Chapter 1: The Ruin
The Emerald Graves echoed with melodic birdsong, dappled sunlight filtering down through the trees. In the distance a gentle breeze rustled the leaves.
It reminded Ariane pleasantly of the forests she had grown up in in southern Ferelden, but—richer. The trees were bigger, older, more steeped in history. This was the Dales, her people’s second homeland. It was her first time in the region, but she couldn’t help but feel that she was welcome here.
In the ruined guard post behind her, there was a muted scuffling noise, followed by the thump of someone hitting the ground. A brief pause followed, and then—
“Drat,” said Finn crossly.
Ariane muffled a giggle. “Will this take much longer?” she said.
Her shemlen companion reappeared in the doorway, looking affronted and now sporting a streak of dirt down the front of his robes. “If you’re in such a hurry, you can come look for the marker.”
“I’d love to,” Ariane said. “Just give me a quick lesson on summoning that fancy magic light of yours and we’ll be on our way.”
“Yes, exactly,” Finn said. “Don’t rush me. And you know very well it’s called veilfire.”
Ariane made a vague affirmative noise, biting back a smile, but Finn had already disappeared back into the remains of the building. She could hear the distant sound of his muttering as he went back to searching the walls for the sign that would point them towards their destination.
Ariane returned to her watch, though she didn’t think there was much point: the forest was peaceful, and they had seen no sign of anyone else for several days. But that was her role in this little adventuring party of two: Finn messed around with weird magic and ancient books, and she kept him safe. Together, they did what they couldn’t do alone.
And besides, Ariane liked looking after her wayward scholar.
She had been travelling with Finn Aldebrandt for some six months now. Initially Ariane had just been escorting him back to the Circle tower after they finished helping the Warden-Commander track Morrigan down; that plan had survived all of one night before being discarded entirely in favour of their shared excitement over the idea of rediscovering more ancient elven history. She had been amazed at the depth and breadth of Finn’s knowledge: she had never known how much someone could learn just from reading. Finn was fussy, but he was brilliant, and he had the same burning need to understand the secrets of the past that had always nagged at her.
The scholarly scatter, she had learned, was just part of that. And it had only taken a few weeks for it to somehow come to be desperately endearing. For all of his complaints, Finn had adjusted remarkably well to life on the road.
At first they had decided to go back to Ariane’s clan: she’d had the vague idea that Finn could help them fill in the gaps in their understanding of their history, or decipher the lost passages of the treatise on eluvian they had rescued from Morrigan. But when they had arrived with the book, Finn had been met first with suspicion, then with resentment. While the Keeper had been appropriately thankful to him for his hand in returning a precious artifact of their people, none of the clan had been pleased about Ariane bringing back a shemlen who knew more about ancient elven magic than they did.
In hindsight, she should have expected it. At the time, though, she had been riding high on their success, and Finn’s new knowledge had been too exciting for her to consider how the rest of her clan might react. Travelling with him and Brosca, she had gotten a glimpse of what they could learn by working together. After all, the Circle of Magi had stolen so much from them; wasn’t it right for a Circle mage with a good heart to help them get it back? Like it or not, the history of the Dalish was tangled up with the shemlen, the dwarves, the Chantry, and the Circle. They didn’t walk the world alone, and Ariane was no longer sure they could reclaim their history alone, either.
But the clan didn’t see it that way, and after a mere two weeks they had made it clear that wasn’t going to change. And so she and Finn had had a long conversation about what they wanted to learn, and in the end she had decided to pack up and leave with him. Her Keeper hadn’t exactly approved, but he had been unable to fault her goal of uncovering more of their history. She had left with his blessing—such as it was. She had tried not to think about how unlikely it was that she would ever see her clan again.
And yet, despite everything, she couldn’t quite regret it. Finn was alarmingly good company, especially for a shemlen, and for all that he insisted he didn’t like the outdoors, he had already proven cheerfully willing to wade through hip-deep bracken in pursuit of an interesting carving. As far as Ariane was concerned, he could complain as much as he liked. In the end he knew what was actually worth his fastidiousness.
They had gone back to Cadash Thaig first, to see if there was any indication of the path Ariane’s ancient ancestors had taken to get there. They hadn’t found much—just a vague description of a route, laid out in abstract terms and described in landmarks that didn’t exist anymore—but it was enough to drive them westward into Orlais. When that trail had petered out, they had gone to Montsimmard, where Finn could make use of his Circle connections—just because he wasn’t going back, he explained, didn’t mean he was an apostate, since he had left on a sanctioned research trip and was maintaining contact with the Chantry. Ariane didn’t care much about the politics, but the library access was incredibly useful.
Finn had looked through a bewildering array of books, leaping from one tome to the next via an arcane cross-referencing process that was utterly lost on her. Then he had talked to some of the mages, referenced a few more books, bribed a templar for a private meeting with the Knight-Commander, and emerged with a list of potentially useful documents to track down and a letter of introduction to a noblewoman in Verchiel who was, as he put it, “a bit of a collector.”
He had also stopped at a shop in town to buy a pot of face paint that, he was earnestly assured, would hide all manner of blemishes that might colour a lady’s face. Considering what they were planning to use it for, Ariane had found that deeply hilarious.
She hadn’t known what to expect until they arrived in Verchiel five days later and Finn had presented their letter to Lady Leonore de Guillory’s butler. It turned out that “a bit of a collector” had been an understatement: the woman had an entire suite of rooms dedicated to rare books and ancient elven documents, all artfully displayed to show off her erudition—though she also openly admitted she couldn’t read any of them. Finn had nodded guilelessly; Ariane had had to bite back a scoff.
Lady de Guillory had been all too happy to give her visiting researcher a tour. Finn played the suitably fawning scholar, and Ariane had trailed after them in the guise of a respectable mage’s bodyguard—as invisible as any other elven servant with her vallaslin hidden under its coat of face paint. As Finn distracted their host with endless questions and commentary on the most showy of her pieces, Ariane had taken advantage of the lowered magical protections to liberate several of the books and documents from Finn’s list—smuggling them out of the estate by dropping them down the front of her armour, which Finn had magically enlarged for exactly that purpose. She had hardly been able to contain her spiteful glee at how easy it had been.
“It’s shameful,” he had said, sniffing, as they made their triumphant escape from the city that evening. “What’s the point of having all those books if you don’t even use them for anything?”
That had been the moment Ariane had realized she was falling in love with him.
Finn had been going through the books in systematic order in the weeks since their successful heist, and seemed to think most of them had promise—but it was the map that had been the greatest of their illicitly gained treasures. It was several centuries old, the product of a shemlen research expedition, and marked from one end of the Dales to the other with the locations of supposed elven ruins. Most of them were deep in the wilds, and had apparently been forgotten by the elves and the shemlen alike.
Ariane and Finn had been working their way south, investigating the most promising among them. So far, they hadn’t found much of interest, or at least hadn’t found much that told them anything new: for, archaeological revelations or no, they both agreed there was plenty of interest in just seeing the ruins themselves. But Ariane had managed to decode the mangled cultural references ascribed to their next destination, and Finn claimed he had a good feeling about this one. And by this point she was inclined to trust his good feelings.
Ariane turned back to the guard post to see Finn emerge once again, with a smug grin on his face and a leaf tangled in his hair.
“About time,” she said mildly.
“Oh, be quiet,” Finn said, extinguishing and stowing his veilfire torch. “We need to go west-southwest,” he said. He turned, squinting at the angle of the sun through the trees, and turned to scan their surroundings. “Which looks like… that way. Shall we?”
Giggling, Ariane reached up to extract the leaf, smoothing Finn’s hair back into place as she did so. “Lead the way, intrepid scholar.”
“What? I—oh,” he said, his eyes focusing on the discarded bit of greenery. He cleared his throat. “Right. This way.”
They set off through the trees, clambering over roots and around tumbled falls of rock. There was no trail out here. It was rough going at first and neither of them had any breath to spare for chatter, but after ten or fifteen minutes the terrain flattened out and they were able to make their way forward more easily.
