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

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Author's note: Welcome to RAGtT! This is your friendly splash page/reading guide. If you're here, you might have already stumbled on Vol 1 of The Reluctant Alchemist's Guide to Thedas, which got orphaned in error. I am currently working on a reposting/back-edits of Part 1. This is Part 2.

  1. If you are a new reader, then please be aware that this starts in the middle of things. You probably could hop in mid-way, but I highly recommend you check out the original story first and see if it's to your liking. 
  2. OR. Whether you're a new reader, or a returning reader considering a re-read from the beginning, I am rewriting/updating/remastering RAGT Vol 1 found here -- the story will largely be the same as the original, but now cleaned up and with lots of bonus content, including more in-depth characterization, added banter, Easter eggs, philosophical asides, wisecracks etc.

A few notes about what RAGtT is and isn't to help you decide whether to commit to this wall of text (in the interest of managing expectations):

  • The tone is humor, but the world-building is dark. I take some of the worst choices that could have happened in the previous two games (and some that couldn't have happened in-game at all) and combine them into a particularly crapsack version of Thedas.
  • The main character is not the Inquisitor, and is not "oracular" -- she has no prior familiarity with the games or the game world. (Of course, that doesn't mean that she won't impact events). 
  • This is a canon-compliant(ish) AU and is skewed towards original fiction. RAGT follows the game's timeline relatively closely up until the end of Act I, but deviates quite drastically after that. This is not a retelling of the canonical story we all know and love. With that in mind, I treat the universe of this fic as its own standalone world, in that it tries to build an overarching explanation for what an MCIT would be doing in Thedas in the first place. This also means that while characters have their in-game motivations and plans, they are also reacting to a completely different set of parameters, so the overarching plot shifts accordingly.
  • If you would like a change from a predominantly Western European fantasy world-building, this draws a lot on Central European and Slavic folklore and quite a bit on Central Asian religions and mythology (for reasons pertinent to the plot).
  • And, probably most importantly in terms of managing expectations, this is not a "The MCIT Will Fix-It." I mean this in the sense that RAGtT is explicitly not a Modern Girl Saves Thedas wish-fulfillment power fantasy, and I very deliberately write (or try to write) against the grain of that trope. If you're mostly accustomed to the structure of the YA "Chosen One" narrative or if you're looking to re-experience the player character role from the games, this story won't fulfill those expectations. Relatedly, this is really meant for a mature audience: the world is messy and complex, power(s) come at a cost, choices are often morally ambiguous, characters play the hand they've been dealt however well they can (and fail quite often), and the night is dark and full of terrors ;)

A few additional notes:

  • The main character is an overeducated, hyperactive smart ass, so RAGT often meanders through philosophy, literature, science, mythology, folklore, history and whatever else is on my reading list at the time. This also means that this is "niche" writing -- if you don't particularly enjoy the occasional intellectual romp, cosmological puzzle, or musings on alchemy to go along with your adventure plot, this is likely not the story for you.
  • Romance and relationships are certainly there, but are somewhat secondary (or at least incorporated into) the plot. Relationship tags are meant to establish the pairings to help people avoid ones they might not want to read about. This is a long fic with a very slow plot build, hence relationships are subject to change over time. Also, while this work is tagged "angst," and while some of the main relationships I write are predictably complicated, none of the primary ones will be abusive, psychologically reprehensible, or "dark." The angst is more about the world state and plot choices -- characters in romantic pairings make mistakes and butt heads, but by and large treat each other decently. If you are in search of romantic angst tinged with eroticized abuse, this story really won't deliver.
  • NSFW chapters are marked with a * in the table of contents
  • Particularly graphic/violent chapters are marked with a ^ in the table of contents

Final note: I am not a professionally-trained writer, so I use this platform to try out different genres and experiment with storytelling. Your comments not only warm my soul -- they also help me improve my writing. I appreciate the intellectual labor and time you put into composing them, and I'll usually respond and "chat back." <3 Happy reading!

Chapter Text

“Stranger, spinner, strewn then spun back from scraps. Stranded. Like me, but different. Oh. I startled you.”

As it turns out, the theatrical hand-to-heart gesture is, in fact, a legitimate response to shocked surprise. Margo forces herself to take a breath, but it gets stuck somewhere on the way. A young man with a messy mop of ash-white hair and large, pale, slightly unfocused blue eyes is crouching in a part of her cell that stood empty seconds ago. His fingers drum an uneven rhythm against the metal bars. When her heart rate slows down from its mad gallop and her brain becomes once again operational, Margo decides that this must be the mythical Cole.

“Hi,” she croaks. Nothing more articulate comes out. “Cole, right? I’ve heard about you. It’s nice to meet you in person.”

“I tried to help, but I made it worse. I’m sorry. Can you help her?”

Margo considers her visitor. There’s something about the boy that feels at once alien and familiar, and the dissonance sets her teeth on edge. Her attention snags on the jerky movements and alliterative speech, but if she turns her head just right and lets Cole stay in her peripheral vision, the discomfort is replaced by an odd sensation of relaxed plenitude. It’s a strange, half-forgotten feeling from childhood, when her parents were still alive and the family would gather around Baba’s kitchen table. She and Jake, Mom, Baba and Uncle Janos, and, on rare occasions, her father. Speaking in four languages across the spread of food, not always in perfect communion, but with enough meaning to go around. To her child’s mind, it was like being inside a perfect bubble, all the rough edges of the world rounded off and tucked in. Safe.

She forces herself to snap out of it. “You mean Evie, right? Yes. I definitely mean to try.”

Cole shifts, and for half a second he seems to disappear. “Help, but not from this side. She doesn’t hear from this side.”

And then, he is gone.

***

The room where they are keeping Evie isn’t much bigger than a closet, but it has a bed, several chairs, and a wash basin — which is more than Margo can say about her own accommodations. It is, however, windowless, and the air is stuffy. The young scout that escorted her to see Torquemada ushers her through the door, then shuts it behind her. At the sight of the room’s three occupants, Margo’s heart leaps. She is greeted with gruff enthusiasm by a visibly aged Master Adan and with an intense, overlong look from Solas. Before she can decide how to negotiate this particular reunion, Adan gives her an awkward one-armed hug, quickly transmuted into vigorous slaps on the back, and then he embarks on a long and crabby jeremiad about Margo abandoning her alchemical duties, where she is actually needed. She nods, by and large in full agreement.

When it is his turn, Solas rises from his seat at the bedside and glides over to stand in front of her. “If greetings are to be exchanged...” After a moment of hesitation, his hands graze her upper arms and settle in a gentle squeeze that lasts a fraction too long for merely friendly. He sports one of his patented contradictory expressions, an odd mixture of concern, amusement, and resignation tracing a vertical line between his brows. “You have returned, despite suggestions to the contrary. Are you unharmed, fenor?” He examines her with mostly clinical attention — searching for residual damage — though his gaze lingers on her lips before he meets her eyes.

“Alive and kicking. I suppose I just couldn’t stay away.” Margo gives the elf a rather pointed look. And while there is now a hint of unease underneath the vertigo of seeing him, Margo can’t quite suppress the small lopsided smirk. Solas’s lips quirk in return, and his fingers tighten. Then he releases her, and begins to pace back and forth, hands clasped at his back.

“We have decreased the dosage of the sleeping potion, as per the spymaster’s orders. I am not certain that this is a wise idea. The magic of the mark remains unstable, and there are fewer factors to account for when the Herald sleeps.”

Margo looks over at Adan for confirmation. The senior alchemist rubs his face and lets out a tired sigh. The skin around his eyes is puffy with the shadows of protracted sleeplessness, and his usually shaved head sports a three-day salt-and-pepper stubble that puts Margo in mind of a bottle brush. “Can’t keep her drugged forever, I suppose. Anyway, the calmative is slow to wear off, so you might as well get comfortable.”

As it turns out, getting comfortable is easier said than done. Their vigil takes them well into the night, though it is difficult to tell with any certainty: the only way to track time is by increasing degrees of exhaustion, hunger, and bladder woes. There is a nook with a rudimentary latrine tucked away behind a curtain, the stench of ammonia in the narrow space so thick you could hammer nails into it. But at least someone thought about privacy. Once back in her seat, Margo buries her face in her hands and closes her eyes. It’s the sort of bone-deep tiredness where no position brings any relief. A sudden rumble makes her look up. At the foot of the bed, where Evie is curled up under a coarse woolen blanket, Master Adan snores, slumped over the side of his chair. On the other side, Solas watches the mark’s chartreuse flickering. His lips are set in a grim line, and he looks as worn as Margo feels.

For a few seconds, she watches the elf, unobserved. There is a new tiredness to his features — the lines that bracket his mouth when he frowns are a little deeper, the skin under his eyes is a shade darker. He seems paler than usual, which draws Margo’s attention to the faint scatter of freckles across his nose. His jaw and cheekbones look more angular, the skin stretched taut.

“Aren’t they feeding you?” Margo asks with a scowl, and then winces. Apparently, his wan appearance activated some atavistic grandmotherly instinct she didn’t realize she had. Right. She’s one flowery kerchief away from turning into Baba.

Solas looks up in surprise, eyebrows raised, but his lips hitch upward at one corner. “Are you asking me whether I eat enough?”

Margo nods. Might as well own it. “Ingrained cultural habits. Next, I’ll likely ask you about your sleep, and then you might want to stop me before I get to the really invasive questions, like whether your stool is regular, and whether you are cleaning your teeth twice a day.”

Solas greets this announcement with something suspiciously close to a snort, followed by the marginally more dignified sounds of throat-clearing. “Ah... I... Do not mistake my surprise for unappreciation — it simply has been some time since anyone inquired about such matters.” Margo identifies the slight tremor of his shoulders as suppressed laughter. Based on the way his lips are quirking around a yet unformulated utterance, she concludes that the elf is about to reciprocate her question, likely to dubious comedic effect.

“I suppose someone has to shoulder the thankless task, then,” she parries quickly.

“I would not wish your concern to be one-sided. Other than digestion and sleep, what topics should one cover in such inquiries?” Solas’s eyes flash with a mischievous little twinkle, but there is a softness to his smile. He pauses, considering her. “Are you truly uninjured?” A hesitation. “Would you speak to me of Redcliffe?”

Margo’s stomach tightens into a painful little knot. She shrugs. “I’m mostly fine. I want a bath. As in a proper, hot bath. With soap. And Redcliffe is... not a short discussion. Have you tried to reach Evie in the Fade?” As far as non sequiturs go, it’s not subtle.

Solas narrows his eyes, looking thoroughly unimpressed by the abrupt change of topic. But then he nods slowly. “I have. I am able to locate the Herald easily enough, but to little effect: I believe she knows me to be there, but she ignores my presence. Cole tried also with little success, and beyond these few attempts, I am reluctant to abandon my post. To modulate the magic of the mark within the Fade would pose a greater challenge.”

“That’s interesting.” Margo cocks her head. Why would this be? And why is he the only one able to affect the mark in the first place? Is it his talent as a healer? Or more fodder for her spirit theory? But there is little time for theoretical discussions. “I met Cole. I think he said that Evie won’t listen on this side either. I’d like to try to talk to her in the Fade first.”

Solas’s expression turns carefully neutral, save for a tightening around his eyes. “It may be preferable to the alternative, though you would have to enter the Fade as would a Dreamer, and not as a spirit. And you would have to exercise caution.”

Margo frowns. “What do you mean?”

“From what I have observed, it would appear that you, much like certain spirits, shape a demesne around yourself within the Dreaming, one that at once expresses and sustains your essence.”

“Is this something that’s limited to spirits?” She turns it over in her head. “What about demons?” Intriguing as this hypothesis is, it seems to miss a crucial problem — why is so much of her Fade landscape tangled up with Baba? She will need to sort out Baba’s identity soon enough.

“Some share this skill, certainly.” Solas leans back in his chair. “For one interested in the Fade, such an ability is fascinating regardless, and I would welcome the opportunity to explore it further alongside you, were you to permit it.” His lips twitch in a near-smile.

Margo wrinkles her nose. He looks entirely too pleased with himself. “Uh-huh. As I recall, you have a rather tactile definition of ‘exploration.’”

“I certainly do not!” The peevishness quickly flips to impishness. “Not exclusively, in any event. I always thought of it as one valid method among many, though should you have recommendations, I would be eager to expand my approach.”

At this point, Margo is pretty sure the conversation has veered away from the technicalities of manipulating the Fade. Her eyes narrow. This is bold, even for him, but she’ll be damned if she lets him have the last word on this one. Margo purses her lips in mock speculation. “Oh? You’re open to methodological revisions? And, hypothetically speaking, you would not object to taking instructions?”

The teasing would probably work better if she weren’t blushing through it.

At least she isn’t alone in her predicament. Solas, clearly caught by surprise, succumbs to more throat-clearing, and the tips of his ears acquire a pinkish hue. He shifts in his seat, inexplicably uncomfortable. When he speaks, his tone is light, though a little too quiet to leave any doubt as to the nature of the topic. “Not in the least. One does strive not to disappoint.”

Margo sighs, the sharp jolt of raw desire washed away by a wave of sudden guilt. Neither of them is young and stupid enough for this, and yet they fall into this dance too easily and always at the exclusion of everything else. “We... got sidetracked. Regarding the Dreaming, have you considered that this shaping of the Fade might be an Avvar technique as well? I got the idea from Amund. I’ll have to ask him if I get the chance.” She tries to rub the exhaustion out of her eyes, but only manages to make them sting more.

Solas remains silent for a few heartbeats, and Margo decides that it would be prudent to look at something more innocuous. A snoring Adan does the trick. Finally, she hears a soft sigh, and when Solas speaks, his tone is warm, but more neutral. “I hope you share what the Avvar says on the subject. He seems... rather skeptical about my intentions and tends to answer my inquiries with mocking obfuscation.”

“Sounds like you have found your match!” Margo chuckles. And then her eyes are drawn to Evie’s sleeping shape, and she breathes through another pang of discomfort. “You said I would have to interact with the Fade in a different way. What do you mean?”

Solas’s eyes drift back to the mark. “Skilled Dreamers walk the Fade instead of shaping it around themselves. They do so without expectations or desires, and thus the Fade remains at rest. It is what permits one to enter the dreams of others or to explore the traces and memories retained in the physical world.”

“The trouble is that by this definition I am certainly not a skilled Dreamer.”

“Dreaming is not a singular talent, fenor. But, in this case, it does not matter whether you are or are not skilled — it matters only that you can tell the Dreaming from the Waking. I should remain here, but Cole could guide you to the Herald. From there it would be in your hands to try to help her. She will not hear us — let us hope she will listen to you.” He gives her a concerned look. “Be cautious. One is rarely alone when wandering the Fade.”

***

It is the same small room, but its edges are blurred, as if someone took an eraser to her peripheral vision but gave up halfway. Being in the Fade without actively shaping it is uncomfortable, and the unease catalyzes into a nervous fluttering in the pit of her stomach.

The room is empty, save for Cole. The young man is rimmed with a silvery nimbus — Margo can discern its glow if she doesn’t look at him directly.

“Quick. We must hurry. I’ll take you to her.” Margo is only mildly surprised when the boy reaches for her hand. “Tiny plant, but deep roots, spread far below the surface. There’s more of you here. You remind me of me, before. It’s... nice. Like cool water on tired feet.”

Margo smiles at this cryptic utterance and clasps his hand. The boy puts her in mind of Goran. Truth be told, she’s grateful for the contact. It distracts her from her own panicked thoughts about the potential consequences of failure.

They walk up a marginally familiar stairway, but its quivering, mirage-like textures preclude definitive identification. And, on the way, they encounter others. If Margo stares at these presences directly, they retain the contours of plausibility: a cat leaping down the corridor, a nondescript elven servant carrying a load of firewood, a moth fluttering by until it finds refuge in a shadowy nook. But as soon as the apparitions pass into Margo’s peripheral vision, they morph, stretching into fantastical and grotesque shapes — glowing, dendritic, barbed, oozing, amorphous... Beings woven of cobwebs and ice, of fire and glass, and others still spun of substances that defy naming or classification. And even then, she gets the feeling that these aren’t their true forms, and that her perception is simply unable to register what they are. Rarely can she spot eyes that are identifiable as such — and when she does, they reveal little of their owners — but she can’t shake the impression that they are being watched.

“Are these spirits?” Margo whispers.

Cole turns to her, his expression placid. “Yes. The many. Almost there.”

They come upon a wooden door.

“Here. She is behind, except further. Trapped, troubled, trailing tears. A difficult child. It was her all along. ” Cole shimmers in agitation. Help her, please!”

Margo’s hand tremble when she reaches for the door handle. What if she says the wrong things? What if Evie won’t listen?

The room is not much more than a monastic cell, its only ornament a large stained-glass mosaic on the back wall, rendered in vibrant reds and yellows. Margo squints, trying to stabilize the image. It looks like the stylized depiction of a decapitated woman above a bearded, vaguely Byzantine-looking fellow of the priestly persuasion — if the combination of a mitre and a brutalist beard are anything to judge by. At the center of the cell, kneeling on a worn woolen rug of an undecided color, is Evie.

Margo tilts her head. At the edges of her vision Evie scatters, reassembles. Kneeling on the rug is a young girl, eleven or twelve perhaps, with long umber hair tumbling down her back in frizzy tangles.

“Hey kiddo,” Margo says quietly.

Evie doesn’t turn.

“Can I come in?” It sounds weak, but what can you do?

Evie doesn’t turn.

Margo pads to the side, but her maneuvers are fruitless. She circumambulates the kneeling figure, but no matter her own position within the cell, Evie’s back remains to her.

Margo sits on the floor and leans against the wall.

“I’ll just stay right here, if you don’t mind. If you want to chat, I’ll listen.”

She doesn’t know how long she sits there. Time trickles, warps on itself, becomes an irrelevant variable.

“And He knew He had wrought amiss.
So the Maker turned from his firstborn
And took from the Fade
A measure of its living flesh—”

Evie’s sing-song interrupts abruptly. Margo shivers. The voice has a strange quality: it is as if it is doubled, an older woman’s deeper timbre overlaying the child’s high notes. “Have you ever heard the Threnodies?”

Margo shakes her head. “No. Tell me?”

A pause. “The Chantry teaches us that the Maker was disappointed with his first children. So he created the Veil and tried again.” Her shoulders rise with a drawn breath.

“Then the Maker said:
'To you, My second-born, I grant this gift:
In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied.
From the Fade I crafted you,
And to the Fade you shall return
Each night in dreams
That you may always remember Me.’”

The young woman falls silent. When she speaks again, her voice is eerily flat. “I wonder whether He ever told them what He wanted. Do you think He said He’d turn them out if they didn’t do as He hoped? I bet it was implied.” She draws a breath. “And then, because the first batch came out not to His liking, He created another type of wretched creature. Us. ‘Unquenchable flame.’ So you can yearn forever for a home you’re banished from?” She pauses. The silence stretches. “What kind of abomination does that to His children?”

Evie turns slowly, and Margo represses a flinch. She looks both impossibly young and impossibly old, with nothing in between: in the features of the young girl Margo can see the crone to come. Evie’s blue eyes are rimmed with red, her cheeks streaked with fresh tears and the silver of old salt tracks.
The affectless facade cracks, shatters like thin ice, and Margo recognizes what it concealed: a profound, nameless fury. “You see it, too, don’t you? He made the Veil, and so we die. If it weren’t for that... everyone could move whenever they wanted. No one would get stuck. Or confused. But no, He willed us to be like moths, or... or...or... little fish, the decorative ones you stick in ponds. So that, in our minuscule, senseless lives, we would not forget Him.” She stops, gulps for air. And then finishes on a hiss. “How could Andraste love such a cruel, pompous, self-indulgent, short-sighted, ill-humored, fickle... such...such... Ugh! Asshat !” She practically growls the last word.

Oy. “Evie, sweetheart... What is this about?” Other than a crisis of faith, of course, but Margo suspects there is more to it than theological anxieties. “What brought this on?”

Evie wipes at her eyes with her sleeve and glares balefully at the floor. “It was me. My doing. My fault.” Her hands ball into angry fists. “The Chantry says that we are all His creatures. Then why would He make me this way? What did I ever do to Him?”

“Slow down, honey. Slow down. What was your fault? Make you what way?” Aside from the fact that, as far as she can tell, it was asshole family members and not any kind of divine providence that made Evie into what she is, Margo tries to decide whether bringing up the Conclave will help or hinder. She opts for the middle way. “I can see you are blaming yourself for something. What is it?”

A choked little laugh escapes the young woman’s lips. “Don’t you see? Aunt Lucille was right all along. The deaths. All the deaths. All the way from the beginning. Mom, and the others — Millie, and Lauren... and Graham. I don’t think he ever grew up from being a baby, now that I think about it. It was me . I didn’t know...” Evie’s voice breaks on a sob. She shakes her head; presses her lips into a thin line; wipes at her nose with a loud, furious sniff. “I know why you’re here. Because I have to go back. To close the Breach.” Evie’s voice grows fierce, her face twisting with a combination of anger and intransigence. “Maybe we shouldn’t close it. Maybe we should expand it. Do away with the whole stupid thing. See how He likes that .”

Margo’s eyes widen in realization. Of course. Genitivi had a passage about this. “The first children, that’s spirits, right? That’s what the Chantry claims?”

Evie nods and clutches her hands in her lap. Despite her wrath, she is slowly shedding her discordant doubling and coalescing back into something closer to her normal Waking avatar. A young woman under unimaginable stress.

“And you care about them? The spirits? Or you care that they got ‘locked away’?”

