That was the first thing that came to mind when Ren awoke in the bottom of a mine shaft. That she woke at all was a miracle. There hadn’t been a plan when she ran headlong from the avalanche she set off. And she certainly hadn’t seen the mine shaft until she was on top of it. It was not the most graceful entry, and the throbbing in her skull said she must have cracked her head on the way down.
Gingerly, she sat up, and the cold was overridden by pain. Her shoulder ached, dislocated by Corypheus when he’d thrown her, and relocated just as quickly when she impacted the massive trebuchet. The sharp stab in her torso told her that she likely fractured a few ribs as well, though she wasn’t sure if the fall or the throw was to blame. Her hand crackled, buzzing like a nest of angry bees. Whatever the demigod had done to try and remove it, it was not happy.
Ren stared at her hand. It was a fluke. A mishap from her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was a relief, really. She hadn’t ever quite believed that the mark was divine. Anchor, she remembered Corypheus called it. That it was merely magic lifted a huge weight from her shoulders. She wasn’t really sure how much longer she could handle being seen an avatar of a god she didn’t believe in.
With pained shakiness, Ren climbed to her feet. The mineshaft was lit only by the sickly green light emanating from her hand. A tunnel led from where she’d fallen, she could feel a frigid breeze from it. Slowly, she picked her way over ice-slick rock and loose gravel. If she could survive an archdemon, she could handle this.
As she stepped into a wider area, something hissed by her ear and she startled. “Who’s there?” she gasped and slid into a defensive stance. Fighting through the pain in her shoulder and ribs, she reached for her daggers over her shoulders only to come up with empty air. She forgot they’d been knocked from her hands by the explosion the dragon had started. There hadn’t been time to recover them.
Eerie light in front of her coalesced and solidified into a group of wraiths. Ren slid back and almost lost her footing as one lashed out with its claws. The mark burst to a new brilliance, and the demon hissed and faded back. Emboldened, she thrust her palm forward, ignoring the strain on her already-aching muscles, to force them back. She could feel the Veil with a clarity that hadn’t existed before. She could almost visualize something like an unraveling thread the demons had created when they clawed through to reach the waking world. A benefit to whatever Corypheus had done to it, maybe.
In her mind, Ren pictured grabbing at that loose thread and tearing through the Veil like canvas, and a rift materialized behind them. The demons howled with fury as they were sucked towards it. They clawed the empty air, scrabbling for purchase that didn’t exist, before vanishing through the tear. She sealed it behind them, as she did any other rift, and let her hand fall back to her side.
Ren panted from adrenaline and exhaustion, and each breath sent a fresh stab of pain through her ribs. She leaned against the cold stone wall, but kept herself from sitting down. She honestly didn’t think she’d have the will to pull herself upright again. After a moment, she continued through the tunnel.
The breeze she felt before became stronger, and she could hear the whistling of a gale. It was also colder, much colder. Faint light began filtering in as she neared the entrance. Snow swirled, dancing into the corridor and coating everything in a fine powder as it settled beyond the wind’s reach. A blizzard was raging outside. It would be her luck for one to blow in.
Ren stood in the tunnel’s mouth, shivering as she considered her options. She could stay and try to wait it out. Her body desperately wanted to sit and rest. It would be so easy. But there was nothing that she could use to start a fire. Her traveling kit was back at Haven, buried under a mountain face of snow, and she was no mage. If she stayed here, she would likely freeze to death.
She stared at the snow whipping around the cave entrance and sighed heavily. She pulled the long, white scarf from around her neck and began wrapping it around her head, covering as much of her face and long, pointed ears as she could. She secured the ends down under her armor and tucked her hands under her arms. It was the best she could do to prevent frostbite. If she was going to freeze to death, it would be out there and not huddled in misery at the bottom of an abandoned mine. Best case scenario, she’d find the evacuees’ trail and follow it to their camp. Worst case… well, at least this way she had a chance .
Ren steeled herself and stepped out into the wind. When she sank up to her knees in the snow, and flakes like knives cut into the exposed flesh around her eyes, dying in the mine shaft suddenly didn’t seem like the worst idea. Blocking her face from the worst of it with her gloved hand, she squinted through the hazy light reflecting off the snow for any sign of where to go. Clouds obscured the sky completely, robbing her of any sense of direction.
Staring into the wind, Ren thought she could see something jutting out of the snow. She trudged forward to find a ruined cart, half buried by the blizzard. One of the wheels had broken on the rough trail, forcing its owner to leave it behind. She had no way of knowing if it was the Inquisition’s, but it was the only clue she had. She continued pushing into the wind, head bowed, and praying that anything that would normally hunt had more sense than her to walk through the storm.
