The morning wore on. Helen sliced through the machinations of Thedas, pushing aside the extraneous nonsense. That morning she was alternatingly angry, compassionate and questioning. Even when she disagreed with him - no, especially when she disagreed with him - Solas found himself admiring her words, as well as the mouth that formed them. 

It shamed him, how much he was aching for release. Had he the time, he would have gone into the alienage and chatted up a local woman to find a willing bed partner for the night. 

Such activities, however, would require an investment of time he did not have.

The basest part of him wanted to storm the Redcliffe brothel, find the most nubile elven woman there, and have her tend to his needs until he could no longer walk.

But alienage prostitutes were not the courtesans of Arlathan. Those men and women had been powerful, respected mages in their own right. They would work spells deep into the body. Foreplay could go on for weeks. Release could last for days.

An alienage brothel was not a pleasure palace from the days of old. It was a place of desperation and despair. The prostitutes there had no power, took no pride in their work. No matter his physical needs, Solas could not and would not take advantage of a modern elf laid so low.

Instead, his purpose for visiting Redcliffe’s brothel was a matter of politics. That it would also dampen Helen’s latent attraction to him was a necessary evil.

Solas placed a glamor on his armor and staff before entering the brothel, making it appear as if he wore workman’s clothing and a knapsack. Whatever the rules were for elves in alienages, no madam anywhere wanted an armed clientele.

The brothel was a three-storied shanty.  A handful of prostitutes sat talking to each other or patrons. The madam--an old elf with ears so withered that they drooped--stood behind a long table that acted as both reception area and bar. Bottles of cheap wine and whiskey lined the shelf behind her. He walked over to her.

“Don’t believe I’ve seen ye here before, luv,” the old madam said.

“You have not. I am here to speak with Elina.”

“Why? Wot’s she done? She in trouble?”

“No trouble,” he assured her.

Now the madam looked confused. “Elina ain’t on the rotation, lad; she’s housekeeping.”

“I am aware. I need to speak with her.”

The madam looked him up and down. “Ye jus’ want to talk?”

“Just talk,” he agreed.

The old woman shrugged. "Just talkin's five coppers. Ye can talk in the laundry room. Ye do anythin' more than talk, and I'll charge ye double, understand? Be done before bells. No refunds." She pointed a palsied, gnarled finger to a door at the end of the hall. "I'll send Elina to ye shortly."

Solas entered a room with tubs, washing boards and soap powders stacked against the walls. He leaned his backside against a table, crossed his arms and faced the door.

Moments later, it opened, and in walked a middle-aged elven woman with a sour face.

She recognized him immediately.  “You!” she said, surprised.

“Close the door, please,” he said. “We need to talk.”

"I shoulda known," she said, as she shook her head and closed the door. "I shoulda known one of you Inquisition bastards would track me down and demand some kind of repayment."

For this woman, Elina, was the angry slave they had rescued, just days after Helen had closed the rift at the Temple of Sacred Ashes.

Solas cast a silencing spell over the room. “I am not here to seek repayment, Elina, only to ask a favor.”

“How do you know my name?”

I know it because rage demons feed upon your dreams like lyrium addicts. Had Elina been a mage, she would have burned to ashes long ago. But, as he had with Maisie, Solas could channel this woman’s anger into something far more productive.

“The Inquisition keeps records,” he shrugged. It was a true statement. Irrelevant but true. “When I last saw you, your group had been placed under the protection of the Inquisition,” he said. “You were artisans. How did you end up here?”

“Artisans,” she spat. “We was woodcarvers, my husband and me. One of the few things you can do when the law only allows you a knife no larger than your own hand. Just how many bowls and wooden spoons d’ya think I can make on my own?”

Not enough, obviously.

“The younger ones joined up with your Inquisition. The rest of us came back here to Redcliffe. Nowhere else to go. So here I am,” she gestured bitterly around them, “cleaning up after whores.”

“I am sorry for your troubles, Elina.”

“Oh, for Maker’s sake, ask your favor and get on with it.”

He inclined his head once. “Very well. For now, I am helping the Herald and the Inquisition close the Breach. However, once my duties there are complete, there will be a unique opportunity to restore the People.”

She frowned. “What, like those riots like they had in Denerim?”

“Nothing like that,” he assured her.

“What, then?”

“Eventually? A voice in government, choosing our own laws. The right to bear arms, like every other race in Thedas. Living where we choose and where our talents take us. An end to watching our children starve. An end to slavery!”

He found himself swept up by his own rhetoric as he described at some length the vision he sought. Would her husband have been murdered if he had been allowed to train with a sword from childhood, like any human or dwarf or Qunari? Would nobles flout the anti-slavery laws so openly if elves were not punished merely for fighting back in self-defense? Would the humans be so quick to pay poverty wages if elves like herself could live where they wanted?

Elina hung on his every word. Where before, her brown eyes had glittered with anger, now they burned bright with hope and purpose.

She was his.

He calmed his voice and demeanor. “This is not Inquisition business. It has nothing to do with the Chantry, or the humans, or anybody at all, except the People. It will take time and effort and planning.

“Our organization needs people in Redcliffe. People who can listen, who can inform, who can keep secrets. If you do this, I can send a small stipend every month. Not much, but it will be free and clear of the madam, and you can use it as you wish.

“If this does not interest you, I will trouble you no further. The choice is yours.”

Of course, she said yes. They spoke until his time was up, then Solas left.

He arrived at Dusklight just after sundown. The camp bustled with activity. Helen and Vivienne stood at the farthest end of the enclosure. The Tranquil that Helen had recruited earlier in the day sat on a log nearby. Bull and Sera traded noisy stories with some of the scouts. The cook fussed over a pot. 

Solas started to head into one of the men’s tents when he heard Helen say, “Solas, do you have a moment?”

Although she was on the opposite end of the camp, Helen had spoken using a normal tone of voice. It was not the first time she had spoken to him as an elf would. Most humans tended to raise their voices, either not knowing or not caring that elves had far superior hearing.

Solas joined them. He would have described the expression on Vivienne’s face as sad, had he believed her capable of any tender emotion.

Vivienne led the three of them into the alcove that took them out of the view of the camp, stopping along the way to retrieve a large package wrapped in silk imbued with a very powerful silencing enchantment. 

The First Enchanter began to speak. “As I conversed with the rebel mages in Redcliffe today, I noticed a Tevinter trying to lure Clemence down to the docks. I intercepted them, and the Tevinter man fled.

"Then a young mage approached me. It was, of all the people, Connor, the Arl's son. He told me that dozens of Tranquil had arrived in Redcliffe with the rebel mages. Even before Alexius had ordered them gone, many started disappearing. Further proof, as if any were required, of Fiona's incompetence.

“At any rate, young Connor heard rumors that several Tranquil had last been seen entering a shack near the docks. I gained entrance to the shack. Inside, I found dozens of those oculara skulls and this tome.”

tranquil book chapter 37

She unwrapped the package she had brought with her, carefully keeping the silk between her skin and the large book she held. The leather cover had an embossed skull surrounded by beadwork embedded into it.  Solas could hear the malicious whispers that emanated from the tome.

“This revolting book describes the process of sacrificing a Tranquil so that their skull might be used to find objects hidden by the Veil,” Vivienne said.

Solas, Helen and Vivienne in Chapter 37

Helen tapped her wrist and scanned it. She looked at the results and shuddered. “Oh, god. Those beads are made from human teeth,” she said, horrified.

"No doubt they once belonged to Tranquil,"  Solas said.

Vivienne opened book and turned a few pages. “It is written in Tevene, and mentions Archon Davon, so the book is somewhat recent.” She closed the book and wrapped it back up in the silk. The whispering stopped.

Helen nodded. “I’ll send word to the advisors. Do either of you have any recommendations?”

"Find as many Tranquil as possible, and place them under the protection of the Inquisition," Vivienne said.

“And we should see if there is any pattern to the location of the oculara themselves,” Solas said. “We may gain some insight as to their purpose.”

Helen had opened up her omnitool again and was tapping out a letter. “Anything else?”

“Burn the skulls,” Vivienne said.

“I say study them. There may be something yet to learn, but do as you wish, Herald.”

Helen thanked them both and dismissed them, saying she would be out shortly. 

Solas spent the rest of the evening half-hoping, half-dreading that Helen would speak to him. However, she spent the rest of her time occupied with Inquisition business.  She was still reading reports when Solas retired for the night.

They left for Haven the following morning.

For the next few days, Solas waited for Helen to pull away, or to ask him about the trip to Redcliffe, or something. Instead, she treated him exactly as she always had.

Sera’s aversion to sharing a tent with Solas apparently extended to Madame de Fer, as well. So both mages shared a tent with Helen. Much as Solas disliked Vivienne, he was grateful for her presence at night. It kept him from giving in to the temptation to touch Helen.

Their third night out, Helen asked Solas and Vivienne if she could scan them.

“‘Scan us?’ I have no idea what you are talking about, my dear.”

Helen explained, "I have been studying the physiology of the different races on Thedas, and I've noticed something. Every elf and a handful of the humans that I've scanned have extra receptors in their nervous systems. Sometimes the receptors are active, sometimes not.

"I think it may have something to do with being a mage, but everybody I have scanned has either been dead or not a mage."

“Would this be like when you scanned me healing your hand?” Solas asked.

"This scan will be much broader. Not only will it take energy readings, but it also will look at your biology. Some people might not like how much information it gives. Here, I'll show you."

Helen activated her omnitool and began typing. Vivienne said nothing but watched the omnitool with a slight frown.

“Here are the readings on a human female corpse I scanned in the Fallow Mire,” Helen said. “She had a terrible case of endometriosis. One of the side effects is infertility. This woman had never had any children. That might be unrelated to her medical condition. It may be that she did not want any, or that she had not tried for children yet. But if she had tried, she likely would have had difficulty conceiving.”

Helen tapped on the omnitool again. Solas watched the text of her mother tongue scroll by so quickly, it was hard to believe she was taking in any information at all.

"Here we go," she said after a moment. "This man, a human male, had neuropathy in his feet, as well as cirrhosis of the liver. Likely, he was an alcoholic."

She closed the omnitool again. "So, that is what I mean about looking at your biology. Anything I learn, I will keep in confidence, but you may prefer that I not know at all."

“I would be happy to have you scan me, Herald, as long as I can see the results,” Solas said. He knew he was in perfect health.

Would the esteemed Madame de Fer be as confident in her own history? What would it reveal, he wondered. Any hushed-up pregnancies? Addictions?

“You may scan me, as well, my dear.”

“Thank you,” Helen beamed at them.  “Let’s get started.”

The spent most of the first Watch with Helen scanning them. She examined them as they cast neutral fields around themselves, both individually and at the same time. She studied both offensive and defensive magic.

For offensive magic, Vivienne placed her palm on the ground and froze a thin, straight line across the floor of the tent. Solas had to admit; he was impressed. Ice magic was easy to cast but hard to control. It wanted to crystallize whatever moisture was nearby. A careless spell would freeze not only your enemy but also your ally standing next to him.

Freezing the ground was just as hard. The moisture content of soil varied, and the magic wanted to spread.

Vivienne had kept her spell as straight as a tautly pulled thread. "Nicely done, Madame de Fer," Solas said, inclining his head. He then explained to Helen why Vivienne's spell was so impressive.

Solas chose something a bit esoteric for his own offensive spell. He created a twin hand from the Fade and projected it next to his own right hand. "If we were in battle," he explained, "I could make this as large as three men standing together."

As he opened and closed his right hand, the Veilhand opened and closed with him. "I can strike down my enemies, or gouge out the ground around them, causing them to stumble."

"Could you pull an enemy to you, like that Revenant did to me?" Helen asked.

"In theory, but that maneuver is a waste for most mages," Solas said. "Why spend the energy on a spell, only to engage in a sword fight? Few mages are proficient with swords."

"When did you face a Revenant, of all the horrible things?" Vivienne asked.

“In the Fallow Mire,” Helen said. “I would have died if not for Solas.”

“You would not have been injured at all had your barrier been over yourself, instead of Sera and Bull.”

Helen just shrugged. “Speaking of barriers, I want to scan both of you casting one.”

What followed was the genuinely exquisite joy of watching a non-mage lecture Vivienne about the poor quality of her barrier. Vivienne did not take the criticism lightly, implying that, as Helen was not a mage, she did not understand magical barriers.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m not a mage, Vivienne. I know what barriers are, I’ve been casting them since I was a teenager. Here. Look.”

The omnitool showed everything in odd colors--magenta, cyan and yellow. The barrier itself looked black. “See? Look at those holes. You’re exposing your backside.”

By contrast, Solas’ barrier was so solid, he nearly disappeared from view on the scanner.

Helen asked them to cast their neutral fields while holding onto their staffs. They did, and she started giggling.

“Look how your nervous systems light up,” she said. Then she showed them the scan. Solas saw himself and Vivienne, in those odd colors, sitting cross-legged. As they each picked up their staves, it looked like bright water flowing throughout their bodies, in thousands of tiny, little streams.

Finally, she did a scan of the lyrium in Solas’ staff.

She frowned. She scanned Vivienne’s staff.

Her frown deepened.

“I thought lyrium was a mineral?” she asked.

“It is, darling.”

“No. It isn’t.”

Solas felt apprehensive. Helen had just made an unexpected, and potentially dangerous, discovery.

It was an almost universal misconception that lyrium was a mineral. Solas did not believe that even most of the modern dwarves who mined it knew otherwise. The few that did know had a financial incentive to keep the knowledge to themselves.

“What does your scanner say it is?” he asked.

"‘Unknown biosynthetic pathogen.'" She used her finger and thumb reverse-pinch the image she was looking at so that she could see it at the cellular level. It was, coincidentally, the same movement Solas used when he was using his magic to look more closely at something.   

The omnitool showed tiny, six-sided columns, almost like quartz. Helen swore.

“Cursing in your own language is rarely a good sign,” Solas said. “What bothers you so?”

Helen pointed to the image of the lyrium cells. “Living cells are mostly water. This is a crystalline structure, with no water. One organism that can both survive without water and which organizes into a crystalline shape when it is inactive is a virus.”

“I am unfamiliar with that term.”

“An infectious agent. It inserts itself into living cells and using the cell's energy and resources to reproduce. It can be something as mild as the common cold or as virulent as a pandemic.”

Solas pointed to the image on the screen. “And you believe that is a virus?”

"I don't know. It's pretty big for a virus, but it has a similar structure. Does it grow on its own?"

"Yes," they both said.

Helen shook her head. "Maybe not a virus, then. Mages and templars consume this, on purpose ?”

“A more refined form of it, yes.”

“Will the lyrium in the staves make either of you sick?”

They both gave her a look. “Not unless we eat it, no,” Vivienne said.

Helen was tapping her fingers all over the haptic interface. The screen flickered through multiple images that Solas neither recognized nor understood.

She muttered, “Biosynthetic, biosynthetic. Created for what, exactly?”

“Hey, Boss?” Bull’s voice was just outside the tent. “It’s your watch.”

“Be right there,” she called out, turning off her omnitool. She turned back to Vivienne and Solas. “Thank you, both of you, for allowing me to do this. I appreciate your patience.”

“Of course, darling. It was a most enlightening experience.”

“I am at your disposal, Herald.”

She smiled at them both and then left the tent.

Vivienne and Solas looked at each other, both wearing serious expressions on their faces.

“Andraste save us,” Vivienne said quietly. “As if her biotics weren’t alarming enough, now she has that thing on her wrist. Can you imagine what would have happened if a member of the Mining Caste had overheard her saying that about lyrium? What secrets will she accidentally uncover with that thing?”

“She is a former military officer. I do not think she will go blurting out the color of the Empress' smallclothes," Solas said, "but you are correct. What looks to her like an interesting scientific inquiry could reveal answers that inadvertently topple an empire."

“I will speak to her tomorrow,” Vivienne said firmly, “and impress upon her the need to conceal such information in public.”

Solas wanted to do the same, although perhaps he would let Vivienne do it first.

They got into their bedrolls. Vivienne extinguished the lamp with a wave of her hand. 

“I didn’t believe she was from another world, you know. Not until a few days ago,” she said.

Then she sighed. “I have not asked her about her own world. I am almost afraid to do so. It is quite a thing, Solas, to get to be my age and learn there is still so much I don’t know.”

"Yes," Solas agreed, after a moment. "It is."

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-eight

 

The following morning, Vivienne rode next to Helen and lectured her about being indiscreet with the omnitool and what it could reveal. “One never knows whom one might offend with its information, my dear.” “The last thing the Inquisition can afford right now is a diplomatic incident.” And so on.

Helen listened for about five minutes, then said, “I appreciate you bringing your concerns to my attention, Vivienne, but I did undercover and infiltration work for years. I know how to protect sensitive information.”

Vivienne pressed her lips together in disapproval. Before she could respond, Solas joined them. “Madame de Fer’s concerns are well-founded,” he said, as he launched into the same damn lecture.

He was more pedantic about it, certainly. Instead of sugar-coating his point in “darlings” and “my dears,” Solas delivered it in a rhythm that spoke of practiced forethought.  

“Herald, I understand your military background gives you an appreciation for confidential information. However, not all knowledge need be private or personal to be dangerous. Many will view your scientific insights into Thedas as a direct threat.”

Helen looked at him for a moment. “That has always been the way with science.”

“And I encourage you to continue your search for the answers to such questions. Nevertheless, Vivienne is correct--you would be wise to discuss your findings with someone you trust prior to any other disclosures about what you learn.”

Vivienne inclined her head regally and said, “I offer my counsel should you ever need it, darling.”

“And I offer mine, as well, Herald.”

Vivienne gave a skeptical little cough. “I am sure that, should the Herald need any advice about outdoor living, she will happily come to you. I, however, have been at court. This gives me a - no offense, my dear Solas - far more useful perspective to offer.”