“We’re all locked away! But yes. I care. Wouldn’t you? They didn’t ask for any of it. They didn’t even ask to be created in the first place. They didn’t try to shape the world. It was fine, as far as they were concerned. They just were. Why wasn’t that enough?” Evie’s jaw tightens. By the end of the sentence, she’s practically screaming. “Why aren’t we enough?”

Margo sighs. “You’re right. No one asked for any of it.” Oh, but she is so utterly ill-equipped to have this kind of conversation. Her own amorphous, intellectualized spiritualism never produced the sort of cosmological angst that a profound religiosity ingrained from early childhood can generate. Well. She’d better step up to the plate. “Evie, I don’t think the Veil is what causes us to be mortal.” Margo stops abruptly, a hair away from using her own world as a counterexample. Instead, she takes a deep breath. “Take plants. They still seed, grow, die. Animals, too. Some are incredibly long-lived, some are not. I think it’d happen even if the Veil weren’t there. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes, all the time.” She is about to say “all that is solid melts into air” and then almost snorts at the surreal impulse. Quoting Marx for a religious debate on transience a universe away from hers is truly the pinnacle of absurdity. “Evie, the Breach hurts both sides. And you can fix that.”

The young woman says nothing for a long time.

“All this time... How was I to know there was a difference? I never saw a difference. No one ever told me. And then they made me forget, tucked it all away. Why couldn’t I just go to the Circle, like my sister? None of this would have happened, then. And everyone would still be alive.” With a deep breath, Evie draws herself up, shoulders unfurling. Her chin is tilted at a defiant angle. “I’ve heard what they’re saying. About what to do with me. At least if I were Tranquil I wouldn’t have to think about any of it. It wouldn’t hurt.”

Margo shakes her head, trying to dislodge the cobwebs. With this way of being in the Dreaming, it is a challenge to not simply accept the nonsensical parts of Evie’s speech at face value, and it takes all of Margo’s attention to keep the important threads in focus without glossing over them in mindless agreement. She knows she’s missing things, but the thoughts slip away. Focus , she orders herself. There, something tangible — the impulse to give up. That she can understand. “Sweetheart, from what I can tell, Tranquility is not the refuge you think it is. If the mark retains its power, you’ll be turned into an instrument, or a weapon, always to be wielded by someone else.”

“I am already an instrument!” Evie’s voice rises and breaks, and Margo draws back at the sheer wrath of her. “A mindless thing, with no voice! ‘Mind your manners! Don’t ask questions! Sit up straight! Look pretty! Bear children! Close the Breach!’” The young woman is practically vibrating with fury.

Something flickers in the doorway. Margo spots a rat scurrying by — but then her peripheral vision catches a familiar shape: air and fire and molten glass. Ifrit .

Let me in.

Quickly, on instinct, she scoots closer to Evie and puts one arm then the other around the girl’s shoulders. Evie flinches, sniffles, and wipes angrily at the tears spilling down her cheeks.

“Well that just won’t do, will it?” Margo’s voice is soothing but matter-of-fact — she somehow manages to keep the tremble of terror out of it. She hugs Evie, gingerly at first, then more fiercely. The young woman bristles and resists, and then, as if all the energy is drained out of her along with her anger, her body softens and she huddles into the embrace, curling up into a little ball. Margo strokes the girl’s hair and rocks her back and forth in a gentle, swaying motion.

She casts her eyes towards the doorway. It is clear of visitors.

“‘ Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him,’” Evie grumbles into Margo’s sleeve. It’s more surly than angry. “I’ll always be serving .”

“Well, letting them make you Tranquil is certainly no way to break out of that cycle, is it? Then you wouldn’t even have a say in whom you serve.”

“Maybe it’ll make the mark go away.” Evie’s voice is tiny.

“Even if it did, it would mean that the Breach would reopen eventually, and countless beings would suffer.”

Evie sighs quietly. “I wasn’t supposed to be at the Conclave, but Max said he’d keep an eye on me, and Bann Trevelyan thought I needed to be seen ‘ in a political setting .’ That it would be good ‘ for my prospects .’” She spits out the citations like something unpalatable. “The only reason I even wandered into that horrible room was because my monthlies started, and I was looking for a privy. And Divine called out for me to help, but instead... All those people. It was my fault. Andraste... At least Max had to leave to meet the dwarven traders that day... If he hadn’t... I could never...”

“Shh. None of us choose it, Evie. We’re all stumbling through it as best we can.”

The girl looks up. “When I wake up, there’s going to be a big public thing, isn’t there? I’ll be accused of being an apostate. And of killing hundreds of people.” She pauses. “It’s all true, you know.”

There is a time for coddling, and then there is a time for straight talk. “Maybe. But that’s not the problem. They will accuse you of being an untrained mage. They’ll say you might turn into an abomination. And then they will try to turn you into something they can deploy for their own purposes. Not... you know. For the benefit of all living beings.” Margo pivots a little so that she can meet Evie’s gaze. “You will have to prove them wrong. Do you have any control over your magic?”

Evie flinches away from the word as if Margo had hit her.

“Your abilities. Can you control them?”

At length, Evie straightens up from her fetal position, and gives Margo a cagey little look. “I...” She pauses, mulling something over. “I always thought they were just stories. Fables, you know. Prayers. That sort of thing. So I could sleep easier.”

“Whatever tools you have at your disposal, kiddo, you’re going to need to use them all.”

Evie looks up. “They will think me monstrous.”

Margo is pleased to note there is no self-pity in the statement. It’s a pragmatic observation. She takes hold of Evie’s hand, and squeezes it. The mark flashes green under her palm.

“Then decide what kind of monster you are going to be.”

Chapter Text

They call it a “hearing” instead of a “trial.” It’s a small but hard-won concession, one for which, Margo guesses, Josephine likely fought with all the power of her diplomatic charm and political acumen. Whatever they want to call it, the process stretches from late morning well into the afternoon. And it may not be a trial in its modern definition of the term, but there is no doubt that the large crowd assembled inside the nave — a soaring, cavernous hall lit with the fractured colors of seven stained glass windows that fan out beneath the chantry’s dome — is waiting for justice to be meted with increasing impatience.

They remind her of vultures.

The dais is wide enough to accommodate a truly populous and eclectic assortment of characters. From her seat on the “witness bench,” Margo watches the clerics in their heinous robes and even more heinous hats — the more preposterous the hat, the higher the cleric is on the ecclesiastical totem pole, it seems. Over the course of the afternoon, Margo learns that the two in front — a man with the broken capillaries of a habitual drinker, and a middle-aged woman with a pasty complexion and beady little eyes — are, respectively, Grand Chancellor Roderick and Mother Agrippina. An additional two dozen or so ecru robes dot the assembled crowd. Next to the Chantry representatives, a pair of nobles in fussy, expensive-looking outfits whisper to each other, their heads bent close together. To their left, the Inquisition leadership trifecta — Cassandra is not among them — looks grim.

At one end of the low, hard-backed bench into which their ragtag crew has been sardined, Cole taps his foot against the stones in time with a rhythm only he can hear. Next to him Solas stares at the unfolding circus, his perfect posture and stony expression leaving very little doubt as to his take on the proceedings. Margo feels his shoulder pressed against hers, an abrupt reminder of how much more solid bodies are on the Waking side. On the other side of her, Varric leans back, ankle propped on a knee. The pose garners him an assortment of outraged glares from the nearby clerics, but he just smirks like they owe him money. Bracketing off their ill-assembled crew, Cassandra radiates such regal contempt that Margo decides that Varric’s claims that the Seeker is, in fact, Nevarran royalty are not just artistic embellishments. Except for the dwarf, all of their knees stick out too high — either the bench is of dwarven design, or it has been repurposed from a kneeling pew to reflect their current social position.

“Please bring the accused forward.”

The speaker — a tall, grizzled noble with an aquiline nose and a large port-wine stain on his cheek — was introduced by Josephine as Lord Evernase. Using the nobles as arbiters is another hard-won compromise, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that letting the Chantry have at it would have turned this into a Salem witch trial faster than you can say “consorting with demons.”

Evie, in a drab, colorless shift so long it almost conceals her bare toes, is led to the foot of the dais from her position in a makeshift cage at the side of the room, from which she was forced to listen to the accusations and testimonies mounted against her throughout the afternoon.

“There’s Ser Barris,” Varric whispers, and he points his chin at the templar who serves as Evie’s escort. Margo notes that his hold on the young woman is cautious — under different circumstances, it might look like he is offering her his arm for support. Of course, every aspect of the process — down to Evie’s outfit and the very exact things each of them is meant to say if called upon — has been carefully arranged in advance. Choreographed, indeed. Torquemada, as it turns out, likes to micromanage. No great surprise, that.

Evie comes to stand a few feet away from the platform — a short, fragile-looking young woman in a plain dress that is one step away from a nun’s habit. Her hands, pale and delicate, are clasped in front of her.

“Lady Evelyn Trevelyan.” Based on the tone, the address is not meant as a honorific. “You have already heard the accusations of apostasy, murder, and assault on Chantry property leveled against you. Most of the testimonies supporting them have been shared.” The noble crosses his arms over his brocaded chest. “What say you in your defense?”

“Lord Evernase, I wish to remind you that Lady Trevelyan has not been accused of anything as of yet, technically speaking. We are here to establish whether there are grounds for advancing such accusations in the first place, and hence whether there is cause for conducting a formal trial at a later date.”

“You are splitting hairs, Ambassador Montilyet, but very well. Let me rephrase it.”

“What is there to rephrase?” Chancellor Roderick’s particular brand of nasal pomposity would be especially at home in the visa department of a consulate. “We are here because one of this Inquisition’s very own founders, Seeker Pentaghast, reported that the girl is very likely an untrained mage, an apostate concealed by her family — while, I might add, other noble houses ungrudgingly fulfilled their duty. An apostate whose unchecked magic caused the death of the Divine and obliterated the Conclave. An apostate who now demands that the Templar order turn from its rightful service to the Chantry and pledge itself to this Inquisition. An apostate who has the temerity to claim that she is the Herald of Andraste! If this assembly and my lords remain unconvinced, I urge us to call in more witnesses. Let us interrogate Seeker Pentaghast’s associates next.”

“I think we have heard plenty as it is, chancellor, much of it from you.” The other noble — a woman in her fifties with pale red hair piled on her head in a plaited crown — taps a sharp, curved fingernail against the armrest of her chair.

“Speak louder! We can’t hear in the back!” someone pipes up from the crowd.

“Silence!” Commander Rutherford glares daggers in the general direction of the offending audience member.

Roderick makes a sour face. “Lady Vigard, with all due respect for your husband’s service...”

The noblewoman raises one perfectly tweezed eyebrow. “Chancellor, forgive me, but I fear that my humble intellect fails to follow the twists and turns of your rhetoric — what does my husband have to do with any of this? Insofar as both parties agreed to have Lord Evernase and me serve as arbiters, allow me to return us to the problem at hand. Seeker Pentaghast told us her report was a fabrication, designed to reveal spies within the Inquisition. While I would counsel the Seeker to be more discerning in the sort of rumors she circulates, the problems the Inquisition has with its internal organization are not our affair. While I cannot fault you for your religious fervor or your desire to investigate every rumor of apostasy, chancellor, it is my opinion that the matter is quite simple. Either Lady Trevelyan is a threat, or she is not. And while I agree with you that an untrained mage can be dangerous, I, for one, have seen no confirmation of her being a mage in the first place.”

“Have you not been paying attention, Lady Vigard?” Mother Agrippina’s voice is bitter as vinegar. “All afternoon we have heard from witnesses from Therinfal, demonstrating plainly that the girl used magic. And, besides, surely your own eyes should furnish the necessary evidence: what do you call this mark on her hand? Or her ability to close the rifts? What else could she be but a mage? One whose magic caused—”

Lady Vigard pivots to the Chantry mother with an amiable smile that never makes it to the upper half of her face. “Have I mentioned that I had a son in the Kirkwall Circle, revered mother? Before it was annulled , of course. He was a kind, gentle lad and wrote regularly. From his letters, I have a passing understanding of the schools of magic, and I would venture that this mark fits none of them. But by all means, do not take a foolish old woman’s word for it. Let us ask Madame de Fer, since we are lucky to have her present — Vivienne, looking lovely as always, would you come closer, dear?”

Margo watches the Iron Lady glide towards the dais with the grace of a well-fed cobra. “I wish it were under less unpleasant circumstances, Chantale. I fully support your assessment. I have had the opportunity to observe the magic of the mark, and it is fundamentally distinct from anything we know. It does not prove Evelyn to be a mage.”

“Madame de Fer is a member of the Inquisition. Of course she would say this.”

“Oh, let us ask some other mages, then. The elven apostate, where is he? Ah, yes. And the Tevinter lad. Young men, do come forward.”

Margo would bet good money that the little noise Solas makes at the back of his throat is a growl, but he gets up and comes to stand next to Vivienne, a few feet behind Evie. Dorian saunters over from the opposite side of the room — he catches Margo’s gaze and winks.

“Does this mark prove that Evelyn Trevelyan is a mage? Elf, what say you?”

“Whatever magic opened the Breach in the sky also placed that mark on the Herald’s hand. The magic involved here is unlike any I have seen. Indeed, I find it difficult to imagine any mage having such powers. Whatever the Herald is, I doubt the mark can serve as proof of anything but itself.”

“And you would trust an elven apostate—”

“Certainly not, Chancellor, I propose we ask the Tevinter mage next. He is not formally a member, is he, Josephine?”

Roderick inflates like a puffer fish. “Are you mocking me, Lady Vigard?”

“Perish the thought. Lad?”

“Altus, if we are being technical. I would like to corroborate my colleagues’ opinions. Whatever magic is contained in the mark bears no resemblance to even the most daring experiments I have witnessed in Tevinter — in case you happen to be interested in a comparative approach.”

Margo suppresses a grin. Securing this Lady Vigard as the referee was pure genius — she wonders who should take the credit, Torquemada or Josie. Her money is on the ambassador.

“But it disproves nothing.” The Chancellor turns an unhealthy shade of beet. “Like attracts like, as well we know. Perhaps whatever magic is contained in the mark was drawn to the girl because she herself is a mage.”

“This is ridiculous, Chancellor, even for you. There were hundreds of actual mages at the Conclave!”

“Seeker Pentaghast, I will be grateful if you refrain from speaking out of turn.” Evernase presses his lips into an irascible scowl. “Lady Vigard, you have made your point. I am disinclined to consider the mark as sufficient evidence to identify the accused as a mage. The mages can go sit.” He waves his hand in dismissal. “In my opinion, there is a much simpler way to verify her status. A mage’s reaction to the templar smite is well documented.”

“We have witnesses suggesting that she is immune.” Mother Agrippina glares down at Evie.

“We have witnesses who suggest that Lady Trevelyan arrived to Therinfal on the back of a high dragon and made demons dance a jig, revered mother. I for one am no longer in the mood for tall tales. Or witnesses. Could we have a volunteer, please?”

Margo watches Ser Barris grapple with the decision to offer his services, but another templar beats him to it. He’s a tall, heavyset fellow with the ruddy complexion of someone who spends time outdoors and enjoys his wine and rich food. There is a cruel twist to his smirk as he steps forward. At the sight of him, Evie flinches — it’s a small movement but still noticeable.

“Would be my pleasure,” he drawls.

Lady Vigard observes the volunteer like he’s something she stepped into. “What is your name, templar?”

“Ser Brinley, ma’am.”

“I have very little patience for showmanship, Ser Brinley. Be done with it.”

The templar strolls over to Evie, and Margo feels her muscles tense in fear. But before she can so much as blink, the armored bastard throws his arms to the sides and bellows. The telltale golden light bursts from him in an expanding circle that dissipates a half-dozen feet away from its armored epicenter.

Lady Vigard rolls her eyes and pretends to stifle a yawn. So much for no showmanship.

The crowd whispers as the occupants of the dais lean forward, watching for a reaction.

Evie remains standing. If she is affected, there are no indications of it.

“Well, there we have it. If she were a mage, she would be crumpled on the floor. Anything else you would like to verify, chancellor?” Lady Vigard beams her faux-amiable smile at the clerics.

“It disproves nothing, except for potentially corroborating some of the rumors Lord Evernase finds so far-fetched.” Mother Agrippina interlaces her fingers and leans forward, every bit the turkey vulture. “We should test another one of them while we have the services of this soldier. Let us see if there is any basis to this talk of a curse that deflects misfortune. Ser Brinley, was it? Would you kindly hit the accused, please?”

Roderick has the decency to look a little shocked at this. “That is not...

Ser Brinley never hesitates. Before Evie has so much as a chance to try to defend herself or deflect the blow, the templar backhands her, the gesture oddly casual — as if the armored asshat had long since made the task of hitting unarmed women part of his morning routine. He isn’t wearing gloves, but the impact is violent enough without them. Evie’s head snaps back, a spray of crimson droplets fanning out from her broken lip and painting a perversely neat half-circle on the stones. She stumbles and sways, and then her legs give out, and she collapses to the floor in a heap.

Commander Rutherford and Torquemada jump to their feet simultaneously. There is a knife in the spymaster’s hand that was not there a second before.

“That is quite enough!” Lady Vigard looks utterly livid. “We will not devolve into-”

It all happens too fast. Lady Vigard doesn’t get the chance to expound on whatever they risk devolving into, because suddenly the templar bellows, “Now!” He lunges for Evie, yanking her up by the hair. Four figures detach themselves from the crowd and take off at a dead run towards them. Two are wearing Chantry robes. Margo only has time to notice the man directly across from her. He is not young — perhaps in his late thirties, with patchy russet stubble and pockmarked skin. She spots a vicious-looking dagger in his left hand: its metal catches the reddish light filtering through the stained glass window — the window’s mosaic the same design as the one in Evie’s Fade cell.

“We’ve seen your foul magic, apostate bitch ! End her!”

Solas springs to his feet and in the next instant is shoved roughly back onto the bench by a templar who seems to have appeared from nowhere. “Keep in line, mage — don’t let me do something you’ll regret.” And then the templar smites him. It is as if the invisible threads that animated the elf are severed, and he slumps against Margo, an eerie slackness to his features.

“Shit.” Varric jumps up on the bench and reaches for Bianca in one fluid motion, but his fingers grasp empty air — weapons were not allowed into the nave. Except, apparently, for the would-be killers — and the spymaster — who disregarded the memo.

Margo does the obvious thing — since this particular templar is only wearing light armor and she is perfectly positioned for it, she leans back and kicks the bastard in the crotch. The laws of physics and his anatomy propel him downward with a howl. Cassandra bounds to the templar and encourages his earthbound trajectory with a swift elbow to the back of the neck.

Cole must have disregarded the no-weapons memo as well, because he is suddenly crouching next to the templar, dagger in hand.

“Wait! We will need to interrogate him!” Cassandra’s warning is a second too late. A pool of crimson spreads over the polished gray granite of the chantry floor.

Cole vanishes and reappears in the center of the room, which has a scuffle of its own underway. Commander Rutherford, armed with a hefty-looking candleholder, is bludgeoning one of the assailants. The rest of them are variously engaged with Ser Barris, Torquemada, and now Cole. On the other side of the room, Dorian and Vivienne are both stirring faintly on the floor — victims of smites — so there is no hope of help from that side. Margo spots Blackwall elbowing his way to the front of the crowd, but his progress is impeded by a mass of confused gawkers, all trying to get a better look at what is happening ahead. She is still holding Solas upright — the elf turns out to be heavier than he appears. He comes back to himself with a start and bares his teeth in a feral snarl. “The Herald!” he hisses, tries to get to his feet, but his body isn’t obeying yet.

The templar still has Evie. She struggles against him, but her kicks to his armored shins produce no effect. He is unarmed, but it does not stop him — with a scream of rage, he grabs hold of her hand, twisting it at an unnatural angle as if he is trying to dislocate it.

As it turns out, this is the last mistake he makes. The mark flares to life. Ser Brinley stumbles back in surprise and briefly releases his captive. Above him, under the soaring dome of the nave, the sound of cracking plaster.

In the next instant, the templar is crushed under an intricately ornate chandelier.

The violence stops as suddenly as it erupted, and, in the wake of the deafening clatter of the falling light fixture, the hall descends into shocked silence.

None of the aspiring murderers are alive.

“Well, then. Commander, Lady Nightingale, kindly regain your seats.” The noblewoman’s voice quivers only slightly. Margo decides that she would like to be Lady Vigard when she grows up. “We will deal with this in an orderly fashion. I will not have a stampede. If there are more would-be assassins in the crowd, kindly do step forward.”

There must be more of them — more templars who were in on the plot, judging by the coordinated smites — but none make themselves known.

“Do you see now?” Mother Agrippina is flushed with a kind of transcendent, zealous rage. ”She caused Ser Brinley’s death! I know you are a mage, Trevelyan. An abomination! Your very existence an offense to the Maker!”

Slowly, as if something animated by invisible clockwork, Evelyn Trevelyan rises to her feet.

“To me, Templars! Smite her!” Spittle flies from the Revered Mother’s lips. “End her before she causes more deaths! Such a thing has no right to live!”

Evie’s hair, dull and frizzy with the grime of bedridden confinement, hangs over her face in limp strands, but beneath the long fringe Margo spots a flash of cobalt. She shudders. Something has changed. Pieces, jagged and broken, are rearranging themselves into unfamiliar patterns. For a second, the young woman reminds her of one of those ghostly, ghastly specters that Japanese horror films tend to represent as adolescent girls in long, grimy nightgowns. Her mind flashes to Dorian’s nightmarish spells, the inarticulate dread of a world in disarray, a void, a chaos so profound it has no name or even the possibility of language.

The crowd stills, as if all assembled decide to hold their breath at once.

