Ren shivered, both from the exhaustive fight through Suledin Keep and from the cold, as she led the way up yet another flight of stairs. Quietly, she prayed they were nearing the top of the keep. Her leather armor was fur-lined and oiled against the weather, but that didn’t stop the chill winter air from penetrating seams or the cooling sweat dripping down her back.
The sickly red glow of tainted lyrium greeted her as she crested the stairway. Great spikes of red lyrium mounted on pedestals ringed the courtyard. It was different from the lyrium she’d seen, smooth and clear compared to what was growing in the wild. It grew straight up towards the sky instead of in a myriad of angles. The ache in the back of her jaw, which Cole had attributed to the lyrium’s distorted song, increased as she drew nearer.
In the center of the ring stood a single man. He was dressed in black, from his tailored, fur-trimmed coat down to his buckled leather boots. He stood with his arms relaxed by his side, looking idly like he’d been waiting for her. His beady eyes sparkled and his lips curled with glee when he caught sight of her.
“Ah, the hero arrives. But is it hero?” His tone started light, but then his flinty eyes turned hard, his smile melted into a snarl, and he growled. “Or murderer? It’s so hard to tell.”
““Dreams, desires, drives all twisted for his amusement,” Cole said, his voice shaking over her shoulder. “Feeding on frenzy, glutting on guilt. Choices where only he walks the winner.”
The man blinked in surprise and then broke into a delighted grin. “Why, if it isn’t Compassion! And in your very own corporeal body, too! How did you manage that? I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share that little secret?”
“No.” Cole shook his head, his hat flapping gently. He stepped back, putting distance between them. “You’d use it to hurt people.”
The man cocked his head to the side as he considered this and then nodded, his grin turning positively feral. “You’re absolutely right.”
Ren’s mouth tightened in a grimace. “You’re the demon called Imshael.” It wasn’t a question.
Imshael cleared his throat loudly. “ Choice . Spirit .”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “And that’s different from a desire demon how, exactly?
The “spirit” rolled his eyes. “Everyone has desires, my dear. But not everyone is willing to make the choice to act upon them. Pride feeds from the grandiose imaginations and aspirations of men. Despair require loss and sorrow.” He paced back and forth through the snow, leaving trails despite his status as a creature of the Fade. “And I thrive on the choices people make."
Behind her, the Iron Bull made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat, and she heard the rasp of metal being unsheathed. “Talky ones. I hate the talky ones.”
The demon, choice spirit, hastily held his hands up in a warding gesture and took a step back. “Wait. Wait. Wait .” His eyes widened in a mockery of harmless innocence. “These are your friends? They’re very violent. It’s worrying!”
Ren held up her hand to stop Bull from advancing, but never took her eyes off the creature in front of her.
“True to my name, I will show you that you have a choice.” Imshael gave her an easy grin and lowered his hands to a position of entreaty as her friend stayed back. “It doesn’t always have to end in blood.”
She considered his words carefully. If Michel was correct, and this was an incredibly powerful demon, she wasn’t sure that she and her small team were in any kind of shape for a prolonged battle. She also had a feeling, from Imshael’s playful demeanor, that he knew that as well. Or that he was less than eager to see what the anchor could do to a creature like himself.
Ren spared a glance to the side at Solas. He inclined his head, as though affirming what she already thought. “It rarely hurts to listen. Trust, however, is another matter entirely.” He lowered his voice. “Be careful, vhenan. This spirit is ancient and powerful.”
She nodded and returned her gaze to the… spirit. “Talk.”
“It’s simple. We don’t fight, and I grant you power,” he said, ticking off a list on his fingers. “Shower you with riches. Or maybe virgins.” He winked at that one. “Your pick. Then we all live happily ever after.” He coughed slightly. “Well, not all of us. But, who’s counting?”
The Inquisitor barked out a humorless laugh that startled both her team and the demon in front of her into silence. “That’s your grand offer? Power? Riches? I have hundreds, if not thousands, under my command. The nobility of Orlais trips over itself to throw money into my coffers.” She chose to not even dignify the virgins offer with a comment. She shook her head and her large green eyes narrowed into a glare. “If that’s all you have to offer, this conversation is over.”
Rather than get defensive, as she expected, Imshael also laughed, delighted. “My apologies, my dear Inquisitor. I’d so gotten used to it being that easy. But I suppose if you’d rather up the ante, well, I’m game.” He crooked a finger at her, beckoning her to come closer. “Let’s talk.”
Ren looked to her team. The Iron Bull shook his head vehemently, and Cole just shook. Solas nodded, but held his staff at the ready. She looked again to Imshael. His hands remained open by his side, and her hand did not tingle with the telltale itchiness that the Veil caused when a spell was charged at the ready. It was… as safe as she expected it was going to get. Stepping forward, she closed a few yards distance between them, but still stayed far enough away that neither could touch the other without a few seconds warning.
“Alright,” she said. “Start talking.”