“The issues of Thedas extend well beyond the Orlesian court!” Solas snapped.

Vivienne and Solas, having delivered their joint concern, fell into the bickering that Helen suspected was a permanent feature of their interactions.

Twenty minutes of sniping later, her omnitool announced that the genetic sequencing of both Solas and Vivienne was complete. Helen lifted her right wrist and said, “File under IDGAF.”

“Acknowledged.”

She would look at it later, when she was less inclined to holler, “IT SAYS HERE YOU BOTH INHERITED THE BITCH GENE, OH SORRY! DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD?”

Helen knew she was feeling petty. She also knew it had far more to do with Solas’ visit to the brothel than the fact that he had scolded her.

But she had no reason to be angry with Solas. She had no right to expect him to change his worldview in the short time he had known her.

She would endeavour to treat Solas with friendship and respect, and let go of any pointless hope about... whatever it was she thought might have been growing between the two of them.

**

The ground team arrived in Haven the following night, long after sundown. After stabling the horses, Helen said her goodbyes to Sera, Bull, Solas, and Vivienne. She was pleased to see the lamps burning in her cabin.

A quick wash, then bed. She was exhausted.  

She opened the door to find Leliana standing in the middle of her cabin, arms folded across her chest.

Well, fuck.

“Do we have to do this now, Leliana?”

“‘Let the spymaster know that she and I will need to speak privately as soon as I arrive back in Haven,’” Leliana said, quoting Helen’s own letter back to her. “Those were your exact words.”

Helen shook her head, closed the door and brushed past Leliana. After dropping her pack on the floor, she put the kettle on the fire. Only then did she turn to face Leliana again.

“You’ve lied to me from the beginning,” Helen said, as she began unstrapping her armor. “Tell me why.”

Leliana, in short, clipped tones, told Helen that she thought the omnitool might have been responsible for the Conclave explosion. She had it sent off for testing. Eventually, her expert determined that it was non-magical and sent it back.

“And then you kept it from me.”

“I needed the leverage over you,” Leliana said.

“Leverage,” Helen repeated.

“Nobody can easily counteract your biotics. You have no family or loved ones that can be threatened to make you comply. There’s no political pressure to exert upon you, no embarrassing past to exploit.”

Leliana gestured towards Helen, who was shucking off her greaves. “You remove your armor in my presence with no concern for your safety. So, yes. I needed the leverage.”

Helen rolled her eyes. “As long as the Breach remains, you won’t harm me. If nothing else, you do want to save your own planet.”

“And after the Breach is closed?” Leliana asked. “Would you feel so safe in front of me then?”

“Yes.”

Helen, now down to her underthings, stacked her armor on a shelf. She rummaged through the wardrobe until she found plain, white cotton panties, and a white, flannel nightgown. Bless you, Josie . You’re still my favorite .

The kettle had started to steam. Helen stripped off the last of her clothing, poured hot water into the basin, lathered a flannel, and began to wash.

“You know I will close the Breach,” Helen said. “However, I see no reason why I have to be the one who negotiates with the mages or Templars, or runs Inquisition errands all over Ferelden.

“I had been willing to do so because I’d thought the Inquisition was treating me with good faith. Now?” Helen shrugged and bent forward at the waist to pour water over her head. “The Villa has better food and indoor plumbing. Pick a side, and send for me when they arrive.”

“No. It has to be you,” Leliana said with no small amount of bitterness. “The Inquisition doesn’t have enough power yet to be able to persuade anybody without you.”

“Not my problem, Spymaster,” Helen said as she reached for a towel and began to rub it across her head.  

Helen finished the rest of her cleaning routine in silence, waiting to see if Leliana would call her bluff.

Leliana said nothing. Finally clean, Helen clad herself in the panties and nightgown, then got into her bed. “If you have anything to add, do it now. Otherwise, I will see you at the debrief tomorrow.”

Leliana sighed, “We found your ship.”

“Oh, sure you did. If you think I’m going to believe you now, you’re sadly--” Leliana handed her a piece of folded paper.

Helen opened it up. There, in unsteady Roman alphanumerics:

          “HEEV SC-A619”

Hyperion Emergency Escape Vehicle No. SC-A619.

“I know you said not to approach the ship because it might be leaking poison, but one of my scouts is very quick with a pencil,” Leliana said. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“It’s a serial number,” Helen said quietly. “Every Ark had four thousand escape pods. This one was assigned to the Hyperion’s Security division. When did you find it?”

“Ten days ago. Cullen and Josie don’t know yet. I wanted to be the one to tell you.”

Helen looked up from the paper. “And is its location your new leverage?”

“No. It’s located at the bottom of a ravine about a day’s journey from here. There’s been some snowmelt recently, and it slid down the mountainside. Whenever you’re ready, Charter will arrange a team to take you there.” She handed Helen a map, showing the location of the escape pod.

“Thank you,” Helen said, staring at the map.

Lelina frowned. “I thought you would be more excited about having your ship back.”

“It isn’t really a ship,” Helen explained. “It can’t go anywhere under its own power. Still, between the pod and my cryo unit, there may be enough security logs and news feeds that I can find out what went wrong here in Andromeda.”

Leliana was quiet for a long moment. Then, moving so quickly that it startled Helen, the Spymaster dropped to the floor and pulled a small, wooden crate out from under Helen’s bed.

It was full of wine bottles. Leliana hoisted the crate onto the table.

“I need a drink,” she said. She took off her gloves and carelessly threw them onto a chair.

“Why is there a crate of wine under my bed?” Helen asked.

“Because they’re yours,” Leliana began rummaging through the box, looking at labels. “People all across Thedas are hearing about us, about you . Even a minor diplomatic inquiry usually comes with some sort of token.”

“Should I scan them for poison?” Helen asked.

Leliana looked offended. “Do you really think I would allow them anywhere near you if I had not already checked? Give me some credit, Herald.”

Helen got out of bed, and grabbed two mugs from a shelf.  Leliana fished a corkscrew from the crate, opened a bottle and poured a cherry-red wine into the cups. Berries and citrus scented the air. They sat at the table.

“This is a Rivaini fortified red,” Leliana explained, as she took a swallow from her mug.  “A bit sweet, and stronger than it tastes.”

Helen took a sip. “Very tasty,” she said.  

Leliana took another, much longer, drink, then squinted at Helen. “Do you know how odd you sound? How little sense you make sometimes? ‘Here in Andromeda.’ ‘Cryo units’ and ‘news feeds.’ Your printed letters. Everything about you is bizarre.”

“How do you think Thedas looks to me ?” Helen replied. “Magic, demons, and possession are fairy tales and horror stories in my world. Not to mention this ,” she said holding up her left hand, the mark clearly visible.

“The omnitool tells me it’s an ‘unknown plasma.’ Most plasmas are so hot that it would have burned my hand to a crisp. Tech plasmas are much cooler, but have to be artificially contained. Either way, everything I know about the world tells me this cannot exist.”

Leliana stared at Helen for a long moment, then took another drink. “As I said, you’re bizarre. Can you blame me for sending your bracelet off for testing?”

Leliana’s question triggered something in Helen’s memory, and she turned on the haptic interface.

Leliana spluttered a bit on the wine she was swallowing but recovered quickly. “Warn a girl, Herald.”

Helen scrolled through the security files that had been recorded after the Conclave explosion.

“One of the security features of my omnitool is that it will passively record any attempt to break into it,” Helen said. She found the first post-Conclave video and hit “play.”

The face of an intense young dwarf floated above the omnitool, and said, “You are just not giving up your secrets, are you?”

“Dagna!” Leliana said, astounded.

“Who’s Dagna?”

“The arcanist I sent the omnitool to for testing. I’ve known her for years. She’s brilliant. Mad, but brilliant.”

The omnitool was recording that it was being subjected to an electromagnetic field. Dagna looked away as if she were making notes. “Let’s try this, then,” and the strength of the field increased. Dagna shook her head. “Still nothing.” She sounded delighted at that fact, and turned the strength of the field up even higher.

There were several clips of Dagna cheerfully subjecting the omnitool to various tests. She wore giant goggles in one vid, and appeared to be fishing the omnitool out of boiling water.  

Leliana giggled but Helen was quietly horrified. The Savant BIO omnitool had been hardcoded to her DNA. Nobody could access it without Helen’s permission.

But Dagna could have ruined it, had she tried hard enough, or run the wrong test.

The last vid of Dagna ended. The next one was several weeks later.

She hit play.

It was Solas’ face, lit by campfire, as he held the omnitool at arm’s length and frowned at it. His other hand, bathed in green light, passed over the omnitool. He brought it closer to his face and studied it, turning it over and over in his hands. The camera caught glimpses of his wrapped feet and a campsite.

Then he tucked it back into the jawbone pendant, and the recording ended.

“I hear you and Solas have grown quite close,” Leliana said, watching Helen carefully.

Close . Yes, that was both fair, and fairly vague.  “We have,” Helen agreed.

“You’re sharing a tent now,” Leliana said.

“At times.”

“Did he tell you he visited the brothel in Redcliffe?”

“No, he didn’t.” Technically, Sera had told her.

Chapter 38 Leliana and Helen

“Well, he did. Do you know how I know that?”

“One of your creepy ravens works there?”

This actually made Leliana laugh out loud. “In a way. The madam is an agent of mine.”

Helen nodded. “Your network sounds extensive.”

“It is. It needs improvement, of course, but then, what doesn’t?” Leliana took a sip. “Does it bother you, knowing he went there?”

Yes .

“If I’d pitched a fit every time a member of my ground team blew off a little steam, I’d have had a miserable time running combat missions.”

“Hmmm,” Leliana looked Helen directly in the eyes. “Do you want to know what he did at the brothel?”

Helen met Leliana’s gaze. “Does the Inquisition’s Spymaster want me to know?”

“Yes,” Leliana said. “Do you remember those elves you rescued from the slavers?”

Helen had to think for a moment. It seemed so long ago. “Artisans, right? Captured on the road?”

Leliana nodded. “That’s right. They were from Redcliffe, actually. One of them, an older woman, had acted as their spokesperson.”

“I remember,” Helen said. “She was suspicious of us until she saw Cassandra.”

“Yes. Now she’s a maid at the whorehouse in the alienage. Solas went there and spoke with her. She told my agent that he was there to check on the welfare of her and the other elves who had not been able to secure employment within the Inquisition.”

Helen took a deep drink of wine, then sat back in her chair. “Really.”

“Why does this surprise you?”

“Because, as much as Solas goes on and on about the flaws of every race on Thedas  -  and he does, at length - he saves his strongest criticism for elves. The Dalish are ‘children.’ Alienage elves are ‘servile.’ No topic seems to frustrate him more.”

Leliana gave her a wicked smile. “Oh, I know one topic that frustrates him more.”

“Which is?”

“You, of course.”

Helen let out a little impatient huff, and would not look at Leliana.

“The madam had no idea who he was,” Leliana said. “She’d never seen him before, and his request to speak with the maid was odd. Not the oddest thing she’s ever seen, obviously, but still. It stood out.

“But which seems more likely to you? An apostate hermit goes to a whorehouse to check on the welfare of an old woman he’d rescued several months before?”

“It’s plausible,” Helen interrupted.

“Has he done it before?”

“Not that I know of,” Helen admitted.

Or ,” Leliana said, pouring more wine into Helen’s mug as she continued her argument, “a lonely elf goes to an alienage brothel to forget the human he’s so attracted to, only to find he has no interest once he gets there?”

“So, talking to the woman was just, what - a cover story?”

The redhead shrugged. “You know that Bull sends intelligence reports to the Qun. He’s kept his promise not to let them know about the omnitool until the advisors have seen it, by the way. Just thought you’d like to know.

“Anyway, Bull also sends reports to me. Do you know what he tells me?”

“How big his boner is when he kills a giant?”

Leliana gave a throaty laugh. “There’s a conversation for another time, but no. What Bull tells me is that Solas is falling in love with you.”

Helen opened her mouth, then shut it again, trapping all of the angry words that had nearly spilled out. She took a breath. You don’t get to be offended that the spy was spying on you. He told you as much when you hired him.

“Why is Bull telling you this?” Helen asked, as calmly as she could.

Leliana went from gossipy to lethal in an instant. “Because it’s a potential weakness to be used against you. Against us . If somebody were to take Solas hostage, what would you do to rescue him?”

“I killed everything in the Fallow Mire to rescue a group of people I’d never met,” Helen pointed out.

“That’s fair,” Leliana conceded. “But what if you were asked to do something less noble to save him? Would you?”

“Would I betray the Inquisition, you mean,” Helen said.

“Yes.”  

“I can’t give you the answer you want to hear, Leliana. I don’t know what your goals are, beyond closing the Breach. I don’t really even know what my own role in the Inquisition is supposed to be.

“You call me ‘Herald,’ but that’s not a formal title. I don’t have a military rank. I don’t get paid. I have personal loyalties to some people in the Inquisition, but not to the Inquisition itself.”

Helen drained her mug of wine. “As for Solas, you’re just looking for new leverage.”

“Maybe,” Leliana admitted, pouring more wine for Helen, “although I wasn’t lying about what Bull said. He wrote that Solas’ eyes, quote, ‘follow the Herald unless his attention is focused on battle or the Fade,’ unquote.”

Bet he’d hate to hear that about himself .

“Why are you telling me this, Leliana?”

“It’s my job to know my people, and I’m beginning to realize I don’t know you at all. Besides, you can’t blame a girl for being curious. Solas isn’t exactly hard on the eyes. How do you feel about him?”

“Ask Bull.” Helen drank more of the wine Leliana had just poured.

“I did. He says you’re quite fond of Solas, and respect him a great deal, but that you aren’t lovers.”

Helen nodded. “All of that is true.”

“He also says you’re hard to read.”

Helen just shrugged. “Sounds like he’s reading me just fine.”

Leliana snorted a little. “Maker, you’re good at this.”

“This isn’t my first fishing expedition, Leliana.”

“No. I suppose it isn’t. So,” she said, changing topics, “besides Dagna’s pretty face, what else will that thing show us tomorrow?”

“What happened at the Conclave.”

Leliana’s smile faded. “What do you mean?”

“Everything from me leaving my escape pod to the moment you removed my omnitool in the Chantry dungeon.”

“How long have you known this?”

“Since the day after Solas returned my omnitool to me.”

Leliana went utterly still.

“Am I to understand,” her voice sounded like a knife dropped on the floor, “that you’ve known what happened at the Conclave for weeks and you didn’t immediately tell us?”

Helen felt her mouth drop open.

“Why would you do that?” Leliana continued, her tone accusatory. “Worried about what we’ll see? Or did you just want a little more tent time with Solas?”

“Are you fucking serious ?” A wave of astonished fury hit Helen so hard that she had to stand up and pace, lest she physically strike Leliana.

“One of the very first things I ever told you was that my omnitool may have recorded the explosion! If you had just given it to me, I could have shown you everything  - everything! -   the day I woke up.

“The Conclave. Where I came from! How I got here! All of it is here, and all of it could have been known to you before supper, that very first night here in Haven.” Helen’s biotics involuntarily flared around her hands, her anger almost getting the best of her. “ Every single time I came back to Haven, I asked if you’d found it. And every single time , you not only lied to me, you kept sending me back out there!” Helen exclaimed, pointing at the door.

Barely suppressed rage had thickened her accent, and her biotics flickered over her entire body, bathing her in eerie, blue light. “Four months, Leliana. Four months! And you wonder why I have no loyalty towards the Inquisition?”

As Helen paced, Leliana had moved her hands. One was palm down next to her mug, while the other was hidden under the table.

She’s afraid of me . The realization brought no satisfaction. It only reminded her of just how exhausted she really was.

Only slightly calmer, Helen reined in her biotics and sat down at the table again.

“I’ll tell you true, Spymaster ,” Helen spat the title like it was the worst insult. “When I first saw the recording, I considered returning to Haven and showing it to all of you. But that would have added weeks to my ground missions.

“Everybody at the Conclave is dead. Rescuing soldiers and closing rifts saves the living. If watching the dead die was more important to you, you should have said something. But you didn’t. So I made my own judgment call.

“And if you don’t like it, fuck off.” She stared at Leliana over the rim of her mug as she drank.

Leliana dropped her gaze to her own mug. A long, long, awkward silence followed. Helen was not going to break it. This was Leliana’s mistake to fix.

Finally, Leliana quietly asked, “What did happen at the Conclave?”

Helen deflated a bit. The Conclave, on the other hand, was not Leliana’s mistake. It was her own.

“You’ll probably understand it better than I do, when you see it. I interrupted something, a ritual of some sort. Do you remember that voice at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, the one that said, ‘Keep the sacrifice still?’”

Leliana nodded.

“Justinia was the sacrifice, and the voice belonged to a man,” Helen continued. “Although he was so badly deformed,  I don’t know if he could even still be considered human.

“Anyway, I interrupted whatever it was he was trying to do. He was holding an orb. When I walked into the room, Justinia knocked it out of his hand. It bounced my way and like a fool, I reached for it. It attached itself to my hand. I screamed my head off, then everything exploded. Justinia and I were both blown into the Fade.

“I was knocked unconscious. Justinia found me. She got me up and moving. We were being chased. She located a rift. She could have gone through it, and escaped. Instead, she sacrificed herself to get me through.” Saying it out loud still made Helen’s eyes water.

“She would,” Leliana whispered. “That sounds very much like her.”

“I am sorry, Leliana,” Helen said. “I won’t lie, I’m angry at you. But I am sorry about Justinia and everybody else who died. I am sorry for the part I played in all of this. I know it doesn’t mean much now, but I never wanted any of this.”

“I believe you,” Leliana responded, “but I wish I didn’t. It was easier when I thought you were lying to us all.”

The Spymaster drained the last of her wine, and stood up. “Well,” she said, as she took another bottle of wine for herself, “tomorrow should be interesting. I will inform the others about the recording. Good night, Herald.”