Evie looks up, her eyes a dark, blazing blue. Her lips, bloody and swollen from the templar’s blow, move in an inaudible incantation.

A subtle tremor snakes its way up Margo’s calfs, and it takes her a few seconds to realize that it isn’t her trembling, but the ground itself. And then, with a deep, almost subsonic rumble, the paving stones in the center of the hall begin to move.

“What is happening?” someone cries out. Around the room, the sounds of bodies shifting, deciding whether to flee or come for a closer look. At least Solas seems to have regained his faculties. His eyebrows are drawn in a deep frown, but his fingers move, and the misty coolness of the barrier spell brushes Margo’s skin with its iodine tang. At the opposite side of the hall, Dorian and Vivienne, now upright, follow suit with their own barriers.

“Well, shit.” Varric swears, almost pensively. “And here I thought this couldn’t get any worse.” Cassandra tenses, adopting a defensive stance — or at least as much of one as her unarmored state allows. The dwarf and the Seeker pivot slightly, unconsciously, to stand back to back — a habit born of the subtle intimacies of the battlefield.

And then, abruptly, Evie finds her voice. It carries and reverberates, sweet, haunting like the call of some small nocturnal bird — and all the more terrible for its sweetness. Margo’s breath catches. There is no mistaking her words for what they are. A prayer.

“Maker, though I am but one, I have called in Your Name,
And those who come to serve will know Your Glory.”

With a groan, a large stone plate in the center of the room wobbles — tentatively, almost shyly at first — and then flies five feet into the air, crashes down, and splinters into fragments with a cloud of mineral dust and a bang like a mortar shot. Those closest to it recoil, faces twisted with fear.

“They will see what can be gained,
And though we are few against the wind, we are Yours.”

A gust — cold and dry and breathing of the sepulcher — blasts through the hall, buffeting hems and tapestries and blowing Evie’s hair away from her face to reveal her expression. It is calm and severe, ethereal in its otherworldly stillness, like one of those old icons of saints Baba kept on her strangely eclectic altar, their solemnly watchful almond-shaped eyes always following you in unfathomable judgement.

At Evie’s back, unpleasant noises emanate from below the surface: something dry and brittle snapping, something viscous and clumpy churning — sounds of offal hitting the concrete floor of an abattoir. Something being dragged. A sickening sort of shuffling.

Margo pushes down a sudden wave of nausea.

“Though I am flesh, Your Light is ever present,
And those I have called, they remember,
And they shall endure.”

In the gaping hole of the grave — and Margo’s historian training kindly supplies the only possible conclusion, that the temple has been built atop a charnel house or a mass burial — a flicker of white. A hand, its flesh partially eaten away by decomposition and the rest mummified into a dark, leathery claw, grips the edge and gropes about, blind and inhumanly fast, with a sound like rodent feet scuttling on tile.

A strange, itchy sense of dislocation pulls at Margo’s insides, coursing through her body in the dull ache of fever.

“I shall sing with them the Chant, and all will know,
We are Yours, and none shall stand before us.”

Evie’s voice, melodic as a silver bell, carries on the putrid wind.

Leliana, her expression a strange mask of exultation and terror, backs away towards the dais. Josephine is pale beneath her brown skin, her hands clasped together in front of her heart. Cullen considers the candleholder in his hands, his scarred knuckles white against the metal, and then he watches with a mixture of horror and awe as Evie steps forward. Her hand glows green, but the mark seems like such a minor matter at that moment. In the rays of the setting sun that filter through the stained glass, Evie’s head appears crowned in a fiery nimbus.

“Though all before me is shadow,
Yet shall the Maker be my guide.”

The dead erupt from the grave with the speed of cockroaches. For a surreal moment, Margo is struck by a sense of ridiculous annoyance at the fact that so many zombie movies got it wrong. The hollow-eyed, partially rotten things congregating in a swaying, rippling tide around Evie do not groan, or growl, or make any kind of sound beyond the involuntary noises of their decayed carnality. They do not mill about aimlessly like the undead shits in the Foul Mire. They do not gnash their teeth or try to eat anyone’s brains. Their movements are economical and purposeful, almost botanical yet fast, like so many sunflowers filmed in timelapse, turning as one with the light. Vaguely, Margo wonders at their partial state of decomposition. They’re remarkably well-preserved.

Pain so sharp that Margo’s vision blurs to white around the edges spikes through her head. She sways and grips at the bench to keep herself from pitching forward.

“I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond.”

The bodies of the would-be murderers, still strewn around Evie, begin to twitch, their movements jerky and unnatural, as if something is pulling them on like ill-fitting garments. The cadaver of Ser Brinley crawls its way from underneath the twisted metal of the chandelier, leaving a trail of gore behind it, and stumbles to its feet with the wobbly uncertainty of a newborn calf. Its head has been partially severed and flops to the side, attached to the neck only by a narrow strip of torn flesh. The former templar takes a hold of the lolling, bloodied globe, rips it off the rest of the way in a quick twist, and then drops it between its feet with a sickening smack.

Someone screams. At the back of the room, a mass exodus begins, the audience trying to flee the premises.

Margo wipes at a warm trickle under her nose, her mind flailing, fracturing. Her hand comes away slick with red. The pain that washes over her has no equivalent. It is as if her insides are being peeled apart in layers. She’s startled to realize the strangled moan is hers. The world careens off kilter, but then stops, rights itself. She looks up through the fog. Solas is holding her upright, his expression close to panic. She can feel the short warm bursts of his breath against her cheek. On the other side of him, Cole — who wasn’t there a second ago — is paler even than usual.

“She shines darkly. She pulls. I can’t... It hurts...”

Margo feels herself being maneuvered towards the young man- qua -spirit.

“Cole, you must get out of range. The both of you. Please!” Solas’s tone is clipped.

“She pulls. I can’t...”

“Now, Cole. Please!”

“Not safe, not far enough. Too hard...”

“Now!”

Margo isn’t sure what happens next. A feeling of fabric being dragged across her face, a wobble to the world, as if someone forcibly rearranges the system of coordinates, and then she finds herself some twenty feet in the air, on what she identifies, vaguely, as some kind of decorative ledge. She clings to Cole, and he to her, an odd pair, a strange Hansel and Gretel. But the awful, incomprehensible pain of being pulled apart from within is gone, and Margo tucks her face against Cole’s shoulder and lets out a relieved sob.

“Maker’s Breath, put an end to her! Stop this blasphemy!” Below them, Mother Agrippina is shaking with terror and fury.

From her perch, Margo sees the dead turn towards the cleric as if a single organism, hollow sockets holding no malice or anger, only the bottomless, cosmic indifference of empty space.

And then they swarm.

The room explodes in screams and hurried movements, but before violence can break out in earnest, Evie raises her hand, index and middle fingers extended in a perverse benediction.

“Stop!” Her voice is smooth, polished silver. For there is no darkness in the Maker’s Light.”

The corpses come to an abrupt halt.

“Please!” Margo’s head snaps towards the plea. Solas, his features strained with a mixture of anguish and revulsion barely contained beneath the fragments of a mask too costly to hold in place, fixes Evie with a gaze that is one shade away from supplication. In the painted rays of the setting sun, his eyes flash amethyst. “You are drawing spirits to animate the dead! Please, Herald, stop! Before you bind them to the corpses...”

Evie looks at Solas with that strange, severe indifference, as if balancing some incomprehensible scales and finding him abstractly lacking. She turns her gaze towards the stained glass mosaic of the beheaded woman.

“And nothing that He has wrought shall be lost,” she declaims coolly. Her hand, still raised, slowly drifts down, and, at the end of its trajectory, hangs limply at her side.

In the deafening silence that descends over the hall, a single whisper rings out like a gunshot. “ Death mage.”

“Do you see now !” Mother Agrippina appears to have regained her faculties. Unsurprisingly, the first one to return is the capacity to spew venom.

The dead snap to attention, pivoting their heads in the direction of the voice. Mother Agrippina recoils.

“You find this frightful, revered mother?” Evie’s eyes, huge and blazing with a kind of otherworldly triumph, flick over Cullen, skim over Leliana and Josephine, and then fasten on the clerics. Her chest rises and falls rapidly. She bites out the next words. “Oh, but so you should . You wish me an incompetent mage, so that the suffering I could cause can confirm your own necessity. You eagerly await that I succumb to the promises of demons. You would brand me, muzzle me. Yet you greedily demand a demonstration of power?” A nagging sense of the uncanny claws at Margo’s perception. If Evie ever had problems with language, she no longer does. There is a melodic, sing-song quality to her voice. “I hope this satisfies. It is not mine . I claim it not. For I am but a humble tool in the hands of our Maker.”

Evie draws a hissing breath and raises her hand. “ O Creator, see me kneel. ” Her back is ramrod straight, her head held high, defiant. An ugly bruise is spreading over her cheek.

The dead take a slow, lumbering step backward.

For I walk only where You would bid me .”

A collective shudder goes through the corpses. A stumble, then two, then several more, as if they are being pulled by invisible strings, their progression independent of the way they are facing.

Stand only in places You have blessed.

The swarm ebbs and sways at the edge of their collective grave, their crumbling, desiccated faces twisting towards Evie at unnatural, impossible angles. The fresher corpses mix in with their mummified brethren, flashes of red and white in the mass of leathery brown.

“Sing only the words You place in my throat.”

With a rustle of moribund skin and sinew, they collapse backward, discarded, gristle, skin and bone crumbling back into the hollow of the earth. For a second, before the vision dissipates, Margo can feel another invisible swarm released from the harbor of dead flesh. Spirits. They scatter but do not manifest into hostility. Below them, she sees Solas’s shoulders relax in almost palpable relief. One spirit, with a texture like vapor and cobwebs, soars upward, and brushes against Margo’s legs, just on the other side of the visible. She is pretty sure it’s one of those wispy numbers that spews green ectoplasm. Margo draws back and Cole’s grip on her forearm tightens, stabilizing her on the ledge. Solas looks up and catches her gaze, and Margo’s nose fills with the scent of the ocean. Apparently, the elf remembers her tendency to plummet to her death.

“What accursed demon taught you such unholy magic, wretched child?” Mother Agrippina shrieks.

For a few long heartbeats, Evie simply observes the cleric with an indecipherable expression.

“Andraste did, revered mother.”

Chapter Text

Later (much later), after Haven burns; after she adds the terms “Blight” and “Darkspawn” to her ever-expanding cabinet of dreadful curiosities; later, when the sight of the dead bloated with frost turns into a bleak routine; later, huddled into a bed of fir needles and furs, listening to her companion’s breath deepen with sleep, her skin still tingling with the ghost of his touch; later, when there is nothing but the indifferent howls of the wind outside and the leaden weight of a choice that cannot be unmade... later, Margo will think of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. She will ponder that strange creature, the angel of history forever locked into its retrospective gaze, and the curse of recognizing the world-historical shift as it happens — that awful feeling of events etching themselves into a future yet to unfold, where the present swells with its own unavoidable but unknowable trajectory. Later, long past the point of no return, in the predawn darkness of a lost mountain pass, with hours of fretful restlessness behind her, moments before her lover pulls her closer with a soft, sleepy whisper, his lips trailing a path from the hollow beneath her ear to the tilde of her clavicle and his eyes dark with the promise of a temporary reprieve from the tyranny of their respective ghosts; later, in the dead spaces between more immediate thoughts, it will not be the risen corpses that she remembers most vividly. Nor will her mind summon the memory of the templars, Ser Barris their self-appointed leader, who surround Evelyn Trevelyan in a protective ring of steel — a jagged crown of flaming swords for Andraste’s Chosen, one that the Herald will wear henceforth and into the pages of history. No. What will stay with her is the look that passes between Leliana and Cassandra — a silent exchange distorted into infinity, like the endless hallway between two opposing mirrors. In that moment, at the fork in the path that will alter their world, the two women appear to Margo as they truly are: two halves of the same playing card.

But all of this comes later.

The last rays of the winter sun wink out of existence, and the nave fills with shadows and the unsteady flicker of a thousand candles. The silence is broken by the rhythmic clanking of steel, as templars one by one file after Ser Barris into a circular formation around Evie. Ser Barris gestures with his hand, and his comrades in arms as one take a knee, their heads bent low, their fists over their hearts.

“We hereby pledge our lives to the Herald of Andraste.” A chorus of voices, synchronized in a deceptively simple oath. Whispers in the audience, incredulous looks.

Evie asks them to rise, and they obey, pivoting outward, their backs to the young woman. Margo counts nine silent sentinels, five men and four women. Two are around Evie’s age, but most are older. Ser Barris looks like he might be in his early thirties. The oldest templar — wide, stocky, with a shock of ash-gray hair sharply offset by her bronze skin — appears closer to fifty. Ser Barris and Commander Cullen exchange a brief nod of acknowledgement.

“Templars, do not abase yourselves before yet another false prophet who would not hesitate—”

“Revered Mother Agrippina.” The spymaster’s voice slices off the rest of the utterance. “You have forfeited any right to speak in these hallowed halls.”

The cleric’s lips thin out into a bloodless line. “I represent the Chantry’s authority here, and I will not allow this awful little creature—”

A small smile touches Torquemada’s lips, but it could be the effect of the light. “Tell me, revered mother... I cannot help but wonder. Do you have any previous acquaintance with Lady Trevelyan?”

“What exactly are you suggesting?”

“With all due respect, revered mother...” The Commander’s tone makes a mockery of the superficially polite formula. Margo watches the former templar carefully set his weaponized candelabra on the ground and march towards the dais. He is holding a small scrap of something white between thumb and forefinger. He hands it over to the spymaster with a curt nod and a stony expression. “I recommend you keep quiet.”

Josephine comes to stand next to Torquemada, leans in to see the writing on the shred of vellum, and lets out what is undoubtedly a very carefully calibrated exclamation of shock.

The spymaster turns to Cullen with a raptorial nod. “Commander, you know what to do.” Ice creeps down Margo’s spine. The irony, of course, is that the vellum could be a recipe for rice pudding, for all it would matter. She supposes that this is what Torquemada meant by The Game.

Cullen raises his hand. A pair of soldiers steps forward. “Mother Agrippina, you are under arrest for conspiracy against the Herald of Andraste and the Inquisition, and for instigating an attempted assassination.”

A collective gasp rustles over the crowd.

Cassandra joins Cullen by the dais, as dark as her shadow in the unsteady glow.

“Slander! You can’t prove anything! You have no authority here!” the cleric sputters.

The Seeker’s tone is glacial. “Since the Inquisition was instituted under the orders of the Divine, we do, in fact, have the authority.”

From there, it is as if a wobbly, rickety mechanism suddenly and inexplicably sputters to life, its internal clockwork snapping into gear. Evie, still flanked by her retinue of templars, whom Margo baptizes The Nine, is one of the first to leave the premises. The crowd parts in front of her like the proverbial sea. After that, Cassandra declares Haven to be under the equivalent of martial law and coordinates the peaceful (if somewhat confused) dispersal of the straggling gawkers, with a little friendly help from Blackwall. The ambassador smoothes over the nobles’ ruffled feathers — Lady Vigard for her part appears perfectly collected, if somewhat put out, and in no need of reassurances. Lord Evernase looks like he swallowed a lemon. The ambassador ushers them to their quarters. Cullen continues to oversee the arrest of Mother Agrippina, with a visibly shaken Chancellor Roderick trying — unsuccessfully — to make himself invisible. In the end, the chancellor exits the nave alongside Torquemada, whose corvid gaze takes him in with new and unpleasant interest. Margo almost feels sorry for the bastard.

No one seems to pay Margo and Cole much attention. Solas casts her a brief but pointed look — one that seems to be either a promise of a later conversation or a request for one — but he falls in step with Varric and exits with the others.

At length, once the nave is deserted, Cole shifts them to ground level.

“It isn’t over,” he says, his eyes fleeting from object to object as if he is unable to focus on anything for too long. “They do not believe she is possible. They need to think she is more than what’s there. That she is one with the many.”

Margo considers his words. Part of what makes the kid’s speech so confusing is that he uses too many pronouns, apparently confident that his interlocutor will automatically hold the same context in mind — as if language is nothing but an afterthought for him and he expects meaning to carry in some other way. He really does remind her of Goran — minus the accent. Still. There are patterns to his linguistic idiosyncrasies that Margo is beginning to identify. When they were in the Fade, Cole referred to spirits as “the many.” And aside from that, it is fairly clear whom “she” stands for.

“The advisors will think Evie an abomination?” She pauses, recollecting the eery changes. “Is she?”

“There was no magic, then there was. They can’t understand. Some treasures must stay hidden until their time arrives. He knows about these things but will not speak, because to think them the same would change everything. I can try to tell them, but they won’t listen to me. So you will explain. They will want to kill you because having to unknow hurts. I’m sorry. There are other worlds than these, Margo.

She starts. Cole’s tone — wistful, ironic, a little too quiet — is a perfect imitation of her brother’s. Nobody but Jake ever quoted that particular line at her. But then, the meaning of the words penetrates through the shock of recognition.

“What do you mean, I will have to explain? Explain what?”

“She pulled you before she knew she could. Before I tried to make things better. The rift helped, I think. And the green on your hands. The root made you lighter, easier to draw. It is too far, you see. This body is too heavy. He could not carry it with him, so he left it behind, like an old abandoned shell.

Margo frowns, her mind churning slowly around the vaguely familiar utterance — it is distorted just enough to make identification slower. And then, of course, she remembers. Cole is paraphrasing a line from The Little Prince .

“Where did you hear that?” she asks, and she regrets it immediately — her voice is sharper than she means it to be, and the boy flinches at her tone. “Sorry. Sorry, Cole. It’s just... it’s from my world.”

“Yes. It’s what you know. It’s just not on the surface. Other things are on the surface now. Do you want to know which ones?” Before she can try to stop her mind from gleeful self-sabotage, Cole continues. “He thinks about it too, you know. The thoughts float up, unbidden. Distracted, he tries to stop, but it has been a long time and ... I don’t know why it’s always up against the wall, though.”

Margo groans. It’s one of those “don’t think about the pink elephant” problems. Well. At least, she’s pretty sure she knows exactly whom the third-person pronoun is pointing to in this context. Good to know that she and Solas are in solidarity. She shakes her head vehemently, trying to dislodge the imagery that blooms to life in her mind’s eye.

“Oh... is that not uncomfortable? Wait, you changed the image. What is that pink thing?”

“With any luck, it’s an elephant. At least, I hope. Cole, please just...” She clears her throat. “Can you read anyone like that?”

“Sometimes. Most people have too many voices all speaking over each other. It’s terribly noisy. I hear the ones that speak the loudest. Desire. Fear. Anger. Pain.” Cole pivots to face her. His wide-brimmed hat casts deep shadows over most of his face — only his pale chin and overwide mouth remain plainly visible. “Can I stay with you? Until they come for us? I won’t be a bother at all. You won’t even notice me.”

She sees it then, despite his strange, grating otherness and mortifying mind-reading abilities. Margo’s heart constricts with that odd sense of familiarity. Cole is as much a stranger to this world as she is, and just as it is for her, there is no ready-made place for him within it. Another castaway, adrift on some unfathomable cosmic current.

“On one condition: you don’t give voice to everything I’m thinking. Or anyone else, for that matter. I’ll talk to Master Adan. But didn’t you pick somewhere to stay already? Haven’s not that small — I’m sure there are more comfortable places than the apothecary.”

Cole turns away, and begins to walk slowly towards the exit. “So many people. Thoughts so loud I can hear them through walls. Maker, that thing gives me the creeps. Won’t it go away, already? Solas doesn’t mind me. And Varric. But they hold their pain, spilling none — rainwater in a rusty barrel. Old, loud aches, rooted deep. I can’t fix that. I’d rather be where I can help.”

Margo falls in step beside him. She is sorely tempted to pry — though, of course, the idea that both Varric and Solas lug around some kind of unresolved Troubled Past does not surprise her in the least. She has long since identified Varric’s witty barbs and sarcastic nonchalance as primarily camouflage. As for the elf, he wears his melancholy on his sleeve.

“Cole, you said they would be coming for us. Can you elaborate?”

They emerge into the wintry dusk, and a sharp gust of wind cuts right through Margo’s coat. She casts Cole a quick look. The kid’s leathers are tattered and thin, but he appears uniquely unbothered by the climate. Margo does not doubt for a second that the boy is, in fact, a spirit. Which begs the question — how did he come about his physical form, exactly?

“I touched a body once. I wanted to help but couldn’t. So I became him, took his face. You need fingers to open cages.”

Margo halts, frowning up at the boy. He is long and lanky, and at least a head taller than her. “You mean you possessed a dead body?”

“No. I wanted to look like this, so I did. It’s what I could imagine becoming. The ones who wear the dead lose themselves. The shape is all wrong.” His eyes go out of focus. “It’s all right. You’re not that, either. You didn’t take anything that wasn’t freely given, and you paid for it in full.”

“Wait, wait...”

Cole shakes his head, his tone taking on the high plaintive notes of sudden urgency. “You can ask later. There isn’t much time — their thoughts ripen as we speak. You should get your things. The book where you write. It might help. They will want to know if she shares her body with one of the many. They will think Envy. Still fearing it, though it’s gone. Can’t see what’s inside.”

“Slow down, Cole. Why do they need you — or me — to set things straight?”

“They don’t need me. I can hear, but what’s the point if they don’t listen?”

“Solas can see inside, right? And Dorian? What about Vivienne?”

“Solas can. Dorian only sees if something is out of place. Vivienne won’t look. You must be willing to offer something in order to look. A better trade, a promise.” Cole shakes his head. “She would never offer.”