Finn had paused to peer at their map, holding it so closely that he was practically going cross-eyed, when Ariane realized the moss on the forest floor followed too regular a pattern to be natural. While he grumbled about the lack of detail in his ancient documents, she nudged up a stone with her boot, turning it over experimentally. It fell flat, exposing a squared-off underside.
“Finn, look,” she said.
He raised his head, his expression immediately clearing. “So the path did survive! Excellent. We’re going the right way.”
They started walking again, picking up their pace as the stones grew increasingly clear under their feet, and before long Ariane began to hear the rushing of water in the distance. At last they crested a rise and a temple complex revealed itself before them. It was spread out along the edge of a deep ravine, carved from the fine white stone the ancient elves had apparently been so fond of. For a long moment, all Ariane could do was stare. It was easily the largest and most magnificent of all the ruins they had found to date.
“Look at the statues,” Finn said. There were dozens, but it was immediately obvious which ones he meant: the main entrance was flanked by two carved halla, nearly as tall as the temple itself. “You were right about that inscrutable caption,” he added. “It must be a temple of Ghilan’nain.”
“Ooh, say that again,” Ariane said. “I love it when you tell me I’m right.”
“Ha, ha,” Finn said, but his tone was fond. “Come on. We have some exploring to do.”
They made their way down the hill, stepping from the afternoon sunlight into the shadow of the temple walls. Maybe Ariane was just imagining it, but it seemed like a hush fell over them as they approached, the whole forest holding its breath in reverence. Up close, the detail on the halla statues was startlingly lifelike and faintly unreal at the same time, and there were countless other animal sculptures resting along the walls or toppled from their plinths nearby. The entranceway arch soared clean and whole over their heads, though most of the roof was gone, and Ariane couldn’t help but spare a wistful thought for how stunning the temple must have been in its time.
“Right,” Finn said, pulling the veilfire torch out of his pack. “Let’s see what we can uncover.”
They had a routine established for the ruins they’d uncovered by now. Finn would make a systematic study of every wall, looking for veilfire inscriptions and significant carvings and prodding at everything with his staff; Ariane would range nearby—not always in view but never so far she couldn’t make it back to him in fifteen seconds if there was an emergency—and look for abandoned artifacts and old elven symbols that Finn might not recognize the significance of. Today, however, she found herself wandering from room to room, letting the weight of history settle comfortably over her. To Finn this was merely an opportunity to learn something new, but to her it was so much more.
Taken on its own, she had to admit the temple wasn’t much to look at. Many of the walls had tumbled down, and most of the roof with it; the floor was overgrown with moss and vines and strewn with the detritus of the forest. But her people had walked here once; this place had been important to them, to their gods. Wandering through a long-abandoned temple in the Emerald Graves, Ariane had never been more acutely conscious of everything they’d lost.
She was standing at what had once been a wide balcony overlooking the ravine when Finn caught up with her, his face overwritten with frustration. “I don’t understand this,” he complained.
His tone jolted Ariane out of her silent contemplation. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s just—the veilfire inscriptions,” he said. “It suggests there’s something important here, but it seems, well… woefully incomplete.” He motioned around the room in what Ariane had come to recognize as a familiar irritable gesture. “The map says this is a major site, and it’s certainly bigger than anything else we’ve seen, but you’d think there would be more than a few prayers and impressions of worship and some statues.”
“Maybe some things have been taken,” Ariane said reasonably.
Finn made a doubtful noise, still staring into the middle of the temple complex as if it had personally offended him. “Maybe, but I don’t think so,” he said. “It looks pretty undisturbed. Even the people who made the map weren’t making an in-depth study. They were just doing a survey and planning to come back later with more funding. But I don’t think they ever actually made it back here.”
“Does it have to be more?” Ariane said. “This place was incredibly important to my ancestors. Even finding it is beyond valuable.”
Finn sighed. “No, no, you’re right,” he said. “I’m probably expecting too much. But it would have been nice to find something big,” he added plaintively. “There’s still so much to learn.”
“I get it. Trust me,” Ariane said. She patted his arm consolingly. “Let’s look over the inscriptions again. Maybe you missed something.”
As usual, having a plan of action seemed to cheer him immensely, and they went back through the rooms together. There were veilfire inscriptions in almost every one, but Finn remembered where most of them were, which made things faster. Some of them were memories—records of worship and offerings, each one offering a dizzying glimpse at how the temple had looked at its height; others were fragments of prayers, or songs praising Ghilan’nain. Some of them were familiar.
“I learned that as a children’s rhyme,” Ariane said, still staring in shock at the inscription they had just finished deciphering. “It’s just a silly game. A hand-clap song.”
“Really?” Finn said. “Do you still remember how it goes?”
Ariane chewed on her tongue, considering, then whistled a few tentative notes. Under Finn’s torch, the inscription flared with light, and then a chord rang out, some ancient stringed instrument following her melody.
“Whoa,” she said.
“Okay, not what we came here for, but definitely interesting,” Finn said. “We’ll come back to that.”
They moved into one of the rooms near the front entrance. It was small, the centre of the floor occupied by a thick pillar which, from the shape of the rubble strewn across the ground, had once supported a domed ceiling. “There’s one around the other side of that,” Finn said, gesturing at the pillar. “It’s a prayer, I think? Take a look.”
He lifted his torch as they stepped around the room, revealing three short lines of elegant text. “‘Open the way, servant of Ghilan’nain,’” he translated. “I think it’s ‘servant,’ at least. ‘For it is written in your blood that you are’—something. ‘Marked?’ Yes, marked. ‘You are marked for the gods.’”
Ariane frowned. “It doesn’t sound like a prayer,” she said. With a brief thrill of fear, she remembered the spell Finn had had to perform to locate the Lights of Arlathan. “Could it be blood magic?”
“I’m not sure…,” he said. His eyes went distant for a moment, and Ariane thought she could feel the gentle prodding of his magic as he probed at the Veil. “It doesn’t feel like blood magic, but it was a long time ago…”
“‘It is written in your blood,’” Ariane murmured to herself. Not for the first time, she had to fight back a niggling sense of inadequacy at how little she understood of her own history. She didn’t think she’d have been able to figure out the inscription on her own, even without accounting for the veilfire. There were times she could really sympathize with her clan for turning Finn away, regardless of how much he could have helped them.
Still, it wasn’t his fault he’d had opportunities that were denied to her. In fact, from what she understood, the shemlen treated their mages almost as badly as they treated the elves. Finn may have had an education that she could only dream of, but would she have been willing to trade away her freedom to get it? She wasn’t so sure.
But as she scanned the lines of the inscription, forcing her mind to translate its unfamiliar shapes into the sounds she knew, she had another shock of realization: for all his education, his kindness, his sympathy for her history, Finn was still a shemlen, and there were some things he would never fully understand.
“It’s not ‘written in your blood,’” she said. She tapped the second line. “This word—it’s not ‘written in your blood.’ It’s ‘your blood writing.’ Vallaslin. ‘Your vallaslin marks you for the gods.’”
“Ohhh,” Finn said. He leaned forward, squinting at the text. “That makes sense. So it’s, what, an instruction? Use your tattoos to open the way… somehow?”
“I don’t know,” Ariane said. She flattened her hand against the pillar, staring at the text. “Do you think it only works for people with Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin, or could any of us do it?”
A prickling sensation shot across her forehead, and then there was a sharp crack. With the grinding of stone on stone, a section of the floor slid back. The pillar extended deep into the ground below them, and a spiral staircase wrapped around it, descending into the dimness.
“Maker’s mercy!” Finn exclaimed.
“Well, you were hoping for something more interesting,” Ariane said. She unsheathed the swords from her back. “Shall I go first?”
Chapter 2: Servant of June
There was a long pause. “That… may be wise,” Finn said. He called up a wisp. “Here, I’ll light it for you.”
There was no question of not going down. With the glow of the wisp illuminating the way, Ariane started down the staircase, carefully testing each step before she put her weight on it. It was further to walk than she’d have expected for a single floor, but it got brighter as they approached the bottom, until at last the wisp was no longer necessary at all. Finn dismissed it with a casual wave of his staff, and they stepped out onto the floor in the natural light of day.