Leliana had made it all the way to the front door, when Helen called out, “Leliana?”

The Spymaster looked back at Helen, who held up her left hand. The mark glowed faintly green, as it always did this close to the Breach.

“This is the only leverage you ever needed.”

Leliana held her gaze for a long moment. Then she nodded once, and left.

Chapter Text

Chapter thirty-nine

 

Cullen sat in his tent wearing breeches and tunic, re-reading the report in his hand for the fifth or sixth time. His head ached. Words lost their meaning as soon as he read them.

It was late, well into the Second Watch. For the last couple of weeks, he had stopped writing in his journal in favor of the ever-growing list of reports and paperwork that required his attention.

“Cullen?” Leliana’s quiet voice was just outside his tent.

“Come in.”

She did, with a bottle of wine in her hands.

Leliana’s deception regarding the whereabouts of the omnitool had upset both Cassandra and Josephine.

As a result, Leliana had been on the outs with her two closest friends.

Everybody was still remarkably civil, of course. These were not women who would allow grudges to get in the way of what they needed to accomplish.

But even he could tell that the distance hurt Leliana. Cullen, feeling a bit guilty that his tattling had gotten her in trouble with Cass and Josie, had started speaking with her more often. He’d quickly learned that, for all of her skill and intellect, Leliana struggled with as many insecurities as the rest of them. More, even.

And now that the Herald and her ground team had returned, Leliana had set out to mend some fences. Cullen suspected she was doing it to get back into the good graces of her friends, as she didn’t seem especially fond of the Herald herself.

“Well?” he asked. “How did it go?”

“Tell me you have a corkscrew.”

Cullen fished out his pocket knife and handed it to her. Within moments, the wine was open, and he had his knife back.

Leliana drank straight from the bottle. Cullen raised his eyebrows but said nothing. She tipped the bottle towards him. He waved it off. His headache was severe enough already.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” she said quietly, staring at the bottle.

Cullen waited.

“I didn’t want to believe her,” Leliana said. “But she’s so convinced of who she is and where she comes from that it’s hard to be skeptical when she’s here.

He nodded in agreement.

“But she isn’t ever here, is she?” Leliana asked rhetorically. “Everything she says sounds like nonsense when she’s gone.”

Cullen remained silent and let her vent. This was not the first time Leliana had expressed disbelief about the Herald’s origins. She was wrong in this instance, but for the most part, the Inquisition had been well-served by Leliana’s skepticism.

Chapter 39 Leliana and Cullen

"I decided that, at best, she was deluded. At worst, she was a phenomenal liar," she continued.

“Her printed letters decided it for me. She was a liar. She had to be. I told myself that only a very, very clever enchantment could do that while still escaping Dagna’s detection.”

Leliana sighed, picking at the label on the wine bottle. “But then my scouts found her ship.”

What ?” Cullen asked. “When?”

“Ten days ago. Oh, don’t look at me like that. It isn’t going anywhere. Cassandra and Josie are already mad at me, and I needed to offer the Herald something on my own. For all the good it did.”

"She wasn't happy to hear about her ship? She certainly asked after it enough."

Leliana took another swig from the bottle. “Not really. She explained what it was, and why she wanted to get to it. You know how she sounds when she talks about her world, it’s just bizarre.

“But it wasn’t like her bracelet. She doesn’t care about the ship itself, only the information it might have. It wasn’t the peace offering I thought it would be.”

“Well, that’s a shame, I suppose, but that hardly seems like a terrible mistake.”

“It wasn’t. My terrible mistake was not giving her that damned bracelet as soon as Dagna returned it.”

Leliana recounted everything for him, starting with her failed attempt to get the Herald to warm up over wine, to the recounting of what had happened at the Conclave.

Cullen only interrupted once, upset that the Herald had not told them about the Conclave explosion as soon as she’d seen it.

“That was my reaction, too,” Leliana said. “Maker, Cullen, I’ve never seen her so angry. She pointed out that she could have shown us everything the day she woke up. But that I had held on to it for months, while still sending her out into the field. She said if watching the dead die was more important than saving the living, I should have said something sooner.”

Leliana kept drinking as she recounted her tale, but she stayed sober enough to tell him had happened at the Conclave.

Maker.

Blood magic. The explosion. The Fade. Justinia’s sacrifice. The longer the story went on, the more nightmarish it became.

“And then, at the end of it all,” Leliana said, now stretched out on Cullen’s cot, “she apologized to me. Said she was sorry for her role in Justinia’s death.

“So there you have it. Evidence of the greatest crime ever committed against the Chantry sat in my strong box for months, while I convinced myself that the only witness was a liar and a fraud. How do you like our chances now, Cullen?”

The empty wine bottle dangled from her fingertips, and her eyes were bloodshot and heavy.

“None of us wanted to believe her,” he said.

“You believed her well enough. You even gave the omnitool back to her.”

Watching Leliana angry, sad, or upset was one thing. Watching her despair was something else entirely.

“No. You’re not allowed to do this.”

She gave him a baleful glare. "Not allowed to do what? Beat myself up?"

“Oh, by all means, feel free to do that,” he said blithely. “Maker knows nobody else has the balls to do it for you.”

He stood up and reached a hand towards her. “You’re not allowed to pass out in my tent. I don’t have anywhere else to sleep.”

Leliana’s lips twitched. “Fine," she sighed dramatically. She took his hand and hoisted herself off the cot. She fished a restoration potion from one of her pockets and drank it down quickly. Her eyes cleared just a bit, and her posture straightened. It would at least get her to her quarters without looking like a complete sot.

She looked at his desk, with its small mountain of papers. “I don’t understand why you don’t just take up Josie’s offer of an assistant or two,” she nagged. “You have other things to do.”

“Yes. Like sleep.”

Leliana shrugged one shoulder and dropped the subject. "Right, then. See you tomorrow."

“Good night, Leliana.”

With the Spymaster gone, Cullen sighed as he looked at the reports on his desk. Giving it all up as a bad job, he doused his candle and went to bed.

**

Cullen left his tent long before sunrise the next morning. As he walked to the Chantry, he heard the Herald's distinctive voice call his name. He looked to his left and saw her leaving her quarters.

She jogged to catch up with him. “Good morning, Commander.”

“Good morning, Herald. Welcome back.”

“I wanted to thank you again for returning my omnitool to me,” she said, as she fell into step with him. “It was a kindness I will not forget.”

“Oh. Ah, you’re welcome,” he said, unsure how he felt about it now, having spoken with Leliana last night.

They continued towards the Chantry in awkward silence. He didn’t do small talk well, and he barely knew the Herald. So he was more than a little grateful when she said, "Tell me how your recruits are coming along."

The topic carried them all the way to the back of the Chantry, where they heard muffled but angry voices coming from behind the closed door of the War Room.

The Herald sighed and opened the door without knocking.

Leliana, Cassandra, and Josephine stopped mid-argument.

Cassandra reached out to shake the Herald’s hand. “Herald,” she said, “it is good you have returned. And I apologize. We were just discussing Leliana’s…”

“Deception?” Josie said. “You should have told us about the ship!”

The Herald closed the door behind her. “Peace, everyone. Leliana wanted to tell me first. As I am the only one who can repair it safely anyway, there was no harm done. Hello, Josie.”

The Ambassador rushed over to embrace the Herald. “Helen! I am so glad you are back! We have been so worried about you!”

Cullen rolled his eyes. He had not been worried about the Herald. She was a soldier, for Maker’s sake, not a child.

Once everyone had taken their places around the War Table, Helen asked, “Did Leliana tell you all about the Conclave explosion?”

Everybody nodded. Cassandra said, “You should have told us about it right away.”

“I agree,” Cullen chimed in. “Maker only knows what sort of opportunities we’ve lost because of your delay.”

The Herald might have lost her temper with Leliana the night before, but this morning she was entirely unruffled.

“I told all of you, from the very beginning, that the omnitool might have recorded the Conclave. Cassandra, I discussed it with you many times while we were on the road.

“Returning to Haven would have added weeks to my ground missions. I had rifts to close and soldiers to rescue. Left to my own devices, I prioritized the living over the dead.”

Something about her calm certitude needled Cullen. “You couldn’t send a raven?” he asked.

“I could have, yes. I chose not to. I won’t pretend to fully understand what I witnessed, but even I recognize a political disaster when I see it. Ravens can be intercepted. There is a Qunari spy on my ground team. I didn’t want this information in his hands before it was in yours.”

“What’s done is done,” Josephine said. “Arguing about it changes nothing. We should move on to more productive topics.”

After a few heartbeats of silence, where nobody said anything else, the Herald spoke.

“Right. Let’s get started. First, the omnitool." The Herald held out her arm. The bracelet sat on her wrist, and she tapped it.

Cullen, Cassandra, and Josie all jumped a bit as the Herald's entire forearm was suddenly covered in strange, orange armor. She gave them no time at all to adjust to the sight before she launched into an explanation.

“This part here is the interface. It's made of what we call 'hard light.' It responds to my touch, but if I turn it off,” she did just that, “the omnitool can still respond to my voice commands, or to external stimuli.”

Cullen watched as the Herald explained her omnitool.

“Most basic models can hold the equivalent of several thousand libraries. Mine has over 10 million books, articles, and publications.”

The Herald continued speaking, clearly at home with the subject matter.

“It can act as a weapon, depending on how it’s used. There’s a blade function on mine, but combat engineers use theirs for shorting out an enemy’s armor, or for combat drones…”

She would turn it on and off as she talked. Every time she did, Cullen jumped.

“Then there’s my tactical cloak.” She went tap tap tap and vanished from sight.

While the rest of the advisors gasped, Cullen found his hand on the pommel of his sword.

Her tin-on-gravel voice just kept talking, right where it had been. “The cloak holds until I turn it off, or until something breaks it.” Then she re-appeared. "Questions?" she asked.

“Do you have more of them?” Leliana asked. “On your ship, perhaps?”

The Herald shook her head. “I doubt it. They were never standard equipment on escape pods. Too expensive.”

Leliana and Cassandra asked her other questions, but Cullen found himself fighting the rising panic in his gut and the throbbing behind his eyeballs. He ached for lyrium.

He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down.

After answering questions, the Herald pointed to her head. "My actual memory of the Conclave explosion has not returned. But I have watched the recording twice.

"I won't lie. It's shocking to witness. I know you all want answers, but I think we should handle other matters first, so nothing important gets forgotten."

“We should watch it now,” Cassandra said. “What we see might affect every decision we make from this point forward.”

“Agreed,” Leliana said.

“Bad enough we’ve waited this long,” Cullen muttered, still not entirely in control of his own emotions.

Josie only said, “I would defer to your judgment, Herald.”

The Herald sighed. “It’s long. Even if I skip past the unnecessary parts, it will take the rest of the morning. And it’s loud. If you have a place where we won’t be overheard and won’t be interrupted, we should go there.”

“Downstairs, then,” Leliana said.

The Herald’s eyebrow twitched up just a bit. “The dungeon?”

“When Haven was restored several years ago, silencing runes were woven into the stone downstairs,” Cassandra said. “It is one of many reasons why the Inquisition decided to use Haven as its base of operations.”

The Herald frowned but said nothing as they filed out of the War Room.

Leliana posted a scout at the door that led into the cellar, with instructions that nobody else come through unless it was an advisor or the Herald. Then she led them downstairs into a small, messy office.

The Herald sat down at the desk, tapped the omnitool on (Cullen managed not to jump this time) and spoke to it in her language.

Then the omnitool said, “Acknowledged.”

“Who was that?” Cassandra demanded.

"It's a ‘what,' not a ‘who.' It's just the omnitool. I switched its default language to the Common and added subtitles to the recording. It will make it easier for all of you to understand what happened."

She tapped the omnitool a few more times, rested her arms on the desktop, and said, “Begin playback.”

It took a moment for Cullen to understand what they were watching - it was the Herald’s point of view as she trekked through ice and snow at night. After a few moments, they heard a disembodied voice speak:

“Warning. The ambient temperature is below recommended levels. Please seek shelter immediately.”

The Herald said something in the recording. The subtitles read, “No shit. How far to the navpoint?”

The Herald spoke over the recording. "When my pod dropped through the atmosphere, it identified the Temple of Sacred Ashes as the nearest shelter and marked its location. That's why I was headed there."

“Element zero levels in your system have exceeded safe parameters for human physiology. Please vacate to the nearest medical station and seek treatment.”

"It goes on like this for quite some time. If anybody wants to see it all, let me know. But for now, we can skip it." The Herald pressed her forefinger on something. The recording sped up, making it look like the Herald was running up the mountain.

The Herald began normal playback at a point where she crested a hill. There, still intact and beautiful, was the Temple of Sacred Ashes.

In the recording, the Herald tapped her right wrist, and the voice said, "Tactical cloak engaged."

“This right here,” the Herald pointed to the recording of her opening a backdoor to the Temple, “is the last real memory I have.”

It was hard, watching the Herald pass those people in the Temple. They were guards and servants, Templars and mages, some of whom Cullen had known. Leliana, Cassandra, and Josephine all softly exclaimed as they saw friends of theirs, soon to die in the horrors to come.

The omnitool had also recorded how rapidly the Herald deteriorated. She walked in circles and muttered to herself about water fountains. The disembodied voice kept intoning her medical problems to her.

Cullen felt his palms sweat as she descended further and further into the Temple.

They heard Divine Justinia cry out for help.

The Herald opened the door.

Cassandra breathed out, “No, it cannot be.” Josephine gasped in shock. Cullen and Leliana uttered blasphemies.

It was the Grey Wardens. Divine Justinia was being held captive by Grey Wardens.

A ghoulish mage, freakishly tall and deformed by red lyrium, held an orb in his hand as he prepared the blood magic ritual.

The Herald's tactical cloak vanished. The mage looked over at her, shock written all over his ugly face. The Herald yelled something, which the subtitles translated as, "What's going on?"

"Kill the intruder," the mage said.

Justinia knocked the orb out of his hand. The Herald reached for it, as if by instinct. It fused itself to her left hand.

The Herald had inhaled sharply, and then she’d screamed. The terror and fury in her voice caused every hair on Cullen’s body to stand on end.

The explosion that followed must have caused the omnitool to quit working. The projection stuttered, then resolved in the Fade, the Herald unconscious.

Divine Justinia found her, woke her, and helped her stand. The Herald had asked questions, but of course, Justinia had not understood. Still, the Divine tried to lead them out of the Fade.

Fearlings found them.

The Herald had panicked at whatever the fearlings looked like to her, chanting, "Please-no-not-the-Geth, please-no-not-the-Geth."

Justinia had reached the rift first. Then she sacrificed herself for the Herald. "Warn them," had been her last words.

The Herald fell through through the Rift. Cullen had not realized how long a drop it was. She cracked her skull on the ground, and the omnitool resumed blaring warnings about her dire medical condition.

Justinia’s spirit watched the Herald for a moment before the rift closed.

“You all know happened after that,” the Herald said, stopping the playback.

The Grey Wardens. The fucking Grey Wardens. Cullen was going to find Blackwall and demand answers right now. He was going to -

“That. Little. Shit!

They all looked at Cassandra.

“Who?” Leliana asked.

“Varric! He claimed that he and the Champion had killed him! I should have known he was lying. He always lies! And like a fool, I believed him!”

“Killed who?” the Herald asked.

“That darkspawn magister!” Cassandra waved at omnitool.

Cassandra started to bolt for the door, but Leliana stopped her. “Cass, don’t! If you march through town and drag Varric into the dungeon, all of Haven will know by supper. Calm down, and tell us what Varric told you.”

Cassandra started pacing back and forth. “He said that the Grey Wardens had imprisoned a sentient darkspawn who claimed to be one of the Tevinter magisters that breached the Golden City. Hawke’s father used blood magic, apparently under threat, to keep the prison wards intact.

“Varric said the Carta lured Hawke and his brother into this prison, along with Anders and Varric. He said they fought the magister and killed him.

“Obviously, he lied.”

The Herald tapped the omnitool. The projection where she had just interrupted the ritual reappeared in the air before them. She pointed at the creature that held the orb.

“You are sure he was talking about this person here?”

“Varric’s description was very elaborate, Herald. I am sure he enjoyed spinning his little tale for me.”

The Herald stared at the image for a moment. Turning her head slightly towards Cullen, but still looking at the image, she asked, “Commander, did the younger Hawke ever mention anything like this when he was a Templar?”

“No,” Cullen said. “Not that anyone would have believed him if he had. ‘I defeated one of the Magisters Sidereal,’ is a pretty big boast, even for Carver. But Varric is a secondary concern. We need to question Blackwall!”

The Herald finally looked away from her omnitool and up at him. “Why Blackwall?”

Cullen spluttered in disbelief that she would even ask such a thing. “Because he’s a Grey Warden!”

Josephine protested that Blackwall was a good man, and he could not possibly be involved with something like this.

Meanwhile, the Herald’s eyes widened slightly, as if she remembered something. “Ooh, that’s right. He’s a Warden. Leliana, did Blackwall ever come speak with you when he arrived in Haven?”

“He did,” Leliana said.

“Do you have any reason to believe he knows about the Wardens?” she asked, pointing to the Grey Wardens in the recording.

Leliana held the Herald’s gaze for a long moment, as Cullen grew impatient. Then she said, “No. I don’t.”

“Well, I do,” Cullen retorted. “He’s a Grey Warden, he needs to be questioned!”

The Herald turned off the omnitool. Then she stood up and walked to the door of the office. Like the other doors in the cellar, it was made of prison bars. She stood in front of it, her back to them, her hands on her hips, her feet shoulder-width apart.

After a moment of silence, she turned her head just enough to speak over her shoulder at them. “I suppose you want me present for these interrogations, to show proof of what happened at the Conclave?”