Margo exhales through her teeth. Of course. “And of the three, Vivienne is the one whose word is likely to carry most weight. All right. Correct me if I’m wrong. What you’re saying is this: the advisors will eventually conclude that Evie is possessed. It is logical — Occam’s razor. And none of the people who can testify to the contrary are sufficiently credible witnesses. Not in the face of... well, whatever it is she did. And... this is where I come in, somehow? Because of how I ended up in your world?”

“Yes. You came before. You will have to tell them what you are.

Margo’s gaze drifts to the jagged line of the mountains. Above it, the Breach churns and phosphoresces, vaguely reminiscent, with its giant levitating boulders, of a cosmic-sized clogged toilet.

“The problem is that I have absolutely no way of proving what I am either.”

Chapter Text

With Cole as Margo’s silent companion, getting past the Tweedles is child’s play. Predictably, the two goons are absorbed by an argumentative if rather monosyllabic game of dice while pretending to guard Haven’s back door. It’s a good thing the Inquisition doesn’t seem important enough for anyone to bother attacking it. Margo wonders briefly how they will get the gate to open without drawing the idiots’ attention, but it turns out her speculations are moot — Cole simply shifts himself through the palisade, with Margo in tow.

“How did you do that?” she asks. There is an aftertaste of wood chips on her tongue.

The boy shrugs. “They call it a ‘Fade step.’ It’s like that, but different. I never step into the Fade. Neither do they. Not really. Like wrapping yourself in a blanket so that the monsters don’t notice. The water pistol won’t work. You can’t beat blankets over the head for protection.

It’s probably thirty seconds of her mind chasing its own tail until a label for the reference finally percolates up. Margo has the uncanny and very unpleasant feeling that she is beginning to lose pieces of her old world. The contours of her intellectual map are becoming fuzzy, distant. What is he citing? A Bradbury short story? No, too playful. Although she is fairly certain she has the time period and genre right. More like a Robert Sheckley. Ghost V ?

“Cole, are you pulling these from my memories, or from somewhere else?”

“They are memories. Shared, splintered, spread like a dusting of frost over grass. Not just yours.”

He doesn’t offer a further explanation, and his expression makes Margo reluctant to ask for clarification. Profound sorrow chills his features, and any illusion she might have harbored that Cole is simply an odd, awkward young man shatters — his mournfulness is so primal it verges on elemental. They trudge along the snow-crusted road in silence. When he finally speaks again, they are about twenty yards from the sequoia look-alike... and the cache Margo hopes is still concealed between its roots.

“I’m sorry. I was upset, but not at you.” Cole plucks a small glossy leaf from an evergreen shrub they pass and starts twirling it between thumb and forefinger. As she watches him fidget, it occurs to Margo that he is never entirely still, as if perpetual flux is his default state. An odd thought — that perhaps he finds this body uncomfortably heavy — flashes across the horizon of her attention.

He tucks the leaf into his pocket. “These words don’t fit. Like another man’s armor, chafing, tight in all the wrong places. Your language is very new, stark, crisp, with no soft spaces in between. Black and white. Good and bad. Me and you and he and they. It separates, scatters, sunders. I try to hold the words together, but they run away. It isn’t your fault that you hear difference where there isn’t. You could borrow my words, but they’re empty, too, nothing on the other end of them anymore.” He sighs. His voice grows wistful and a little breathless, and, in that moment, he reminds her of a kid awestruck by some unfathomable mystery of the cosmos, before that sense of wonder is flattened out by the dreary business of growing up. “It used to sing all the elsewheres the same, voices like vines twining round and round the trunk to reach the light. It’s nice to hear the other songs, even if it’s just echoes now. You remember, so they’re louder.”

It is Margo’s turn to postpone an answer. It doesn’t help that spending time with Cole exacerbates her mind’s self-reflexive function. She gets lost in the process of watching herself think — and then watching herself watch herself think — down and down the rabbit hole. She wonders whether Cole used the tree metaphor for her benefit — something about it reminds her of Jake once again. Perhaps it’s the image of the axis mundi, the axle around which all imaginable worlds come into being. She tries to brush the sudden sharp heartache aside, unsure when she began to think of her brother exclusively in the past tense. Right. More immediate problems. One step at a time. Bland clichés to the rescue. Her eyes are just stinging from the cold.

“Autumn wind in his hair, the taste of crisp apples. He finishes the other half of your jokes. I can’t give him back, but I can make you forget.”

Margo shakes her head, swallows around a lump in her throat, and kneels between the roots. She sets her pack and a sheathed Molly on the snow next to her. The choking sensation passes slowly.

At least Quartermaster Threnn kindly parted with her possessions with only minimal grumbling and a scribbled signature. Overwrought bureaucracy, chugging along, momentous events and potential armageddon notwithstanding. Her fingers brush briefly against the hilt of her weapon.

Stab? Stab stab?

“Hush, Molly, not yet.”

A wave of disappointment.

“Oh! May I speak with your friend?”

Margo eyes Cole cautiously. “Fine. But just for a quick chat.” A half-formed thought about the absurdity of feeling threatened by Cole’s intentions towards her dagger tries to bridge the threshold of Margo’s conscious awareness. She quickly hands over the weapon, haft first. The last thing she needs is to develop an unhealthy codependent attachment to fifteen inches of pointy metal. “If you manage to figure out why it talks, please let me know.”

While the young man is occupied with Molly, Margo gathers her books and the rest of her paraphernalia. Sera’s things are gone. She finds a small circular object with a grease-stained note folded around it. The mystery parcel turns out to be a small cake — hard as a rock and nibbled on one side. She reads the writing on the scrap of parchment. “Better with tea. ‘Cause teeth.” Margo grins, rewraps the cookie, and stuffs it into her pack with the rest of her belongings.

Cole is still communing with the dagger with an expression of abstract concentration, so Margo takes the opportunity to lend some mental verbiage to her half-baked plan. Although half-baked is a vast exaggeration: the plan, if she is to pursue the culinary analogy, is still in the early stages of domesticating wheat.

Still, it would behoove her to think of a strategy, and quickly. If the idea of getting herself killed on the basis of Maile’s past choices is frustrating, disappointing, and inexplicably guilt-inducing — like she is letting the other woman down, somehow — the prospect of execution on account of being an annoying alien interloper who challenges the local intellectual status quo offends her to the core. It would be so damn predictable, for one thing. Not to mention that her success or failure is potentially part of a longer causal chain, one that implicates Evie. And whatever implicates Evie has world-historical significance, quite possibly beyond Thedas, or whatever local-deity-specified-as-the-Maker-forsaken-planet hosts this particular geopolitical entity. What was it that Cole said? Something about singing together. Trees, vines. Roots. Roots that made her body lighter. Cryptic deployment of flora aside, it all seems to point to a connection between her world and this one — if she were to theorize, based on the evidence furnished by the accursed Brother Rufus (may the belladonna-munching bastard not rest in peace) — the Fade is more than a solely local phenomenon. Or it used to be. At some point.

And then there is the problem of what sort of perverse asshat soaked the blasted manuscript with a poison that might have not actually existed in her world.

Medieval monks. A pox on all of them.

Margo frowns and, with a mental kick, gets her mind back on more practical rails. She stares at the snow beneath her feet, unseeing. The task of proving that she is an outworlder, to use Amund’s felicitous term, is sandwiched between two sides of a paradox. On the one end, statements she might make to this effect could be easily dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic — it never ends well for the fellow who claims to be coming from “a galaxy far, far away.” And, on the other end, evincing knowledge that does not match Maile’s persona could easily be taken as evidence of abominable status. What is the likelihood that a culture steeped in the fear of demons would simply accept a “take me to your leader” request at face value and not immediately execute whoever was making it, just to be on the safe side? Which are you going to believe: Chantry doctrine and your own experience, or the ravings of a suspicious elf?

She needs to approach the problem from a different angle. Facts — historical or otherwise — are the product of sociopolitical processes (which is to say, of whoever has the bigger army, more wealth, and the ideological apparatus to churn out the history books.) Right. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. What she needs to do is manufacture a social fact. And for that, she needs to line up witnesses. The principles of the jury should apply here as well — in theory, it should not matter that the witnesses are individually unreliable, only that they are unreliable in different ways.

Margo finds herself scowling at the darkening forest. She doesn’t like this idea one bit. It isn’t like she is particularly rich in allies. Calling in favors — and putting people whom she is tentatively beginning to think of as her friends on the spot — is... well, distasteful for one thing. A sure way to alienate them, for another. But it’s not like she has any material proof of what she was before she inherited Maile’s body and complicated biography. Her past specialization leaves her with limited options: with the right chemicals and some experimentation, she might be able to reconstruct the formula for gunpowder, but impressive as a big bang might be, it would be about the last thing Thedas needs.

Do they work glass? She might be able to restore Galileo’s compound microscope schematic from memory — the Smithsonian had a gorgeous collection on the history of microscopy that she used in a piece she co-published a few years back — and then it would just be a matter of finding a skilled glassmaker with a taste for tinkering. The stained glass in the Chantry was impressive craftsmanship, but she hasn’t seen anyone wearing corrective lenses — do they fix eyesight with magic or alchemy, or are all of her local contacts simply exceptionally blessed in the vision department? Are they experimenting with magnification? Perhaps the dwarves are — Genitivi’s doorstopper did mention their facility with technology.

Margo shakes her head. She’ll burn that bridge when she crosses it. Though if she survives this — any of this — she is going to procure herself a microscope. As far as life goals are concerned, this one seems better than most. Then she can take a peek at all those plants, creaturely remains, poisonous lichens — and maybe even lyrium. And then , if only she could nudge someone in the direction of spectroscopy, spectrophotometry would be right around the corner, give or take a century, depending on whose device you take to be the first. And with a spectrophotometer, even a simple, early model, chemical analysis of organic compounds would be one lightning rune and a UV-Vis lamp away... wait a second... unless mages can produce light in the ultraviolet spectrum? She’ll have to propose this to Dorian... If there is a mage she can sweet talk into questionable scientific experiments, it would be him. In fact, she has no reason to think they’re not already doing advanced research, just with a different set of tools. Still. A microscope would be handy.

“Cole?” Margo asks, forcibly tearing herself from her musings. Her feet are rapidly turning numb with cold. The boy hands her the dagger, and she quickly sheaths it. “Did you two have a nice chat?”

“It is very old. Made in the Stone, before they stopped folding Children into weapons. Though they never did stop, just told themselves they did. Be careful. I don’t think it’s very nice.”

Margo shudders. She has the vague sense that Cole is speaking about dwarves — at least that interpretation is vastly preferable to whatever other ways of weaponizing children Thedas might have devised. Still, folding living beings into daggers doesn’t bode well. “So, not a trapped spirit?” she asks uneasily.

Cole shakes his head. “It used to be in a body, but it liked to hurt people. They put it inside a blade, so someone else could hurt with it.”

She liked it better when it was just “Molly” — though playing ostrich with an enchanted and possibly malevolent dagger seems uniquely unwise. “All right, I’ll try to be cautious. In the meantime, there is a friend I think we should see.”

***

The search doesn’t take long.

“Listen for someone who is intensely homesick and thinks everyone he meets is an idiot,” she tells Cole by way of guidance.

“But I already know Solas.” The expression he offers is disconcertingly blank.

When the sudden fit of snorting laughter dies down, Margo puzzles over her own amusement. Is Solas’s perennial melancholia a species of nostalgia? If so, for what sort of lost home? She takes a closer look at Cole. It’s not quite a smile, but something about the crinkling at the corners of his eyes...

“Wait, was that an intentional joke?”

Cole looks impassive. “You thought it first.”

“No, I didn’t! All right. Look for someone who thinks that all lowlanders are idiots.”

By the time they come upon the clearing, the sky is a rich, inky blue. Only the upper half of the tawny moon is visible beyond the treeline.

The campsite looks well-lived-in. The fur tent is conical, with at least two layers of hide and a flap door of heavy felt. Strips of meat are drying over a long fire, the two parallel logs crackling invitingly. A narrow plume of steam rises from the teakettle, milky white against the rapidly thickening shadows.

Amund is sitting on a stump stool next to the flames, bone needle and sinew thread in hand. He is patching up a pair of worn sheepskin trousers.

Luzzil spinna ,” he greets without lifting his head from his work. “Still alive. Done with spinning in circles?” He looks up, notices Cole, and bows low, bending at the waist, dignified yet deferential. “You honor me with your presence, Compassion.”

Margo’s gaze darts to Cole. Of course! The knowledge of his nature falls into place with the uncanny sensation of it having been there all along.

“Just Cole now. And I don’t want to honor, I want to help.” His gaze grows distant. “They bear the names the others give them but keep theirs secret. They guide the vanishing and greet the barely formed as an old friend, singing sameness. Tender tending, a year in the re|making, they help it find the ground to become itself again.” Cole crouches next to Amund, all elbows and bony knees. It is the first time Margo sees the old Avvar look discomfited. “I know. You cannot offer moving as one in the being|with, but you leave room to be|across without be|coming other|than. Thank you. What your people do for the many... It helps. You can’t fix it, but you know it’s broken. You make the rubble livable.”

Amund nods pensively and stares at the fire. At length, he speaks, his gaze shifting to Margo. “You have your own reasons for bringing Compassion here, outworlder, but I thank you for it regardless. Now, speak to me of what you want.”

No point in trying to beat about the bush. In his own way, Amund seems to appreciate directness. Margo settles on a log — cleaned of branches so that it can take its place in the fire when the others burn out — and explains her predicament. Since she is unsure of how much Amund knows, she starts from the beginning — with her discovery of Evie’s scar, then the trial, and finally the debacle in the chantry. The Avvar listens quietly, still and silent as a statue, his dark eyes attentive but unreadable. When she is done, he says nothing, the crackling flames and the wind in the pines the only sounds.

“Will you help?” Margo finally asks, her heart thudding heavily against her ribs. Fear coats her tongue with a metallic tang.

Amund sighs, an edge of irritation creeping into his placid features. “The little prophet is god-touched, whether for good or ill. There is no getting around it. It has happened before and will happen again; so it has been said, and so it will be sung. You ask of me to help you spin your truth into the weave of their lie, little spider.” He looks at her with steel in his eyes, but his gaze softens when it falls on Cole. “Sometimes the greatest mercy is a dagger to slice through the delusions. Do not ask me to convince them that the bear they hear stalking in the forest is a fennec.”

Cole looks to the sky. “He doesn’t care about their webs. Only the Great Tear and the Lady’s Children falling, fragmented, frightful. Lies offer comfort as the world sunders. What harm is there to let them have theirs? It will all burn in the end.”

Amund pokes the logs with the tip of his boot and grumbles something unflattering in his language, every bit the crotchety old man — complete with a final irritated huff.

“You would ask a boon of me, outworlder. Very well. But a spinna is a rare birth indeed, however or wherever it comes about. You are not entirely blinded by pride — for a lowlander, anyway — so I will speak to you of what is the case. Who knows, it might even get through the wool in your ears.” There is a vehemence to his voice, just this side of anger. The flames dance in his dark eyes, and for a second Amund looks ancient — a carving of obsidian and granite, waiting in vigil in a forgotten forest. “Do not think that this power is given freely, or that you deserve it. It is not there to serve you . It is not yours to take, or have, or adorn yourself with. It was given in exchange, earned and tended to by those who came long before you. Do not be the leaf that believes itself the cause behind the sun shining on it.” He sighs, the anger draining, curdling into tired resignation. “This world needs more self-appointed saviors like a goat needs frilly knickers, little spider. I will vouch for you and for the god-touched. And, in return, you will stop your pointless mucking about with wishmongers and wolves and old forest things and gods-know-what-else you do when left to fend for yourself. And you will do as you must, and learn the weavecraft.”

Margo hopes her grin is suitably sheepish — or at least not overly eager. After all, she is pretty sure Amund just chewed her out. “Deal,” she adds quickly, before he has a chance to reconsider.

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

The silence that follows Margo’s announcement is so thick you could slather it on toast. So when the silver spoon clatters to the floor with a bright tinkle, ten heads snap as one in the direction of the noise.

“Pardon,” Cullen mutters, coloring to the roots of his hair. “These spoons are very small, aren’t they. Seems hardly practical, under the circumstances.”

This is followed by more stunned silence.

“It was a present from Comtesse Lutetia,” Josephine replies in somewhat of a daze. “She commissioned the butterfly design herself. We couldn’t very well refuse without offending.”

“Ahem.” Cassandra clears her throat — entirely unnecessarily by the sound of it — and, after a quick glance at Torquemada, peers at Margo with a quizzical frown. As far as the Seeker’s expressions are concerned, the emotional distance between “puzzled” and “livid” is mostly symbolic. “I am sorry, agent. I... must have misheard. Where did you say you were from?”

“You really shouldn’t talk to that thing, my dear,” Vivienne chastises between sips of tea. She casually swipes off the imprint of silvery lipstick from the rim of her cup before continuing. “It is a demon.”

“But that’s not true!” Cole, bless him, looks genuinely indignant at this announcement.

“Spoken by another demon,” Vivienne comments sweetly.

In the meantime, Torquemada’s expression takes a turn for the predatory. She sets her cup on the table and interlaces her fingers in front of her. “Therinfal, the encounter with Envy, and Cole’s intervention were the triggering events for the Herald’s magical abilities. If there was anything prior to that, no one witnessed it. And now, agent, you are spinning some... bizarre story about your purported identity. Similar to when you made outlandish claims about a conveniently invisible Tranquility scar that only you could see. All of this leads me to conclude that you are either an especially inspired agent provocateur , and that your master, whoever he or she is, has an odd sense of humor, or that you have gone mad.” The spymaster leans forward, eyes aglow with some sudden epiphany. “Of course! Both of these claims have in common one thing, agent. They put you in the center of events. By placing you closer to the Herald, they inflate your own relevance. I should have considered this earlier. The change in personality, the abrupt shift in skills, the apparent loss of memory. The accent. This line of work sometimes breeds insanity. I have seen such delusions of self-importance and persecution before.”

“Leliana, dear, with all due respect, I must disagree. Madness does not explain the creature’s responsiveness to the Herald’s spell.”

“A simulation, then. A careful game to convince us at a later date.”

“Convince us that she is a demon ?” Cassandra asks, one eyebrow raised in question. “That would be a rather peculiar goal.”

“I’m not certain that either of your assessments is correct.” Of all the people Margo expected to come to her aid, Cullen would not have made it anywhere near the hypothetical list. “Demons are...” He grasps for words but comes up short. Instead, the former templar passes a hand over his face and exhales forcefully before finishing what he began. “Based on my experience, anyway, demons aren’t... storytellers. They will take your own desires and thoughts and turn them against you like some sick mirror, but this...” — his waving in Margo’s general direction comes off as mildly accusatory — “Maker’s breath, what she says is just too bizarre for any demon I can imagine. Nor does she act like a demon.”

“Demons are clever, darling. It would not do to underestimate them,” Vivienne presses. “If there is even a slight chance that it is a demon, then I suggest we kill it. I do not believe it insane. The fact that it has managed to hide among us for well over a month should be proof enough that it is dangerous.”

Another attempt by those assembled to speak all at once is interrupted by three loud metal thuds. Amund, silent and still until then, unfolds to his full height of almost seven feet, and leans on the haft of his weapon — which has just managed to one-up Josephine’s paperweight in the gavel impersonation contest.

Puzzled faces turn towards the Avvar.

“If you fancy yourselves so wealthy in allies, lowlanders, that you would spit in the face of the gods who have brought Compassion to your door, and who granted you a spinna , then you are even more foolish than I thought.” Amund punctuates this with another thunk of his hammer. His eyes blaze, black and angry under the mask, but his face remains impassive otherwise. Oddly, his ire is directed at Vivienne, and Margo wonders whether this is the result of his dislike for this mage specifically, for Circle mages more generally, or for Orlesians at large. “You would rob your prophet of her power because you cannot bridle it, you would kill the outworlder before learning of her purpose. Here you sit, drinking your tea, and have the temerity to discuss what ‘to do’ with Compassion. As if that choice were yours to make?” His voice grows metallic. “You are blind to the signs, deaf to the gods, and glutted with your own ambitions. My people walked these mountain paths before your cities were an orphaned seedling in the Land of Dreams. When your empires are nothing but swirling dust and bleached bones, we will remain.” He pauses. “I would see the Tear mended, but after that I happily leave you to your nonsense. I will take the outworlder and Compassion with me, since you won’t have them.” At that, he turns to Margo and Cole. “There is a place for you in the Mountain Father’s shadow.”

This time no falling silverware breaks the stunned silence.

“Well. I fear I only understood about a third of what our fur-clad guest had to say, but if he wants to leave with the two abominations now , I suppose we could consider allowing them to do so.” Vivienne’s tone is perfectly even, but her face is held too still, as if each individual piece has to be arranged consciously.

“I hope that will not be necessary.” Solas’s voice rings out with banked intensity — a warning masquerading as a wish. He waits before continuing, and Margo has the sneaking suspicion that he is timing his words strategically, to maximize their rhetorical effect. “It is kind of you to offer them shelter when others would not, Amund.” Under the cold politeness, a flash of fire.

Amund gives the elf a sour look. “Make no mistake, dreamstrider. I have little use for your empty accolades.”

“No. You have your people’s interests at heart, and you see a path to further them.”

Beneath the mask, Amund’s mouth quirks in a derisive twist. “Sizing up everyone against your own measuring stick will leave you discontented in the long run, lowlander.”

 

Dorian pretends to smooth out his mustache, but the effort to hide the smile is spoiled by the failure to repress the snort. Josephine looks mildly scandalized. Based on the fact that Solas’s ears turn an alarming shade of fuschia, Margo decides that she isn’t alone in hearing the double-meaning.