“It must be carved into the side of the ravine,” Ariane said quietly. It wasn’t as bright as the direct sunlight of the surface, but through the pillars and half-walls that supported this level she could see a large expanse of windows that looked out over the river. That, along with Finn’s single veilfire torch, was more than enough to illuminate their area.
“Do you hear that?” Finn said suddenly.
Ariane paused, listening intently. All she could hear was the rush of distant water, and the thin whistle of the wind through the pillars of the temple. A sinking feeling settled in her gut.
“I’m going to assume you don’t mean the river,” she said.
Finn shook his head. “It’s… almost like a whispering. It’s very faint, though. I can’t make it out properly.”
Ariane still couldn’t hear anything, but that didn’t matter. While nothing she and Finn had faced in the months since leaving Brosca’s company had been on a level with their hunt for the eluvian, they had still dealt with enough strange magic that she knew better than to doubt him. She adjusted her grip on her swords. “We’ll be on our guard.”
Finn nodded and shifted a hand on his staff, and together they stepped from the stairwell.
They had come out in a large hall supported by a forest of pillars all along its length. Most of the floor was empty, a space for worshippers to stand or kneel, but at the other end of the room was a carved stone basin and a wide altar, and behind them a single solid wall panel reaching all the way up to the ceiling. The basin was empty now, but Ariane had once seen something like it in the Brecilian Forest, and knew it had likely been used to hold water. Statues of halla and other, stranger beasts stood in alcoves or nestled between the pillars—dragons and sea serpents and things Ariane had no name for. They flickered with an uncomfortable facsimile of life as Finn’s torch advanced.
As they approached the other end of the hall, the veilfire light fell across the panel behind the altar and Ariane caught her breath. “That’s her. That’s Ghilan’nain,” she said.
The panel wasn’t carved stone, as she had initially thought when it was backlit by the windows. Instead its surface was coated in plaster and painted with an enormous icon of the goddess, still startlingly vivid for how old it obviously was. She was rendered in tones of gold and white, her long dress a dozen shades of mutable green. Her hair fell loose and long around her, split by the sharp points of her ears and capped at her crown by a pair of graceful halla horns.
Finn let out a low whistle. “Is that fresco? I’ve read about it, but I never thought I’d see any.”
“No one in my clan knew how to do it,” Ariane said. “I’ve heard stories, but…”
“I wonder if there’s more,” Finn said.
There was. Gaps in the pillars led onto a long walkway that circled all around the main hall, and around the opposite side of the corridor they found dozens of tiny rooms, little shrines and worship spaces, each one dedicated to a different aspect of Ghilan’nain. Some of them had space only for a statue and a single kneeling supplicant; others were larger, big enough for a few people to stand comfortably and view the murals that decorated their walls and ceilings. A few had veilfire inscriptions, but they didn’t spend long on those: much like the ones upstairs, they were mostly fragments of prayer and impressions of worshippers’ devotion.
But directly behind the fresco in the main hall, they found something different. The room there was larger, butting directly up against the ravine wall, and elaborate frescoes wound around the windows in clear sequence, tied together with a painted golden ribbon. Ghilan’nain was visible in every panel.
“It looks like a story,” Ariane said.
Finn hummed something under his breath. “I wonder…,” he said, crouching and lifting his torch to one end of the ribbon. “Hah! Yes. There’s something written here.”
“What does it say?”
“Give me a minute, I’m translating. Here, come look,” he said, shifting over to make space for her. Ariane sheathed her swords and crouched next to him, and together they peered at the veilfire text.
They had done this kind of work many times before. Finn knew more of the ancient elven forms and was better at reading their elegantly scripted text, but Ariane had heard the language spoken her entire life, and she understood the cultural references that sometimes went over his head. Together they were able to translate texts with a facility that Finn said would have been the envy of the Circle. The first time he had told her that, Ariane had flushed with pride and then snuck off on her own to cry with private happiness.
“‘Ghilan’nain… separated herself from the elves?’” Finn began. “No, I think it’s ‘stayed away from. She used magic to…’ To make creatures blind? Create animals that couldn’t be seen? Can you make sense of that?”
Ariane was mouthing the words to herself as she slowly picked them out. “Oh. Yes. That’s a past tense form,” she said, tapping the word in question. “It’s ‘to make animals that had never been seen.’”
“Right. Okay. ‘The sky was filled with monsters, and the land with beasts.’ Does ‘beasts’ mean ‘animals’ to the Dalish, or is it another word for monsters?”
“Another word for monsters, usually,” Ariane said. She shifted to the next panel, which showed a huntress aiming her arrows at the creatures spilling over from the previous image. She didn’t need a translation for this one. “Andruil hunted them.”
Finn scanned the next line. “Yes,” he said. “‘After a year of death, she went to Ghilan’nain to… bargain?’” he continued.
“‘To make an offer,’ I think,” Ariane said. She wasn’t looking at the veilfire, her gaze caught on the panel of Andruil speaking to Ghilan’nain. They sat together like lovers, Andruil’s hand cupping Ghilan’nain’s jaw, Ghilan’nain’s expression coy. That was not the look of someone who had come to bargain.
“‘To make an offer,’” Finn repeated. “‘The gods would give Ghilan’nain their magic’... no, actually, that should probably be ‘power.’ ‘Would give her their power if she destroyed her creatures, because they were… too untamed to stay among the elves.’” He paused for a long moment. “Does that… match the story you know?”
Ariane shook her head. “I’ve never heard this before. The story we’re taught says Ghilan’nain cursed a hunter for killing a hawk, Andruil’s sacred animal, and when he tried to kill her Andruil saved her life by turning her into a halla.”
“Right,” Finn said. “That’s what I thought—I read that story in a book of Dalish folk tales. But this is…”
“Keep going,” Ariane urged.
“Right,” he repeated. He got to his feet, moving around Ariane to the other half of the room. “‘Ghilan’nain accepted, with three days to… unmake her makings?’ Oh, the things she’d made. I’m not sure if that means she said she’d do it in three days, though, or if three days is all Andruil gave her.”
“It would have been what Ghilan’nain asked for,” Ariane said. “That’s the custom. She must have been extraordinarily powerful, even as a mortal.”
“You think she was showing off?”
“Three days to unmake all the monsters Andruil hadn’t been able to kill in a year?” She nudged him playfully. “You’re the mage, you tell me.”
“Alright, point taken,” Finn said. He turned to the next panel. “‘On the first day she destroyed… the spirits?’ That doesn’t make sense. But this ending usually means ‘spirits.’”
“What’s the literal translation?” Ariane said, bending down to look at the inscription that was giving him trouble.
“‘Beasts of the air.’ Old elven writings usually call spirits ‘the beings of the air’ or ‘our brethren of the air.’”
“There are dragons in the fresco,” Ariane pointed out. “Maybe it just means the things that fly.”
Finn scanned the rest of the line, then grinned sheepishly. “Oh. Yes, that makes sense. She destroyed the beasts of the air, ‘except for the ones she gave Andruil as a gift.’”
“She gave Andruil the dragons?” Ariane said. She shook her head. “Talk about a courtship present.”
“‘On the second day she drowned the’… this one isn’t exact. ‘The giant sea things,’ I suppose. ‘Except for the ones in the depths, because they were too finely crafted, and pride stopped her.’” He tapped the great sea serpent coiled around the bottom of the corresponding panel. “Have you ever seen anything like that?”
Ariane frowned. “There are statues of something that looks like it out in the main hall,” she said. “I have no idea what it is. This whole story is new to me.”
Finn moved to the second last panel, scanning the inscription. “This part’s a little more familiar,” he said. “‘On the third day she killed the beasts of the land, except the halla, whose elegance was more dear to her than anything else.’”
“That’s the only part of this that makes any sense,” Ariane said. “Well, that and her courting Andruil. There are a lot of stories about that.”
“‘This is how Ghilan’nain was made the youngest god,’” Finn concluded. He got to his feet, dusting off the knees of his robe. “Well, that’s… slightly horrifying.”
“Tell me about it,” Ariane said. “Why haven’t I ever heard this story before? Why is the Dalish one so different? If that’s changed so much, what else has altered over the years without our knowing? We know there’s a lot we’ve lost, but if even the stories we have are wrong—”
But Finn’s eyes had gone distant, and abruptly he shushed her. “Quiet! Can you hear that? The whispering is back.”