“Well, obviously,” Cullen muttered, while Cassandra and Leliana responded that yes, they wanted the Herald and her omnitool there.

She turned her head back to face the door again and stared out between the bars. Cullen itched to shove her out of the way, run up the stairs and find Blackwall.

Finally, she turned around to face them. She crossed her arms over her chest and propped one foot behind her against the door. It was a casual pose. It also effectively blocked any of them from leaving.

“I don’t know Blackwall at all, but you’ve trusted him enough to allow him to train the recruits, Commander.

“I do know Varric, at least a little. Cassandra, I do not doubt that he’s lied to you about many things, but he is not evil or cruel. He could have gone back home months ago. He chose to stay because he understands the threat.

“Is it your considered opinion that the best way to question these men is to drag them into your soundproof dungeon and accuse them of wrongdoing?”

“And what would you have us do, Herald, just ask them nicely?” Cullen sneered. “Maybe over some tea, perhaps?”

“I’d prefer cider and a good meal, but yes. That’s exactly what I’d do.”

“It isn’t your decision,” Cullen snapped.

“No, it isn’t,” the Herald calmly conceded, her gaze meeting his, “but I can decide how I respond, and whether I participate.

“I know what it’s like to be your prisoner. I will not stand by quietly while you abuse the people who are helping us. Especially not if you are doing it in my name.”

Cullen’s anger began to bleed into self-doubt.

Josephine delicately asked, “What would you suggest, Helen?”

The Herald looked around the messy little office they were in. “Is there truly no other place in Haven we can speak without being overheard?”

“Not without asking a mage to be present and continuously cast a silencing ward,” Leliana said. “It’s draining to the mage, and I don’t want more people involved in these interrogations than necessary.”

“Fair enough,” the Herald said. “All right. I want to talk to Blackwall first. Josie, you don’t have to be present for this if you don’t want to be, but can you make arrangements for lunch to be brought down, please?”

Josie, looking grateful for the reprieve, said, “Of course, Helen,” and left.

“Cassandra, do you mind getting Blackwall down here?” Cassandra scowled and left.

Finally, the Herald looked up at him. “Commander, if you want to take a few minutes for yourself, I need to speak with Leliana privately, please.”

Cullen glanced at Leliana, who gave him the slightest nod. He stalked out of the dungeon without saying a word. He exited the Chantry and squinted in the afternoon sunlight. The day was more than half gone.

He leaned against the outer wall of the Chantry and took deep breaths, trying to get the cellar damp out of his lungs and his emotions under control. He allowed his head to rest against the Chantry. He closed his eyes for a moment, and just let the sunlight warm his cheeks.

Chapter 39 Cullen outside the Chantry in Haven

Don’t go back down there. The thought flittered into his mind and tempted him sorely. Leliana knows what she’s doing.

He had men to train, reports to read, trebuchets to calibrate. Any of it sounded better than going back into the same room as the Herald.

I will not stand by quietly while you abuse the people who are helping us.

To almost anyone else, the idea that Cullen could abuse somebody like Blackwall was ludicrous. But in the Herald’s mouth, the words carried the weight of truth, and any certainty he’d managed to find about the sort of man he was crumbled into insecurity.

Maker, he was tired.

“Cullen.”

Cassandra’s voice interrupted his thoughts. She walked towards the Chantry, a perplexed-looking Blackwall not two steps behind her.

Cullen pushed himself off of the wall and took one, last deep breath of clean air.

Questioning Blackwall had been his idea. How the Herald made him feel didn’t absolve him of his responsibility to see this through. He waited until the Seeker and the Warden had walked past him, and followed them into the Chantry.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter forty

Cullen followed Cassandra and Blackwall back into the dungeon’s little office. Leliana poked through the baskets of food and drink on the table and desk.

The Herald sat on the desk, cramming the last of a sandwich into her mouth with one hand and holding a bottle of cider in the other. She swallowed her food, placed the cider on the desk and hopped off, brushing the crumbs off of her jacket.  

She shook Blackwall’s hand. “Good to see you again. I apologize for dragging you down here but something has come up that we need to discuss.” She gestured towards the baskets of sandwiches and ale. “Help yourself.”

Blackwall shook his head. “M’fine.”

“You sure? You might want a drink for some of this.”

Blackwall shook his head again, looking nervous.

The Herald grabbed her own cider and hopped back onto the desk. Her feet dangled so far off the ground that she looked about ten-years-old.

What in the Maker’s name is she doing? This woman had no idea how to run an interrogation.

Cullen glanced at Cassandra to gauge her reaction, but she only gave him a bossy frown.

The Herald asked Blackwall, “Any questions before we start?”

“No, but I wish you woulda told me you were the Herald of Andraste when we met,” he harrumphed.

“I’m not the Herald of Andraste,” she said. “That label was placed upon me by others, and it’s one I’ve resisted from the beginning. I’d never claim to be perfect, but I do try not to lie about who I am. Not without cause, anyway.”

Blackwall crossed his arms over his chest, almost defensively.

“I imagine you’ve also been told that I’m from another galaxy,” the Herald continued.

Blackwall glanced at Leliana, who silently watched the exchange. “Sister Leliana said you claimed to be from another world, but I’ll tell you true. I don’t believe it.”

The Herald swallowed the rest of her cider. “Well,” she said, as she awkwardly leaned over to fish a bottle out of a basket, “I can’t blame you for that. It’s not an easy thing to believe.”

Having secured an ale, she straightened up and set the bottle on the desk beside her.

“Regardless, it’s the truth.  In a perfect world, we would have been able to work together so you could get used to me. Unfortunately, we’re short on time.

“My people had access to some very advanced technology which I had with me when I landed on Thedas. It was stolen right after I was taken into custody, but it was eventually returned to me, just a few days before I met you, in fact.”

She slapped her right wrist, and the office was filled with the orange light of the omnitool.

Blackwall jumped. “Maker’s balls, girl! What kind of magic is that?”

“It isn’t magic at all; it’s an omnitool. What you're looking at here is just light, honestly. It has no more magic than a candle,” she said, as she rotated her arm back and forth so he could see it.

Blackwall glanced at the advisors to see what their reactions were. None of them had reacted at all, Cullen realized, while Blackwall was thrown entirely off balance.

Cullen began to suspect that perhaps she had done this on purpose.

The Herald, meanwhile, kept talking as if she had not noticed Blackwall’s reaction.

“When I tracked you down, I told you that we were investigating whether the Grey Wardens were involved in the explosion at the Conclave. You assured me that the Wardens could not have been involved because they are apolitical.”

“That’s right,” Blackwall nodded.

“I don’t remember the Conclave explosion--I had a head injury--but the omnitool recorded the whole thing.”

She began the playback at a point not long before she entered the room of the sacrifice. They watched her wander the Temple, sick and confused.

“I had only landed on Thedas a few hours before,” she quietly explained, “and was suffering from radiation poisoning. I didn’t really know where I was.”

Blackwall didn't seem to hear her. He was too focused on watching the recording, his eyes wide.

His reaction to seeing the Grey Wardens was immediate and visceral. All the color drained from his face, and his jaw dropped open in shock.

“I don’t - they wouldn’t - it can’t…”

The recording continued. Cullen found himself able to watch it without the panic and fury he’d felt at the first viewing.

Maker, Justinia had grit. Even in the middle of being sacrificed, she’d had the presence of mind to smack that orb away the moment the magister was distracted.

The Herald ran the recording until the explosion, then turned the omnitool off entirely. She looked at Blackwall.

Blackwall hadn’t just been surprised by the Wardens’ involvement. He’d been shattered.

The Herald handed him the ale she had reached for earlier. Blackwall took it with shaking hands. He pulled the cork and drank it all in three swallows. Then he placed one hand over his eyes and tried to regain his composure. “Maker,” he whispered.

“I know it’s a lot to take in all at once,” the Herald said gently, “but do you have any idea why the Wardens were involved?”

Blackwall lowered his hand from his face. He had tears in his eyes. “No.”

“Do you recognize that thing holding the orb?”

“No.”

Leliana took over. “Has any Warden been in touch with you?”

“No,” he mumbled.

The Herald glanced at Cullen. “Commander, do you have any questions for him?”

Cullen shook his head.

The Herald said to Blackwall, “I need you to keep this to yourself until further notice. Hundreds of people died that day, and we still don’t know why.”

Blackwall stood up a little straighter. “I’ll take this to my grave, if necessary. You have my word,” he said, his voice gruff.

The Herald replied, “I do not hold the actions of those Wardens against you. Your men admire you, and the Inquisition needs your expertise. You have a place here if you want it.”

Cullen thought she was being overly sentimental, as her words nearly moved Blackwall to tears again. The Warden inclined his head towards her and said, “My sword is yours, my lady.”

“Thank you. Seeker, do you mind escorting Blackwall back outside? And Leliana, would you be so kind as to ask Varric to join us, please?”

When everybody left, the Herald said, “Well, Commander? Are you satisfied that Blackwall doesn’t know about the Wardens’ involvement?”

“I am,” he replied. “Although you didn’t seem exactly surprised by his answers.”

The Herald unwrapped another sandwich for herself. “Blackwall might be good with a sword, but he’s a shit liar.” Then she waved off any further conversation in favor of eating.

When Varric arrived with Leliana and Cassandra, the Herald hopped off the desk to greet him. The Seeker scowled over everybody while Varric chatted up the Herald.

“So,” he said, “I hear you got your toy back.”

“Want to see it?”

“Does a nug shit in the woods?”

She tapped it on. Varric’s eyes lit up with delight. “Holy shit, wouldja look at that. Is everything still there? Did you get your pictures back?”

Chapter 40 Varric sees the omnitool.

 “I did,” she said softly.

“I wanna see them all, but I’m guessing you didn’t ask me down here to show me your parent’s farm.”

“No. You remember how I told you that the omnitool might have recorded the explosion at the Temple of Sacred Ashes?”

“Crap, did it really? OK, let’s see it.”

She started the recording a little earlier than she had with Blackwall, and once again Cullen watched the Herald wander the Temple in confusion.

Varric’s face seemed to grow visibly older as he watched the people who had been in the Temple. “Those poor people,” he muttered.

But his sympathy turned into genuine fury when he saw the darkspawn magister. “ That’s not possible !” he shouted. He watched the rest of the scene in shock.

Again, the Herald turned off the omnitool after the explosion.

Varric started pacing. “No, that can’t be him. It can’t be! We looted his corpse!”

Cassandra said icily, “You see, Herald? I told you. Varric is a liar. He always lies.”

But Cullen wasn’t so sure. Varric didn’t look defensive. He looked confused.

The Herald said, “My experience on Thedas so far has been that the dead don’t always stay that way.”

Varric picked up a bottle of ale and opened it. He looked Cassandra in the eye, and said, “I didn’t lie to you, Seeker, not about that. That doesn’t mean I told you everything.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Cassandra said rhetorically. “Start talking, dwarf.”

“Cassandra,” the Herald said, “you promised me you’d let me do this my way. My way is to ask Varric nicely if he would please tell us everything he knows.”

Varric took a swallow and started talking.

“Maker, this was a while back. I’d only known Hawke a couple of months. We were still trying to raise the money for Bartrand’s expedition into the Deep Roads.

“Hawke and Junior started getting jumped by the Carta, but the attacks were sloppy, ineffective. Not the Carta’s usual business model. We looked into it and learned the orders were coming from some compound in the Vinmark Wastelands.

“So, off we go. Me, Hawke, Junior and Blondie trek out to the middle of nowhere.

“We find the Carta hideout, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that these guys are crazy. They say they need the ‘blood of the Hawke,’ and that ‘Corypheus will rise again.’

“We get past their outer defenses and what do we see in the distance? A Grey Warden prison tower.

“Once we get inside the hideout, we learned that these poor bastards weren’t just crazy. They were under a compulsion from this Corypheus. They’d been eating darkspawn flesh on purpose so they could better hear their Master’s voice.”

“That’s revolting,” Cullen said. The Herald nodded in agreement.

Varric had finished his ale and took another one from the basket. “Yeah,” he frowned as he pulled the cork, “it was. I actually knew of couple of those dwarves. Wasn’t a lot of fun to put ‘em down like that.

“Anyway, the head Carta was a dwarf named Rhatigan. He starts spouting some bullshit about Hawke’s blood, and how Corypheus will see the surface once more. He wouldn’t listen to reason, and they attacked us.  We had to kill every last one of those sons of bitches.

“We toss the place. Hawke finds, of all things, a staff that had once belonged to his father, Malcolm. The second he picks it up, Hawke and that staff started to glow. It didn’t last long, but still - creepy shit. Hawke said he could feel it inside him.”

“That sounds like blood magic,” Cullen said.

“It was, but we didn’t learn that until later. Anyway, we get into the tower and, of course , we get magically sealed in. Now we’re trapped.

“We start looking for a way through the tower. Hawke keeps finding these magical triggers. Anytime he or Junior touches one, we hear his father’s voice.”

Varric took another drink and looked again at Cassandra. “One of the things I didn’t tell you, Seeker, was that while we’re working our way through, we found these research papers all over the place.

“The Grey Wardens have known almost since their founding that powerful, sentient darkspawn existed, who didn’t die when the Blights ended. They had drive and ambition, and they could command the darkspawn horde. The most powerful of these sentient darkspawn was Corypheus.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Cassandra demanded.

“Because you never asked!" Varric retorted, his voice beginning to rise. “You didn’t give a shit about the Wardens. You only cared about Hawke! You kidnapped me, you placed me under arrest even though I hadn’t committed any crime, and you dragged me - ”

“Enough!” the Herald said.

“Herald! You cannot possibly believe this - ” Cassandra began.

“I said, enough !” the Herald’s voice had turned icy. “We are not out in the field. This isn’t an argument you can carry until we come across the next rift. Whatever this is between the two of you, work it out some other time. Right now, we need answers.”

Cassandra ground her teeth as she swallowed back whatever she really wanted to say. Varric, exasperated, threw up the hand that wasn’t holding a drink and started pacing again.

But they both obeyed her.

After a moment, the Herald said, “Sentient darkspawn.”

Varric drained his ale. “Sentient darkspawn,” he repeated. “Blondie said he’d actually met one when he was still with the Wardens, back in Amaranthine. He described it as, ‘persuasive.’

“Then this ghoul in Grey Warden armor staggers over to us.

Larius

"He gets all excited when he sees Hawke with his dad’s old staff. ‘The Key,’ he calls it. ‘The Key to his death!’ He wants Hawke to ‘break the seals,’ so Corypheus can be killed.  Then he just leaves.

“We find a seal, the Key opens it, we kill a giant demon. Ghoulie Warden shuffles back. Now he’s really excited. He says his name was Larius, and that he used to be Commander of the Grey. He’d been down there for 30 years. Said he was still alive because the corruption had been feeding him or something.

“Then he takes off again to Maker-knows where. He did that a lot, actually. Anyway, we keep fighting our way through demons and darkspawn and bullshit…”

Cullen listened, half-impressed, half-horrified, as Varric described their journey through the prison tower.

They met another Grey Warden mage, Janeka.

 

Janeka

 

She told them that the prison tower had been built by the Wardens centuries before, for the sole purpose of containing Corypheus. This was back when the Free Marches were still part of the Imperium, and blood magic hadn’t yet been banned.

When the seals began to fade, the Wardens needed a non-Warden mage to use blood magic to restore them. Malcolm Hawke had been that mage. And now, only his blood, through either of his children, could break the seals.

Cullen swallowed his irritation several times when the Herald interrupted Varric’s tale to ask questions. “What is the taint?” “What is the Calling?” “Are darkspawn normally not sentient?” “I thought the Old Gods were just a myth?” On and on. It was damned annoying.

Eventually, she managed to shut up long enough to let Varric finish his tale.

The dwarf rubbed his forehead. “Maker, it was a mess. We work our way down into the Deep Roads to the base of the tower. Blondie starts hearing Corypheus’ voice. His plus-one made an appearance, so we had to fight that.

“Finally, we get to the tower. Larius and Janeka both show up. Larius said Corypheus was using a false Calling to influence Janeka and the Carta, and that she was a fool for not realizing it.

“Janeka said she wasn’t an idiot, that she was going to bind Corypheus to her will, and then use him to cure the Blight.

“Then she drops the big bombshell. Larius had forced Malcolm Hawke into using blood magic by telling him if he didn’t cooperate, he’d never see his wife and unborn child ever again.

“Larius didn’t even deny it. Said it had been his duty.

“And that was that. Larius had threatened Leandra and little baby Hawke, so Hawke and Junior sided with Janeka. Larius tried to stop us from getting to the tomb, and Janeka killed him.”

Varric swallowed the rest of the ale in his bottle and placed it on the desk. He seemed to be working himself up to say something.

“And this is the other part I didn’t tell you, Seeker. I told you last time that Hawke had placed the Key over the Seal to break it. What I didn’t tell you was that he also use a few drops of his own blood.”

Cullen felt like the floor had tilted. Hawke? A blood mage?

What ?” Cassandra sounded both outraged and hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

“Because I knew you’d take it the wrong way! And in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that important!”

“Of course it’s important! It’s blood magic,” Cullen protested. “I’d have never thought that Hawke, of all people, would have ever succumbed to the temptation!”

“You sound like Junior. He didn’t listen well, either. No wonder he became a Templar!” Varric said, raising his voice again. “We were trapped, remember? The only way out was through Corypheus. We couldn’t break the seal without the blood of Malcolm Hawke’s kid, and you know damn well Hawke would have never let Junior do it!

“So Hawke did what he’s always done. He risked himself to protect everybody else. If he hadn’t done it, our bones would still be down there in the Deep Roads. And nobody would have been there to save Kirkwall from burning to the ground when the Qunari invaded.

“Now, you wanna keep bitching about the man who’s saved your ass more than once? Or are you gonna let me finish my story?”

Cullen pressed his lips together and gestured for Varric to continue.