“Everything I do, I do because such is the the will of the Lady of the Skies,” Amund adds with great dignity.

Solas looks like he is about to retort, but Cole interrupts. “Please.” He fidgets restlessly. “Do not argue. Not now. It will end very badly.”

“And it started so well,” Dorian quips quietly.

Solas glances at the other mage, but quickly returns his attention to Cole. “Forgive us, my friend. You are correct, of course.” He seems to debate with himself — again some untenable contradiction, war waged and won — or lost. When he speaks, his voice is calm. “I can corroborate the agent’s claims. While I do not fully understand the mechanism behind her dislocation, I can assure you that she is no demon, and that, indeed, she did not originate in our world.” Margo finally allows herself to meet his eyes. Solas holds her gaze for much too long. For a moment, it is as if a mysterious door is left partially ajar, and she gets a glimpse of what is seemingly behind it — a weary, wistful, irreparable sadness. And then his face shutters and he turns towards Torquemada. “I suspect you have questions.”

“I...” The spymaster stumbles. It’s not quite a sputter, but Margo decides it’s as close as she’s ever likely to get. She’ll take it. “I most certainly do. But let us establish the facts first. What part of her claim is true? Are you suggesting that she comes from beyond Thedas?”

“Yes.”

“Do you realize how unbelievable this sounds?” Cassandra’s emotional gauge is slowly creeping towards the angry side of the spectrum.

“More unbelievable than a catastrophic tear in the Veil?”

“I would say less unbelievable if Lord Cerastes manages to prove his latest hypothesis about the celestial origins of certain metals.” Dorian casts a look around, until his eyebrows draw together in annoyance. Margo recognizes the impulse as that of someone habitually surrounded by books, and unaccustomed to not having a library at his fingertips. “I suppose I should not expect anyone here to be familiar with his writings. Your Chantry did ban the Alchemical Primer, didn’t it?” He turns to Margo. “Which reminds me, I could arrange for you to have a copy. Interested?”

Margo can’t help it. She grins with unabashed intellectual greed. “Yes? Very?”

“Well, you are certainly on friendly terms with the creature, aren’t you, Dorian.”

Dorian glances at Madame de Fer with an air of barely concealed superiority, and Margo decides that he is relishing the opportunity to make Orlais look like a bunch of superstitious bumpkins. “Oh, you know that I adore the south, my dear.” His tone is honeyed. “It is so terribly quaint I find myself wanting to pinch its cheeks and offer it a sweetroll. Sadly, southern culture has not impressed me with its interest in research, or with its desire to understand the nature of our world. One must cherish one’s intellectual interlocutors where one finds them, don’t you think?” Vivienne’s nostrils flare. “Oh, I almost forgot. I would like to second Solas’s assessment. Imagine that, we are agreed on something!” Dorian’s eyes sparkle with a mischievous twinkle. “Our dear Margo really is from elsewhere. Simply fascinating , isn’t it?”

“She is what she says and more. She dreams of other skies beneath this one. Cole threads his fingers through Margo’s under the table, and squeezes gently. “They feel bad about it, you know. Yes, even he. Betrayal, like poison in the gut, caustic, corrosive. Why does it always taste like ashes?”

Torquemada, pale with anger, or shock, or both, glares intermittently between Margo, Dorian, Solas, and Cole. “We have digressed from the matter at hand,” she finally manages. “Solas. How long have you known this?”

The elf hesitates, but then nods slowly. “A week or so after we returned from sealing the first rift, she asked me for assistance in trying to recover her memories. I discovered who she truly was during that process. It was not... anticipated.”

“You learned of this over a month ago ? And said nothing?” This time, Cassandra takes a turn at the outraged glare.

“And what should I have said, Seeker, that would not have resulted in your killing her outright or in ripping her apart to find answers you would not have believed regardless?” He does not modulate the underlying anger.

“Oh, do not snap at us, Solas dear — it is most unbecoming. If she is what she claims to be, why not come forward immediately? Why seek back-alley ‘help’ from a stranger she had known for... how long? A few days?”

Margo winces. The Iron Lady has managed to make her question sound both damning and, somehow, obscene.

“Perhaps because of the impending probability of interrogation at the Inquisition’s hands? How would you fare, I wonder, were you stranded in a foreign world where everything is unfamiliar and hostile; where you are forced into a body not of your own choosing; where every word is scrutinized and every action offers cause for condemnation?”

“Such flare for melodrama, Solas! But I suppose that is unsurprising, coming from an apostate.”

“All mages are technically apostates now, Madame Vivienne. Yourself included.”

“Wait a damn moment.” The Iron Bull shifts on his crate, considers the cup of tea — still full — set in front of him, and drains it in one gulp like a shot of liquor. In his hand, the dainty porcelain is dwarfed to the size of a thimble. “Let me get this straight. Both you and Dorian knew that Blondie was — whatever the fuck she is — when we went to Redcliffe?” His expression grows thunderous. “All right. Say what she says is true — not saying it is, just talking hypotheticals here. You let me just hand her over to Alexius? Did you miss the part where the bastard is crazier than a dathrasi on saar-qamek? The fuck were you thinking?”

“That, should you learn of her nature, you would be more inclined to orchestrate an assassination attempt. You are Ben-Hassrath, are you not? Yours is a formidable organization with far-reaching resources, I hear.”

The sarcasm isn’t lost on Bull, because he scowls at Solas, but he seems more troubled than angry by this point. “For all we know, her entire world is made of nothing but demons. Ugh.”

“If so, they are nothing like any demons I have ever encountered,” Solas retorts dryly. “But if you are interested in learning more about her world, Iron Bull, I would suggest you ask Margo yourself. She seems in a better position to offer insights on it than I am.”

Margo starts. Ten pairs of eyes focus back on her. She almost preferred it when they were all discussing her in the third person — she could relax, watch the show, and forget that her life was being decided in front of her.

“My world has no demons, Bull. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of unpleasant assholes.” That surprises a dry chuckle out of him — and another snort from Dorian, who looks like he is enjoying himself thoroughly — but the Qunari doesn’t exactly melt with newfound regard, so Margo continues, this time addressing her words to the rest of the assembly. “My planet — the celestial body from which I come — is sometimes called ‘Earth,’ or ‘Terra,’ or some other terms, depending on your linguistic idiom of choice. I have no idea where it is vis-a-vis yours. We don’t have demons, or spirits, or magic, or the Fade. We don’t have the Veil. Although our cultures do have similar concepts — a fact I find quite interesting. Anyway.”

“Agent, you said earlier that you are... were? Human?” Cassandra looks dubious. “How similar is your world, then?”

“Definitely not human anymore.” Bull looks like he’s measuring several competing possibilities, none of them life-affirming. “Smells much better, though.”

On the other side of the table, Solas and Dorian choke simultaneously — Dorian on his tea, and Solas for no discernible reason whatsoever.

“Iron Bull!” Josephine flushes with embarrassment and annoyance. Margo decides she’s heard worse, from Bull or otherwise.

Bull cuts them a sardonic look and shrugs. “All I’m sayin’ is that the outside’s an elf — not claiming what’s in the filling. Maybe we should ask Solas about that.”

Margo avoids looking at Solas — or Bull — and draws a breath, directing her utterance at Cassandra. “Our phenotypic expression — which is to say, our physical appearance — is less diverse than in Thedas. We used to have multiple species of what we call ‘humans,’ but they all went extinct except for one. We do not have dwarves, or elves, or — Qunari?” Bull nods, but does not elaborate or contest. “From what I have read of your world, we are somewhat similar to your dwarves in cultural orientation, though I generalize. Without magic, we have poured our creative energies into technology, though access to it is unevenly distributed. We mine a lot of the resources we need to build it. We rely on it as a kind of prosthesis, and use it for myriad things. To learn about the nature of the world. To travel. To make art or things that entertain us. To heal our sick.” She shrugs. “And to kill each other, naturally.”

Margo pauses and represses the impulse to ask whether there are any questions so far — and then has to squash an impending fit of hysterical giggles.

“Clearly this is a blatant untruth. Without a connection to the Fade, one would be incapable of emotions, unable to feel desires. How would such a people build an advanced culture? They would be content to run around in furs.” Vivienne smiles charmingly. “I told you, the thing lies — and not very artfully, in my opinion.”

“Madame de Fer, that is quite sufficient!” Josephine pales, then blushes, and then, after a deep breath, glares at Vivienne until the latter offers a little shrug that, Margo supposes, might, with some imagination, signal an apology. “Our guest just informed us that she comes from a place that is similar to dwarven society. Are you suggesting that dwarves are also incapable of emotion or invention? They have no connection to the Fade, after all.”

“We are not discussing dwarves, Josephine.”

“I don’t suppose you can prove what you are?” Cullen casts a glance at Cassandra, and some odd silent exchange passes between them, before the Seeker offers a tiny nod. “The night I came to the apothecary. I was feeling... unwell. My memories are vague, but the technique you used to help me — is it from your world?”

Ah. So he remembers some of the CPR— and whatever he remembers surprised him. No wonder Cullen is willing to at least entertain the idea.

“Yes. Without magic, our approach to healing evolved differently from yours.”

“I thought you had said you were a... scholar?” Torquemada glares. “Not a healer.”

“I am not a healer,” Margo confirms. “But I know what we call first aid because my brother is... was... liable to become unwell, too.” She stares at Cullen, willing him to understand what she is implying — and hoping that it will get him more firmly into her camp. Cynical, but what can you do. Cullen’s eyes widen, and then he offers a tiny little nod.

“Commander, are you... all right?”

“Yes, ambassador, thank you for asking.” He clears his throat and stares at his boots.

Margo battles another round of impending hysterics. The Inquisition. Where everyone is hiding something.

“Anyway. I... I am inclined to think that what you describe is possible, agent. But I am a military man.” Cullen chuckles ruefully. “My mind works best with material proof, not logic games.”

Margo sighs. Cullen wouldn’t be in his position if he weren’t an excellent tactician. The whole soldier boy act is just that — an act. Right. Cullen is the good cop.

In any case, she anticipated this, sort of. Perhaps it is a natural desire — even people with access to magic long for the promise of the miraculous. But if she can pull this off, then she will have Cullen in her corner, and from there, she is fairly sure she can get Cassandra and Josephine. That would be six allies, not counting Cole. A large enough group for the time being.

“I can’t promise that I’ll manage to prove what I am, or that what I claim is true, but I can maybe offer you something... to think about, I suppose.”

Josephine nods firmly and glares at the rest of the assembly. “If so, then the Inquisition would certainly wish to hear it.”

“If you are done chasing your own tails, lowlanders, I have work to do before the night is out.” Amund rises to his feet. “I have fulfilled my part of the bargain, luzzil spinna . They are too tangled in the web to hurt you now. I will find you when it is time to begin.” He swings his weapon over his shoulder. Cullen and Cassandra duck under and out of the way of the massive wolf-headed maul. “Compassion. You are welcome to stay with me for as long as you are willing. I cannot offer much, except for the quiet.”

“Thank you, Amund. I want to stay here, but after, yes.”

With a last nod to Cole, Amund exits.

Margo looks around. “I don’t suppose one of you has a sewing needle made of metal?”

***

 

It takes an eternity to assemble all the components, but, with the promise of a material demonstration, Margo is able to marshal collaborators — if not allies — much more quickly. Dorian, bless him, has several pins that hold the various parts of his complicated outfit together — as well as a sewing needle he offers with mock reluctance. His eyes are glimmering with curiosity.

Josephine provides the wine bottle, and Margo borrows Bull’s dagger — a risk, but a calculated one — to slice off a narrow circle from the cork.

She empties her cup, and tops it with fresh tea from the pot, sticks the knuckle of her ring finger in the liquid to test the temperature, and makes a face. “Solas? Would you possibly do me a favor and warm it up? I need the liquid at a higher temperature to reduce the surface tension. I’ll explain what I mean in a second.”

Solas glides over and passes his fingers over the cup in an elegant flutter. The tea steams. The elf parks himself beside her, on the other side of Cole. Dorian joins them next, occupying the place Amund vacated.

“Ambassador, may I borrow a map of Thedas?”

Josephine, with only a brief hesitation, pulls a large scroll and unfurls it, securing it at the four corners with miscellaneous objects — including the glass paper-weight. Margo studies the map briefly, notes the maritime nations, and smiles at the ambassador.

“One more slightly rude request, if I may. You wouldn’t happen to have a piece of silk on you? A handkerchief, perhaps?” And now I will make this rabbit disappear. Where is a top hat when you need one?

Josephine smiles amiably and hands Margo a purple square of excellent quality silk.

Margo nods her thanks. “This part is going to take some time.”

She talks through it, letting the explanation absorb her attention lest she succumb to nervousness — the whole needle rubbing business is tedious and vaguely... well, not obscene, exactly, but somehow questionable. “I know I could ask one of the mages here to electrify the needle, but I told you that my world does not have magic, so for the sake of authenticity...I’ll use static electricity. Which of your nations has the best navy?”

Based on the fact that she gets three different answers, Margo decides that she has managed to secure a reasonably captive audience.

“Bull, how do Qunari ships navigate? Do you use the stars? Stay within view of the land?”

The Qunari chuckles, leans back, and crosses his arms over his massive chest. “Nice try, Blondie. You know I’m not about to tell you that in front of a Vint, right?”

“As if the clothing irons you call ships could rival ours!”

“All right. Rivain has a good navy, but they’re too busy pirating known trade routes to go exploring. Qunari are excellent seafarers, but mostly military, right? Tevinter, according to Genitivi, has a solid naval force but has some problems with excessive privatization, if I understood correctly. Antiva has a vast trade fleet. So.” She points her finger an inch beyond where the map ends, level with letters that spell “ Amaranthine Ocean .” “What’s there?”

Silence.

“Bad weather,” Cassandra finally answers.

More silence.

Margo smiles. She has gambled right so far. “Since we have representatives from different groups, I won’t ask you to reveal national secrets, so I’ll talk through it myself, and you can correct me where I’m wrong. You all have star maps, and they are pretty good, yes? You might even be using an astrolabe or equivalent. But the weather over here is garbage, as Cassandra just confirmed, and so sailing on the open sea becomes too risky. You’re stretched thin as it is with all the wars, so no massive state project is in the works, and most of your trade is with the dwarves anyway, so over land. I’d love a map of your trade routes, if anyone is willing to share.”

On her right, Solas draws closer, allegedly to get a better look at where she is pointing. His hip brushes hers. On the other side of them Dorian smirks. Cassandra drifts to where Cullen is propped against the table and peers at the map, then tilts her head for a better look. She frowns but then nods briskly. Josie pulls up a chair. Torquemada steps up for a better vantage point, and crosses her arms over her chest. Vivienne doesn’t move from her seat.

“So the question is, where is your magnetic compass?” Margo looks up. “Do you have naturally occurring magnets? Pieces of ore that attract other metals?”

Silence. Uncomfortable glances. Puzzlement... but not from everyone. Dorian, for his part, definitely looks like he knows exactly what she is talking about. Bull has a poker face.

“All right. I’ve been thinking about this. In my world, the magnetic compass was developed by the Chinese and used for navigation by the Song Dynasty, if I recall correctly, though naval history isn’t my area. So where is yours? The first option is that you don’t have naturally occurring magnets — like, say, magnetite — which is unlikely, because you have iron and you mine other metals as well. And you have mages who control electricity, so you could magnetize things, no problem. You need wire to make an electromagnet, and you’re already using copper coil in your alchemy.” Margo is vaguely cognizant that she is somewhere in between babbling and talking to herself, but it beats panicking. “So. Either some of you already have the technology, but have been keeping mum about it. Or something about the physics is different. Something that would make a compass unreliable, for whatever reason.” She draws a breath. “See, put simply, my world has a magnetic field around it that attracts or repels particles in patterned, predictable ways. There is a north and south pole.” Margo dips her finger in the tea and draws a crude diagram on the table. She looks up. No glazed over expressions. Puzzled, but attentive. She isn’t sure whether that’s good or bad. “Your bees, ravens, and probably other animals most likely navigate by sensing your planet’s magnetic field because of the biologically precipitated magnetite — or equivalent — in their bodies. In fact, based on that incident with the ravens in the Hinterlands, we know something can mess up that sense of navigation. At least that’s how our animas do it. Now, my world has learned to replicate a similar capacity by using a magnet to detect permanent north — the polarity of our planet’s magnetic field, in other words. Which greatly facilitates navigation in bad weather, as you can imagine.”

Unsurprisingly, the first to nod at this — slowly — is Bull.

Margo decides she will save the happy dance for later, stops rubbing the needle, and drives it through the cork, trying not to prick her finger in the process. “Aw, crap. I talked too long. Solas, do you mind warming the tea again?”

The elf arches an eyebrow, but his lips twitch, and he complies readily enough. “Why are you insisting on heating the liquid, lethallan?”

“Because I want the force exerted by the surface tension of the water to be lower than the magnetic force acting on the needle. Water — and everything else — is made of smaller elements arranged into molecules. At higher temperatures, the molecular bonds become... less sticky. That’s how you get water and other liquids to vaporize. Anyway, I’m not sure it’ll work, but it’s the best I’ve got.”

She plops the cork into the water and watches with bated breath. The circle spins — painfully slowly, of course — but then stabilizes in a single direction. Margo moves the cup, jostling the needle. Waits. Sweat is prickling between her shoulder blades.

The needle wobbles, takes its sweet time, drifts about lazily — but finally realigns.

“What’s that way?” Margo asks, her voice hoarse.

“South,” Cassandra answers.

She nods. “Ok. Ok, I’ll take south. As long as it’s consistent. Now.” She lifts her teacup compass and carries it gingerly to a different part of the table. Blows on the needle and cork to spin it. Her audience drifts with her, one by one. They watch. The needle rotates at an excruciatingly slow creep, quivers, then slowly stills.

South. Margo exhales quietly.

“Shit, Blondie. You’re gonna have to explain this thing one more time.” Margo glances at Bull. The interest there isn’t friendly , per se. But it is interest.

Cullen, curiosity propelling him forward, stands up and walks over to the cup.

Suddenly, the needle spins again — much faster this time — and shudders into place, its eye locking on the former templar.

“Aha!” It’s not exactly dignified, but Margo finds herself bouncing in place. She somehow manages not to clap her hands. “I knew there must be something! Now, Commander Rutherford, why would you emit a magnetic field?”

Chapter Text

Cullen’s befuddled expression is so genuine it actually manages to extract Vivienne from her chair and draw her closer for an evaluative visit. She takes a perfunctory glance at the teacup, then stares down her nose at Margo.

“Oh, I do remember the Marquis de Beaufort bringing one of these trinkets to a salon, three... four years ago? Much more sophisticated than whatever primitive contraption the creature devised here, of course.” She makes a point of addressing herself to Josephine and Torquemada — and certainly not to the creator of the aforementioned primitive contraption. “Gold, diamonds, crystal casing, silverite needle. Very pretty. Poor dear heart claimed it could detect lyrium. Needless to say, it did no such thing — it simply spun in place. Terribly gauche, of course, but he was considered a luminary in his day when he still taught at the University. I suppose one must be careful with one’s invitations.”

“And yet, this version shows no signs of confusion at all.” Dorian, who has drifted closer to Cullen as well, taps his chin pensively, eyes alight with an impending witticism. “It would appear that even inanimate objects find Commander Rutherford irresistible.”

Cullen coughs, blushes painfully, and glares at Dorian with an expression that manages to combine wounded puppy with man-eating lion. Margo notices Bull’s cocked eyebrow and bites the inside of her cheek. Cullen takes the opportunity to step to the side, safely out of the needle’s range.

Dorian magnanimously pretends not to notice this maneuvering and continues. “There was a year when Alexius experimented with a mineral he obtained from some of his more... unusual contacts. Not much to look at, but terribly expensive.” Dorian’s cheeks dimple with suppressed mirth. “As I recall, the little rock tended to collect unattached metal objects. Alexius had hoped to use it as an alternative to the traditional methods of amplifying spells, but nothing came of it: it did not lend conclusive results and was simply too impractical to obtain. Would such a thing fit your description of ‘magnetic ore,’ Mistress Duvalle?”

Margo suspects that the sudden choice of formal address is intended to accomplish a symbolic reclassification of her social status. She also notes that, in present company, Dorian relabeled Gereon to Alexius. Smart man. She nods. “I would have to see it, but the description fits.”

“Those unusual contacts, they wouldn’t happen to be from Kal’Hirol? Supposed to be merchant caste, armed like Carta?” Bull leans forward, elbows on knees — which has the felicitous effect of emphasizing the incredible breadth of his shoulders.

Dorian feigns innocence. “Fancy that, I’m afraid I cannot quite remember.”

“Dorian, my dear, while I can abstractly appreciate your misguided desire to help the thing talk itself out of its corner, it should be plainly obvious that this pitiful demonstration proves little. It certainly does not indicate that the creature is from another world. This is, at best, child’s play.” Vivienne dignifies Margo with a glacial look that only partially masks the underlying squeamishness. “I do not know what is more vexing, that it ” — she flutters her perfectly manicured fingers, a gesture that manages to be at once elegant and dismissive — “should think that it revealed some heretofore unknown truth about the universe, or that we should somehow be dazzled by it, like gullible fishwives in some forsaken village.”

“Thank you!” Margo beams at her — and the amiable expression is only about fifty percent forced. It is a testament to how exhausted she is that instead of being offended, her mind conjures a hypothetical painting titled Demon Dazzling the Fishwives . She’s pretty sure it would be a Rubens. She bites her lip, trying to stave off the stupid giggles. She has to stop responding to direct threats with idiotic merriment — it will get her killed. The Iron Lady for her part looks thoroughly unamused. “That is precisely the point,” Margo finally manages with a passably serious moue. “Well, not the fishwife-dazzling part — your earlier point. It is child’s play, if you know the principles behind it. In fact, this experiment is how we teach our kids about magnetic fields. The ease of replication is the result of, give or take, eight hundred years of other discoveries on top of it that tell us why it works.”

