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The Reluctant Alchemist's Guide to Thedas (Vol. 2)

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Haven looks like it’s rehearsing for the apocalypse. The main thoroughfare is dark, mostly deserted, and covered with a layer of substance formerly categorizable as slush, now frozen. In the hollow silence of the frigid mountain night, the crunch of ice underfoot is deafening. The black silhouettes of the trebuchets jut out against the sky like the carcasses of an abandoned oil rig, putting Margo in mind of some depressing post-industrial landscape. In the village proper most storm shutters are tightly closed, and the narrow shafts of light that squeeze through the gaps provide scant illumination. No sound of song or conversation drifts from the tavern down the street — the alehouse is lit from the inside but muted. Ahead of them the chantry looms, a pale outline against the vast scatter of alien constellations.

As they approach the apothecary, Margo considers whether there is anything in there she might use to corroborate her identity. She would be an idiot — a naive and unforgivably self-important idiot — if she were to assume that anything she might say and most of the things she might do would cause the Inquisition's finest to simply adjust their well-worn paradigms. But she isn't sure that any props she might conjure would impress the Abomination Evaluation Committee. Thedas isn’t her own world's past, not some medieval time travel fantasy. It rotates around magic — is defined by it — and hence its developmental trajectory must be taken as distinct from the one she is familiar with. To assume that some simplistic parlor trick masquerading as a science experiment might impress a people who live and breathe what her fellow Earthlings would consider miracles would be the height of ethnocentrism. On the other hand, there has to be something she can do.

They pass several doorways with bushels of dried flowers hung more or less discretely above their frames.

"Does embrium have any particular significance in this part of the Frostbacks?" Margo asks no one in particular. Even desiccated and frostbitten, the flowers are easy to identify.

Cole responds, and the quality of his voice reminds Margo of a short-tempered and overworked mother of eight. " Everyone knows the red flower wards off death. Hang it over the threshold if ye don't want the restless dead to come knocking. "

Margo nods. She suspected it was something like this, and the confirmation only adds to her unease. She isn't sure whether it would be better that people be dismissive of Evie or terrified to the point of undertaking ritual precautions.

The courtyard in front of the apothecary is bathed in bluish moonlight, but all the windows are dark. Margo isn't surprised that Adan is, once again, nowhere in sight — when he's not conducting experiments on his liver's capacity to process ethanol, the senior alchemist tends to approach his job as a nine-to-five. She wonders briefly whether Solas is asleep or occupied elsewhere.

Cole dives into the side alley so abruptly that Margo's momentum carries her forward several steps before she registers the absence.

"Hurry." His voice rings out, eerie and bright in the snowy silence. "If they wait too long, they will get impatient. They won't listen if they're impatient."

Margo follows, Amund beside her. A quick glance at the Avvar reveals that the part of his face not concealed by the mask is telegraphing spectacular displeasure. It dawns on Margo then that his insistence on training her might not be simply a species of misplaced Kantian categorical imperative. This venture into town is not his idea of a pleasant walk — that he would suffer it regardless should tell her something about the nature of the training he anticipates. It doesn't bode well for her.

Ahead of them, Cole speaks again, his timbre changing towards something vaguely reminiscent of a Scottish brogue, though nothing quite as thick as the accent of the balding fellow Margo’s former “team” rescued from Redcliffe. She wonders whatever happened to him and his elven "niece." “ Maker's balls, it's cold. Void if I know why they need Master Adan's helper in the first place - don't even know what she looks like. Blonde elven lass, they said. Could be any one of the blighted knife-ears. Lots of good that does out here anyway, can barely see my own boots. Blighted mountains, why'd it have to be me... "

It's another ten steps until, suddenly, Cole’s soliloquy finds its echoed reflection.

"... should have tried to make a go of it in Denerim one more— Ho! Who goes there?"

"Friends," Cole replies. His tone is far too slow and pensive to pass for amiable, and the figure on the other side of the narrow street shifts uneasily with a sound of creaking leather. Margo doesn't recognize the man. Human, judging by the frame, and not one of Leliana's, based on the armor — the little of it she can see, anyway. "I think you are looking for her." Cole inclines his head towards Margo. "We are ready to come."