Ariane quieted. At first all she could hear was the noise of the river, but then she realized there was a susurration of voices underneath it. “Yes! I can hear it now too.”
“It’s getting clearer,” Finn said. A look of horror was dawning on his face. “Can you make out the words?”
“No—wait,” Ariane said. She had caught an echo of something. “Almost…”
Please…, a voice like icicles whispered.
“Please what?” she murmured, before she could stop herself.
There’s no hope… no hope…, the voice said—or another voice, maybe. It was hard to tell. Save me… save us… please! There was a scream, and then the whispers cut off suddenly, all at once. Ariane had to clap a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming as well.
“You heard it too,” Finn said. It wasn’t a question.
Ariane nodded, slowly lowering her hand. The impulse to scream had faded with the voices, but the memory of that hopeless terror lingered.
“I couldn’t tell for sure before, but it has to be spirits,” Finn said. “I think it’s coming from underneath us. There must be another level below this one. Maybe more.”
Ariane smiled weakly. “No chance it’s anything good, huh?”
“I very much doubt it,” Finn said. He hefted his staff. “Shall we?”
Ariane drew her swords again, and they circled back around the main hall to the staircase. Sure enough, there was another stair leading down on the other side of the pillar. The whispers started again as they descended, and by the time they reached the next floor down they had coalesced once more into overlapping voices.
It’s so hungry… please… stop, stop!
Save me! Save me—no! Please, no!
It never ends—it just eats and eats until it’s eaten everything—it’s going to eat the whole world—
We can’t stop it… it won’t ever stop…
“Well, that’s not ominous at all,” Ariane said. Finn huffed a strangled laugh.
The golden afternoon light filtering through the distant windows was incongruously at odds with the despairing cries of the spirits. Ariane didn’t let it soothe her, stepping out into the hallway. Almost immediately she whirled as something ran past her. But it wasn’t a demon.
She could only stare as the transparent figure of an elf, shaved of head and ragged of dress, tore desperately down the hallway before vanishing into nothing.
“Was that… a ghost?” she said.
“What?” Finn said, following her out of the stairwell. Ariane turned back to him just in time to see another figure run directly into his chest, exploding in a swirl of smoke and disappearing as well. “Oh, eugh!” he exclaimed, frantically brushing himself off. “That was—ugh. Don’t let them run into you.”
“I don’t know if they can see us,” Ariane said. She started down the hallway. In the distance she could see the flickers of other ghostly people, all of them consumed in their own little worlds.
“They probably can’t,” Finn said. He had recovered his equilibrium and was keeping pace with her, staff at the ready and veilfire raised, peering around with interest at the rooms beside them. “If you talk to them directly it might be enough to pull them closer to this side of the Veil, but I suspect that otherwise they’re entirely lost in memories.”
“So what kind of memory is awful enough to keep them all trapped here?” Ariane asked.
Finn had no answer for that.
Please! Please save me!
The layout of this floor was similar to the one above, with a large central hall and a seemingly endless string of little rooms off the corridor around it. More ghosts raced past them, calling out in desperation or running in silent terror, or sat sobbing on the floor in utter defeat. Some of them bore handcuffs, or stumbled over chains that hobbled their ankles. All of them were elves.
Ariane wasn’t paying much attention to the specifics at first, too distracted by the strangeness of the situation and the pervasive atmosphere of despair, but after the ninth ghost got close enough for them to see its face, she had spotted the pattern. “Do you notice anything odd?” she said.
“What, besides the dozens upon dozens of elven ghosts fleeing for their lives and crying out in fear of a hunger that can never be stopped?” Finn said. “Nothing at all.”
Ariane smacked him on the shoulder. “I mean about them. Their vallaslin. All of them have Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin.”
Finn pursed his lips. “That’s not that odd, though, is it? This was her temple.”
“Maybe, but you’d expect to see at least some others in the mix.”
“This might have been an area for initiate-only rites,” Finn said, gesturing at the pillars to one side of them. “There’s a lot less ornamentation here than there was upstairs. It might not have been meant for the general public.”
“So you think they’re all temple servants?”
“It’s possible, at least.”
But Ariane couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. The ghosts didn’t look like temple servants to her: they were all in tattered clothing, many of them with tangled, dirty, or roughly shaved hair—to say nothing of the chains. They looked more like escaped prisoners.
It wasn’t until they rounded a curve in the hallway to see one ghost being cornered by another in polished armour and bearing a drawn sword that she realized what that meant.
“They’re not servants,” she said numbly, watching as the warrior grabbed the sobbing ghost by its chains and they both faded out into nothing. “They’re slaves.” She took a deep breath. “Sacrifices. The temple guards were feeding them to something.”
Finn looked like he was going to be sick. “But—what could be—?”
“I don’t know,” Ariane said. “But we have to do something.”
They carried on down the hallway—putting as much space as they could between themselves and the place they’d seen the ghost captured, by silent mutual agreement. They had reached the point furthest from the entrance by then; just as on the floor above, there was a larger room here, with wide windows cut high in the ceiling. Ariane looked inside and had to stop, blinking in surprise, for there—tethered to the wall by chains as insubstantial as she—was the first slave ghost they had seen who was neither running nor cowering.
She didn’t look like anything special: just a thin elven woman in a ragged tunic, her long hair tied back in an efficient braid, her face marked with the swirling lines of Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin. But her face was serene, the press of her lips firm and resolute, the curve of her spine not dejected but poised.
She was also looking directly at them.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any new faces, she said.
Her voice rang clearly in Ariane’s mind, but the words didn’t match the movements of her mouth, and she made no sound that could be heard by her ears. Feeling oddly like she was trying to listen to something underwater, Ariane shook her head out and stepped into the room.
“Hello,” she said.
“You can see us!” Finn said.
The ghost nodded to him, but her eyes lingered on Ariane. I can. The others are lost in despair, but my mind remains clear.
“Yes, we were wondering about that, actually,” Finn said. “What exactly is going on here?”
Their souls are trapped, the ghost said. She was still looking at Ariane. They paid the ultimate sacrifice, but it has brought them no peace. If you have any pity in your hearts, please—set them free.
“What’s keeping them here?”
They have given up hope, the ghost replied. Hope must be restored.
“How?” Ariane said. She flexed her hands around her sword hilts. Her fingers were very cold for some reason.
Despair feeds on them, the ghost said, her voice heavy with disapproval. It must be destroyed, and fear destroyed, before they will be safe from the great hunger they are fleeing. Her eyes bored into Ariane. Free them, servant of June. Their own mistress has abandoned them.
Ariane’s eyes widened, and the words tumbled from her lips before she could think better of them. “How? What do I have to do?” Her breath steamed in the air before her.
“Ariane,” Finn said, his tone urgent.
June taught the elves to craft weapons, the ghost said. Fingers of frost were spreading across the stone walls, reaching for her. Use them. Bring hope back to the darkness.
“I don’t understand,” Ariane said. Why was she so cold?
“Ariane! Despair demon!”
A blast of frigid air swept through the room. The ghost vanished. And Ariane turned to see the doorway occupied by a horror out of nightmares.
It was on her before she had a chance to move. She leapt away, scrambling to keep from being boxed into the corner as behind her Finn ran for a defensive position. The demon screeched through its grotesque teeth, hitting her with another cold blast of winter, but Ariane braced herself and leaned into it, lifting her arm to shield her face. Then the wind died down, and she threw herself forward.
They’d had no time to make a plan, but she and Finn had fought together enough by now that they knew how to work with each other. She could feel his spells washing over her as she dove for Despair, shielding her body and sharpening her senses. She hacked at the demon with her swords, piercing its hide and tearing holes in its tattered cloak. Shrieking its response, it turned its claws on her—and then Finn let out a shout and a blast of golden light, and the world went honey-slow around her.
Ariane loved that spell.
Despair shrieked as it tore at her, but the sound was distorted, out of step with her heightened speed. Stubbornly she ignored the cold that emanated from it, hacking chunks from its sagging, grimy flesh. It screeched again, bringing its fists down towards her, but she was already somewhere else, her blades biting into its side. Behind her she could hear Finn laying down a pattern of glyphs on the floor as his haste spell lost its hold.