“Your tamassrans teach this?” The fact that Bull is not questioning the premise of her world having teachers — or kids — is not lost on Margo, so she confirms it with a friendly nod and files it away as a win.

“The only thing that this might convincingly prove is that the poor marquis entertained odd company in his old age. Unless it plucked the model from another addled scholar’s mind?”

“The argument is not in the technology, Madame Vivienne, but in the distinction it implies,” Solas comments with calculated casualness. His voice softens as he turns his attention to the disk bobbing on the amber surface of the tea. “If I have followed your reasoning correctly, lethallan, you did not choose this demonstration to parade your world’s intellectual achievements, but to suggest that similar techniques become dismissed as meaningless in one environment by virtue of the inconstancy of their effects, while in another they offer pivotal insights for deducing universal laws, thus furthering new forms of understanding.”

Margo’s head jerks up. Solas has not only grasped the entire point of her gambit with the compass but has stepped into the role of her intellectual dance partner in the scaffolding of pas and contre-pas required for her to explain it. She could kiss him. In fact, she has to exert a tangible effort to refrain from doing just that — rapt audience be damned — and so she sends a prayer to whomever might be listening that Cole does not choose this moment to provide commentary.

“I won’t if you don’t want me to. Would you like to know what he thinks?” Cole inclines his head to the side, as if trying to decipher a picture presented from an unusual angle.

“Nope,” Margo says hastily. “Not at all.”

This earns them both uneasy looks from the peanut gallery, but mercifully Cole does not press. Margo releases her breath. It could be worse. Experience shows that it can always be worse. She looks up at Solas and offers him a grateful half-smile. “Yes, that’s precisely it. I don’t think there is anything I could do that would prove who I am. All I can do is to convince you all of what I am not .” She should leave it well enough at that, but the sudden idea doesn’t just come knocking — it barges in with streamers and maracas. If the connection between her world and this one is based on the Fade, could ideas... drift in some way? Could such drift be happening in both directions? Her mouth runs ahead of her ability to muzzle it. “My world has some truly bizarre intellectual dead-ends that would require an entirely different cosmology for them to make sense.” Fortunately, she manages to stop herself at the edge of the abyss that is a rant on homeopathy. “I wonder whether some of them actually are what a magnetic compass would be to you?” Conversely, what would she find if she were to go through this world’s archive of kookie scientific ideas? She prudently bites her tongue before she can blurt this out, but her expression must be evidence enough.

Solas’s eyes narrow, with surprise or speculation or both, and then his gaze turns inward on some arcane horizon. She collects a curious look from Dorian for her troubles.

“More smoke and mirrors,” Vivienne comments, but there are again notes of unease in her tone, and it refocuses Margo’s attention, flipping her perception of the situation on its head. Oh dear unspecified and unmerciful deity, this isn’t just a game of one-upmanship for the Orlesian mage. The Iron Lady really does believe her to be a demon or something like it. The disgust is not a show — it is a visceral reaction barely contained under the carapace of decorum. Ice scuttles down Margo’s spine. Madame de Fer is not the sort of enemy one wants afraid if one cares about one’s life expectancy.

“I can imagine a few of my compatriots might be quite interested in the practical applications of such ‘smoke and mirrors.’” Dorian’s comment aims for flippant, but falls askance, acquiring the edge of a warning.

Before the unpleasant silence can set up camp, Josephine takes it upon herself to dispel it, and Margo reiterates her mental oath of unconditional support in the case of a political coup. “While I am loathe to interrupt this lively debate, there is the issue of Commander Rutherford.” Josephine inclines her head in the direction of the man in question.

“I was not aware that I had become an issue , ambassador.” Cullen has cycled from puzzled, to flustered, to vaguely annoyed, to annoyed but possibly amused, to exhausted, and settled at the unlikely crossroads among all five emotions.

“Oh!” Josephine’s abashed expression and demure smile suggest that the apparent “slip” was, in fact, deliberate. “Not at all. If I understood correctly, you are, as it were, a counterargument to Madame Vivienne’s position. Perhaps Mistress Duvalle’s device is sensitive to lyrium after all? One way or another, I do not see why it would not merit further testing.”

“There are at least fifty witnesses who can corroborate that the Marquis’ endeavors exhibited no discernible results at all.”

“Provided the device was indeed the same,” Solas offers, the habitual mask of courteous neutrality firmly in place.

“Doesn’t look like it responds to mages, or the rest of us. Could test it on other templars,” Bull proposes. “If not, then we know it’s something about Cullen.”

Margo bites back an excited yelp. Of course. Bull — secret police spook that he is — is a smart cookie. Could it be something about the fact that Cullen is weaning himself from lyrium? What does lyrium do to one’s biology, exactly?

The former templar blanches, takes an awkward step further away from the table — with an expression like he fully expects the accursed compass to run up and start doing embarrassing things to his leg — and practically trips over Cassandra.

“While all of this is fascinating, haven’t we... ahm... digressed?” After some throat clearing, Cullen recovers his composure and turns to Margo, the only trace of his earlier discomfort in the speed at which he moves — as if he is in the middle of battle and not discussing magnetism over tea. “Since it was my request that started us on this path, I suppose I should offer my thoughts on the results.” He doesn’t wait for a confirmation before rushing on. “Mistress Duvalle, is it? I am inclined to believe you. Or, rather, I do not believe you a demon, or mad, or a spy. Beyond that, I am not sure I am equipped to draw any definitive conclusions.” A glance at Cassandra. After a brief hesitation, the Seeker takes a step forward.

“I am in agreement with Cullen, up to a point.”

Margo decides that this sudden ringing endorsement is a panicked gambit meant to steer the conversation away from the awkward topic of Cullen and Chantry-regulated substances. So she smiles, and she doesn’t have to fake the gratitude in her expression one bit.

“Good.” Torquemada, silent until then, gestures for those who remain standing to take a seat. “This is neither the time nor the place for a round of patriotic jousting among Orlais, Tevinter, and the Qun over who is most enlightened.” She pauses, letting the statement sink in. “Let us leave the gadget’s fondness for Commander Rutherford aside for the time being.” Margo blinks. Was that humor ? “From a certain perspective, I suppose it is also irrelevant, agent, whether you are, as you claim, an outworlder — or something else. What is important is that by this point I have absolutely no doubt that you are not Maile. And if so, then the only thing that matters is not whether this change occurred, but when it did, and whether you gain anything by lying about it. Let us look at what we do know already. Whatever you are, you have managed in your time here to secure allies within the inner circle. Both Solas and Dorian vouch for you, and I doubt that such support is driven by preexisting solidarity. You hold sway with the Herald. And yet, you have, on the surface at least, acted in the interests of the Inquisition. You have also managed to conceal your identity for long enough that I cannot imagine you would come forward now if you were merely acting out of crude self-interest. You claim your... situation is the effect of the Herald’s magic, and that this magic precedes Therinfal?”

Margo meets Torquemada’s gaze, and, for the first time that she can remember, there is a sense of something locking into place — a brief moment of mutuality. “Yes. I can attempt to provide you with more proof — material or rhetorical — if you ask, but I am doing it all in the service of this one point.”

The spymaster nods slowly. “You said you were a historian? Josie, do we have a calendar within easy reach?”

Josephine locates a vellum — seemingly via echolocation or some other arcane sense, as the scroll was entirely entombed in a mountain of paperwork.

“How should I address you? After all, I suppose it remains to be seen whether ‘agent’ will still be an accurate descriptor by the end of this conversation.”

Margo shrugs away the ominous pronouncement. “I have spent enough time in your interrogation room that a first-name basis seems appropriate.”

Leliana cocks an eyebrow. One corner of her lips twitches briefly — but it could be an effect of the light.

“Very well. Margo, then. Start with the beginning.” Leliana pores over the calendar. “With dates, if you would.”

Margo transmutes a nascent groan into a polite smile. Apparently, the erroneous belief that historians fetishize dates is truly universal. Before she can comply with the request, however, Vivienne stands up. Margo is not at all surprised to see the Orlesian say her goodbyes — to everyone except for Cole and her. She is surprised — and a little bereft — when Cole wanders off, with no goodbyes whatsoever except for briefly resting his cheek against the top of her head, his arms thrown awkwardly around her shoulders in a loose embrace — all of this followed by a shuddering sigh. That odd feeling of plenitude washes over her again. And then it is as if he was never there at all.

Dorian stifles a yawn, but, with Iron Bull firmly planted on his crate and looking ready to absorb new intelligence, the mage pours himself more tea, warming it with a quick flicker of his fingers. Margo’s eyes dart around the room, and she sees her own bone-deep exhaustion mirrored back in the faces of those who remain. Next to her, Solas settles into a chair. Margo steals a glance. It suddenly occurs to her that even against the backdrop of their collective weariness, late evenings suit him poorly. No wonder he longs to escape into sleep. He looks... worn thin. As if, by the end of the day, whatever shadows haunt him twine into an invisible cocoon — one from which he will eventually emerge other|than .

Margo straightens with a jolt, a sudden, awful feeling of vertigo twisting her stomach in a knot. She must have drifted off for a second. But that thought — and the voice that uttered it — didn’t feel like hers.

“Are you well, lethallan?” Just Solas, worried and weary.

“This day has overstayed its welcome,” Margo mutters, heart still beating too fast.

“I could not agree more.” Cassandra pours herself the cold dregs from the pot. Josephine winces at the unappetizing remains, and absents herself — presumably to call for fresh tea.

“Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of postponing. The quicker we have an accurate record of the events, the quicker we can begin making informed decisions.”

Maybe Torquemada is a vampire and sleeps during the day, hanging upside down from the chantry rafters.

One problem at a time. Margo takes a few seconds to organize her thoughts. The Fade stuff — beyond the initial attempt to conjure up Maile’s memories — should be reduced to a strict minimum and brought up only if asked directly. No one needs to hear about her little escapades with the resident apostate. No one needs to hear about Imshael. And no one needs to hear about Baba, or huts on chicken legs.

Whatever else this is, it is a military operation — viewing people as assets comes with the territory. They will likely want to know how she escaped Redcliffe. And they will want to know how far her alchemy skills can be pushed.

But, most importantly, what they need is a way to make sense of Evie.

Right. Margo exhales. All history is creative redacting.

“It all started with deathroot,” she begins.

***

It takes longer than hoped, and by the time she is done Margo is slumping in her chair and contemplating an Adan-style nap.

The scratching of Torquemada’s quill continues for another ten seconds or so, then the redhead returns the sharpened raven feather to its inkwell and leans back, expression unreadable.

Bull trains his good eye on Dorian, then switches his scrutiny to Solas. “So you didn’t just fail to tell me who she was before we all went to Redcliffe. You also failed to tell me she didn’t have military training.” For a few seconds he looks genuinely stunned. Then he whistles low and shakes his head from side to side. “Bas saare- fucking -bas.”

Josie winces.

Solas shrugs, unperturbed. “Perhaps you should give credit where it is due, Iron Bull. It would appear that you were none the wiser, and neither was your famed organization in providing you with the relevant intelligence.” He smiles thinly. “Consider that some secrets are so far outside the ordinary that they resist the crude extraction methods your ideology employs by virtue of a failure of its imagination.”

“You know that if Alexius had killed her it’d be all on you, right?”

“Enough!” Torquemada glares at them. “You can amuse yourselves with finger-pointing during your leisure hours at the tavern. For now, we have one priority: closing the Breach. Everything else will have to wait.”

She turns to Margo, that familiar speculative expression back with a vengeance.

“You have a knack for adaptation and survival, but the Iron Bull is correct. You are not military. Still, we would be remiss not to make use of the talents you do possess. Ironic. I suspect you would, with training, make a competent bard. It is something to consider.”

“Leliana, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Perhaps we should ask Mistress Duvalle what she would like to do? We do not even know whether she would wish to ally herself with us when given a choice — perhaps there are other options she is considering?” Josephine hands Margo a fresh cup of tea with a lovely smile. Margo nods gratefully. The question of alternative paths is a pretty fiction, of course, and Josephine knows this perfectly well, but Margo would be a horrible ingrate if she didn’t appreciate the face-saving gesture.

“What options, Josie? The Avvar?” Torquemada chuckles mirthlessly. “I strongly suspect that even if given the choice, Mistress Duvalle would opt to remain. Such is the nature of the bonds of affection and loyalty we forge, that they tether us in place, sometimes against our best interests.” The spymaster’s expression morphs subtly — ice thawing over dark waters — and Margo recognizes it with an unpleasant hollowness in the pit of her stomach. There is no gloating triumph, no grim satisfaction at having won another round. Leliana watches her with pure, unadulterated pity. “Is this not so... agent?”

Margo opens her mouth to respond. And then closes it.

“Indeed.” The spymaster sighs. “It is late. You will report back to me tomorrow. I will have Maile’s file for you to peruse. I am afraid that the best I can offer you is to subordinate your... predecessor’s identity to the new persona we will devise for you.” She looks up, her blue eyes still holding a trace of something close to sympathy. “If I may offer a piece of advice, agent... whoever Margarita Duvalle really was, I suggest you take a few hours to grieve her. And then lay her to rest.”

Chapter Text

By the time they are in view of the apothecary, the awkward silence that trails them from the war room and all the way into the wintry darkness has accrued so much gravitas that Margo suspects it’s on the verge of developing its own tastes in music and demanding pocket money. She tries to break it several times, but the words simply evaporate before they can pass her lips. The alley leading down to their shared courtyard is too dark to discern Solas’s expression, but even without the visual input, she has the impression he is seething quietly — she keeps expecting him to start emitting the ominous whomp whomp whomp of some finicky, dangerously overheating energy source about to go critical.

“I believe you may have acquired a neighbor.”

Margo almost jumps out of her skin.

“I acquired... What do you mean?” She rubs her eyes, trying to mobilize the scant remains of whatever is left of her intellectual capacity.

Solas takes pity on her, following the oblique statement with a surprisingly unambiguous explanation. “In your absence, the Tranquil alchemist you rescued from Redcliffe was assigned to help Master Adan. I believe he stays in the apothecary, as well.”

Oh. Margo considers this revelation and decides to preemptively shove the vaguely unpleasant emotional response it produces under the rug — at this stage, mostly out of principle. If she can’t identify it, off it goes with the rest of her unmentionables.

“On the upside, it would be nice to spread out the work Adan likes to outsource to me,” she offers, though her tone falls somewhat short of a full-fledged endorsement.

Solas does not dignify this with a response, but neither does he make any move to leave. They stand in the middle of the darkened courtyard, and the frost is biting through the soles of Margo’s boots. The left one is beginning to leak, too. Meanwhile, the elf is traipsing about in footwraps.

Margo decides to expedite the process. “Solas, what is it?”

When he speaks, his voice is a careful study in neutrality. “You are willing to go to great lengths to protect the Herald. I wonder if she knows how fortunate she is to inspire such steadfastness.”

Margo is grateful that the darkness is obscuring her frown. For all of its casual tone, it is hard not to read the utterance as a jab.

“Solas...” She is too wrung out and entirely too cold for this, but a debt is a debt. “Thank you for backing me up earlier — I apologize that I forced your hand and put you at risk. I owe you.”

Despite the gloom, she notices the flinch — he recoils as if slapped.

“I... No. There is no debt, fenor.” His voice is oddly subdued. “But you are loyal to a fault. This quality could easily be exploited, to your detriment. The spymaster will demand no less than for you to give yourself over to their cause, much as she has herself.”

Margo huffs something that might, with imagination, be mistaken for a chuckle. “ Their cause, Solas?” Since he offers no commentary, Margo continues. “Leliana presumes there is this thing called Margo Duvalle whose willing sacrifice she can use to ... bind me, I suppose. It’s the standard slippery slope scenario: you’ve already given up whoever you think you were, so what’s another compromise? And on it goes. But that’s just the thing. I think too much in terms of ecosystems for such an essentialized view of the self. We are the products of our entanglements with others.”

Eco- systems?”

“Systems of interdependencies between multiple lifeforms and their environments, if you will.”

He remains silent for a few heartbeats. “A compelling image. But interdependency does not demand self-sacrifice, and yet you would put Evelyn’s well-being above your own? Tell me, would you still risk yourself if you knew for certain that rendering the Herald Tranquil would not place her ability to close the Breach in peril?”

Margo forces herself to unclench her jaw and take a breath. “Considering that every time I catch sight of my reflection my first instinct is to scream, “Who the fuck is that?” — excuse my Orlesian — the last thing I’m willing to do is to take liberties with my chosen loyalties. There is little to anchor me in place as it is.” She is perfectly aware that she sounds testy, but there should be a daily limit to the amount of self-explaining one is forced to do. Besides, she has the distinct feeling the elf is fishing for a specific reaction or response — one that she is not giving. But instead of coming out with whatever is niggling him, he has set off to circumambulate the proverbial bush on a trajectory so wide it might as well be an orbit.

Another pregnant pause. “You continue to surprise me, lethallan.” He doesn’t sound pleased about that — the dominant sentiment seems to be resignation. “The Inquisition’s current leadership demands your collaboration without offering so much as a place to rest your head in return.”

“It’s called the Inquisition. Based on the homonymous historical phenomenon in my world, assuming that allies subsist on the rage of the devout and the tears of heretics probably comes with the territory.”

His chuckle sounds more exasperated than truly amused. “There is enough room in the house I was allocated to accommodate another occupant.”

“Anyway, Adan has been welc—... Pardon?”

“Unless you would find such proximity objectionable.”

When she is finally able to produce speech, Margo congratulates herself on not stammering. “Solas, you do realize what assumptions this will generate?” How exactly did they get from something that looks, sounds, and feels like an argument — or, minimally, a tense conversation — to... whatever this proposal is?

“Of course.” He appears suspiciously chipper about it. “Or, rather, what existing ones it will corroborate.”

Margo narrows her eyes, though her undoubtedly excellent rendition of the hairy eyeball is lost to the darkness. “Just... why? Why now?”

A flicker of light from Solas’s fingers, and an odd silence settles over them, nocturnal sounds muffled by whatever spell he has cast. The magic has the added benefit of shielding them from the wind, and Margo relaxes her shoulders a fraction. When Solas speaks, his voice is low despite what she suspects is the magical equivalent of soundproofing. “Your facility with the Fade is remarkable — and, considering the Avvar’s offer of shelter, remarked upon. And yet I could not help but notice that you modified your narrative in such a way as to obfuscate this aspect of your presence here from the assembled members of the inner circle. I am certain that, were you to mention it, the advisors would seek to find a use for any talent you might manifest.”

Margo stuffs her hands into her pockets. “I modified the narrative because I didn’t want to draw attention to your and Dorian’s involvement any more than I already had.”

She is pretty sure he nods. “Precisely.” A strange vehemence — just this side of anger — creeps into his tone. “Do you not find it curious that no one inquired as to your living situation, or asked you about your sources of income?”

“They know perfectly well what my situation — well, Maile’s situation — is already.” Ah. It has taken her entirely too long to follow his circuitous meanderings, but finally she is beginning to see the logic behind the obfuscations. “But yes, I suppose a swift change of status would raise inconvenient questions.”

Inside their muffled bubble, Solas begins to pace. “If you are to stay in the apothecary, you will reside in the company of an indifferent observer who will see no reason to withhold information if asked. The Nightingale is no more ignorant of your living arrangements than Lady Montilyet is likely to forget her manners and fail to offer hospitality to a foreign guest — unless such obliviousness serves the greater good. Inaction is itself a form of action, fenor.”

Margo sighs. “For a humble apostate, you have a remarkable facility with court intrigue. We have a conversation about that pending, yes?”

This time, his chuckle is amused. “Provided we survive closing the Breach.”

“Your point is that you are concerned that Clemence will be used to spy on me?”

“Eventually. My calling you elgar was no mere figure of speech. Your presence in our world is akin to that of a spirit in many ways — and never more so than when you dream. We do not know what consequences this will have on a nearby Tranquil.”

She can see the point. But the way he has staged the conversation does not escape her either: a proposal made in the middle of a dark, freezing courtyard, with nothing but the precarious envelope of his magic to shield them from prying ears and frostbite, seems symbolic of something more profound — a move that equalizes them on the surface, but serves to obscure the uneven distribution of risks. He is wearing footwraps and doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, after all.

“What are you trying to achieve, Solas?” Margo braces herself for more circuitous talk.

He tenses, then sighs quietly, some of the rigidity draining out of his posture. “I want to see this world restored, although the costs such restoration will no doubt incur fill me with sorrow. I want to keep that which I care about from harm, although I harbor no illusions that I should succeed.” His voice is light, melodic with a soft yearning. Margo stills. There is an odd ring of truth to what he says — all the more so because she can almost hear the things he leaves out. As if he is willing for her to guess the contours of some broader context — a strange pattern of speaking that reminds her of Goran and Cole. And, incidentally, of Baba. “For us to have a fighting chance, we must ensure the Breach is sealed, then seek the artifact that caused the rending of the Veil.”

Artifact?

“You have a sense of what might have caused the Breach?”

He hesitates. “I have my suspicions. There is a precedent for such magic, though all that presently remain are references in ruins and faint visions of memory in the Fade. Echoes of a dead empire.”

She knows of only one conspicuously dead empire in Thedas — thank you Brother Genitivi — which, come to think of it, is odd. How old is sentient life on this world? If it is anything like Earth, you shouldn’t be able to walk around without tripping over some lost civilization or another, so why the scarcity? Unless the good scholar had a political agenda in reducing the number of defunct societies to one. Meanwhile, the only other historically-minded fellow she might ask about this is standing right in front of her — and is apparently trying to maneuver her into bunking with him.