“As I was saying,” Varric pointedly grumbled, “Hawke broke the seal, and Corypheus just sort of,” he moved his hand slowly upwards, “floated out.


Corypheus

"Janeka tried to bind him to her will, but he brushed her off like she was nothing.

“Corypheus was confused. The way he talked was, I dunno, old-fashioned. ‘Am I in dwarven lands? Why seem their roads so empty?’ He saw us and started making demands, told us to ‘bring him hence’ to the temple of Dumat.

“Then he got real high handed, said we all owed him fealty because he was a Tevinter Magister. He even ordered us to kneel.

“Hawke, of course, made fun of him. ‘You’re a darkspawn. Daaarrk spaaawwwn.’”  

Garrett Hawke mocks Corypheus

Credit where credit was due, Varric did a spot-on impression of Garrett.

“Corypheus hollered for Dumat, and got pissy when his Old God didn’t answer him. He complained that they’d been seeking the golden light, but when they found it, it was black and corrupt.

“The longer he rants, the more we realize that he’s talking about the Golden City, that he’s one of those magisters. Janeka thought that even though Corypheus had been asleep, he must have been unconsciously speaking to her through the corruption.

“And, of course, Corypheus came after us. Sweet ass of Andraste, it was one of the hardest fights I’d ever been in. We nearly lost Junior.

“But we did kill Corypheus,” he said, looking at Cassandra. “Killed him dead . Dead on the ground. I turned over his body myself with my own foot.

“When it was all over, Janeka seemed, I don’t know. Less confused. Sharper, maybe. Now that she wasn’t hearing the false calling, she seemed to feel better or something. She apologized for being such a fool. Then she left.

“We looted the place, including Corypheus’ body . We returned to the surface with enough money to fund Bartrand’s expedition. A month later, we went into the Deep Roads. Carver stayed behind and joined the Templars.”

The Herald turned her omnitool back on, and found her way to the scene where she first interrupted the sacrifice. She paused the recording, then tapped on Corypheus’ face, making it much larger and easier to see, like a portrait.

“You are sure this is the same man?” she asked Varric.

Varric nodded. “Yup. I mean, now he looks like he’s been getting into the red lyrium, but yeah. Same guy.”

“Was there red lyrium in the tower?”

“Not that I saw.”

The Herald nodded, and turned off the omnitool. “Does anybody else have any questions of Varric?” She was looking at Cassandra.

Cassandra scowled at Varric. “What else have you not told us?”

“Plenty,” he said, crossing his arms across his chest, “but I’ve told you everything about this.”

“Where’s Hawke?” she demanded.

“Couldn’t say.”

Cassandra and Varric glared at each other, until the Herald gave a quiet little sigh. “Varric, thank you. I’m sorry for dragging you down here like this.”

Varric broke the staring contest with Cassandra and looked at the Herald. “Are they paying you yet?”

She shook her head. “Not yet.”

He sent one last glare to Cassandra. “Well, when you’re done talking to these cheapskates, you come find me in the tavern. Dinner’s on me.”

“Are you sure? Feeding a biotic is expensive.”

“I’m sure. You’re too thin.”

“Thank you, Varric. I’ll see you soon.”

Once Varric was gone, Leliana said, “I believe him, at least about Corypheus.”

“So do I,” the Herald chimed in. Cullen nodded in agreement.

Cassandra was scowling so hard, her eyebrows could have crushed rocks, but she grudgingly admitted, “If nothing else, I believe that he believes he killed this Corypheus.”

“All right then,” the Herald said. “It’s getting late, and we all have other duties. Let’s meet tomorrow morning and talk about where we go from here.”

Cassandra and the Herald both left. Leliana, however, stopped Cullen before he could go.

“Here,” she handed him a sandwich and a bottle of ale. “You are not the only one who looks too thin. How are you feeling today?”

Cullen looked at the food and drink in his trembling hands. The thought of consuming them made him nauseous. “Honestly?” he croaked. “Like finding a bucket of lyrium, and bathing in it.”

“You should tell her. She noticed your hands shaking today. She asked me about it earlier, when you and Cassandra had gone to get Blackwall.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That it was not my story to tell.”

“Thank you,” Cullen said. He reluctantly took a bite of sandwich and drank some ale.

“You’re welcome,” Leliana said, concern in her tone. “But you should still tell her. I know you don’t like her, but she’ll keep it to herself. If nothing else, she’s far better at keeping secrets than I realized.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said.

But he didn’t mean it. The Herald was strange and unpredictable. Everything about her threw him off-balance, made him uncertain. The more uncertain he was, the stronger his cravings became.

Cullen didn’t care how well she could keep a secret. He wasn’t going to tell her a damn thing.

Chapter Text

Chapter forty-one

Solas spent his first day back in Haven ordering new armor from Harritt, and checking in with his agents.

He learned that Helen and the advisors spent most of the day in the Chantry, and that Blackwall and Varric had been individually called to speak with them.

Solas knew they were likely watching the recording of the Conclave. Blackwall had probably been called to seek answers to the presence of the Grey Wardens. He could only speculate why Varric had been summoned.

He wondered what the advisors would think of what they saw, of Helen’s omnitool and the Conclave recording.

Telina stopped by his cabin in the early evening. She told him that the Herald had just overheard Seggrit call Telina a "knife ear."

“She was none too happy about it,” Telina said, in an almost awed tone. “She called him a you...a you-serv-us…”

“‘Usurious?’” he suggested

“Yes. That. A ‘you-sir-ee-ous bastard,’ is what she called him. Then she said that if she ever heard him use the term ‘knife-ear’ ever again, she’d kick him out of Haven herself.

“Oh, and the Herald also asked me to tell you that she's eating at Master Tethras’ table tonight at Flissa’s, and that you're welcome to join them.”

Solas handed the girl a copper. “Kindly tell the Herald that I appreciate her invitation but that I am occupied this evening.”

Telina curtsied and left.

And occupied he was, for the Veil in and around Haven had weakened in his absence. Demons populated the Fade here in alarming numbers. That Rage demon he had encountered months earlier had grown eager and fat.

Solas, ostensibly asleep, frantically worked to press as much of his will as he could spare into shoring up the Veil.

He did what he could, but he knew the stability of the Breach would not hold indefinitely.

On the second day, he was awakened entirely too early in the morning by loud banging on the door.

“Solas!” Cassandra shouted. “You are needed in the War Room. I will wait for you here.”

“A moment, please,” he called back. He quickly got dressed and left his cabin. Cassandra would not tell him why his presence was necessary, only that he needed to “clarify” something the Herald had just told them.

“Ir abelas,”   Helen murmured as soon as he walked in with Cassandra. “I told her this could wait.”

He glanced at her. She had dark circles under her eyes, and had turned her body so that her left hand was mostly hidden from view.

The Seeker got straight to the point. “The Herald seems to be under the impression that closing the Breach will kill her, and that you told her this.”

Helen’s brow wrinkled in consternation. “That is not what I said, Cassandra! I said I might die. Solas only confirmed for me that it was a possibility.”

Cassandra scowled at Solas. “Explain,” she demanded.

Solas clasped his hands behind his back. “The Herald’s physiology is singularly ill-equipped for tolerating magic. She nearly died closing the rift at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Closing the Breach will take far more out of her.”

“Well, if she can’t tolerate magic,” the Commander made it sound like a character defect, “we should recruit the Templars.”

Solas straightened his shoulders, and looked down his nose at the Ferelden man. "Using the Templars would cause less strain on the Herald, that is true. However, given the amount of Fade magic that must necessarily pour through the Mark to close the Breach, I doubt it will matter much in the end. Either way will be hazardous for her."

The Commander opened his mouth to say something else, but Helen cut him off.

“Which goes to my original point in this discussion--I should go to my escape pod before we close the Breach.”

“You ship has been located?” Solas asked.

“Yes, and it’s leaking eezo, or it was six months ago, anyway. Nobody else can repair it.”

"I see," Solas said, neutrally.

“Does anybody else have questions for Solas?” Helen asked.

Nobody did.

She turned back to Solas. “ Ma serannas, Solas. I apologize for the Seeker waking you so early.”

Solas heard the dismissal but ignored it. Instead, he reached for Helen's left hand. She tried to pull it away, but he kept his grip firm.

The flesh around the Mark was visibly inflamed, and hot to the touch.

Fel'sounath’asha ! We have discussed this before!” he scolded, as he released a healing spell into her hand.

“What’s he talking about?” Leliana asked.

The question was not directed at Solas, but he answered it anyway as he focused on the palm of Helen’s hand. “The Mark is a source of chronic pain for the Herald, but it is considerably worse this close to the Breach. If I had to guess, she has had little to no sleep since she arrived in Haven.”

“You do realize I am right here, yes? That I am perfectly capable of answering these questions on my own?” Helen sounded annoyed, but her shoulders sagged in relief.

Solas frowned at her. “Have you considered, Herald, what happens to Thedas if you become so exhausted that you do not survive long enough to seal the Breach fully? If you die halfway through the process?”

He did not like using guilt to motivate people, but Helen's sense of self-preservation was beginning to wane.

“I try not to think about closing the Breach at all, only what I must do to get us there,” she admitted. “That was shortsighted of me.”

Solas let go of her hand. “I trust you will find me should the need arise.”

“And if she doesn’t, I will,” Cassandra said, scowling at Helen. “Thank you, Solas.”

He left everything he wanted to say inside his mouth, and showed himself out.

He briefly chatted with Varric, subtly encouraging the dwarf to speak of what had happened yesterday in the Chantry. Varric ignored any prompt about that, but he did express his concerns about Helen.

“They’re pushing her too hard,” Varric fretted. “She’s thin, she’s tired, and she’s way too quiet."

“She pushes herself,” Solas observed. “It seems to be her nature.”

Varric scratched his cheek. “Maybe. Still, remember how she used to pester us with all those questions? Last night, didn’t say more than five words. And she almost fell asleep at the table.”

After leaving Varric, Solas spent the rest of the morning with Mor’ Lanun.

The horse shook his mane and nickered happily he saw Solas.

“Come here, you spoiled thing,” Solas said in Elvish as he opened up the stable door. Mor’Lanun eagerly nosed Solas’ pockets, hoping for a treat. “Such poor manners,” Solas said, as he fed the horse an apple. “Perhaps I will change your name to Gluttony.”

Solas took the gelding out into the valley and absolutely did not think about Helen, or what she might be doing.

**

That afternoon, Owin, the young elf mage who was on Helen’s Medical Corps, tracked him down.

On dhea, lethallin . How can I help you?”

Owin smiled brightly at the moniker, and gave a slight bow. “The Herald is going to examine the pregnant woman you treated for poison several weeks ago. She asks if you would like to take part.”

“I would.” Solas was not especially concerned with the pregnant woman herself, but was quite interested in what Helen’s omnitool might reveal.

As they made their way to the healer’s tents, Owin whispered, “Have you seen it? The Herald’s bracelet?”

“The omnitool? Yes, I have.”

“Oh, I want one so much ! The Herald showed up to see how we were doing, and Rose tattled on Ser Kason for neglecting his hand washing. And the Herald took his hands and scanned them.

“Then she showed us these tiny little creatures that were living on his hands! Bacteria, she called them. She said they can cause infection. They were moving! And they divided and made more of themselves. It was revolting !”

Owin beamed, radiant with happiness, as he recounted the conversation.

Solas could not help but be charmed by the young man’s enthusiasm, and decided to keep an eye on his progress. Bright spirits like Owin’s were critical for keeping up morale in the rank and file.

But that sort of recruiting would have to wait.

They entered one of the Medic’s tent. Helen was speaking with Rose and a red-faced Ser Kason.

“It’s called quorum sensing,” Helen was saying, “and it’s why you must be diligent about sanitation. I’ll print up some articles for you later. Oh, hello again, Solas.”

“Herald,” he replied, allowing a little bit of amusement to inflect his tone.

Ser Bennet arrived, with a very pregnant, very bald Cecelia.

The woman took one look at Helen and turned purple with rage. “You murderous bitch!” she spat.

Helen narrowed her eyes. "Murderous? No. Murder implies some forethought or planning. I killed your boyfriend in my sleep. That says a lot about him , doesn’t it?

“But you’ve got the ‘bitch’ part right. I’ll grant you that.”

Cecelia gasped in anger, and raised her hand to strike Helen. Solas half-expected the mages or Templars to intervene, but all four of them stood and watched, not moving at all.

As Cecelia took a step towards Helen, Helen flared her biotics around herself, like blue fire.

Cecelia’s arm stopped in mid-air. She went pale, her eyes wide open. Her hand shook when she lowered it.

“They said you wasn’t a mage.”

Helen extinguished her biotics. “I’m not. I’m a biotic.

“Before I was born, I was exposed to element zero. When that happens, babies can get very sick. They can die. Sometimes, they become a biotic, like I did. Sometimes, nothing happens at all.

“When you wore my stolen clothing, you exposed your baby to element zero.

"I can check the baby's health if you like, but this is a one time offer. I won’t make it again. So choose.”

Helen's voice was cold. Clipped. She was offering to help the foolish woman's innocent, unborn child while simultaneously looking and sounding utterly ruthless.

“How do I know you ain’t just tryin’ to hurt me? Or my baby?”

“You don’t.”

“Do I hafta get naked in front of all these people?”

“No.”

Cecelia somehow managed to make a shrug look hostile, as she said, “All right. You can look.”

Rose helped Cecelia to lay down on a cot, where several pillows had  been stacked at one end.

Helen sat on the stool and pulled up her right sleeve. “I’m about to turn this on. You’ll see an orange light.”

She held her right hand over the pregnant woman’s navel, and a cone of light covered Cecelia’s abdomen. Helen moved the cone slowly back and forth for a moment. The slightly unfocused look in her eyes told Solas that she was listening to whatever the omnitool was saying to her.

After a moment, she lowered her hand, and touched the omnitool.

The display showed a perfect, three-dimensional image of Cecelia’s baby in the womb, tucked in a fetal position.

All four of the medics gasped. Cecelia gave a quiet sob. “Is that my baby?” she asked.

“Yes,” Helen said. “Do you want to know if its a boy or a girl?”

“Maker, yes.”

“It’s a boy.”

Cecelia laughed, tears streaming down her face.

Helen tapped on the interface. Glowing dots of light of varying size appeared all along the baby’s spine and limbs and in his brain.

“What’s that?” Cecelia asked, her smile disappearing.

“That,” Helen answered, as she continued tapping, “is element zero. Had you not been pregnant, it eventually would have killed you. Since you were pregnant, the eezo had a new and growing nervous system to attach itself.”

She kept tapping, and the dots began to pulsate. "He's developing nodules in all of the places you'd expect for a biotic. And there's no evidence that he's developed any malignancies or mutations yet. Let me check his neurology..."

Then she tapped some more, and the dots disappeared. They were replaced by the branching of the baby’s nervous system.

“His nervous system is very dense. He’s made a lot of extra connections that are not typical in most infants.”

Cecelia got teary-eyed again. “Is he sick?”

Helen turned off the image and looked at Cecelia. “No. He isn’t sick. So far, he appears perfectly healthy.

“But I won’t lie. His little body has a lot of eezo in it. With that much exposure, developing biotics is probably the best result you can hope for.”

Helen produced her little biotic ball over her right hand. “Biotics uses the body’s own energy. If his biotics come in, he’ll need a lot more food than most children.

“He also has neurological development similar to the mages I’ve scanned.” 

“A biotic mage?” Solas asked. Now that was an interesting development.

Cecelia was horrified. “He’s a mage ?”

Helen shrugged. “Maybe? We didn’t have magic in my world, so I don’t really know.”

Cecelia began to sob again. “My baby’s going to be a freak !”

Helen raised one eyebrow and leaned back just a little.

“Look, lady, I’m trying to help you--” but Cecelia cut her off.

“It’s your fault,” she hissed, placing her arms protectively around her stomach. “ You brought the poison here."

"Not by choice. And I sure as hell didn't walk into Haven and say, ‘Here, wear this, it'll be good for the baby.'"

“I din’t know they was poisoned!”

“But you did know they were mine.”

“Sister Leliana said I could keep them!”

Helen just shrugged. “I could have prevented this had anybody bothered to tell me. Nobody did, and here we are.

“Your baby is innocent. I’m the only biotic on Thedas. I can tell you what to expect and how to help him, but only if you’re willing to listen.”

Cecelia hoisted herself up off of the cot. She placed her hand on her lower back to support her swollen stomach, and glared at Helen for all she was worth.

"I hate you. I hate you, and I hope you fuckin' die. I'd kill you myself if I could."

Helen let out a dismissive little breath. “Oh, stand in line. Ser Bennet? Would you be so kind as to escort our guest back to whatever it was she was doing before?”

“Gladly,” Bennet said. He held open the tent flap. Cecelia held her bald head high and marched out.

Helen sighed. "Hope that kid is smarter than his parents. Anyway, Rose. Birthing a biotic baby can get tricky. Here are things to look for when the time comes."

Childbirth was not something Solas had much interest in, so he left them to their discussions.

**

Helen came to his cabin that evening with a bottle of Nevarran white and two cups. She sat down at his little table without being invited, and poured for both of them.

"If you're going to be my healer on demand," she said, holding out her left hand, "the least I can do is buy you a drink now and then."

He shook his head at Helen’s odd turn of phrase, but sat down opposite her.

Her hand felt like it was running its own fever. “I am glad to see you listened to me,” he said as he sank a healing spell into her.

She closed her eyes and sighed in relief. After a moment, she opened her eyes and said, “Honestly, I almost didn’t bother. Once the effect wears off, the rebound pain that follows is awful, especially here.

“But I can’t have all of you angry with me all at once. And I really do need the sleep.”

“Who else is angry with you?” he asked, filing away her remark about pain.

"My advisors. All of them. Even Josie and that takes some doing."