Despair whirled after her, catching her shoulder with its powerful claws as she started to slow. Ariane felt something crunch out of place and bit back a shout, raising her swords and darting forwards again. But the demon was ready for her, striking at her furiously and throwing her back. She hit the wall hard, fighting through the flare of pain to stay on her feet.
The demon started towards her, only for a glowing sigil to appear beneath its feet. The glyph hurled it backwards, and then Ariane’s head cleared as another one of Finn’s combat auras settled over her. She took rapid stock. She was battered and bruised, bleeding from a cut on her neck, and it felt like she’d split the back of her head open on the wall. Her shoulder was still screaming, but not so badly she couldn’t use it. This wasn’t over yet.
But as she started for Despair again it threw up its arms, hurling a blast of ice at her. Ariane lost her footing, staggering back as she was battered with countless shards of ice. Something heavy hit her on the temple and a wave of sick dizziness overwhelmed her. She could feel the blood running down the side of her face. What was the point, an insidious thought seemed to ask. She had no hope of winning this fight.
A wash of cool comfort swept over her. It took her a moment, light-headed as she was, to recognize it as one of Finn’s healing spells; then the pain in her head vanished and her shoulder popped back into place. She forced herself upright, casting around for her opponent.
Despair was closing in on Finn.
“Ariane!” he cried again, scrambling back from the demon. Despair clawed at him and he dodged back, just barely. A chunk of stone tore itself out of the floor and hurled itself at the demon, shattering against its body. It just kept coming.
There was still a little voice in Ariane’s head telling her it was hopeless, but she grimly shoved it aside. Finn needed her protection. That was what she did. And fuck this demon for thinking it could make her give up so easily.
“Hey!” she yelled, hauling herself to her feet. “Don’t you turn your back on me! I’m right here!”
She hurled her battered body towards it. Despair turned, hissing at her and darting to the side. But she had expected that—and as it circled her, she threw herself into a precise turn, swinging both of her blades at its side. They bit deep, cleaving through skin and bone and sending gouts of ichor spurting across the floor.
Despair let out one last defiant screech, and then its body shredded apart.
Chapter 3: The Breaking of the World
As the remains of the demon scattered to the floor, Ariane suddenly became conscious of the warm afternoon sunlight filtering in through the windows. The cold in her hands melted away like it had never been. She let out a breath, and along with it seemed to exhale a tension from her shoulders that she hadn’t even been aware of.
“Whoa,” she said.
“You can say that again,” Finn said. “Are you alright?”
“I’m okay,” Ariane said. Her shoulder had been the worst of it, and Finn’s healing spell had already sorted that out. “You?”
“I’m fine, it didn’t manage to touch me,” he said. “Could have been a close thing, though. You’ve got some blood on your face.”
Ariane reached up to touch her temple, pulling a face. She unhooked her water flask from her belt; Finn was already holding out one of his innumerable handkerchiefs, and she accepted it gratefully, wetting it and scrubbing at her cheek.
He waited until she’d finished and stowed her flask again before he cleared his throat. “So, what was that ghost on about? She called you a… servant of June? What did she mean by that?”
“Oh,” Ariane said. She brushed her hair aside to show him the branching lines that fanned across her forehead. “It’s my vallaslin. She must have recognized it—for my adulthood ceremony I chose to dedicate myself to June of the Craft. I don’t know why she said anything about it, though,” she added. She let her hair fall back into place. “June doesn’t have anything to do with demons. Not that I know of, at least.”
“Huh,” said Finn.
“Yeah,” Ariane agreed. “Anyway. What now?”
Finn stepped past her, leaning out the doorway to look up and down the hallway. “I don’t see the ghosts anymore. Can you hear anything?”
Abruptly Ariane realized the whispers had died with the demon. “Nothing.”
“It seems Despair was holding them here,” Finn said.
“Just like she said,” Ariane agreed. “I’m glad we dealt with it.”
“For certain values of glad, I suppose,” Finn said. “Well. What do you think? Should we keep going, or… go somewhere less likely to result in a messy demon-induced death?”
“That does have a certain appeal…,” Ariane said slowly.
“Oh, no. I can hear the ‘but’ coming.”
“But,” Ariane continued pointedly, biting back a smile at Finn’s groan, “it wasn’t just Despair she said would have to be destroyed. There was also Fear.”
“Fear demons. Lovely,” Finn said.
“Hey,” Ariane said. “You were the one who said you’d have liked to find something big.”
“Teach me to be careful what I ask for,” Finn said. “Fine, fine, it’s true, I’d feel bad if we just left.”
“That’s the spirit,” Ariane said. “Come on.”
The staircase to the next floor was considerably darker than the last two. Finn summoned a pair of wisps before they stepped into it, sending them ahead of Ariane to light her way. Swords unsheathed, she started down.
The whispering had started up again by the time she’d taken her third step.
Hurry, hurry! There must be something! We’re all dead otherwise!
We have to get out—there isn’t much time—
Oh, creators, it’s going to eat us—
“Steady,” said Finn, putting a hand on her shoulder. Ariane realized she had been about to bolt.
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly, and started moving again.
“You can’t let Fear take hold of you,” Finn said. “It’ll creep in if you let it. Try not to listen to the whispers.” He caught the expression on her face and laughed weakly. “Easier said than done, I know.”
They made it to the next level without further incident, and Ariane advanced into the darkness, the wisps and Finn’s veilfire lighting her path with an eerie glow. This level looked nothing like the others: it was much more closed off, with several hallways branching off in different directions, each one lined with proper doorways and the remains of solid wooden doors.
“Quarters for the temple servants,” Finn said. “There’s probably a common area somewhere central. That seems like a good place to start.”
They found the ghosts clustered in the dining hall. A knot of temple servants were arguing next to the fireplace, while others were rooting through the kitchen in a panic. Ariane couldn’t help but bristle: most of them were in the same armour as the one they had seen upstairs.
There’s still a side of venison, one of the ones in the kitchen called. That might buy us some time.
What, so we can die of starvation instead? snapped another. No thank you.
Well, we have to do something! It’s getting restless!
You’re welcome to throw yourself to it if you like!
Over by the fireplace, the discussion was equally heated. They’re not sending any more sacrifices! one of the guards shouted. Look around! No one’s coming! Now we either start drawing lots, or we wait for it to pick us off one by one.
And how is that any different from drawing lots? demanded the woman next to him, folding her arms.
At least it’ll keep the rest of us alive long enough that they might get the slave caravans running again! said a third guard.
I still say we should leave, said one of the few not wearing armour. She was in robes, like a Keeper, but her age made it apparent that she couldn’t have reached any position of authority yet.
Oh, that’s a great idea, said the woman who had spoken before. Then you’ll be safe in a city when it hunts you down. Plenty of prey for it to choose from!
If you don’t have any better suggestions, said the first guard, drawing his sword, then you can go first.
Ariane had had enough. She stalked forward. “No one is getting eaten!”
For a moment it seemed like the ghosts hadn’t heard her, but then the young priestess turned her head. Her eyes widened as she took in Ariane, and Finn hovering anxiously behind her. She tugged on a guard’s arm. Look! she said.
One by one the group looked around. The guard with his sword drawn let his companion go, slowly, and then she drew her sword as well and as one they turned on Ariane.
Praise the Creators, she said. They’ve sent someone.
“Oh, no,” Finn said.
Belatedly Ariane realized what she had walked into. She raised her blades. She didn’t know if the ghosts could actually hurt her, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
They haven’t, said one of the other guards. She didn’t sound happy about it. Look at her face. She’s one of June’s. Her master won’t be pleased with us for poaching.
Ariane wasn’t about to ask them what they were on about. “No, he won’t,” she agreed. “And you won’t touch my friend, either. We’re here to deal with whatever’s keeping you here.”
For a moment the guards said nothing, then one of them let out a bitter laugh. You? All by yourselves? He shook his head. You can’t save us. No one can.
Let her try, said one of the others. If she fails, it’ll buy us a bit more time.