Margo firmly stomps out another hysterical fit.

There was a point to this madness. She raises a finger and wags it for emphasis. “You are saying that the magic that caused the Breach might have something to do with ancient elves, aren’t you?”

“I believe you would call it a working theory.”

Shit. If he is right, this bodes extremely poorly for contemporary elves. Whatever the ancient elves were, their modern descendants are uniquely vulnerable. She has seen how elves in the Inquisition’s employ carry themselves — and Genitivi completed the rest of the sociohistorical picture. When they are not outright enslaved as they are in Tevinter, elves seem to be exploited in unfavorable labor arrangements and confined to ghettos. And the Dalish do not appear to be doing particularly well, either — much like the Avvar, they have been pushed to the edges of ecological viability through this world’s variant of settler colonialism, as well as through overt campaigns of violent displacement. If Solas is right, they will get scapegoated.

Right. Nothing builds ideological solidarity among a dominant group like the occasional genocide.

“Oh, Void on a stick, I hope you’re wrong. There needs to be a plan for damage control if that turns out to be the case. Because, if your world is anything like mine, there will be bloodshed if this gets out, and more repercussions for the Inquisition. Evie is going to be divisive as it is — there will be enormous pressure on her to take on some stupid symbolic stance.”

“For now, we would be wise to ascertain whether my suspicions are correct.”

Margo narrows her eyes. “Do you have the concept of the royal ‘we’ in Common? Because I have the feeling you have been using it extensively.”

Another hesitation. “Stay with me, at least for the night, fenor. Then decide tomorrow where to reside, after you have spoken with the spymaster. In either case, we should not continue this discussion here — the muffling spell conceals our words but betrays the effort of their concealment.”

Margo sighs. He is probably a menace at chess. “Let me get this straight. If people assume we are... otherwise occupied, as it were, they are less likely to suspect that we are discussing politically sensitive topics?”

She can hear the smile in his voice. “It is fascinating that the two activities tend to be viewed as mutually exclusive.”

Margo doesn’t quite manage to suppress the snort. “Conniving snake.”

“A frog no longer, then? I suppose both are cold-blooded creatures.”

“Are you? A cold-blooded creature?” Ah, shit. She needs to put on the brakes. This will lead nowhere good. Although she is no longer sure which would be the worse decision — to share his bed or his politics, whatever they might be. That there is an agenda, however concealed, she no longer doubts for a second.

“I am not.” A pause. “There is a bedroll I can use, and you are welcome to the bed. But please, unless you find the cold enjoyable, might we move indoors?”

Margo shakes her head, then shrugs. “Fine. You win. Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

Margo selects a bench in the corner of the hut to deposit her meager garb and proceeds to occupy herself with various necessary rituals — hanging up the sheath containing Molly on a hook, taking the books out of her pack so that the pages don’t get damp and moldy, brushing her teeth with Goran’s propolis paste — a flurry of activity that has the added benefit of stalling.

Once she runs out of things to do, some awkward and terse negotiations ensue over who will take the bedroll. Margo points out that she needs a bath and should therefore be the one using the already questionably clean travel gear. Solas proceeds to wordlessly ozonize her, and then insists once again that she take the bed. It goes on like that for a few more turns. Eventually, the weariness begins to feel like a physical weight pressing her into the ground, so Margo suggests, with no small degree of fatalism, that they have both slept in close quarters before anyway, and, really, is there a point to standing on ceremony at this stage? Solas dutifully protests, but not too vehemently.

In the end, the bedroll remains unused.

They settle against each other a bit skittishly under the familiar threadbare blanket. The awkward proximity slowly turns into an embrace that seeks to define its own contours without bringing them into the light of voiced negotiation. Margo has the distinct feeling Solas is letting her set the terms, so she huddles closer, tucking her face against his collarbone. He smells pleasantly of thunderstorms, pine resin, and the ubiquitous woodsmoke that not even his cleaning spells can fully exorcise. With Margo against him, the elf stills, as if suddenly unsure of what to do with himself. And then his hand comes up to tangle loosely in her hair. His other arm snakes beneath her ribs, encircles her, and pulls her in. Another few heartbeats of anxious immobility. She hooks one leg over him, and shifts, closing the remaining distance. There is a flustered, mildly indignant, “Oh.” He angles his hips, his thigh pressing between her legs, and Margo shudders with a ragged sigh. It takes every ounce of her willpower not to move her own hips in invitation to the next logical steps. There was a thought somewhere in there about why this would not be a good idea, but it feels rather irrelevant at the moment. Even through the coarse fabric of his tunic she can feel his heart hammering a staccato rhythm.

“There is something I would welcome your opinion on, if you are willing to meet me in the Fade.” Solas’s voice is low and rough.

“And here I thought you were trying to get me into bed to talk politics.”

There is something delightful about his surprised laugh. “I have gotten you into bed — talking politics would simply be an enjoyable side benefit.” His hand detangles from her braid and cups her jaw. He tilts her chin up, seeking eye contact. “However, sleep would serve us both well, and this is a matter that should not be delayed indefinitely.” His thumb settles into tracing the contour of her cheekbone, his touch feather-light, but his expression turns uneasy. “Have you visited Haven in the Dreaming?”

Margo frowns. The only two cases where she was in the Fade version of Haven involved Imshael. Her heart rate picks up — not at all pleasantly. How many days have passed since she struck her bargain with the cosmic asshole? Not a month yet, she is certain of that, but time is ticking. Maybe the bastard has one of those Advent calendars where each day elapsed comes with a little chocolate.

“Fenor?”

“Only the inside of buildings, as far as I remember. The bathhouse and your hut, to be precise.” She notes the crease between his eyebrows and lets one hand drift to the back of his neck, her fingers tracing the muscles there — gently at first, then a little more firmly, coaxing the tension out. A long time ago, Baba had tried to teach her bonework — the art of mending injuries with her hands — but Margo turned out to be a mediocre pupil. Another gift of the matriline that mostly went to Jake — or perhaps would have awakened in her daughter, had she lived. That sort of thing often skips a generation, Baba explained, with a look of mild disappointment. Margo never managed to get past the basic skill of easing the knots.

Still, sometimes even simple things are good enough. She watches Solas’s eyelids drop to half-mast and his lips part on a soft exhalation — before he refocuses his gaze.

“You have not seen the Breach?”

It is as if someone doused her with cold water, shocking her out of her drowsiness. “It is not the same from the Fade? What does it look like?” The cocktail of dread and curiosity makes for a heady mixture, and Margo forces herself to slow down her breathing.

Solas nods. “The Fade is an amalgam of infinitely multiplied perspectives and thus offers no single answer. I admit that I am curious about how you might experience the Breach from the Dreaming side, though it would be prudent if I were there with you, in case there are... unforeseen consequences.” She can feel his arm tighten around her. The fingers of his free hand trail along her hairline, brushing away the stray tendrils.

Margo can feel the tension draining out of her, which has the felicitous effect of freeing up some mental capacity for a quick analysis. “Because, as you said, I rendered as a spirit of sorts when I was pulled here... or what was the Elvhen word for it? Elgar ?” She frowns. “Is the translation into Common an accurate one, by the way?”

“No, fenor, it is a vast oversimplification.”

“Everything is a ‘vast oversimplification’ with you,” she chuckles, and she jabs him gently in the ribs with her finger, to a satisfying little “hmpf.” “What do you see the Breach as?”

His chest rises with a sigh. “I would be happy to share it with you afterwards — provided you stop attempting to tickle me. However, the Fade responds to the expectations of the dreamer.”

“Aha. So whatever you tell me would potentially affect my perception?” She mulls this over. “Interesting. Is this because, in the Fade, the act of perceiving actually modifies the object being perceived? Wait a second, then wouldn’t your act of perceiving affect my act of perceiving in real time as well? Or is it an independent phenomenon — could we be looking at the same thing but seeing two different interpretations?”

He hesitates before answering. She has the feeling he is formulating — or rather, trying to translate — some linguistically unwieldy concept. “The Fade is not a uniform landscape, as you have no doubt discovered. However, one common feature is the absence of clear separation between the subject and the object of perception. Nothing exist ‘independently,’ and thus one dreamer’s point of view is no less valid than another’s — both constitute the memories that give the Dreaming form, like specks of moisture that, collectively, might coalesce into a cloud. Although such an analogy is flawed.”

“Can there be a point of view from which such ‘clouds’ are perceived in their totality?”

“No. As with a cloud, at most you could encounter it from a singular direction, but its shape would then be a function of your point of view.”

Margo opens her mouth to respond, then has to stifle a yawn against Solas’s shoulder. She wants to continue this conversation — the model works well enough for inanimate objects but does not explain what happens when there are multiple competing agents doing the perceiving — but she is finally warm and almost criminally relaxed. Was there really a time when she thought that this mattress was too hard? Apparently, sleeping in dungeons rearranges one’s idea of creature comforts.

“Ah.” His soft chuckle reverberates through her. “We can resume this discussion on the other side.”

“Convenient, that.” She yawns again and lets her eyes drift closed. The last thing she hears before fading out is a quiet “ dream, heart ” whispered into her hair.

***

The transition to Fade-side is almost seamless, likely because Solas is modulating the process. The two of them are in the same position as they were when she closed her eyes — the only indication that this is the Fade is the subtle green tint of the light filtering through the window.

“The cloud analogy...”

She doesn’t get a chance to finish. There is a flicker of surprise in his expression — as if he did not expect her to follow — and then Solas rolls over her, and covers her mouth with his. For a brief instant, before the kiss turns deep and greedy, Margo has the bandwidth for a half-formed thought about whose dream this is, but it dissipates like mist on the wind. And then she loses herself to the sensations.

“Why are things easier for you on this side?” she manages when they finally break apart. Her voice sounds embarrassingly breathy.

He rises up on his forearms and peers down at her, his eyes crinkling with a soft, fond sort of amusement — the expression heart-wrenchingly unguarded. For a second, she gets a glimpse of what lies beyond the hazy glow of desire — a flash of something like bereavement long since turned chronic, and beneath it, in the murky depths, a complicated emotion, the ingredients of which she cannot identify beyond an abstract sort of longing for respite.

“It is the Fade.” His gaze has an almost tactile quality, like the memory of a touch. “Everything one experiences here is a matter of perception, and thus, with the correct approach, one is less constrained by the impositions of physical embodiment. You do not mention it often, but you still find your waking body uncomfortable, do you not?”

“Not uncomfortable per se, just... difficult to ignore. Anyway, that is not quite an answer.” Margo deliberates between two equally tempting possibilities: to see whether nipping at his throat — exposed and all the more inviting for it — might produce an interesting reaction; or to pursue the puzzle of the Fade as a matter of collective and presumably competing points of view.

Unable to pick, she opts for both.

“If Fade bodies are products of perception, too, then who — or what — is doing the perceiving? Or the experiencing?”

“A philosophical question.”

“Actually, a practical one. Say, were I to do this...” She proceeds with her plan — and, as it turns out, there is a particularly sensitive little hollow right underneath the corner of his jaw. Grazing it with her teeth not only produces a satisfyingly dramatic shudder but also backfires spectacularly because he retaliates — with dividends.

There used to be more clothes, Margo is quite certain of that — it is a mystery where most of them have gone. He keeps his kisses deep but his touch light — more allusion than claim, more promise than act — his fingers trailing the contours of her skin’s sensitive zones without ever resolving the ambiguity. Where his hands pass, her body tingles with an odd afterimage — as if the experiences of touching and of being touched overlap in a haptic version of double exposure.

In no time at all, he has her arching against him and on the verge of incoherent begging — which, at least, has the benefit of confirming Margo’s original hypothesis. “You sneaky cheat!” she breathes, the indignation clearing her mind a little. “You never told me the point of view can travel — that’s... that’s...” She stammers. “Not playing fair!” At least, she can feel vaguely vindicated that her predicament is reciprocated — the elf’s pupils are blown so wide that the outer rims of his irises are reduced to narrow silver slivers. She shifts a little, accommodating his weight, and is rewarded with a quiet growl. His Fade avatar offers a rather precise physical facsimile of all the symptoms of arousal, and her thoughts scramble again with the raw need to bridge that final distance.

“Sneaky?” Solas glides against her just so, and Margo gasps. “What aspect of this strikes you as ‘sneaky’?” His voice is strained. His hand travels under her tunic — or whatever flimsy garment the Fade decided to substitute in its stead. “Terribly, inexcusably unwise, yes.” His thumb traces the outer curve of her breast, the movement excruciatingly unhurried. Another gliding motion that lingers with the suggestion of more — if not for the rather unsubstantial barrier of fabric that still separates them — and Margo tries and fails to bite back a low moan, her hips bucking to meet him. “Risking attracting unwanted attention from demons, certainly.” His fingers continue on their journey, as if he is outlining her without ever settling into anything more demanding — and suddenly the touch is not nearly sufficient. Her hands seek skin, and soon enough her palm is trailing down the smooth ridges of his abdomen. For a brief second she marvels at the physical verisimilitude of his Fade avatar — down to the labored breathing and racing heartbeat — but then her hand slides lower and his ragged gasp dissipates all capacity to think. “Something we should not be indulging in at this location, absolutely.” Another movement of his hips, much firmer now. Heat coils in her belly. Margo fists her free hand in his shirt. Apparently, the dream bothered even less with that particular article of clothing. She can only register its texture, but not any other aspects of it.

Maybe there is a surplus pile of clothes in some pocket dimension of the Fade — all items meant to be used as props in raunchy dreams, and thus discarded anyway, so no one invests too much cognitive effort into what they look like. For all she knows, the shirt might be a particularly heinous shade of mauve.

The sheer absurdity of the sudden thought somehow manages to break through the haze. That, and the vaguely tormented look in Solas’s eyes.

Margo stills. Since banging under a cloud of guilt-ridden self-loathing overridden by a kind of misguided grim resolve strikes her as a particularly joyless exercise, the least they can do — if they are to travel this path anyway — is provide each other with some levity.

She hooks her legs around him — mostly to prevent the elf from repeating the gliding trick, because one or two more of those and she will lose all ability or motivation to think coherently — and circles her arms around his neck.

“Yes. Sneaky. Sneaky and devious.” She somehow manages a teasing smirk, but then her gaze is drawn to his mouth. She swallows. Focus. Think. But the temptation turns out to be too much, and she traces his lower lip with her thumb. She aims for sweet, rather than suggestive. He nips at the offending digit, but his eyes are clearing, lust and a regretful sort of guilt now vying for space with a glimmer of curiosity, and, once again, cautious amusement. She feels his body relax against hers, the thrumming tension dissipating a fraction.

“A ringing endorsement as per usual, I see. Very well. What gave you the impression that I am being ‘sneaky’?”

She grins up at him. “I’m not that easy.”

He looks confused, alarmed, and then vaguely offended. “I would never...”

“No, no, not in that sense... never mind, there is no way to solve this gracefully. What I mean is that I had a theory, and you provided some answers. Here, help me up.”

A brief hesitation, and then he maneuvers them into a sitting position, Margo now straddling his lap. She is not certain this is an improvement, as far as sticking with the tamer version of the program is concerned — but it will have to do.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but it almost seems that competing points of view here are a... matter of unstable equilibrium. They are not independent variables, in any case.”

“An intriguing turn of phrase. Care to elaborate?”

“Earlier, when you were... ahm… exploring...” She wonders if the heat in her cheeks corresponds to a visible blush. “It was as if my experiences of it had an echo of yours.” Solas lifts an eyebrow but, bless him, does not comment. “Well, in any case, we are collocated in the Fade, but the vantage point is skewed towards you, isn’t it?” She needs a less clunky vocabulary for this. “What I want to know is whether the median point of the dream can be pushed back, as if along a shared sliding scale.”

Solas cycles through a kaleidoscopic array of expressions too fleeting to read, then his face shutters. He does not release her, however, his hands gripping her hips almost painfully. “It is rumored that a skilled mage may invade and exert influence on the dreams of others, if that is what you mean, but such action would most likely be violent in nature.” His tone is a tad too neutral.


“Ah. Interesting. But that’s not what I am trying to articulate.” Margo settles more comfortably. “There is no point from which one can grasp the totality of all perspectives, right? But what about at smaller scale? Could one move the vantage point around between, say, two subjects? Could I move all the way into your perspective, or you into mine? I don’t mean through violent means, but, rather, consensually?”

This time Solas adds a quiet chortle to his raised eyebrow, his lips quirking at one corner. “Any particular circumstances under which you would wish to undertake such an experiment?”

Bastard. “ Collaboratively ,” Margo corrects. “No need to be smarmy about it, it’s a perfectly legitimate question.” Her eyes widen with a sudden insight. “Wait... Alternatively, could different viewpoints be merged completely, producing a third, rather than an overlay between two?” She practically bounces up and down with the excitement of the idea — if only she’d had the concept of the Fade to draw on, explaining Hegel to her students would have been so much easier. The bouncing, come to think of it, is rather unkind on her part. “Could such a thing be attempted? If not by dreamers, then what of spirits? Cole almost seems to do something similar in the way he mind-reads.”

Solas swallows, and for a second he appears gripped by an odd, contradictory panic. Margo has the distinct impression that her words have transmuted, acquiring some added, hidden meaning for him. Finally, the elf shakes his head. “It is not a simple question. I do not believe that... merging perspectives is possible under the current circumstances. At the very least, this close to a massive tear in the Veil, the Fade is unpredictable and nothing of the sort should be pursued.” He lets go of her hips and captures her hands in his, his gaze clouded with some overcomplicated amalgam of feelings. “Vhenan...” Margo starts at the almost forgotten moniker. “We should not linger. We allowed ourselves to get carried away, but such behavior can attract unwanted scrutiny. Haven is protected, after a fashion — as you shall see — but I would not wish to try our luck more than we have.” His lips quirk. “Not here, in any event — some places are safer than others.”

At some point during the last part of their conversation, the Dreaming returned their clothes.

“Walk with me.” He helps her stand.


Margo nods, and follow him out of the hut. She has to bite the inside of her cheek. His back does offer a rather nice view — except that his shirt is unquestionably, unapologetically mauve.

She wonders if he is aware of this fact.

Chapter Text

In the chartreuse glow, the masonry of the chantry appears ethereal, almost translucent — although that’s not quite the right description. The structure — soaring, majestic and so very fundamental on the Waking side — feels flimsy and a little cheap, like a Hollywood movie prop for a low budget fantasy flick. In fact, most of Haven has that quality — except for a few buildings that, unremarkable as they are architecturally, feel thick with a sense of “thereness.” The “thicker” structures are also curiously loud — as if woven from whispers, though Margo cannot make out the voices or words. The puzzle of the uneven architectural landscape clicks into place quickly enough, and she gapes, heart fluttering at the incredible implications of it. Oh dear unspecified and unfathomable deity, once she realizes what she’s looking at it is as if a bomb has gone off somewhere, and she is stunned into speechlessness by the distant shockwave.

She can see historical depth. Not through the filters of her training, mind you. See it as the unmistakable qualia of the world itself.

But this is not what has her digging her nails into the palms of her hands, teeth clenched against an involuntary shudder of revulsion.

“Holy hell on a sesame bagel. All right. Explain to me what I’m looking at.”

Solas casts her a side glance. “I take it you are able to see it. I must admit I sometimes forget how peculiar your idioms can be.”

It’s not quite sarcasm — it’s wry yet gentle — but it still makes Margo conclude that the awful thing surrounding the temple — and expanding into a sort of dome over much of Haven — is setting his teeth on edge, too.

“Says the guy in the mauve shirt,” she retorts, a bit caustically, because trading barbs —however much on autopilot — distracts her from the desire to turn on her heels and bolt in a random direction. “Yes, I can see it. Whatever it is.”

Solas takes a perfunctory look at his cuff, offers a half-shrug, and returns to his contemplation of the chantry. “Not to your liking?” There is a tiny little shift to the color — or, rather, to her perception of the color — and the mauve quickly moves from the territory of “washed-up-aging-ex-frat-boy-on-Spring-break” and into “Leftist-artist-in-smoky-Bohemian-coffeeshop.” It also brings out the stunning violet hue of his eyes.

Margo throws up her hands with a disgusted groan. “You know what? That’s it. I give up.”

“I doubt you are capable of giving up, but that is a conversation for another day. What do you see?”

Margo scrunches her brow in a look she normally would reserve for that special undergraduate paper that starts with “ From time immemorial...

“An impressively large, crinoline-shaped formation made of... veins? Interconnected vessels?” She cocks her head to the side and squints. “Tentacles?”

Solas nods, as if her inarticulate lexical fumbling makes perfect sense. “It is a set of wards — old, and yet remarkably intact safe for the area over the dome.” He motions with his hand, designating an uneven gap in the dark, writhing, glistening mess — calling it a lattice feels a bit too poetic, though there is certainly a method to the twisting strands of... whatever it is. The awful thing would have made H.R. Giger throw in the towel and retire to paint charming maritime landscapes.

“Is it some kind of magic?” Margo asks, her eyes drawn to the jagged edges of the hole. It’s ringed with independently moving cilia, like a particularly repulsive sea anemone.

“A species of blood magic — or, at the very least, blood magic was deployed to give the wards their power.”

“I know that the Chantry strongly disapproves of it, but if this is indeed what blood magic looks like, I can’t say I blame them. It is...” Margo breathes through a wave of queasiness. “Most unpleasant.”

“It is possible that what you perceive is a reflection of the amount of blood that would have been expended to support a spell of this caliber, and, by extension, of the death and suffering that it would have required.”