“Why are they angry with you?”

Helen took a sip of wine, then sighed and answered, “Leliana was very angry that I did not return to Haven as soon as I’d learned what had really happened at the Conclave explosion. She got rather ugly about it, actually.

“It’s a shame. I tend to agree with Leliana more than any other advisor. Do you know that when she learned the alienage was unprotected, she sent two dozen Inquisition soldiers and scouts, all of them elves, to be quartered at the boarding house there?

"Officially, it's only temporary until the Inquisition can ‘complete necessary improvements at the nearest Inquisition camp.' It's mostly pretext, but we need some reason for being there, so we don't look like an occupying force ourselves. And it's a fantastic recruiting tool."

It was, indeed, and it reminded Solas not to underestimate the Spymaster.

”By the way,” Helen continued, “we’ve watched the Conclave recording a few times now. No one mentioned that the orb might be elven, so I didn’t say anything, either.”

“Do they know that you showed me the recording?”

“No, nobody asked. Where was I?

“Oh, right. Cassandra is upset with me because I took Varric’s side this morning during a meeting.”

“It is not like you to take sides,” he remarked. “Usually, you let us argue ourselves out. Or you tell us to--how did you so eloquently put it?--ah, yes. ‘Stop bitching.’”

Helen grinned. “And so you did! Both of you, for almost a whole day!

“Anyway, Cassandra was bad-mouthing Varric this morning about some decisions he made in Kirkwall.

“He wasn’t there to defend himself, so I argued his side. I told her that, speaking from personal experience, her ‘stab first, question second’ method was counterproductive. And that she was damn lucky Varric spoke to her at all, given his treatment at her hands.”

She took another swallow of wine, and said, “I also pointed out that the Chantry in Haven has a soundproof jail for its foundation, and that I had drawn my own conclusions about what that symbolized.”

Solas gave a bark of laughter, and refilled Helen’s cup. He set the bottle back on the table, leaned back in his chair and gazed at her.

You are wonderful . He did not say it, but he did not hide his emotions, either.

“You approve,” she said.

“I do. The Chantry has fostered abuses for centuries. Those in power need to hear such truths.”

“I think Cassandra agrees with that, actually. All of the advisors do, from what I can tell. But Cassandra didn’t want to hear it right after I’d defended Varric. That man really gets under her skin.

“Let’s see. Josie isn’t really angry at me, as much as she’s offended by my taste. She had Harritt make me the most beautiful set of Silverite armor.

“Unfortunately, it weighs almost as much as I do. I’d need double portions of food just to walk across Haven in it. So, I thanked her profusely and declined to use it.”

“I can understand her disappointment,” Solas acknowledged, “but surely she appreciates that your well-being is paramount?”

“She does. What she did not appreciate was that I turned around and asked Amund Watcher of the Sky to help Harritt craft some of that fur armor like I wore when I first woke up in Haven.”

Solas let that sink in for a moment. “You are replacing the gift of Silverite plate armor with barbarian furs.” 

"Those ‘barbarian furs' are the only thing I've worn in Haven that kept me warm."

Solas took a sip of wine, thinking back to the day Helen had first emerged from her little cabin. “I watched you walk up the steps of Haven in that armor,” he said. “I thought at the time that it made you look like a child.”

Helen shrugged. “It probably will again. I don’t care. It was lightweight and warm. As soon as it’s ready, I’m wearing it. I’m tired of being cold all the time. If I die closing the Breach, I’m going to be comfortable doing it.”

She gave a heavy sigh and frowned. “Speaking of closing the Breach, that brings me to why Commander Rutherford is angry with me. Remember how I told the advisors today that I’m going to repair my escape pod before I close the Breach?”

Solas nodded, and Helen continued.

“He feels that the eezo is much less of a threat than the Breach. And that the three or four days it would take to deal with the pod is ample time for an abomination to sweep through Haven and kill everybody.”

Solas, having spent much of his time in the Fade doing what he could to prevent precisely that, had to admit, “That is a reasonable fear for him to have.”

“Is it?” Helen asked.

Solas nodded. Her shoulders slumped a little.

“Oh. I was sort of hoping you would tell me he was overreacting because honestly, his objections are the only ones giving me pause. I don’t want to put more people at risk. 

“But I just --”

She looked down at the table, her right hand clenching around her cup. He saw her blink back tears.

As Helen struggled to regain her composure, Solas warred with himself.

Helen trusted him, and felt isolated from her other advisors. He was her friend. Comforting her would be appropriate.

But his instinct to pull her onto his lap, to wipe away her tears and shelter her from the world until she felt ready to face it again, could not be interpreted as pure friendship.

Paralyzed by uncertainty, he did nothing.

After a while, Helen took a couple of breaths and drained her cup of wine. Holding the cup close to her chest, she quietly admitted, “I know it is selfish, to want to take the time to go to the escape pod. But I have so many questions, and it is the only thing within my reach that might have answers."

“What sort of answers could your ship give you?” he asked.

“Why were we all still in cryo? I saw the vid, Solas. Almost everybody was still asleep, still on the Hyperion. Why weren’t more people already awake? Why weren’t we on Habitat Seven?

“And how the hell was Clinton able to get into the Initiative? That man couldn’t be trusted to leave a box of air unlocked. Who gave him a security clearance that let him alter my bio and have us listed as married?”

She set her cup down on the table with a loud clatter, as her voice rose with each question. “How come nobody noticed that an escape pod and a cryo unit had gone missing ? Why didn’t anybody come looking for me?”

Tears pooled in her eyes as her voice broke. “ How could they throw me away like that ?”

Helen inhaled sharply, clasping both hands over her mouth as if she had just admitted something to herself for the first time. She closed her eyes. A few tears slipped down her cheeks.

Her anguish broke through his indecision. Solas stood up and reached for her, pulling her out of her chair and into his embrace. Helen kept her hands over her face and leaned into him. She made no noise, save for great, shuddering gasps.

Chapter 41 render by http://anna-trocity.tumblr.com/

This was not like the night he had returned her omnitool to her, where she had mourned all that was lost to her. That weeping had been a catharsis.

This was the quiet agony of betrayal.

Solas knew from bitter experience that no words existed to take away that sting, or the self-doubt that followed.

So he said nothing, and tightened his embrace as her tears leaked through her fingers. He swayed a little back and forth. Her hair was clean and soft. She smelled like soap.

It took her a long time before she had calmed enough to remove her hands from her face. She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“Solas, I am so sorry,” she said, as she began to step away.

"You do not need to apologize," he said, reluctantly letting her go.

"Thank you; it's just--"

She looked away, staring into the hearth. Then she chewed her lip, something he had not seen her do in months .

It made her look young and small and vulnerable. Solas wanted to pull her back into his arms, learn what bothered her so, and fix it.

You wanted her to pull away, remember?

So he kept his arms by his sides, and instead offered a solution to a problem he understood.

“Whether you recruit the mages or the Templars, a group that large will need several days to reach Haven. A small ground team, properly chosen, should be able to return swiftly enough to give you time for your escape pod before the bulk of the forces arrives.”

She turned her gaze to him. “Will you go with me?”

"Yes. I will go with you." He did not know if she meant to recruit or to the escape pod, and found he did not care to ask. The answer was the same, either way.

Serannasan Ma , Solas. And I should go. It’s getting late, and I need some sleep.”

“Before you go,”  said, then he picked up her left hand again rather than complete his sentence. As he sent another healing spell into it, she looked up at him.

It was not the watery gaze of the woman who had just realized that her own people had discarded her to a terrible fate. It was the direct, penetrating stare that made so many Thedosians uncomfortable around her.

Chapter 41 render

It had been disconcerting then, and was no less so now. He met her eyes, but did not break the silence.

When he was finished healing her hand, he said, “ On nydhea , Helen. Sleep well.”

On nydhea .” She slipped out of his cabin, leaving the door open behind her. 

Not much later, he was back at work in the Fade, setting his wards and shoring up the Veil, when the inevitable happened.

The Rage Demon came speeding by him, pumping its club hands over its head in celebration. “Yes! She said YES!”

Then it vanished through the Veil.

Solas instantly woke and leaped out of bed. Before his feet hit the floor, he heard screams and shouting from the direction of Helen's cabin. 

Taking only the time to pull on clothing and grab his staff, Solas yanked open his door, and sprinted through Haven as fast as he could.

Over everything, over all of the noise, Helen’s piercing voice desperately shouted his name.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter forty-two 

Get your shit together, Trevelyan. Don’t cry, don’t bitch, don’t blame. And for fuck’s sake, stop bawling all over Solas. 

Helen berated herself all the way back to the cabin. She hurried by the noise and warmth of Flissa’s pub, avoiding eye contact with everyone she passed.     

Helen wasn’t stupid. She knew that six months on Thedas had taken a heavy toll. A medical scan that morning had shown that she’d lost another 6% of her body mass. Her psych profile was probably a disaster of acronyms and disorders by now. Had she shown up for work back home in her current state, she’d have been placed on mandatory medical leave.   

How could they throw me away like that?

Saying it outloud had deeply shocked her, like accidentally ripping off her own skin. She had sat there at Solas’ table, paralyzed with shame and wishing she were anywhere else. 

She’d been grateful at first when Solas pulled her into his arms. She’d needed to hide her face to bury her misery.   

But as she calmed down, she’d realized his face was buried in her hair. 

A lover’s embrace. She’d wanted to return it as much as she’d wanted to push him away. 

She did neither, too unsure of her own feelings to do anything but step away. 

Solas had been gentle and kind, offering good advice and healing her hand one last time before she retired for the night. But judging by the look on his face, he felt as conflicted as she did. 

Helen locked the door of her cabin behind her. She changed into her nightgown, washed her face and brushed her teeth. But instead of going to sleep, she tapped her right wrist and found the security vid of Solas examining the omnitool. 

She watched it all the way through. What was it that Leliana had said? Solas isn’t exactly hard on the eyes

Well, she wasn’t wrong. 

Helen took a screenshot of Solas’ face, then opened her miscellaneous files, which she had labeled “IDGAF” back in basic training and had never bothered to change. 

She found the file containing Solas’ DNA scan. She attached the screenshot as his contact photo and opened up the results of the scan. 

          Anomalies found with this subject:

          Elevated levels of telomerase.

          Elevated levels of repair proteins (click here for details, infra .)

Helen had expected that Solas carried the same genetic markers as the other elves she’d scanned, but that was evidently not the case.   

Chromosomes had little bits of DNA at their ends called telomeres. Telomeres prevented genetic information from getting scrambled, like the plastic tip of a shoelace kept the lace from fraying. Every time a cell divided, the telomeres became a little bit shorter. 

Somatic cells, which make up most of the body, eventually reach a point where the telomeres become too short. The cells stop dividing and eventually die. 

It was evolution’s way of protecting the genetic code. The DNA stayed intact, but the cost was cell death and aging. 

A few types of cells escaped this fate - germ cells, cancer cells, gametes, and stem cells. Those cells expressed an enzyme called telomerase which built the telomeres back up. It allowed the cells to keep dividing without dying off. 

Telomerase was a wonderful thing for reproduction. It allowed a fertilized egg to grow into a fully-formed infant. 

But in adults, abnormally high levels of telomerase usually indicated the presence of cancer, because telomerase allowed most cancers to grow and spread. 

Helen only knew about telomerase because eezo exposure significantly increased the risk of cancer. Checking telomerase levels had been a part of every medical scan she’d ever had, including the one she’d run on herself that very morning. 

But she knew next to nothing about repair proteins. They could repair DNA damage. That was all she knew.

Helen clicked on the hyperlink, expecting it would list a few proteins. Instead, it listed categories.   

          “Base excision repair proteins. Click here for details. Nucleotide excision repair proteins.Click here for details. Single strand break repair proteins. Click here for details.” 

On and on it went. Clicking on a category lead to a laundry list of enzymes and proteins, all hyperlinked to articles in the omnitool’s libraries. 

Helen quickly found herself down a rabbit hole of medical jargon she didn’t understand. She exited out and stared at the profile page she’d created for Solas. 

“Were any cancer cells identified?” she asked the VI. 

“Negative.” 

“Any pre-cancerous cells?” 

“Negative.” 

“Any other health problems with this subject?” 

“Negative.” 

“Which cells are expressing telomerase?” 

“Telomerase expression is noted in all of subject’s somatic cells.” 

Helen absorbed that for a minute. “ All of subject’s somatic cells have replenishing telomeres?” 

“Affirmative.” 

What. The fuck. Solas. 

How did he not have cancer? Was it because of all the repair proteins? And how much energy did his body need to keep up that sort of cell growth, and where was he getting it? The man hardly ate. Was this why he slept so much? 

Maybe it was a mage thing. 

Helen closed Solas’ file and opened Vivienne’s. 

Vivienne had some signs of mild degenerative disc disease, although nothing unusual for a woman her age. 

But in every other sense, Vivienne was perfectly normal. “Normal” in that she had all of the neurological markers of a mage, and her cells weren’t awash in telomerase. 

Helen was entering search terms into the Alliance medical archives when she heard a commotion outside her cabin. 

Men’s drunken voices leered and jeered. “Where d’ya think yer goin’ now?” “Let’s have a look atcha, Hester.” “Ooooooo, ye got a decent set a tits under these robes, doncha.” 

A woman’s voice said, “No, let me through, I need to talk to the Herald. Stop it! Leave me alone! Stop it!” 

Helen shut down the omnitool, flew to her cabin door and yanked it open. 

Four drunk guardsmen were in the middle of the square, pushing a small woman between them like a rag doll. It was Hester, one of the mages who had failed to get onto Helen’s medical corps. 

Hester had her arms crossed defensively across her chest, trying to cover herself from where her robes had been ripped open. 

“Stand down!” Helen shouted. “STAND DOWN! That’s an order!” 

The guardsmen gave Hester one last shove, knocking her to the ground. Then they turned on Helen. 

“We don’ take orders from you, ye foreign bitch!” slurred the largest of the men, as they all drew their weapons. “GET HER!” 

And in the second it took for Helen to activate her biotics, Hester transformed. Her mouth opened far too wide. Her face distorted as it pushed itself up over her skull. Helen could actually hear the pop of Hester’s jaw as it dislocated. The magma-glow of a rage demon seared flesh and clothing from the inside out. 

Aghast and clueless, Helen did the only thing she knew how to do. She placed Hester into a stasis field, slapped the the guardsmen into a singularity, and screamed for help. 

“SOLAS!” Helen shouted. “SEEKER!” 

The commotion attracted the villagers, many of who shrieked in terror. 

Helen couldn’t blame them. The half-Hester-half-rage-demon trapped in stasis was a horror show. A few recognizably human body parts remained. Hester’s mouth had been forced open far beyond its normal capacity, rippling and splitting the flesh as the demon emerged behind it. Rage’s tiny, malevolent eyes peered out through the woman’s teeth. Her left arm and leg were still humanoid, but blackened and charred. 

Not two paces away, the blubbering guardsmen floated around Helen’s singularity. Urine, vomit and fecal matter orbited along with them, coating them all in a vile stew of their own waste. 

In the middle of it all stood Helen, hands stretched towards the chaos, barefoot, freezing, and wearing only a nightgown.

Chapter 42 render

Commander Rutherford was the first to push through the scrum. Solas, Leliana, and Cassandra were right behind him.   

“HERALD!” Rutherford shouted in an accusatory tone. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” 

“Solas!” Helen nodded in the direction of Hester. “Can that be reversed?”

Reversed ? Are you mad ?” The Commander’s eyes bugged out in disbelief at her request.   

Helen ignored him, and looked instead at Solas, who shook his head. “No, Herald. At least, not in a way that this mage would thank you for.” 

Leliana and some of her scouts began to push the crowd back. 

Once the crowd was a safe distance away, Helen said, “Solas? Cassandra? On my mark.” 

Solas and Cassandra got their weapons at the ready. 

“Three, two, mark.” She released the stasis. Solas froze the abomination. Cassandra shattered it with a massive blow. Icy, meaty chunks scattered around the ground. 

Meanwhile, four guardsmen still floated in the air, whimpering to be let down. 

Commander Rutherford turned on Helen. “What in the Maker’s name happened?” 

“I was in bed when these cowards started attacking her just outside my door! I ran out and ordered them to stand down. They drew their weapons on me, and then Hester...” 

Helen waved her right hand at the grisly tableau of scorched and frozen pieces of flesh. A severed foot lay off to the side, the skin charred and cracked. 

The sight of it frayed Helen’s self-control. She dropped the guardsmen onto the ground. “Why did you do that to her ? She wasn’t hurting anybody !” 

Her biotics flared around her as she advanced towards the guardsmen. 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she screamed in English. “You think you can just treat women like that? Look at what you did!” 

She pointed at the remains of Hester scattered on the ground. “LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID!”   

The guardsmen cowered on the ground as Helen raged, every vile insult she could think of pouring out of her. 

Leliana and Solas appeared on either side of her. They both tried to pull her away, saying, “Come, Herald, it is over,” and “Please, falon, let us get you inside.” 

Their words did not register and she shook off their hands. For at that moment, Helen was glad those guardsmen were terrified of her, glad they now felt some of the shame and fear they had inflicted on Hester. 

She didn’t care that she was freezing half-to-death and wore only a nightgown. She only cared that these four guardsmen were an acceptable target for the unfathomable grief that threatened to drown her every single day since she’d arrived. 

“TREVELYAN!” 

Commander Rutherford’s voice cut through the noise of Helen’s fury. 

She shut her mouth and damped down the biotics. The Commander’s expression was hard. He had drawn his sword. 

Helen glanced one last time at her would-be attackers, then held out her left hand, as if in presentation. “Your men, Commander,” she said meeting Cullen’s gaze. His eyes narrowed a little, but he sheathed his weapon. 

Helen allowed Leliana and Solas to lead her into her cabin and close the door behind them. 