And then what? said the first guard, who seemed to be their ringleader. We tell her master that we let that thing eat her? We’ll be lucky if they don’t throw us all to it—
Well, we have to do something! shrieked the priestess.
The first guard turned on her, his blades at the ready, but before he had the chance to shout a roar echoed from just outside the hall. His face fell. Oh no—
It’s here! someone else screamed, and then there was a mad scramble as all the ghosts bolted for the exits. Some of them ran through the doors; others vanished mid-stride. In moments Ariane and Finn were alone.
She looked to him, panic-stricken, as another roar sounded even closer, but he shook his head. “It’s not real. It’s Fear, feeding off of them. Don’t let it get to you.”
With some effort, Ariane got herself under control. She could feel the terror, trembling like a wild thing in her chest, but she refused to let it own her. She dropped into a fighting stance as the shadows started lengthening, an inky blackness creeping in at the other end of the room. “I just hope we can deal with this. Can you give us some light?”
“Coming right up,” Finn said. He raised his staff, and a flash of veilfire leapt to the chandelier overhead, lighting up the room in a sudden greenish blaze.
As the veilfire passed around the edges of the room, lighting braziers one by one, Ariane thought for a moment that she saw the chained ghost from the floor above outlined in the flickering light. Then the shadows flooded in and the vision was gone, and the demon swooped in from the darkness.
Ariane wanted nothing more than to drop her swords and run in the other direction, but instead she shouted and ran straight for it. Fear met her head-on, chittering like a horrific overgrown insect. She didn’t wait for it draw her out: she attacked immediately, hacking at its extraneous limbs, stabbing furiously, darting in when it presented an opening and skipping back out of range when it struck back at her. She could feel a constant stream of defensive spells and strengthening auras from Finn. They helped to fight off the unreasoning panic that threatened to overwhelm her—but only just.
Seeing that it was getting nowhere by clawing at her, the demon shrieked and vanished, reappearing an instant later on the other side of the room. It tore at the air around it, summoning a wave of skittering spider-shaped things from nothing. Wisps appeared though the tatters in the Veil, glowing orbs hanging in the air; at Fear’s direction they began darting around, zapping friend and foe alike with little bolts of lightning and chasing Finn’s wisps in circles.
Ariane found herself besieged by four of the spider-things. With a growl of frustration covering her terror, she turned from her pursuit: she would have to deal with them before she could get to Fear.
She hacked at the demons, blades whirling in panicked fury as she cleaved limbs from bodies and cut deep into their thick hides. One of the spiders attached itself to her arm, nearly bowling her over; suppressing her disgust at its many-eyed face so close to her own, she threw it off, booting it away and bringing her foot down hard on its head. The next one that came at her met both her swords and she nearly bisected it entirely before it lost its momentum.
She was clear. She cast around for Finn; he was holding his own, keeping them off him by the skillful application of repulsion glyphs, blasts of pure magic, and those flying chunks of stone he liked to tear out of the ground as a last resort. Most of the wisps were gone; he could handle what was left. Ariane went for the demon.
Fear was waiting. It whirled on her as she struck, raking her with needle-sharp claws. Lines of pain scored across her face and chest, and she could feel the trickle of blood starting to flow. She ignored it. She had been waiting for that, too, and she threw herself under its reaching arms, aiming not for its chest but its legs.
She struck true: the demon staggered under her onslaught, a gout of ichor spurting from its leg. It stumbled back, sensing that the tables had turned, and doggedly Ariane pursued. And then, just when she was about to strike, the world went golden and slow around her again with Finn’s magic.
She tore Fear apart with a flurry of her swords before it could even raise its arms in defence.
It crumbled to dust with a high, eerie wail, its cloak disintegrating into the air. Something heavy hit the ground with a thump, sending up a cloud of the ashes that had once been the demon. But Ariane had no time to investigate; she could still hear the skitter of the spider-things behind her.
She spun back towards Finn in time to see him go down under three of the demons at once. He let out a shout and a blast of power, knocking two of them back, but the one on top of him was tenacious, biting furiously at the arm he had raised to shield his face. Ariane raced for him, her blades flashing out and cleaving half the legs from the other two, and then she crashed into Finn’s attacker, sending it tumbling and driving her swords deep into its body. Finn lurched upright, sweeping his staff in a wild arc and sending a blast of stone hurtling for the ones Ariane had crippled. They screeched as they died, crushed beneath the fall of rock.
There was silence.
Finn exhaled a great rush of air, suddenly swaying. “Well,” he said. He planted his staff, leaning on it heavily. “That was bracing.”
Ariane climbed to her feet, wiping the demon gunk from her swords with the handkerchief she had bloodied earlier. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Finn said, waving vaguely. With a grunt of effort, he levered himself upright again, and after a moment of concentration a wash of green healing energy swept over him. A knot of tension loosened itself in Ariane’s lungs. She didn’t know what she’d have done if he’d been seriously hurt.
His own health dealt with, Finn turned to her, checking her over. “Oh,” he said, “you’ve got—” He reached out, brushing his thumb over her cheek. It came away bright with fresh blood.
Ariane was acutely aware of where he had touched her, and she had to force her voice to work. It took her a moment. “Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I’m going to need a bath after this anyway. Right now I just need a healing spell.”
“Right—right, of course,” Finn said. He focused, and green light swept over her—knitting cuts back together, easing the bruises and aches in her muscles, gentling the last adrenaline tremor of fear in her limbs.
She sighed with relief. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” he said. Ariane thought there might have been something soft and tremulous in his voice, but when he spoke again he was all business. “So, what now? Forgive me if I have trouble believing that was it.”
“The demon had something,” Ariane said. “I didn’t get a chance to look at it, but maybe it’ll give us a clue.” She led him back over to where she had destroyed Fear, probing through its remains with her boot until she found the thing that had dropped so solidly from its hold.
It was a journal.
Delicately Ariane reached out to pluck it from the dust, brushing the cover clean with one hand. It was ancient, battered, but in surprisingly good condition for all that, its pages still holding firmly to the embossed leather cover, the parchment stiff but not cracking.
With gentle hands, Finn lifted it from her grasp. “You said the demon had this?”
She nodded. “I think it was… inside it, somehow. It fell out when it crumbled.”
“Demons will do that sometimes,” Finn said. “An object with a strong emotional resonance can serve as an ideal anchor for something just coming out of the Fade. This must be hundreds—thousands of years old.”
“We’ll take it with us,” Ariane said. “You can look through it later. Right now I just want to know what’s going on here.” She took it back, leafing through the pages until she found where the writing stopped, and then flipped back to the beginning of the final entry. Crouching on the floor of that ancient temple, they bent their heads over it to puzzle out a translation.
“‘It has been twelve days since the breaking of the world,’” Finn began.
A chill raced down Ariane’s spine.
“‘The temple is in ruins,’” he continued, then paused over the next line. “What’s this one? Is that a name? Sulin?”
“Sulan,” she said. “Yes.”
“Thank you. ‘Sulan says we may be able to’—no, sorry, ‘may never be able to restore it. The air is too heavy, and magic is nearly impossible.’”
“That sounds like something from the stories,” Ariane said. “It’s said that all the elves were mages once, but that was lost when the shemlen came, along with our immortality and so much else.”
“Do the stories say anything about the world breaking?”
Ariane shook her head. “I don’t even know what that would mean. An earthquake? Is an earthquake that big even possible?”
“I don’t know,” Finn said. He looked back at the journal. “Hah, that’s ‘brethren of the air,’ I recognize that. ‘The temple keepers say the spirits can no longer speak.’” He tilted his head. “Or possibly ‘they can no longer speak to the spirits.’” He scanned the next line and let out a low whistle. “Either way, it’s not good. ‘They have been trying to break through to them, but Is—Iselle? Iselle does not think they will succeed.’”
“They were trying to tear a hole in the Veil?” Ariane said, horrified.
“No wonder these demons are here,” Finn agreed. He squinted at the next passage. “This has something to do with the rest of the empire, I think? Something about the empire in disarray. ‘We have received no new sacrifices since the’... you know, I’m not sure what that word is, but based on the context I’m going to guess it’s another name for this whole world-breaking thing. ‘Some of the guards went looking last night, but… the town is shattered. There is no one for them to… take…,’” He said, trailing off in horror. He swallowed, looking down at the book. “Still no explanation of what they needed the sacrifices for.”