The fellow lifts his shoulders in a noncommittal shrug. "Good 'nough for me."

***

Margo has never been inside the so-called "war room," though she has heard Varric refer to it on multiple occasions. In the center of the dim, vaulted chamber is a truly spectacular expanse of wood that, for some inexplicable reason, reminds her of a B-movie’s take on a sacrificial altar. As if all it wants to be is a giant slab of granite, but the director said they don’t have the budget for it. The table is littered with maps, official-looking documents, and a collection of place-markers and pawns that make Margo wonder whether the advisors might have a secret passion for the local version of Settlers of Catan . The mess is reassuring. As long as it is covered in stuff, the likelihood of the table being used for nefarious ritualistic purposes is low: no one likes to get blood on the paperwork. Chairs of miscellaneous persuasions — from an intricately carved throne with plush armrests to two ancient, rickety three-legged wooden stools — are arranged in an irregular oval.

Margo isn't sure what she had expected, but whatever it was, it wasn't the majority of the inner circle. Varric is missing, as are Sera and Blackwall. The triumvirate of Torquemada, Cullen, and Josephine has been squared off by Cassandra — Margo supposes that this new arrangement technically makes it a Quadrumvirate. She notes that the Four Footmen of the Apocalypse have occupied the best chairs.  (Calling them Horsemen is, technically speaking, inaccurate on account of the absence of horses.) The second tier of seating options is taken by Vivienne, Dorian, and Solas, who all sport almost identical expressions of general disgust, although Dorian has the advantage of looking mildly entertained. The last member of the Diagnosing Spirit Possession Club is the Iron Bull. Faced with the choice of a rickety stool or leaning against the wall, the Qunari has prudently opted for the latter. The position has the added benefit of allowing him to loom menacingly from the shadows.

With the entirety of her former team in the room, Margo's mind flashes to Redcliffe. And there she was, exceptionally successful at not thinking about the whole sordid mess. Her jaw tightens. She didn't think she had stayed angry with them.

Well.

With an unpleasantly hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, Margo realizes that, aside from Amund, she does not unequivocally trust anyone in this room not to sell her out if needed. Not even Solas, no matter what other emotions she might be harboring. One is defined by one's actions, not one's good intentions. There is no reason to think that any of them would risk their own neck for her, nor fail to throw her under the carriage in the name of expediency. Disposable is as disposable does.

Oh, unspecified and unmerciful deity, this is, as per usual, stupid. She needs to stop stumbling around blindly like a particularly overeager drunken bear and take thirty seconds to think things through before embarking on the next idiotic and likely lethal course of action.

"Ah, finally, the agent has been located. Very— Oh?" Judging by the flash of surprise on Torquemada's features — concealed as quickly as it appears, of course — the spymaster did not expect the cavalry. Heads pivot towards the entrance. Margo follows Cole inside, and, on her heels, Amund marches in, creepily silent in his fur-soled boots. He occupies a spot by the door, props his back against the wall, and lets the giant wolf-headed hammer rest between his feet with the bassy resonance of a funeral gong. Cullen and Cassandra meet this with matching frowns. Vivienne's eyebrow twitches. Dorian smiles into his fist, and Solas defaults to his habitual pleasantly polite mask. Bull offers the Avvar a neutral nod. Whatever else might be the case, Margo would bet a sovereign (if she had one to bet) that no one expected Amund. The only one to take this with any degree of social grace is Josephine: she offers all of them one of those amiable smiles that is addressed to no one in particular but designed such that each member of the audience interprets it as directed solely at them.

"Well." Torquemada is the first to recover. "I see you have availed yourself of an escort. What is the purpose of their presence?”

“To offer additional information, should it be needed.” That seems neutral enough. No need to antagonize the spymaster too early.

Torquemada scowls, but she gestures towards one of the rickety stools. “Take a seat, agent."