Imshael smiled, pleased with her acquiescence. His eyes met hers, and she felt a bit like a bug under a magnifying glass. “I know what you want. And I can help you achieve it.” His voice felt different from before, slightly fuzzy like it was just on the edge of her hearing. He must not want have wanted the others to listen. Or interfere.
Ren trusted that her team to rush to her aid if she signaled and push came to shove. She arched an eyebrow, but gave the demon nothing else. “That’s a rather hefty claim for having just met me.”
“Your dreams are hardly secret to a
, Inquisitor,” Imshael said dryly. He slowly began to pace around her, maintaining the distance she’d set. “More than anything, you want your clan back.” At her wince, he let out a cold chuckle.
“You wish you had made a better
, that they’d never fallen in the first place. The guilt over their deaths and the deaths of those poor elves in alienage gnaws at you.” He cocked his head to the side and gave her a sly look. “Strange for a
to feel guilt over the fate of flat-ears, but you’re not
Dalish, are you? At any rate, we both know that it’s impossible to hide from the consequences of our actions or bring back the dead.”
Ren’s fists clenched at her sides, and her voice was hard when she spun to face him and growled. “Make your point, demon.”
, my dear.” There was an edge to his voice as he corrected her, but he raised his hands open and placating. He was still pacing that slow circle around her that now inched towards her in a spiral. She followed his movements intently.
“There is something that I can grant you. Something you’d desperately like to have, but can’t be seen indulging, lest retribution come back on even more elves, or your organization.” He bared his teeth in a savage grin. “But I? I have no such constraints. Let us part ways here, and I will see your people avenged, down to the last man who took part in spilling their blood.”
Imshael’s smile never wavered. “Quite simple, really. The Fade captures images events full of violence and emotion. Lesser spirits are drawn to such things, and it imprints on them. Yes, just as your dear Fadewalker has explained. Strange, I feel like I should know him from somewhere.” When her glare grew colder, he inclined his head. “Sorry, sorry! You’re projecting your thoughts. Anyway, from there, it’s just a matter of following the trails home and… taking care of them.”
She was shivering from more than just the cold now. Her mouth suddenly felt as dry as the Hissing Wastes. She licked her wind-chapped lips and spoke in a quiet, raspy voice that she struggled to keep steady. “And how, exactly, would “take care” of them?”
Imshael waved a hand dismissively. “Details, dear Inquisitor. Petty details. The possibilities are endless. It’s just like that old phrase,” he said in a sing-song voice. “There’s more than one way to skin a human.”
He rolled his eyes dramatically at the correction. “And you call me a demon.”
Ren was silent, stare unfocused, as Imshael came to a stop in front of her. After a minute passed in silence, he cleared his throat. She startled, both at the noise and the realization of how close he had become. At this distance, she could see he was short for the human form he took, but still had several inches on her. Unlike her snow-dusted armor, his well-tailored coat and slightly thinning dark hair had nary a flake on it.
He gave her a crooked smile that showed a little too much teeth to be considered pleasant. “So, Inquisitor, what will it be?” he asked, hands open and inviting.
Her voice was tight when she answered haltingly. “I let you walk away, and you will go to the Free Marches and “take care” of every human who had a hand in killing the elves of Wycome?”
“Slaughtering would be a more accurate choice of words for what happened to your elves,” he said with a laugh. “But, yes. Your vengeance shall be swift and, dare I say, merciless. It’ll be nice to have an excuse to finally leave Orlais. I’ve been here long enough.”
“And after?” Ren spoke quietly as she lifted her head to meet his hard gaze with one of her own.
The smile on his face twisted into a snarl. “I fail to see how that is any of your business, Inquisitor.”
“What stops you from continuing your… “gardening” in the north?” The notes she found scattered across the keep’s grounds had made no secret of the demon’s activities.
“Absolutely nothing,” Imshael purred with a levity that didn’t show in his eyes. “And that is what makes this a choice . Now, my dear, what say you?”
She silently weighed her options as the spirit rocked back and forth, growing more and more agitated. Seconds ticked by and, just as he opened his mouth to badger her again, Ren drew a dagger.
“No!” she snarled and lunged for his heart. “You die, demon!”
Imshael sidestepped and countered with a mind blast that sent her flying. “Oh, for--
!” he roared.
Solas’ barrier flared to life around her, absorbing the impact as she collided with one of the red lyrium pedestals. The crunch of boots on snow echoed through the courtyard as her team ran to her aid. She pulled herself upright, despite the slippery flagstones, and drew her other dagger.
Bull stood at the ready in front of her. Cole took his place at her left. She didn’t have to look to know Solas was behind her, readying another spell. His particular brand of magic made her mark tingle.
The form of human man clad in black had vanished, and in its place was an apparition of fear. Ren peeled the cold-stiff leather glove from her left hand, which crackled violently with sickly green energy. With a roar, Bull launched himself at the nightmare to steal its attention as she prepared to open a rift in the veil that would tear it apart from the inside out.