But Ariane had been scanning the last few lines, and one of the words had jumped out at her. “That word means ‘hunger,’” he said, pointing. She frowned, trying to put the ancient script together into sounds that made sense. “And I’m not sure, but it kind of looks like it’s being used as a name.”
“Let’s take a look,” Finn said. “You know, you might be right. ‘The Hungry One,’ maybe, or just ‘Hunger.’ ‘With nothing to feed on, Hunger grows restless. Last night it ate…’” A pause. “Another name, I think. I don’t know that one at all. ‘She was its… keeper?’ Not like a Dalish Keeper, someone who keeps animals. ‘With her gone there is no hope for us.’”
Finn had been tracing along the text as he read, and now he put his finger on the final line. He scanned it, then slowly lifted his head. Ariane met his eyes. The emotions she read there—horror, fear, dismay, a dawning sense of the enormity of what they had taken on—could have been a mirror for how she felt herself.
“‘The gods have abandoned us,’” Finn said. “‘We are alone with Hunger.’”
His words seemed to echo in the cavernous darkness around them.
Chapter 4: What Ghilan'nain Wrought
The silence stretched out between them. It was Ariane, at last, who broke it. “Do you have any idea what it is?”
“Well…,” Finn said slowly, “I could be wrong, but… it sounds like it might be a hunger demon.”
“A hunger demon?” Ariane said. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“I’ve never encountered one, myself. They’re quite rare,” said Finn. “And very powerful. It’s possible the temple guards had managed to… trap one here, imperfectly. In that case they may have seen the regular sacrifices as necessary for keeping it contained.” He took a deep breath. “If that is true… killing it may put things back to normal here.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment, but Ariane knew him well enough by now to know that they had had the same thought. She gave voice to it. “Then we need to find it.”
“Do you remember the part where I said it’s very powerful?” Finn demanded. “We’ve already dealt with two demons today, not to mention all the fearlings! Do you really think we’re up for that?”
“Do we really have a choice?”
There was a long pause where he looked like he rather desperately wanted to say that yes, they did, but then he sagged. “No, you’re right. I wouldn’t feel right just walking away.” He got to his feet, dusting off his knees, and dug a lyrium potion out of his belt pouch. “I sincerely hope we live to regret this,” he said, and chugged it down.
Ariane closed the book carefully and tucked it into Finn’s travel pack, making sure the fastenings were secure. “Me too,” she said. “Come on. There’s another floor below this one.”
“Just a second,” Finn said. He planted his staff and concentrated, and after a moment the focus crystal began to pulse with a gentle blue light. Ariane felt the last of her aches and scrapes melt away. Finn was looking much less worn out as well.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go down.”
They went down.
There were no ghosts on the lower level. There was also almost no light. It was a cavernous space, illuminated by only what bare sun could reach the very bottom of the ravine. Finn sent a flare of power into his torch and the veilfire lengthened, pushing back the shadows around them. In the flickering green light Ariane stared at the piles of bones.
There were thousands of them, in varying states of decay, and they stretched as far as she could see across the floor. Some were ancient, brittle and dry and crumbling to dust, and others were practically fresh, the flies not yet finished stripping the last of the flesh from Hunger’s recent kills. The older ones were mostly the remains of people, the newer entirely animal. Ariane recognized bear, deer, boar, and halla among them.
They advanced into the cavern, weapons at the ready. The only sound was the intermittent buzzing of flies and the endless rushing of the river, much closer here than anywhere else.
At last they reached the far end of the room. Here they found a large, misshapen pile of something dark and furred. They gave it a wide berth; it had a horrible animal smell, all blood and musk and rotting meat. It had to be a great bear, though if it was it was the largest Ariane had ever seen. She couldn’t think what else would be that huge.
At this end of the cavern the windows let in a bit more light—enough to see clearly by, though they were small and set high up. There was also a large hole knocked into the wall. The river raced past mere steps away; from the marks on the floor, it looked like it would flood part of the cavern every spring. There was still some dankness in the low places.
“I don’t sense anything,” Finn whispered. Ariane turned back to look at him. He was wholly focused on his staff, silent flares of magic probing out across the cavern. He made a frustrated sound in his throat. “I don’t understand,” he said. “There isn’t even anything here that looks like the binding for a demon. It’s just… piles of bones!”
Something moved behind him. Arianne’s eyes widened. “Finn,” she said.
“And even if there was a demon bound here once, it obviously isn’t anymore—just look at the big hole in the wall!” he continued, flinging his arm out towards it. “So why in the Maker’s name are the ghosts still here?”
“Finn!” Ariane said. There was real urgency in her voice now.
“It’s not a demon,” she said. Her heart sat like lead in her chest.
Behind him, the pile of fur had gotten to its feet. Ariane had been wrong: it wasn’t a great bear. She didn’t think there was a name for whatever it was. It was a huge beast, even larger than she’d expected for the way it had been curled on the floor, with hulking shoulders and far too many legs—all of them somehow wrong, too fluid, like it had too many joints. Great claws scored lines into the stone floor, and its maw—too wide to be called a mouth—was bristling with fangs larger than her hand. It looked like it could have grappled a dragon and walked away.
This, she knew in her bones, was Hunger.
The beast let out a roar and Ariane nearly screamed in pain, vainly trying to block out the sound. This was the noise that Fear had used to scare the temple ghosts, but more—larger and louder and deeper in every way. This wasn’t the voice of a spirit, just obeying its nature in the only way it could. This was a predator that should never have been allowed to exist.
“‘The sky was filled with monsters,’” Ariane said, her voice shaking in the silence that followed that roar, “‘and the land with beasts.’”
“Well,” Finn said weakly. “I guess she must not have destroyed all of them after all.”
The monster charged, faster than Ariane would have believed possible. Finn dove out of the way just in time, but Ariane had nowhere to go but into the river. Frantically she scrambled back, only just avoiding its snapping teeth as she forced herself into a gap in the masonry. It snarled furiously, scrabbling and biting at the stone in its efforts to reach her, but its head was too big to fit, praise the Creators—or, as she realized with a hysterical giggle, praise its Creator.
Though she wasn’t exactly about to thank Ghilan’nain for having gotten her into this situation.
“Ariane!” Finn called, frantic.
“I’m okay!” she replied. “It can’t reach me!” Up close, she could see that the beast had a number of eyes spread across the front and sides of its head. When it came in for another attack, she was ready with her sword.
The monster reeled back, howling and pawing frantically at its face, and she took her chance to tumble out of the hole, stumbling over piles of bones to join Finn in the open centre of the cavern. His eyes were wild with relief and panic both.
“We need to get out of here!” he said.
Ariane ignored him, setting her shoulders. “Cover me,” she said, and took off.
“Ariane!” Finn shouted.
For all his protests, Finn was dependable. As she ran for the beast he hit her with everything he had: warding glyphs, strengthening energy, defensive auras, and her favourite, the golden glow of haste. She pushed off, leaping for Hunger’s foreleg and driving her blades into one unsettlingly flexible joint, landing hard, taking off around its side and forcing it to turn after her. She was going to take out as many of its legs as she could before it caught on.
But it was smarter than she had guessed. It roared again, spinning on her and throwing her back with a well-placed strike. She crashed into a pile of bones, gasping fruitlessly at the sharp impact. All the air had been knocked from her lungs.
Hunger started towards her, but then there was the crack of stone and a boulder crashed into its face. Forgetting about Ariane, it whirled on Finn, throwing itself across the cavern towards him. But he had prepared for that: under the scatter of bones and broken rock, he had laid the largest repulsion glyph Ariane had ever seen. The beast was thrown back and hit the ground howling; by the time it was on its feet, so was Ariane.
“Get cover!” she yelled. Finn wasted no time, racing for a sloped area at the side of the room where a pile of bones had collected. He would still be able to cast from there, but wouldn’t make nearly so appealing a target. Ariane adjusted her grip on her swords and dove for the monster again.
She had no idea how she was going to kill it, but damn it if she wasn’t going to die trying.