"Thank you, I'll stand," Margo offers with a calm she doesn't feel. Her heart is hammering against her ribcage — she'll probably regret the refusal later, but she isn't about to collaborate in Torquemada’s little ballet. It's taken her some time, but she is learning the redhead’s little tells — the slightly more unctuous tone, the partly hooded eyes. The delicate little smile. This is building up towards another round of “ j’accuse .”

"Do you know why you are here?"

Cole gives Margo’s hand a squeeze, fingers cold as ice, but his touch reassuring. "You should tell them. It's only going to get harder if they ask first."

Torquemada presses her lips together and peers at the young man, but the exercise fails to offer any added insights. Tempting as it is to gloat about it — no one likes a counteroffensive — Margo forces herself to focus on the task at hand.

"I suppose for the same reason the rest of you are here. Because of Evie." She draws a breath and looks pointedly between the members of the Quadrumvirate. She needs to try to control the frame, as much as such a thing is possible under the circumstances, and thus, she needs to retake the initiative. "You want to understand what Evie is. As of now, I suspect you are leaning towards the conclusion that her magic is caused by a state of possession. I am here to offer an alternative theory."

The quality of the air in the room changes, the collective attention on her almost as tangible as a physical touch. Margo exhales quietly. No backing out now.

Torquemada's squint is unpleasantly speculative. "What an uncannily accurate guess, agent . This is not quite why you were summoned, but please, as long as you’re here... I do wonder what you might be able to tell us about the nature of the Herald’s magic that three perfectly accomplished mages couldn’t. Unless you have another hidden talent we have not yet uncovered?”

Margo swallows. She was expecting hostility, but not this early. She is going to have to switch strategies if she hopes to stay a step ahead. On a better day, she might have found it ironic that in her own world's religious traditions radical shifts in affect are often used to signal possession or trance — especially since she is about to consciously exploit the technique to generate the same eerie effect.

This is not a better day.

"As long as you are set on this course of trying to classify Evie through your habitual categories, spymaster, I am afraid you will find the exercise frustrating, unproductive, and misleading." She drops the mask, no longer modulating her pronunciation, vocabulary, and demeanor, and Maile’s ill-fitting persona sloughs off like an old snake skin. The prosody changes. Her words come out crisper, sharper, her accent heavier. "I do not claim expertise on magic, only the advantage of an outsider’s gaze." It is the first time in her history of interacting with Leliana that Margo doesn't feel either overwhelmed with terror or crushed under despondent exhaustion. In fact, the only thing she feels is annoyance. She'll take it. "As to why I have made an accurate guess, it is because I bothered to listen to what Cole had to say."

"And what is Cole, precisely?" Vivienne asks with a level look at the boy.

Solas turns his head towards the Orlesian enchanter. When he speaks, his tone is studiously polite. "It seems that Cole is a spirit."

"A demon," the Iron Lady corrects after a pause.

Next to Margo, Cole fidgets, and it is her turn to squeeze his hand in reassurance.

"If you prefer, although the truth is somewhat more complex. In fact, his nature is not so easily defined." Solas’s expression remains placid. The only thing that suggests any inner turmoil is how ramrod-straight his spine is.

Margo catches Dorian's gaze. The other mage is tapping his chin pensively, one eyebrow raised. Aside from Solas, he is the only one in the room who appears more intrigued than scandalized by this latest revelation about Cole.

"An abomination, then," Vivienne parries, still set on her task of taxonomic disambiguation.

"Cole is... unique. He has possessed nothing and no one, and yet he appears human in all respects. He looks like a young man. For all intents and purposes, he is a young man."

"We are digressing. We will return to Cole — and what to do about him — at a later date." Torquemada drums her gauntleted fingers on the desk. "You mentioned something, agent, that I would like to return to. You say you have proof that the Herald is not possessed. But I cannot establish the veracity of your words before I establish who speaks them."