She slogged through the snow for what felt like ages. Bits of broken wood and other debris stuck up out of the snow every so often. She wasn’t certain if it was coincidence or intentional, but she was grateful for it. Every piece she found, she used as motivation to keep moving forward. It was getting harder, though. Her legs burned from the effort of walking up the incline of the mountains, and her feet had long since gone numb.
Once she began to enter a forest, she stumbled over a campsite. It was stone cold, dead, not even a hint of ash in the firepit, sheltered from the snow. A weariness settled into her heart and spread through her limbs as she stood over it, wondering if she’d made the worst mistake of her rapidly-shortening life to leave that cave.
Then the wind began to die, and she heard the wolf howling.
Ren shuddered and shook her head to clear it, and the wind-whipped scarf fell down around her neck. She didn’t bother fixing it as she frantically turned her head around, searching for the source. The echo on the rock walls made it impossible to tell from where, or how far away, it had come.
She’d never been an ardent believer in Dalish folklore, hadn’t been exposed to it until late in her childhood. But after walking the Fade, gaining the anchor, twisting time itself, encountering a would-be darkspawn god and his pet archdemon, who was she to say that the Dread Wolf didn’t exist? It seemed as likely, if not moreso, as anything else that had happened since she woke in the Inquisition’s prison a scant month prior.
“The Dread Wolf isn’t taking me,” she muttered to herself and plunged forward into the snow with a renewed determination when the wolf howled again. She wasn’t just hearing things. “Not today, not ever.”
It became a mantra as she continued through the woods. The snow was up to her thighs now, slowing her progress to a crawl. Her legs shook with every step forward, and she was more stumbling and catching herself than walking. Her breath burned in her lungs, relentlessly sharp and cold. She wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, but something urged her forward. After everything else, to give up and die in the snow seemed ridiculous. It couldn’t happen.
Ren crested what felt like the hundredth hill since she left the cave and stopped dead in her tracks. She rubbed at her bleary eyes with numb hands and stared as her cold-fogged mind tried to process what she saw as real. Warm firelight cast an orange glow across the valley below. She could see tents set up and people moving about or huddled around fires.
“There, it’s her!”
Cullen’s voice shook her from her reverie, and she saw him plowing through the snow at a hard run, with Cassandra and several others close behind him.
Ren stepped forward to meet them, only to drop to her knees as the muscles in her legs finally gave out. The rest of her body seemed to take a cue then, and she was unable to keep herself upright any longer. She pitched forward, only to be caught by a face full of feathers as Cullen broke her fall on his shoulder.
“I’ve got you,” he whispered into her ear. There was a note of wonder in his voice, like he couldn’t quite believe he’d actually found her. “It’s alright. I’ve got you.”
“Thank the Maker,” Cassandra breathed exultantly and knelt down beside them. “Are you alright?”
“I’m not dead?” It was meant to be an answer, but Ren was having trouble wrapping her mind around the fact that she’d actually found them.
“No, you’re not dead,” Cullen said through a relieved chuckle. “Maker willing, we’ll do a better job of keeping you that way.”
“Cullen, her hand.” Cassandra sucked in a breath. “It isn’t normal. We must get her to Solas.”
Cullen nodded and eased out of his cloak, then pulled it tight around her. He scooped her up into his arms like she weighed nothing at all, and climbed back to his feet. She whimpered once when he slipped and accidentally jarred her ribs. He kept a slow, even pace, careful not to repeat it. Cassandra ran ahead of them and half-chased the soldiers they’d brought with them back to the camp, barking orders to find Solas, and ready a bed, blankets, hot water.
“How did you know I was out here?” Ren’s voice was drowsy and shook with her shivering.
“Your hart started calling for you,” Cullen said. “Cassandra said it made that exact noise when it found you in the Hinterlands. About the same time, Solas said he could sense the mark in this direction.”
She nodded and fell silent again. The cold and exhaustion were overtaking her now. It was getting harder for her to string thoughts together. They kept slipping from her mind like sand through her fingers, but something still unsettled her. A wolf’s howl echoed through the canyon, and it came rushing back to her.
“Cullen.” Ren’s voice was sharp with sudden clarity, and it made him freeze in place. She grabbed ahold of his collar in a shaky fist and tried to pull herself upright. He stared down at her, brown eyes laced with confusion and concern. They were beautiful, warm and liquid, between molasses and honey.
When her gaze went unfocused, and she made no effort to continue, he prompted her with an uncertain, “... Yes?”
She remembered suddenly, what had been important before. “Cullen, he can’t take me. You can’t let him. Promise me, Cullen.”
Cullen’s brow creased, and he frowned as he cast a glance over his shoulder. No one was following them. He could see nothing but hills of unbroken snow around her tracks. “... Who are you--”
“The Dread Wolf,” Ren whimpered. “You can’t let him take me. It’s too soon.”
Before he could respond, she went slack and released him. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she lolled against his shoulder, finally losing her fight against unconsciousness.