Solas bade her stand by the fire, then yanked the blanket off of her bed and wrapped it around her shoulders. He stood to her left, while Leliana rummaged through the wine. 

“I don’t want any wine, Leliana,” Helen said. 

“Yes, but I do,” the Spymaster sighed, as she pulled a cork and poured three mugs of wine. “I think I’ve consumed more alcohol in the last few days than I have in the last few years”. 

Outside of advisor meetings, Helen had not spoken to Leliana since their confrontation two nights ago. The only exception had been yesterday when Helen had sent everybody away to speak with Leliana alone before they interrogated Blackwall. 

Leliana has confirmed for her that, yes, she knew Blackwall was not a Warden. Leliana knew his true identity but saw no need to reveal it at this point. His men adored him and the Inquisition needed his skills. “He’s a good man,” she’d said, “even if he isn’t what we expected.” 

Helen had wanted to dig a little further, but they could hear Cassandra, Cullen, and Blackwall clomping down the staircase. So she’d asked the other question she’d had. 

“Why do the Commander’s hands shake?” 

“That is his story to tell, not mine,” Leliana had murmured before they were joined by the Commander, Cassandra, and Blackwall. 

Now Leliana stood on Helen’s right, pushing a cup of wine into Helen’s hands. “Drink,” she ordered. 

Helen swallowed some of the wine without tasting it and stared into the fireplace, her mind’s eye replaying Hester morphing into the rage demon. “I do not understand how such a thing could happen,” she whispered. 

“It’s my fault,” Leliana said. “We knew those men have been holding a grudge since you killed Ivans. It never occurred to me they’d be smart enough to use somebody else to get to you.” 

“Not that,” Helen fretted. “What I mean is, I don’t understand how Hester could be burned alive from the inside out!” 

She turned to Solas. “You said demons were spirits driven mad when a rift pulled them involuntarily across the Veil. So, Hester was just, what--another type of rift?” 

Solas shook his head. “No. Hester volunteered herself as a host. It is likely that demon has been trying to convince her for some time. Unfortunately, neither Hester nor the demon were strong enough to stay contained.” 

Helen blinked rapidly against the confusion and fear that kept threatening to leak out of her eyes. “‘Abomination’ was one of the first words I learned on Thedas, but I never thought about what it really meant. That there’s a whole world filled with sentient beings just out of reach behind the Veil.” 

“Yes,” Solas nodded cautiously. 

Feeling overwhelmed, Helen took a long drink of wine. It felt like she had just put one small corner of a puzzle together, only to realize that the picture looked nothing like the box it came in, and that all of the pieces were sharp enough to cut. 

“Nothing about this planet makes any goddamn sense,” Helen whispered. 

The front door opened and Cassandra walked in. 

“I have news,” she said. 

Helen, Leliana, and Solas listened as Cassandra told them what she and Cullen had learned. 

The guardsmen still blamed Helen for killing Ivans, but her prolonged absences and the passage of time had dulled the edge of their anger. 

Then Cecelia talked to them earlier that evening at the pub. She told them Helen had “poisoned” her baby and that she wanted revenge. 

The guardsmen wanted to kill Helen, but Cecelia pointed out that she still needed to close the Breach. She’d proposed an alternative - lure Helen out of her cabin and chop off her right arm. That way, she could still close the Breach, but would no longer get to use her “magic bracelet.” 

Cecelia had chosen Hester because the woman had expressed disappointment that she had not been chosen for the Medical Corps. More importantly, Hester was so mild-mannered that nobody saw her as a threat. 

Cecelia told Hester that evening that she’d overheard Helen say the Medical Corps needed another mage right away. “Go talk to the Herald,” Cecelia had said. “She’s still awake.” 

The plan was for the guardsmen to get a bit loud about blocking Hester’s path to Helen’s cabin. Helen would come outside to investigate. The men would attack, and avenge both Ivans and Cecelia’s baby. 

But the guardsmen had gotten carried away in the fun of pushing Hester around. 

“Even sober, those men are idiots,” Cassandra said. “And they had all been drinking. None of them had considered that any mage might turn into an abomination, or that the Herald could hold her own against four armed men.” 

The men were locked into cells. Cecelia had been caught trying to sneak out of Haven. She, too, was placed in a dungeon cell. So far, she’d said nothing. 

Leliana sighed, “I’ll go see if I can get anything out of Cecelia. Good night, everyone.” 

After she left, Helen looked at Cassandra and Solas. “I’m going to recruit the mages,” she said. 

“Even after what you just witnessed?” the Seeker asked. 

“Especially after what I just witnessed.” 

Cassandra looked resigned. “Very well, Herald.” 

“I’m planning a hard ride back to Haven so I have time to repair the escape pod before the mages arrive,” Helen told her. “It’s a lot to ask, but I want you to come with me.” 

Cassandra nodded once. “I will.” 

Solas set his wine down and picked up Helen’s hand. “You should get some rest, falon. We all should,” he said as he healed it for the umpteenth time. 

But Helen didn’t sleep. She brooded until sunrise, unable to dispel the nagging sense that Thedas was more fundamentally alien than anything she'd ever seen in the Milky Way.

** 

“How will you punish them?” 

It was the first thing out of Helen’s mouth the next morning in the War Room. 

“We cannot hang them. Technically, they didn’t kill anyone,” Cassandra said. “Nor can we send them to the Wardens, even if we could find them. Not after what we saw at the Conclave.” 

Josephine spoke up. “And Cecelia is pregnant, which complicates everything.” 

“You should have killed them last night,” Leliana said. 

“What, in front of the whole town?” Cullen said. “The villagers are scared enough of her as it is. At least this way it looks like she was only defending herself and Haven.” 

“I was only defending myself and Haven,” Helen said. 

“I know, but it doesn’t change the fact that you terrified a lot of people last night,” he said. “By sparing them, we can argue that you at least showed some restraint.” 

“More than your men did, anyway,” Helen retorted, placing the responsibility back onto the Commander’s feathered shoulders. “Which brings me back to my question - how do you plan to punish them?” 

Helen listened to several minutes of arguments, which ranged from banishment (Leliana and Cullen) to a few years in the dungeons (Cassandra and Josephine.) 

When it became clear that Helen was expected to break the stalemate, she balked. “No. Absolutely not. You can’t complain that people are afraid of me, and then place the lives of those men into my hands. They are your men and, therefore, your responsibility, Commander. Banish them, hang them, I don’t really care. Just make sure it’s handled by the time I return from Redcliffe.” 

Redcliffe ?” 

The Commander was all kinds of outraged and aghast. “You’re recruiting the mages after what you saw last night?” 

“I’m recruiting the mages because of what I saw last night. What those men did to Hester was unconscionable.” 

“She made her choice, too!” Cullen argued. “No-one forced her to accept a demon’s help. If you hadn’t been there, that demon could have burned down half of Haven! How do you propose we prevent more abominations if we bring scores of mages to live right under the Breach?” 

Helen wasn’t certain if the question was serious or rhetorical, but she found her posture instinctively falling into parade rest. 

Commander Rutherford asked a question. Commander Trevelyan would answer it. 

“I’d start by teaching your men that assault will never be tolerated against anybody, mages or otherwise. Institute guidelines with clearly laid out prohibitions and punishments. Hold inter-speciality training with the mages. Use team building exercises and send them out on joint missions. 

“None of these are cure-alls, but they do reduce the frequency of such incidents. I’ve done it before with scores of different ground teams. I did it here with Company Half-Wit.” 

“None of those groups included mages,” Cullen said. 

“My Medical Corps has two, and they’ve been successful for some time now. Point the blame at Hester all you want, but those men had good reason to believe that abusing women was acceptable sport. That’s nobody’s fault but yours, Commander.”  

Guilt flickered across the Commander’s face, and he looked away. “I know it is,” he said, quietly.   

Helen softened her tone a little. “I’m not choosing the mages only because of what happened last night. Most of the mages we spoke to in Redcliffe hate being under Tevinter control. I’m not so much recruiting the mages as I’m rescuing them. If it works, the Inquisition has a small army of grateful, loyal mages. 

“Lord Seeker Lucius thinks he’s too good for us. If we recruit the Templars, they’ll expect us to be grateful to them .” 

Leliana nodded. “She’s right, Cullen. If the Inquisition is going to survive beyond closing the Breach, we want people who believe in what we stand for.” 

Cassandra said, “And if this Alexius is really playing with time travel, he poses a threat to everybody, not just the mages.” 

“I don’t think what we saw in Redcliffe was really time travel,” Helen said. Then she opened the omnitool and showed them the vid she’d taken in Redcliffe, from the moment she turned on her omnitool in the Gull and Lantern, until she turned it off after Dorian Pavus left the Chantry. 

“See? Look. Even when I get stuck in one of those spots where I slow down, the time on the omnitool doesn’t change. I get slower, but it’s only my motion that was affected, not time itself.” 

Then she turned the omnitool off. 

“Wait,” Cullen asked. “You can just record what anybody around you is saying or doing, and they don’t even know it?” 

Oh. Shit. Helen had never thought about how that would look. “Um, yes. I suppose I can.” 

“Are you recording this ?” He indicated everyone around the War Table. 

"No. Except for the Conclave explosion and the scene we just witnessed, I have not made any recordings without the express consent of the subjects." 

“You didn’t get Fiona’s consent,” Leliana pointed out. 

“Fiona asked me to meet her in a pub. How much privacy was she expecting, exactly?” 

“How are we to know you won’t record us without our knowledge?” Cassandra asked. 

"Beyond my word?" Helen shook her head. "You don't." 

Silence settled around the table. 

“I must admit, Helen, I am not comfortable with that,” Josie said. Helen could tell the others felt the same. 

“Well, I, uh…” Helen floundered for a moment, unsure what to say, and decided brutal honesty was her only option. 

“Where I come from, everybody had one of these,” she indicated her right wrist. “We all had the ability to record whenever and whatever we wanted. Most public spaces had systems in place which recorded everything night and day. 

“But there were limits to what was considered ethical. The privacy of your own home, intimate moments, private conversations - those were all considered to be out of bounds unless the parties agreed. Recording those instances without consent was considered to be a deep breach of trust. 

“I know first hand what it’s like to have that trust betrayed. I’m on Thedas because of it. 

“There may be times in the field where I need to record what is happening. But I give you my word that absent exigent circumstances, I will not record anything without permission." 

Nobody liked that answer. Even Josie had a less-than-diplomatic frown on her pretty face. 

Helen didn’t know what other reassurances she could give. They’d either learn she could be trusted or they wouldn’t. 

Cassandra broke the silence by saying, “This betrayal of trust - you are speaking of your former lover?” 

Helen could not quite contain the disgusted sigh that escaped her. “Yes.” 

Cassandra nodded once. “Very well. I will trust you in this matter, Herald.” 

This seemed to mollify Leliana and Josephine a little bit, but Cullen looked confused. 

“That ‘bad man’ you told us about the day you woke up, the one that sent you here,” Cullen said, realization dawning on his face, “that was your former lover ?” 

Helen looked at Cassandra. “You never told them?” 

“No, I told them. I did leave out some of the more salacious details. Perhaps that is why the Commander does not remember.” 

All three of the female advisors were watching Cullen carefully. He looked almost...confused. There was some sort of undercurrent among the advisors that Helen was evidently not privy to. 

Then Cullen said, “What salacious details?” 

“Fuck me. I hate me,” Helen muttered in English. 

She switched to Common, and quickly sketched out what Clinton had done. 

She wrapped up her summary with, “After we arrived in Andromeda, Clinton got into the habit of masturbating onto my cryo unit. He was caught, so he moved the cryo unit into an escape pod and blasted me into open space. Thousands of years later, I landed here.” 

Commander Rutherford had turned absolutely scarlet. Helen might have felt sorry for him, if he hadn’t been such a prick the last few days.   

“When I get to my escape pod,” she said, keeping her voice absolutely professional, “I can download the dozens of security vids of Clinton masturbating and show them to you. It isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget.” 

“That won't be necessary, Herald,” he said through clenched teeth. 

Leliana laughed. “Dozens of times? Truly?” 

“Truly,” Helen nodded. “A whole new galaxy but still so much time on his hands. It also illustrates what I was saying earlier. Surveillance was everywhere. Clinton had to know he was being recorded.” 

“If he knew other people could see him,” Cullen looked both embarrassed and horrified at the same time, “then why would he...?” 

This time, Leliana and Josephine laughed. 

“We are here to discuss Redcliffe,” Cassandra reminded them all, quite sternly. 

The Commander eagerly jumped into the change of topic. “I still think it’s a bad idea. Even Solas said that the Templars would be the better option for you.” 

“He said both options would be dangerous. I chose the option that protects the mages, removes a hostile foreign power from your backyard, and secures the ability to close the Breach.” 

“Even if it means you’re more like to die?” he asked. 

Helen shrugged. “I should have died a long time ago. Everything on Thedas has just been borrowed time. Now, how are we going to do this?” 

She had been invited to meet with Magister Alexius, which everybody agreed was a trap. An all-out assault was not feasible. 

Helen asked about sneaking in. Leliana said that was possible. Difficult, but possible. 

The Commander, naturally, didn’t like it. “It’s a huge risk,” he pointed out. 

Then door to the War Room burst open, and a certain leather-clad mage with a penchant for guyliner strolled in.

Dorian in the War Room in Haven.

“Fortunately,” Dorian declared, “you’ll have help.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter forty-three

Dorian hated Haven the moment he set his eyes upon it.

This was partly his own fault, as he was in an atrocious mood. Getting to Haven had been much harder than he’d expected. High altitudes and bitter Frostback winds were not enemies he’d faced before. The best warming spells on his heaviest clothing couldn’t ease his shivering.

When he finally got to Haven, he’d been expecting the town to be more like its name. Warm. Welcoming.

Instead, he found training yards filled with soldiers. Tents served as barracks. The stables were right next to the blacksmith. Everything had a slapdash, temporary feel to it.

He stabled his indifferent horse. Then a Templar ordered - ordered! - Dorian turn over his staff.

“No weapons inside the gates, ‘cept for members of the Inquisition forces,” the Templar said.

“And I’m sure that if I were a noble and not a mage, you’d be jumping on me to turn over my sword,” Dorian mused.  

The Templar grinned and pointed to a wall of weapon racks, lined with swords, staves, and mauls of various make. “I certainly would. Best part of my day, actually.”

“Fine,” Dorian said, handing over his staff, “but do keep it safe.”

Having been divested of his weapon, he found the most vacant-looking Inquisition soldier at the gates and asked to please be pointed in the direction of the Herald.

The soldier glanced at him briefly, and said, “Piss off.”

“Now, now, don’t do that, my friend,” Dorian said, as charmingly as he could. “She is expecting me.”

“Nah, she’s not.”

Dorian turned around. The speaker was that enormous Qunari. Despite the cold, the Qunari was wearing even less clothing than he had back in the Chantry at Redcliffe.

“See?” the soldier said, smugly. “She ain’t expecting you. Piss. Off.”

Dorian ignored the soldier and focused his attention on the Qunari. “I know how to get to Magister Alexius,” Dorian explained. “You don’t, and neither does the Herald. She’ll need my help.”

The Qunari gave him the same, slow once-over that he’d done back in Redcliffe.

Dorian let him look. If this half-naked Qunari wanted to admire him, at least he had better taste in men than he did pantaloons. Besides, he blocked the wind.

Finally, the Qunari stuck his hand out. “Pavus, right? I’m The Iron Bull, head of the Chargers. We met back in Redcliffe.”

They shook hands. The Iron Bull’s hand was so large and his skin so hot, that it took nearly all of Dorian’s self-control to not cuddle up against him.

“Nice to see you again,” he said politely.

“Take him to her,” the Iron Bull said to the soldier. “He’s got information she’s going to need about the Tevinter magister.”

“Thank you,” he said, giving a slight bow to the Iron Bull before he allowed the soldier to lead the way.

“Don’t thank me yet,” the Qunari called after him. “This isn’t the place for spoiled ‘Vints.”

He pretended he hadn’t heard. As he followed the soldier through Haven, Dorian schooled his face into a neutral cordiality that kept his disgust hidden.

“The Inquisition.” It sounded so impressive, didn’t it? Breaking away from the Chantry like it had? Its Herald was becoming famous - or infamous, depending on who you asked - for doing such grand things.

The reality disappointed him. He’d been expecting...well, he wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. More heated buildings. Fewer open sewers. Not some frozen, southern backwater.

Haven didn’t seem terribly impressed with Dorian, either. More than one resident looked him up and down and openly scoffed.

He was almost grateful to enter the Chantry, and when in his lifetime had he ever said that?

The soldier took him to a closed door in the back of the Chantry. Voices behind it argued about how to best break into Redcliffe Castle.

Dorian barged right in and declared, “Fortunately, you’ll have help!” The looks of shocked outrage on everybody’s faces improved his mood. He did so love making an entrance.

Only the Herald seemed unimpressed. “Pavus. How timely.”

She introduced him to the others. The Cassandra Pentaghast. Sister Leliana, who probably had two dozen small blades hidden on her person. An Antivan Ambassador with a name he recognized. And Commander Rutherford, who looked as if he’d like nothing better than to stab Dorian on general principle.

The Herald listened to Dorian’s proposal to help infiltrate Redcliffe Castle and declared that it had merit. 

The Commander didn’t like the plan very much. He felt it put the Herald at too much risk. Specifically, the risk was losing, “the only means we have of closing the rifts. I won't allow it!”

I wont allow it


“‘Won’t allow it?’” the Herald repeated, almost amused. “As if you could stop me, Commander. Besides, my safety has never been important to you before, so I find it hard to believe that it concerns you now. You just don’t like the choice I’ve made.”

“No,” said the Commander stiffly. “I certainly don’t.”