At this, Josephine decides that it is time to intervene. Her voice is steely under the veneer of polite amiability. "Leliana, there is no need for a lapse in manners or veiled innuendo. Margo — that is still your preferred moniker, is it not? — has been most diligent in lending her skills to our cause." The ambassador pretends to straighten an already perfectly neat pile of notes in front of her. “And we did summon her to speak. It seems rather disingenuous to question the information she would offer just on account of her anticipating our request.”

"Of course. Except for that matter of multiple witnesses reporting that she had some sort of seizure just as the Herald was animating the dead in the chantry. Isn't that right, Solas? You did order Cole to get out of range, yes? Cassandra, can you corroborate?"

"I..." Cassandra gives Margo a troubled, mildly apologetic look. "I saw it also. Although I do not claim to understand the reasons behind it."

"I might venture a guess," Torquemada offers brightly.

"Save the effort." Margo is probably squeezing the circulation out of Cole's fingers, but he withstands it stoically. "You are correct, spymaster. By your definition, I am the abomination. Not Evie."

This has the merit of earning her at least one gasp and several sharply drawn breaths. Torquemada's eyes widen, and for a blissful second or two the spymaster is at a loss for words. Margo represses another bout of grimly satisfying Schadenfreude and the overwhelming temptation to shout “gotcha!” and stick out her tongue.

She casts a quick glance in Solas's direction. It is a wonder the elf hasn’t managed to stare a hole through her yet. Next to him, Dorian’s expression appears to be the nonverbal equivalent of, "Are you certain you know what you’re doing?" A fair question, if ever there was one.

"That’s actually the good news, as far as everyone here is concerned," Margo continues, pressing whatever meager advantage surprise might lend, and hoping that sticking with the acerbic and mildly impudent approach will keep Torquemada off her footing. "Because, as you will see, it demonstrates that Evie's power precedes Therinfal. Am I correct in guessing that this meeting has been convened to determine whether Evie is possessed by Envy?" Not that it is, strictly speaking, a guess, since Cole had seeded the idea. But the Quadrumvirate needs not know that.

"Wait a moment. You... would admit to being possessed?" Cullen leans forward in his chair. The skin under his tawny eyes is still shadowed with lack of sleep, but he looks much healthier than usual. There is even some color in his cheeks. To Margo's surprise he does not appear hostile, but, rather, profoundly nonplused. He rubs the back of his neck in an absentminded gesture, caught somewhere between fatigue, incredulity, and puzzlement. “I happen to have some experience with abominations. Unfortunately. They don’t exactly tend to announce themselves if they can help it.” His tone is dry. “What are you saying?”

Margo smiles wryly. "Actually, I am the one doing the possessing, if you want to be technical. This is why I personally find the term simplistic and a bit loaded, but it seems like these are the preferred local concepts, so who am I to argue? I'd be happy to discuss the nuances, if you’re interested."

“So we are now in the business of collecting demons.” Vivienne observes Margo with newfound depths of disgust.

A tiny movement catches Margo's peripheral vision. Bull shifts forward, the motion exceedingly casual — lazy, even. Steel glints in his hand. In the next instant, Amund takes a half-step forward, turns his head in Bull's direction, and raps the business end of his hammer against the stones, making the metal vibrate with a low hum. Bull shrugs with one shoulder and leans back against the wall. The blade disappears between the folds of his trousers.

"I've got no issue with you, Amund."

"And I've no quarrel with you, Child of the Qun, as long as you don’t jump to stupid conclusions."

“There will be no violence in this room, are we clear?” Cassandra turns to Margo, her mouth set in a grim line. “I think you had best explain yourself, agent.”

In the next few moments, all the members of the Abomination Committee attempt to speak simultaneously, until the cacophony is interrupted by Josephine who, for lack of a judge's gavel, pounds on the table with a hefty glass paperweight.

"I am sure we are all perfectly capable of having a civilized conversation," she states when she finally achieves a suitable level of cowed silence. The look the ambassador gives Bull could shame stone. "The Iron Bull, would you please proceed over to this side of the table, away from our guests? You are welcome to make use of one of those crates. There are also more chairs to be found in my office." That last part is directed at Cullen and Cassandra.