Hunger roared defiance and met her charge. Ariane ducked under a swipe of its claws, skidding under its belly and hacking at anything she could reach. It snarled and reared up, tearing at her with its second and third legs, then slammed back down heavily, lunging for her with its fangs. She was thrown back again. Grimly, she dragged herself back to her feet.
She lost count of the number of times it slammed her back, how many crushing bites she only just managed to avoid, how often the beast turned its claws on her and tore her open. If Finn hadn’t been with her she’d have been dead three times over already; his healing spells, and his endless string of strengthening auras, were the only things keeping her upright. But no matter how bad the beating she took, she was too stubborn to give up—not while this thing still lived.
Unfortunately, the feeling seemed to be mutual. And Hunger was a lot more murderous—and much more durable—than she was.
The next time it threw her back, it was with such force that she slammed against the cavern wall. She cracked her head and hit the ground hard, struggling to swallow down the bile in her throat, and for a moment the world greyed out around her. Distantly she heard Finn yelling something, but she couldn’t make out the words over the pounding in her head.
It was very important that she get back up, she remembered. She staggered upright.
“I’m going to try something!” Finn was shouting. “Hold on!”
Ariane managed to grab onto the wall just as the floor started shaking. She had only seen Finn use his earthquake spell twice before; it was devastating at short range, especially indoors. Hunger whirled, unsteady on its many feet, as chunks of the ceiling started crashing down around it.
And then everything went wrong.
Ariane could see the exact moment the monster recognized Finn as a threat. And whether in response to her injury, or just to give himself a better footing, he had moved out of cover with no glyphs to protect him.
“Finn, run!” Ariane cried—but it was already too late.
Hunger slammed into him, snatching him up in its jaws. The scream that tore itself from Finn’s throat was the most terrible sound Ariane had ever heard. His spell cut off abruptly as the monster bit down, and it was all she could do to keep herself from screaming too—he couldn’t be dead, she couldn’t let him be dead, not when she had never even had the chance to—
Abruptly Hunger spat him out, howling angrily as it swiped at him. Even at this distance Ariane could see the telltale rocky grey of Finn’s stoneskin spell, and relief flooded through her: he wasn’t dead, there was still hope, they could make it out alive if she could just kill this thing somehow. But even as she had that thought she realized she had no idea how: without Finn’s magic all she had was her weapons, and—
Her weapons. June taught the elves to craft weapons.
She looked down at her swords, and in the reflection of the blades she saw the answer.
“Hope,” she said. “We have to restore hope.”
The monster was still doing everything it could to savage Finn. It wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to her. It was now or never.
She took a deep breath and charged.
The world went still around her. In the distance she could hear Finn shouting, urging her to get out while she could, but she shut it out. She had set her course. Everything came down to this: her hands steady on her swords, her stride lengthening as she picked up her pace, the fierce burn of her muscles as she prepared herself for what she was about to do. She reached down deep inside herself and hoped, with everything she had.
Hunger turned towards her, snarling its fury. Ariane leapt.
And the cavern lit up a pure, blinding white.
Chapter 5: Hope
All of Ariane’s weariness fell away. She flew. Time seemed to slow, every instant presenting itself in utter, crystal clarity. The light was all around her, bright, too bright, but somehow she could see everything at once—Finn’s astonished face, the shift of Hunger’s legs as it tried in vain to match her speed, even her own impossible trajectory through the air. The light was coming from her. The light was glowing in her breast.
She could feel another presence touching her mind, gentle and warm, iron-hard and utterly resolute. She could feel everything else, as well, and some things she had no name for. In the distance something was singing. In the distance Hunger was shrieking. It took only a thought to set her swords ablaze with pure, crackling energy.
She landed on the monster’s head and plunged her blades into its skull.
The glowing energy arcing around her swords sheared effortlessly through meat and bone. She buried both her blades to the hilt. Twin fountains of blood sprayed out, splashing over her gauntlets. Abruptly, Hunger’s howling turned into a choked gurgle. Slowly, ever so slowly, it collapsed to the ground.
Ariane withdrew her swords and stepped back down to the floor.
The light and the sense of another presence in her mind had let her go, but they remained in the cavern, illuminating the piles of bones and the beast’s gory remains in a stark, uncompromising white. And on the other side of Hunger’s body, Finn stumbled to his feet.
“Maker’s breath,” he gasped, as Ariane started towards him. “I—I thought you were going to die. I thought I was going to die! That thing almost ate me! And then you were there and, and—what happened, that was impossible, we should be dead—”
Ariane grabbed him by the collar of his robe and yanked him down into a kiss.
Finn’s eyes were very round when she finally pulled back. Nervously, he licked his lips. “Oh,” he said.
“I thought you were dead,” Ariane said.
“Oh,” Finn repeated stupidly.
Ariane kissed him again. This time he actually collected himself enough to respond, his lips firm and relieved and warm against hers, his hands clinging fiercely to her shoulders, his legs trembling as he leaned on her—though she wasn’t sure how much of that was him being swept away in romance, and how much was simply his knees giving out under the sheer effort of staying upright.
Finn looked pleasantly flustered when she let him go a second time, a flush of pink colouring his cheeks and a dopey smile on his lips. He cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “I am happy to report that I am not dead.” He paused, considering for a moment. “I’m… not entirely sure how I’m not dead. Or how we’re both not dead, actually. Um. What happened?”
Ariane smiled. “Hope happened,” she said, and turned to greet the spirit who had for the last few minutes been watching them from across the room with an indulgent smile.
She was still the same woman they had seen chained to the wall upstairs, with Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin marking her face and her hair pulled back in a utilitarian braid. But now, rather than the chains and worn clothing of a battered temple slave, she was dressed in armour nearly identical to Ariane’s, with a pair of swords crossed at her back. As Finn gaped, she stepped forward, reaching out to clasp Ariane’s hands.
You have my thanks, she said. The both of you.
Finn found his voice. “You’re a spirit?!” he demanded.
Hope inclined her head.
“I only figured it out right at the end,” Ariane said apologetically. “There wasn’t time to explain.”
He rounded on her. “Did you even know for sure that she was going to help you?”
Ariane just gave him her best impish smile. “I hoped.”
Finn opened his mouth, affronted—and then reconsidered, closing it with an audible click. “Alright, yes, I clearly asked for that,” he said.
Hope seemed tolerantly amused by the direction of their conversation. And your hope was strong, she said. Until you came, it had been many ages since anyone had walked here. I lingered, like the others, in the memory of this place, of the people who had once hoped so much to be freed. But there was little I could do, with nothing to strengthen me.
“Then Ariane has freed you, as well!” Finn said.
Yes, Hope said. And with the source of their terror and despair removed, the ghosts that lingered in this place will pass on into the Beyond. You have done a great service here.
“I’m glad,” Ariane said. “They deserve to rest. And you deserve to go home.”
It has been a long, long time, Hope said. And it will be a glorious relief, to finally take my leave. She squeezed Ariane’s fingers once, then released her. I will remember you, Ariane of the Dalish—and hope that one day we will meet again.
“Thank you,” Ariane said.
Hope gave her a dazzling smile, and faded away into nothingness. The brilliant glow faded with her, and they were left in the dim light of the fading afternoon. For a long moment there was silence.
Then Finn let out a low whistle as Ariane turned back to him. “Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe you made a bond with a spirit. An actual spirit! Did you know spirits of hope almost as rare on this side of the Veil as hunger demons? I never thought I’d see anything like that. It was incredible! All I could think was—”
He stopped, looking faintly embarrassed.
“What?” Ariane said, pausing in the act of slinging his arm over her shoulders.
Finn’s face was turning an entirely charming shade of red. He coughed. “You were so beautiful,” he said. “I could barely look at you. Of course, some of that was the light. A lot of that was the light, actually. I’d… Well. I think I’d pretty much always like to be looking at you.”
“Aww, aren’t you sweet,” Ariane said, grinning as he flushed further. She lifted herself up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “We’ll revisit that later. For now I think we should get out of here.”
Finn slipped his hand into hers, leaning on her heavily. “That sounds like a good plan,” he said, and together they slowly made their way towards the stairs.