“I don’t need you to like it, Commander. I need you to help me plan this mission,” she said. “If you’re unwilling to do that, you can go. You do have some problem employees downstairs. Perhaps dealing with them would be a more productive use of your time. I will not hold it against you.”

Dorian watched the exchange with great interest. The Herald’s tone was reasonable, yet her words made the Commander’s jaw clench. Dorian hoped that the Commander would keep arguing. Unfortunately, the man just stood there, looking stubborn.

“Moving on,” the Herald said, “how are we going to do this?”

It was decided that Dorian, Sister Leliana and some of her best scouts would leave that afternoon for Redcliffe. The Herald and a small ground team would follow a day behind. Dorian would help the Inquisition infiltrate the castle in the middle of the night. Once they entered the passage, they would not leave it until the Herald and her team were in place.   

As soon as the meeting was over, the Commander stormed out of the room. The Herald just watched him and gave a resigned sigh. Then she turned to Dorian. “Come with me,” she said. “The Inquisition got its hands on some staves that I’m told are quite good. You may want to switch yours out for this mission.”

Dorian doubted it but kept his thoughts to himself.

On the way out of the Chantry, the Herald stopped to re-introduce him to Madame de Fer. The Enchanter had set herself up in the wings of the Chantry, where she held whatever passed for court here in the sticks.

The mages did a swift visual inspection of each other. Dorian could read the dislike on Vivienne’s face as quickly as she could read his.

An instant rivalry. This should be fun.

“Do be careful, Herald,” Vivienne sniffed. “Tevinters are not known for their good faith.”

“No, we certainly aren’t. But what we lack in faith, we make up for in actual talent.”

“Really?” the Herald. “Already? This may be a record.”

“What?” Dorian said as he followed the Herald out of the Chantry. “We were having a perfectly civil conversation.”

The Herald just sighed. As they walked through Haven, Dorian couldn’t help but notice the wide berth people were giving the Herald. Even the villagers who had scoffed at Dorian wouldn’t make eye contact now that he was with her.

She led him briskly towards the gates, until a voice called out, “Hey, Herald!”

A dwarf with dark blond hair and a broken nose waved her over. He glanced briefly at Dorian, but his focus was on the Herald. “You okay? That was some ugly business last night.”

“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.” She glanced back at Dorian. “Varric Tethras? Dorian Pavus.”

“Really?” Dorian said, shaking Varric’s hand. “We have a mutual acquaintance. Maevaris Tilani is a dear friend of mine.”

Varric chuckled a little darkly. “Maevaris Tilani,” he repeated. “You have formidable friends. How’s she doing these days?”

“She’s quite well, thank you. I will be sure to let her know we met. She speaks highly of you.”

“Well, send her my best,” Varric said. Then he explained to the Herald, “His friend is the widow of my cousin. Long story.”

“I’m sure you’ll embellish it for me if I ask nicely,” the Herald said, smiling fondly at the dwarf.

They said their goodbyes. The Herald led him outside of the gates and down to the blacksmith.

The Herald talked to the blacksmith, who brought out the strangest staff Dorian had ever seen. “Dwarven make,” the blacksmith said. “Excellent craftsmanship. Bloody powerful, too, from what I’m told.”

Dorian picked it up. The rush of willpower that flooded his system was almost dizzying.

“Maker’s breath, please tell me you don’t want this returned,” he pleaded, as they headed back towards the gates.

The Herald shrugged. “It’s yours for the duration of the mission. After it’s over, we’ll have to see where things are.”

Leliana was waiting with a small team of scouts. The Herald took her leave. “Good luck, Pavus,” she said. “I will see you in Redcliffe.”

**
As they traveled, Dorian eventually realized that Sister Leliana was that Leliana, friend and companion of the Hero of Ferelden. The warm, laughing bard of the stories bore little resemblance to the cold, calculating woman who now rode next to him and said almost nothing.

The Hero’s stories had not been widely believed in Tevinter. Entertaining, yes, and a fascinating tale, to be sure. But nobody actually believed it had been a true Blight. Most assumed the Hero had put down an overly aggressive excursion of darkspawn.

At any rate, Leliana’s past association with the Hero of Ferelden was not a topic of discussion. Despite his most charming efforts, every inquiry he’d made was rebuffed.

She was only slightly more forthcoming about the Herald of Andraste.

“So, who is she really?” he asked.

Leliana gave it some thought and said, “What is the most outlandish thing you’ve heard about her?”

“That she is a mage from another world who can throw a man over a building, whilst invisible.”

“She’s not a mage, not the way we understand it,” Leliana said. “She calls her powers ‘biotics.’ The rest is true.”

“You’re joking.”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

“No, you look rather terrifying.”

That earned him a raised eyebrow, but no comment.

He pressed the issue. “But who is she? You can’t say, ‘not a mage from another world.’ That’s hardly an answer at all.”

“Do you ever stop talking?”

“Not if I can help it,” he said cheerfully. “I do so love the sound of my own voice.”

“You will see,” is all she would say on the matter. The rest of the Inquisition scouts ignored him, although he couldn’t tell whether it was because he was from Tevinter, or a mage, or just because they were following Leliana’s lead.

They rode hard to Redcliffe, reaching the Inquisition camp outside of Redcliffe in the early afternoon on the fourth day.

That night, long after sundown, Leliana led them to a dilapidated mill within the ruins of old Redcliffe. The passage into the Castle ran underneath the lake, something Dorian tried very hard not to think about.

It did not take long to run into trouble. Giant spiders had found the damp and the dark to their liking and had established a rather sizeable nest.

Dorian’s fire and Leliana’s arrows kept most of the spiders from getting too close, but a couple of the scouts received some nasty bites. Leliana passed out anti-venom to those in need. If that wasn’t a sign she’d been here before, Dorian didn’t know what was.

After clearing out the spiders, the obstacles became more complicated. They found their progress blocked by spells far too old to belong to Alexius. It was nothing that Dorian couldn’t handle, but putting down demons and corpses every time they turned a corner slowed them down and drained their energy.

Finally, they reached a reinforced door that resonated with a magical signature that Dorian recognized as distinctly Tevinter.

He put his finger to his lips, signaling the team to be quiet. Then he reached out with his magic.

“The door is triggered for fire. It’s got a bolt-action lock. And there are four guards inside,” he murmured to Leliana.

“Take care of the magic. We’ll get everything else.”

Dorian negated the fire rune, then watched Leliana noiselessly pick the lock. The four guards inside didn’t even have time to draw their weapons before they had arrows or blades in their throats.

The guards’ room opened into a small passage that led through a dungeon with empty cells. Room by room, they worked their way through the bowels of Redcliffe Castle. Leliana and her people were ruthless, efficient, and utterly silent.

The Veil in Redcliffe had been thin and damaged. Here in the Castle, however, the Veil felt injured, almost diseased. It set his teeth on edge.

Finally, they found themselves just outside the main hall of the Castle. They waited until they heard the Herald’s presence announced. Leliana and her scouts spread out.  

Dorian entered the hall as if he had every right to be there. The Venatori, seeing just another mage from Tevinter, did nothing to him.

Dorian watches from the sidelines

He watched from the back. The Herald had chosen the Seeker and the elf mage (Silas? No, Solas) to accompany her.

If the Herald had any diplomatic skills, she kept them well hidden. She told Alexius, in so many words, that she was taking his mages, and he could fuck off.

Alexius was not acquitting himself, either. He showed inexplicable hatred towards the Herald, even accusing her of stealing the Mark on her hand.

“The Mark?” she asked. Then she got quite angry, pointing her left hand towards Alexius and demanding, “What is this? What do you know about it?”

“It belongs to your betters,” Alexius said, in his most condescending tone. “You wouldn’t even begin to understand its purpose.”

When Felix said, “Father, listen to yourself. Do you even know what you sound like?” Dorian made his move.

“He sounds exactly like the sort of villainous cliche everyone expects us to be.”

Alexius and Dorian argued. Felix begged his father to stop whatever it was they were doing.

All the while, Dorian looked for the man he once knew in the petty tyrant who now stood before him, so eager to tear apart the world. Alexius was so caught up in his own justifications that he never noticed Leliana’s people quietly slaughtering his own guards.

Eventually, the reason behind Alexius’ madness became heartbreakingly clear.

“Stop it, Father,” Felix begged. “Give up the Venatori. Let the southern mages fight the Breach, and let’s go home.”

Alexius turned to his only child and said, “No! It’s the only way, Felix. He can save you.”

“Save me?” Felix almost sounded angry.

“There is a way,” Alexius insisted. “The Elder One promised. If I undo the mistake at the Temple…”

“I’m going to die, Father,” Felix said gently. “You need to accept that.”

For just a moment, Dorian thought Alexius would come to his senses. Then Alexius called the Herald “a mistake,” and pulled out a familiar amulet.

Alexius was going to try and cast time magic right here? Without any sort of preparation or grounding?  Was he trying to kill them all?

Dorian shouted, “No!” and threw his strongest disruption spell at Alexius, but it was too late. A swirling vortex cracked open the fabric of the Fade and sucked Dorian and the Herald right into it.

They landed in filthy, shin-deep water. Two startled Venatori took the Elder One’s name in vain and drew their weapons. Dorian had no time to blink before the Herald’s strange, blue magic had thrown both men so hard against the wall he heard their necks break.

“What just happened? Where are we?” the Herald demanded of him.

Dorian looked around. This place seemed disturbingly familiar. Remove the refuse, the flooding, and the red lyrium, and it looked exactly like the dungeons he had just traveled through with Leliana and her people.

He hid his panic behind his scholarly facade. They had traveled through time, he explained, although he was not sure which direction. “But don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll protect you.”

The Herald looked up at him, incredulity written all over her face. Then she punched him on his unprotected bicep - hard.

“Ow!” he cried.

“What the bloody fuck is wrong with you?” she hissed. “We had Leliana, all of her scouts, and my ground team right behind us! Now it’s just the two of us in some red lyrium infected shithole where people want to kill us, and you think you can protect me?”

“This isn’t just any shithole!” he retorted. “This is the dungeon of Redcliffe castle! I was just here with your people.”

The Herald made a noise of disgust and slapped her right wrist. A bright orange gauntlet made entirely of light appeared over her forearm.

“Oh, what’s that?” he said, genuinely curious.

“An omnitool. If we’re going to die here, I’m recording it.”

“Ooooh, of course. ‘An omnitool.’ That clears up everything.”

She ignored him. She said something in a language he didn’t recognize, and the omnitool turned off.

She tried to open the door to the cell they were in, but it was locked. “Help me find a way out, so we can figure out exactly where we are,” she ordered.

“I told you already. We’re still in the castle. What we need to find out is when we are.” He helped her haul a dead Venatori out of the water and onto the steps.

“Time travel isn’t possible,” she said, although she didn’t sound quite a skeptical as she had the week before.

“Begging your pardon, madam, but it most certainly is.”  

“If you’re going to travel through time,” she said as she searched the body, “you also have to travel through space. A planet always moves around its sun. Stars always move through their galaxies. Nothing ever stands still.

“If you travel through time, how do you guarantee that you don’t appear in the middle of a mountain? Or out in open space? Not to mention the massive amount of energy it would take.”

The guard’s pockets were empty. She unceremoniously dumped the body back into the water and reached for the second dead guard.

“Which is why you must both harmonize and anchor the Fade around you,” Dorian said, highly disconcerted to hear her describe time travel in such cold, non-magical terms.  “The amulet was designed to do just that. The harmonization acts as a lifeboat, if you will, while the Fade provides both the direction and the energy. Of course, it was all just theory the last I worked on it. Alexius seems to have taken his research to exciting new heights.”

“‘Exciting,’ he says. Well, Pavus, if we really have traveled through time, I’ll add it to the long list of things I hate about your planet.”

“‘My planet?’” he asked. “So, you’re sticking with this whole, ‘I’m from another world’ story?”

She stood up with a key in her hand, and said, “How do you fight?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Combat, Pavus. How do you fight?”

“Oh. Mid-range, mostly. I’m proficient in all elemental and spirit magics, as well as necromancy. I’m also quite adept at hand-to-hand.”

“What’s necromancy?”

“Are you serious?” he asked. The Herald narrowed her eyes at him, so he sighed impatiently and gave a textbookish answer. “I use the spirit energy of the dead and dying to my advantage. I can also use the bodies of the fallen to fight for me.”

“Adding it to my list,” she muttered, as she unlocked the cell door. It opened with a creak. “Alert me to any magical traps you sense. If you see hostiles floating, your offensive spells should disable them. Stay reasonably close, and I can keep us both under a barrier.

“All right, let’s move out,” she ordered. Then she started to walk off.

“‘Move out’?” he repeated. “Who put you in charge?”

She stopped walking and very deliberately turned around to face him. She walked right back to him and poked him in the chest.

Me. I’ve been in charge since before you arrived in Haven. This is my mission, not yours. So here are your options. You either follow orders or -” she tapped her wrist and vanished.

Dorian looked around in a mild panic.

“Or you wait here by yourself.” The voice came from the other side of the room.

“Fine,” he growled.

She reappeared at the bottom of the stairwell, a look of barely contained fury on her face. He walked over to where she was, and made a sarcastic flourish of his hand, as if to say, after you.

The dungeon did not improve as they made their way through it. Broken pipes, rubbish everywhere, and the stench of rotting bodies had turned Redcliffe Castle from a rural stronghold into an utter nightmare. The constant, dissonant hum of red lyrium was giving Dorian a headache.

“What do you know about this Elder One?” she asked.

“The leader of the Venatori, I expect. Probably some Tevinter magister aspiring to godhood, no doubt.”

“Yeah, no doubt,” she muttered.

They found one of the Redcliffe mages chanting to himself in a cell. He seemed unaware of their presence.

Most of the people they found, however, were quite dead, their bodies discarded and forgotten. Several were partially covered in red lyrium.  

Anytime they found a body, the Herald would squat on the balls of her feet and use her omnitool to shine a cone of orange light on it.

“What are you doing?” he asked her.

“Scanning them.”

“Why?”

“I’m gathering information.”

“About?”

She looked worried. “I don’t really know yet.”

The fifth or sixth time she scanned a body, she gasped.

“I know her,” she whispered, touching the woman’s short, blond hair. Red lyrium was slowly devouring the body.

The Herald fiddled with her omnitool, and the orange cone of light turned into a rectangular projection. She tapped on the box below it.

Dorian tried to make sense of what he was seeing, but he didn’t recognize the technology. It wasn’t dwarven make. He’d certainly never seen anything this advanced from the Qunari. It had nothing to do with the Fade or lyrium.


Chapter 43 render by ProcrastiKate for the Half-Life of Element Zero

Maybe she really is from another world. A world where they grow short, bossy, humorless women.

A three-dimensional image of a fetus appeared where the rectangle had been. The Herald asked a few questions in her language. Then she turned the omnitool off and placed a shaking hand over her mouth. She closed her eyes for a moment.

“Was she a friend of yours?” he asked. He tried to keep his voice at least polite. The Herald might be unpleasant, but that was no reason to be callous if she was now mourning someone.

“No. She hated me.” The Herald stood up and looked down at the body. “When I examined her less than a week ago, she was seven months pregnant. But according to the omnitool, she gave birth to a full-term baby ten months ago. Which means...”

“It’s been a year since you examined her,” Dorian supplied, sounding a tad smug.

“Yes,” she exhaled. “In my world, time travel was considered to be physically impossible. The clock on my omnitool didn’t record it happening. It still isn’t recording it now. Time and again, since I arrived on Thedas, I’ve been confronted with forces I don’t understand. Because this isn’t my world. It’s yours.”

She looked up at him, exhaustion and regret pulling at her features.

“I should have listened to you,” she said. “I owe you an apology, Pavus. I am sorry. Truly, I am.”

An apology? That was...unexpected.

“Please, call me Dorian. If it helps at all, this isn’t how I wanted to see my theories confirmed,” he said.

“I’m Helen. And this isn’t how I wanted to be proven wrong. Can you get us back? I was always taught that, even if time travel were theoretically possible, it could only ever move forward and never into the past. One of my physics teachers liked to say, ‘you can’t uncrack an egg.’”

“Nonsense. Not only can I uncrack an egg, I can make it cook itself and jump onto your plate.”

“That’s a repair, not time travel. And it doesn’t answer my question - can you get us back?”

“I’ll need to find Alexius first, or at least, the amulet he used to send us here. But theoretically, yes - I can get us back.”

“All right, then. We find Alexius or the amulet, and get back to the present day. In the meantime, I’m going to treat this Castle and everything in it like one giant crime scene.”

“You know, you’re very strange. Who are you really?” Dorian asked. “I know what everybody else says, but I’ve never asked you. Who are you?”

“Commander Helen Trevelyan, Andromeda Initiative, formerly Systems Alliance Navy.”

“Where are you from?”

“A planet called Earth.”

“Hmm. ‘A planet called Earth.’ And where is that, exactly?”

“The Sol System.”

“Right. Not one answer you’ve given makes any sense at all. I’ll try something more basic. How old are you?”

“That’s hard to explain. Look, get us back to where we were, and I’ll answer every question you have, I promise. But not here, and not now.”

She looked back down at the dead woman. “I wonder what happened to her baby?”

“Nothing good, I expect,” Dorian said.

“No, probably not,” she quietly agreed. “Let’s move out.”

This time, Dorian didn’t argue.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter forty-four 

Alexius’ accusation back in the Grand Hall that Helen had “stolen” the Mark had momentarily confused her.

“The Mark?” she’d repeated, sounding a bit stupid. Why would this Elder One give one single shit about the Mark?

Then it hit her. Alexius hadn’t set this trap. Corypheus had. He hadn’t died at the Conclave any more than he had in the Deep Roads. The intake of breath from Cassandra told Helen that the Seeker had just made the same realization.

Helen had stalled for time with angry demands about the Mark, and felt a trickle of relief when Dorian appeared.

If