Once additional furniture is acquired, they are all urged — very politely, and with absolutely no option for dissent — to take a seat. The ambassador rings a small bell, and an elven servant appears shortly after with a large tray of tea and an assortment of matching cups. And just like that, the power dynamic shifts in favor of Lady Montilyet.

Tea distributed among more or less grateful participants, Josephine takes a dainty little sip and gestures at Margo. "Agent, I believe I would not be alone were I to express my surprise at your... admission. Surely, you do not mean your statement literally? In any event, if it will help us settle our doubts about the Herald, we would all be very grateful were you to explain." Josephine punctuates this with a very meaningful look at the spymaster.

Margo nods, forces herself to take a sip of tea — she can’t taste it behind the burn — and sets her cup on the saucer in front of her. The porcelain is adorned with a pleasantly inoffensive floral pattern.

"What is your current working theory regarding the nature of Evie's magic? I promise the question is relevant, so bear with me."

This is met with uncomfortable silence. Margo catches some kind of a wordless exchange between Dorian and Solas, but the meaningful glances are nothing if not opaque.

Finally, Cassandra pinches the bridge of her nose with calloused fingers and sighs in exhausted frustration. "We... have not reached an agreement as of yet. One possibility is that what we believed to be the Herald destroying the demon at Therinfal was, in fact, the moment when it possessed her. It would explain Evelyn’s sudden facility with magic."

"There are also telling changes in overall comportment," Torquemada offers, entirely too pleasantly, and smiles at Margo over her own teacup.

"And yet, I saw no traces of a spirit's or a demon's presence. I must confirm this in the Fade, but a superficial evaluation would suggest—"

"No traces that you have noticed, my dear. One does not reveal oneself to be a mage in adulthood, Solas. In women, the propensity for magic usually presents itself by menarche, sometimes a few years later. Evelyn is two and twenty years of age — far outside the usual range for exhibiting the first signs of magic, let alone the remarkable control she appears to have over it seemingly without any training. And the nature of her magic is most peculiar—"

"Vivienne, surely it has come to your attention that our dear Evelyn's magic is heavily influenced by the mark?” Dorian leans back in his chair, his own cup balanced on one knee. “Add to this the rumors that someone attempted to turn the poor girl Tranquil, and are you truly surprised that her abilities would be 'most peculiar’ under the circumstances?"

"Lest we run through the same set of arguments for the third time this evening, why don’t we ask our... guest what evidence she can offer.” Josephine gestures at Margo with her cup. “Please. I am sure your claims must pertain directly to Evelyn. Otherwise I doubt you would be presenting them in such shocking terms.”

If Josephine wanted to stage a unilateral coup and take the reins of the Inquisition single-handed, Margo decides she would fully support her. “Thank you, ambassador.” She draws a breath. “Yes. My point is simple. Evie’s magic is unrelated to anything she encountered in Therinfal because it precedes it by... let me calculate... at least forty-seven days."

This earns her an assortment of quizzical looks — except from Solas and Dorian, who are now both in the business of staring holes through her.

“That is a rather precise date,” Cullen ventures. If Margo didn’t know any better, she would think that there is a twinkle of humor under the layer of unease. “Well. I suppose I don’t mind being the one to ask the obvious question. What happened forty-seven days before Therinfal?"

Here it is. Margo hopes her voice doesn’t tremble. When she finally speaks, she is mildly surprised to find her words perfectly measured. “The woman some of you have known as Maile died when Evie closed the rift beneath the Breach. I am not her.” She pauses. “My full name is Margarita Duvalle. I was born thirty-one Earth years ago to a Hungarian mother and a French father, in a small village on the eastern bank of the Danube river, in a country the name of which you will not find on any map. I am a historian by training and profession. Based on your classifications, you would have identified my original body as ‘human.’ Forty-seven days prior to the events at Therinfal I was killed in my world, and whatever remained of me was pulled into yours, and into this body.”

“The only explanation I can offer for this swap is Evie’s magic.”