“Oh.” It feels like something inside her shakes loose and enters free fall. “Fuck me.”

“I presume this is more idiomatic language, rather than a request?” His lips quirk.

Margo forces her gaze away from the horrid thing — it is magnetic, like watching a car crash in slow motion. “I see your sexual innuendo- qua -distraction, and I raise you a calling-you-on-your-bluff.” She waves in the general direction of the grotesque cocoon. “Unless you are legitimately asking me whether I find this sort of thing stimulating, in which case the answer is a resounding no.”

She is perfectly well aware that she’s babbling — but it has the benefit of taking her attention away from the awful imagery her mind is trying to conjure relative to the arithmetic problem of units of blood required per spell segment and human bodies required per unit of blood. The vaguely malignant sprawl is simply massive .

All right. She can deal with this. Treat it as a logistical issue. The Writhing Crinoline of Doom is a ward, which presumably means that it is designed either to prevent something from entering or to stop something from exiting. Margo is entirely unsure which is the less alarming prospect, because the “structure,” such as it is, comes equipped with a hole — a very conspicuous hole, located right over the chantry dome. Now, what is the relationship between clause (a) — namely, Crinoline of Doom — and clause (b) — namely, hole in yonder hellish cosmic petticoat?

“If it were, in fact, a request, I suppose we could arrange ourselves to face in the opposite direction, though I fear the view would not be much of an improvement.”

Right. What big teeth you have, dear granny. The opposite way is the Breach. She isn’t going to look. No, sir.

Margo gives Solas the stink eye. “Now you’re just taking the piss.”

“Yes.” He pauses, still contemplating. “I suspect you rather enjoy it.”

“Has anyone mentioned to you that you’re an arrogant ass?”

“Not once.”

Margo just shakes her head. Solas’s fingers lace through hers, his grip on her hand a welcomed anchor. “I also find that humor has the benefit of distracting me from the nausea. I take little pleasure in contemplating this abomination.” His tone is light, but there is a tightness around his eyes that Margo quickly identifies as anger.

“Do you have a sense of what the wards were used for?”

Solas tilts his head, his expression pensive. “I can venture a number of guesses. While the Chantry denounces blood magic, it also does not understand its nature. There is an antithetical relationship between blood magic and the Fade.”

“An antithetical relationship?” Margo attempts to imagine what he might mean — does Fade magic stand in an agonist-antagonist relationship to blood magic? Or is one a kind of reaction inhibitor for the other? Unless chemistry is the wrong framework to draw upon. “Genitivi’s history talked about ancient Tevinter magisters entering the Fade physically through, essentially, the mass murder of enslaved elves, yes? Provided there is some historical truth behind it, is this antagonism between the two forms of magic why they chose that route?” Margo frowns. Some half-buried idea draws her attention and she tries to capture it before it wiggles away, back into the mucky mess that passes for her knowledge of this new world. “Wait a second, is blood magic the same order of phenomenon as the Veil thinning at sites of great battles or mass death?”

Solas nods slowly. “The Veil is a vibration of sorts that forms a barrier to separate the Fade from the waking world. Blood magic can be used to interfere with this vibration — to pull a spirit through and bind it to a mage’s will, for instance — but it may be equally deployed with the opposing goal in mind: to repel the Fade, like oil and water.”

“One thing I am still rather fuzzy on is whether the Veil is a natural phenomenon, or an artificial one. If the latter, cosmological speculations on the Maker aside, then it seems to me that making it vulnerable to blood magic was an... oversight?”

The elf gives her a very odd look.

“Anyway, sorry. Cosmological tangent.”

He clears his throat. “Not so tangential as all that, but a question we might pursue some other time?” He returns his gaze to the writhing lattice. “These wards predate the Breach. It would appear that someone created them either to keep the Fade and its inhabitants at bay or to contain something within. In either case, it would explain why Haven has been spared the appearance of new rifts and is inhabited by remarkably few demons, despite its bloody history.”

“Whatever the wards were, they’re compromised now. Something blew a hole through them.” Margo, who is not above stating the obvious, has a horrible theory about what that something might have been. It would be lovely to be wrong.

“And very recently.”

She sighs. No such luck, then. “Evie?” she asks.

There is a weary hunch to his shoulders. “Perhaps indirectly so, but that was my initial thought as well. The damage was not present prior to the trial.”

Margo decides that if she never has to visit Fade Haven again, she won’t shed one measly tear.

“So, let me get this straight. Either the killings in the chantry thinned the Veil and interfered with the wards, or Evie’s pulling spirits through, however partially, did the same.” But that leaves them with the biggest puzzle of all — what precisely Evie’s magic is. Margo turns her gaze away from the Tentacled Petticoat of Beelzebub and finds a nice, innocuous spot in the snow to stare at while she thinks. “Indulge me as I talk through this, all right?”

“Always.” Soft and velvety.

She can’t help the small smile. Incorrigible flirt. “It seems that what you are saying is that there are, at the core, two fundamental types of magical energy, for lack of a better term. One is derived from the Fade, and the other from blood. So far so good?”

Solas nods. “That is one way to parse it, yes.” He looks genuinely intrigued over where she might be going with this thought — and Margo promptly flushes with pleasure and then proceeds to kick herself for it. Oh, but it really is the ones you want to talk to that are trouble. Thank you, Baba, for your ever-prescient advice.

“Ok. So the next logical level of abstraction is what makes the two commensurate, right? Or at least comparable. Blood suggests life force, so let’s say that blood magic is derived from, specifically, biological life. Which is to say, from the lifeforce of embodied beings on the waking side. Does it mean, then, that Fade magic harnesses the life force of spirits? Because, if so, then what I want to know is where this leaves necromancy.”

There is a very long pause. “It is... an interesting model, albeit unorthodox from the perspective of modern magical theory. I would be curious as to how you might use it to explain the Herald.”

He does sound... curious. But also oh-so-very cagey. Margo narrows her eyes. “I have a theory in that regard.”

Damn it, but the elf’s “intrigued, keep going” face will get her up shit creek eventually, because it’s the one thing she doesn’t seem able to say no to. She has never been one to chase intellectual approval — so why is she now, and why with this man in particular?

“Very well. You ready?” She takes his smile as sufficient encouragement. “I think Evie’s hex is not some curse or spell imposed from the outside. I think it’s inherent to her, but twisted. Wait, wait, don’t frown, this will make sense...” She lets go of his hand and begins to pace. “If we assume necromancy itself to be a kind of game of probability, then it’s the simplest explanation. Let’s take it apart, yeah? There is a particular probability, however low, that at any given moment a spirit might cross the Veil into the waking world. There is a particular probability that a soul might cross the other way — and, effectively, die.” His expression shifts from puzzlement to sudden understanding, and Margo tries to ignore the jolt of electricity that this sends through her. She is gesticulating wildly, but she’s always talked with her hands, and there is no helping it at this stage. “Now, let’s assume you could cheat, and skew this probability. Isn’t that what the luck siphon does, at its root? Those odds of crossing depend on infinitely complex and changing variables, sure, but if Evie’s magic works on the odds themselves , then everything else simply...” Margo waves her hands, suddenly grasping for the right words.

“Falls into place to fit them,” Solas completes for her. His eyes are positively luminous.

Margo makes a herculean effort not to jump up and down and clap her hands like an excited toddler. “Yes! And if so, here’s the kicker — from this perspective, magic in your world and magic in mine are not so fundamentally different! The difference is in degree, not in quality. Because, you see, then you can view all schools of magic as simply ways of skewing the odds — the odds of a lightning bolt striking at a designated target, the odds of something spontaneously combusting, the odds of a wound healing... And that’s how my people have been thinking of magic.” She almost adds “ from time immemorial .”

He is nodding about half-way through her hypothesizing. “Yes. Yes, an elegant theory. I will have to think on whether the practical aspects fit with your description. In any event, it would appear that the Herald is capable of controlling a process that modern necromancy considers outside of its purview.” He scowls in mild distaste. “From what I understand, necromancers believe that a soul passing through the Veil displaces a spirit in the process, thus making it available for a mage to draw into a corpse.”

“Right, your necromancers have a conservation law in play. I can work with that.” Margo quashes the sudden urge to smooth her thumb over the sharp line of Solas’s arched eyebrow and grins, probably a little dementedly. “You know, this would effectively make Evie into Maxwell’s demon.”

Whose demon , heart?”

This time, she has no doubts whatsoever that her grin is inappropriately gleeful, and, to make matters worse, Margo has to fight the urge to kiss the damn elf — Cosmic Corset of the Apocalypse in the background notwithstanding. There is absolutely no reason why Solas’s expression of amused confusion should be so fetching, but... well. And, to be fair, he is eyeing her with a peculiar look that suddenly makes her sympathize with the hypothetical subject position of things typically classified as “dessert.”

“It’s a thought experiment proposing a scenario that violates the second law of thermodynamics. Imagine you have a gas distributed between two chambers connected by a narrow aperture...”

Margo goes through the explanation of the original law and its paradoxical refutation quickly enough, and, judging by Solas’s expression and occasional questions, he follows her description with a kind of pleasurable ease. By the time she is done with the classical model — complete with the annoying little demon serving as the gate-keeping bureaucrat sorting the particles into faster and slower ones — his face has acquired a dreamy, speculative cast. Margo decides that he has already absorbed the theory and is transposing it onto a new context.

The same faraway quality infuses his voice when he speaks. “It would explain most of what we have witnessed since Therinfal. The exchange between the templar and Envy fits the pattern you propose, as does the Herald’s demonstration in the chantry. Still, much remains unclear. Not least of which is how she managed to acquire so much control in so limited a time.” When Solas turns to face her, his eyes are alight with whatever mental calculations are firing off as he fits the model to what he knows, and Margo has a brief, vertiginous moment of déjà vu. “We also do not know the exact mechanism behind the magic that brought you here, since it occurred before Cole’s intervention. If your theory is correct, it would appear that something bent the odds very far indeed — I doubt it was solely the Herald. I will have to think on this further.”

“Whatever it was, it had something to do with the Breach — which is what you brought me here to see.” Margo sighs. Well, no time like the present. “All right. I am going to stop facing the Cosmic Armature of Supreme Unpleasantness, turn around, and behold the Cosmic Fuckup That Is the Breach. Would you like me to give you a detailed description of what I see?”

“Only if it involves further vivid analogies.”

This time, Margo is the one to seek his hand. “You know... you are in a suspiciously chipper mood, all things considered.”

A devilish little glint dances in Solas’s eyes. “Is my good humor so surprising?” He pauses. “I can imagine far less pleasurable fates than a night spent in your company.”

There is warmth in his smile and heat in his eyes. Margo sighs. Apparently, there is no escaping the warm and fuzzies — not even in the Fade.

“Sweet-talker.” Then she takes a deep breath, releases it, and turns towards the Breach. “Oh. Well, it looks just like—”

For the split second before her gaze is entrapped by the non-Euclidean depth of the swirl and her consciousness warps, stretches, and splinters, ragged pieces of her essence dragged violently towards the event horizon of the incomprehensible thing above her, Margo has time for a single thought.

She still hasn’t found out whether there really are dragons.

Chapter Text

It’s not pain, exactly. It is a feeling for which she has no description or road map, aside from what a piece of lint might experience when sucked in slow motion into a vacuum cleaner. The part of her that still coheres is annoyed by this: barring very specific psycho-spiritual techniques Margo has only read about — and that did not come prepackaged as a convenient app on a smartphone — being present for one’s own death isn’t exactly something most people get to practice. At first, it is relatively easy to hold the pieces together, as she (they) are collectively pulled into (apart) what looks like an Escher-esque tunnel that is simultaneously coiling in(out)ward. Time elapsed brings the subjective experience of ac(de)celeration. She feels herself parsed into disintegrated components, her awareness of herself stretched to the breaking point between aspects that had always been held together. Consciousness multiplies, thins out, and flickers at the edge of final fragmentation. For a brief moment — though time has lost relevance — she (or something like it) can see herself as a self-enclosed weave of luminescent fibers, each strand complete and sufficient in itself, yet fused with others to form a greater totality. (The thing that used to be) Margo looks (to whatever remains to observe it) like an egg — or something vaguely oblong and encapsulated — and the shape of it feels right , but also incomplete, as if it is meant to fit somewhere, and not just float about like useless cosmic flotsam. Its isolation is tragic, and a little comical, in that vaguely embarrassing sort of way — even as (especially as) it unravels — though there is no entity left that might be experiencing amusement or embarrassment or sorrow in witnessing this process, and thus the only way to account for these emotions is that they are experiencing themselves.

This far into the tunnel, whatever-remains-to-observe suddenly realizes that it(she) is not alone — that it is superseded and overtaken by other feelings-in-themselves. It watches the warm, softly pulsating awareness-that-is-hope float past, victim to the same entrapment — it is much lighter, a delicate gossamer mesh to its(her) bulky entwinements. It freezes in place and slowly dims at the center of the tunnel that involutes into the surface of something unfathomably huge. And then, instead of vanishing completely, the elegant gossamer being changes. Slowly, in moth-eaten bits, then faster and catastrophically, its very essence is torn and rearranged. It be|comes other|than. In this form, it can pass through the tunnel easily — whatever milieu awaits it on the other side no longer resists it. Whatever-remains-to-observe shrinks back, struggles against the forward flow. The new shape feels wrong, as if the awareness-that-is-hope-no-longer can never again fit with anything, not even itself, lost to the singular impulse to re|make everything it can reach, in a monstrous craving to relieve the howling agony of its isolation by turning everything into itself — or extinguish it.

A Hungry Ghost.

Converted, it shrieks, enraged and despairing, then fades away through the tunnel that is also the flip side of a surface.

Despite the struggle, the forward motion reduplicates. Awareness-that-is-amusement is propelled past it(her). The creature sparkles, light grey, its movements awkwardly endearing as it flails against the undertow. It looks at once like a chubby tardigrade, and a shiny ball of downy fuzz. Whatever-remains-to-observe doesn’t want to see the little thing become altered. It(she) tries to turn heavy and sluggish and clog the tunnel. Reaches for former fragments, scattered but not yet gone. Panic sets in. Too small, too light. Pieces scattered, too far. Forgetting. Groping for the memory of a familiar shape, for something that would offer an anchor before the corruption eats everything away...

***

“Plucked!” Baba announces with a sharp clap of her dark, bony hands — the sound like a branch snapping — and follows it up with a self-satisfied cackle. Margo returns to herself with a lurch. For a very long moment, she has no idea where — or who — she is. The only solid, recognizable anchor is the old woman.

Slowly, as if from underwater, she takes in the inside of the hut. Enough context returns to make her wonder whether it is just the regular old village house from her memory or the folkloric mobile home of the poultry persuasion. Her eyes are drawn to the collection of wooden dolls — dark, heavily stylized, and seemingly rudimentary carvings all lined up like sightless homunculi along the the sideboard that houses Baba’s eclectic altar. Fear yanks at something inside her. Margo can only recall two occasions when Baba brought out these particular ritual objects.

She tries to move, but the world tilts off axis, and she finds herself on all fours, dry-heaving over a chipped enameled basin. When she finally straightens, the dolls are gone, and Margo wonders if she imagined them.

Baba, unperturbed, proceeds with her work, stooping over the clay stove, where a cheap aluminum pot, pockmarked and fire-stained, rests in a cooling water bath. The old woman strains the pot’s contents — a viscous orange liquid with a strong, nutty, medicinal aroma — into a mason jar. Even through the nausea Margo can identify the oil as an extraction of sea buckthorn. Her task completed, Baba drops a cheesecloth, stained bright yellow, into a pail of soapy water at her feet.

“Well, little thistle.” The mild disapproval is unmistakable. The fringe of Baba’s dark kerchief sways at her wrinkled nape like a hundred little snakes. For some reason they remind Margo of the cilia on the Infinite Farthingale of Calamity that encases Haven. “If this is how the fates measured, and how they cut, then I suppose so it must be.” The old woman’s angular shoulders heave in a sigh. “Run with your wolfling for as long as the forest path takes you, but if that foolish man gets you into trouble for a third time, old Baba will have to pay a visit, hmm?”

The feeling of dislocation bursts like a soap bubble, and Margo is suddenly all there . More than all there — she feels exactly like her teenage self being lectured by Baba on the nature of boys (and, by extension, men). Lectures that typically revolved around dubious agrarian metaphors, mostly relating to cows, milk, and financial transactions; trees, dogs, and urine; and, a particularly inspired one, about seeds, plows, and “well-trampled roads.” When the plum harvest had been good enough to make pálinka and Baba got talkative, she would take a piece of timeless wisdom about the importance of a woman’s virtue, twist it on its head, and impart it with a serious face and an impish glint in her eye. It boiled down to four general maxims: don’t get caught (if it matters); don’t get pregnant (if you don’t want it); don’t hold back on a well-placed kick (when not interested); and don’t get too attached (for reasons that Baba thought beneath her dignity to explain). It was all mortifying — and hilarious — until Baba summoned the boy in question and sat him down at her kitchen table for a “fear your elders” talk.

Margo maneuvers herself into a chair, her hands still shaking. The nausea recedes slowly. A loud mewling sound draws her attention, and she lifts the vinyl tablecloth to take a look at whatever is making the ruckus. A scrawny grey kitten with owlish yellow eyes yowls at her from under the table. She picks it up and places it in her lap. The kitten immediately curls into a ball and starts purring like a tractor engine.

“You mean foolish elf . Not a man, technically speaking.” Margo winces. She can hear the defensiveness in her feeble rebuttal.

Baba casts her a side glance, graphite gray eyes sparkling with a mixture of humor and irritation. “Wolfling... woodling... up-worlder...root-dweller. As many labels as there are eyes to behold. Heh. If it runs around with both hands on its stick, waving it every which way and hoping that you might trip up and fall on it, I say it qualifies.”

Margo groans and flushes with embarrassment. You’d think she would have outgrown this, but no. “Why do you call him a wolfling?” There, that’s a reasonable, adult question.

“Bit lean for a full grown one, hmm? Long winters, I suppose.” The sunbursts of wrinkles around Baba’s eyes deepen, and the old woman chortles, the sound like dead leaves crunching underfoot. Her mirth doesn’t last. A chill creeps into her voice, all merriment scattered as if on a November wind, and Baba’s tone turns dark and hard as stone. “When his time comes, my soul, then you will settle on which skin to wear. Until then, there are earlier berries to pick. That lidérc you collected is bad news. Cunning old thing, the lidérc , always wanting more than it lets on.” Baba’s gnarled fingers, stained with the tawny oil, begin to fit a paper lid over the glass jar.

Margo frowns. The lidérc made an occasional appearance in some of Baba’s spookier bedtime tales, but Margo’s memory on the subject is muddled — something about magical chickens? And, for some odd reason, demonic lovers, though how those two particular functions combine leaves Margo perplexed and vaguely disturbed. Still, she manages an educated guess.

“Do you mean Imshael?”

Baba huffs something unflattering but affirmative.

“Do you know what he wants?”

The old woman scowls in distaste. “What they all want, heartling. A meal, a ride, and a piece of your soul.” She waves her hand dismissively. “On this branch or any other, some birds sing the same.”

Margo shivers and suddenly realizes that she is wrapped in an old and achingly familiar woolen shawl, soft from repeated use, the crochet work intricate but fraying with age. There is a chipped mug with a steaming tisane in front of her. She recognizes the smell immediately. It was one of Baba’s trademark formulas, made on the basis of Daucus carota , and sought after by most adult women in the village.

The hint is not what one might call subtle.

“Baba!” This time even her ears burn. “I hope this is not on account of the lidérc . Because the whole magical chicken turned satanic lover thing is confusing.”

“Yes, yes, wouldn’t do to mistake one for the other, hmm?” Baba shrugs. “Little herbs have an íz too. Why should they only work on one side if the íz travels on both?” The old woman chortles quietly, probably at the double meaning of “ íz. ” “Whoever it is you bring to your bed, better safe than sorry.”

Margo takes a cautious sip of her tisane, winces at the bitterness — though it has the benefit of dissipating the last of her nausea — and huddles deeper into the shawl. “I do appreciate the reminder,” she offers.

Baba gives her a quizzical look and then shakes her head, again with that twinge of mild disapproval. “This is no mere reminder, little thistle. Only a fool thinks that he can shove a world’s horrors away under an old blanket, and lull himself into believing it’s not all still there, waiting. This side is no less real than the other.” Baba ties off the paper lid with a piece of twine and stores the sea buckthorn oil on a shelf above the stove. Satisfied with her handiwork, she takes a seat across from Margo. An ornate shot glass filled to the brim with a murky golden liquid appears in front of her — as if it has always been there. Baba takes a sip, follows it up with an approving nod, and sets the glass back down. “Above or below, all doings bear fruit, heartling. So drink.”

Margo stares at her tisane like it’s about to start yodeling. Is Baba actually suggesting what she thinks she is suggesting? Because if there is a line in the sand to be traced right around where suspended disbelief ends and certifiable insanity begins, the claim that one might get knocked up in a dream seems like a perfectly good place to start drawing. Sure, it makes for a splendid excuse if you’re a medieval nun. “It was the Devil! He visited me in my dreams!” Right, sure it was. Does the Devil look a bit like that itinerant tinker? Margo swallows. Oh Void on a stick, what if the damn nuns weren’t lying?

Although that, in itself, is marginally less bizarre than the concept of a Fade-based contraceptive actually working as intended.

All right. She is going to chalk this one up to dream logic. And the reminder is not a bad one, considering her present situation and its likely trajectory. Better safe than sorry indeed. “Baba, how did you get me out of the Breach?” There. Reasonable questions.

Baba’s expression remains impassive. “You called, and I came — such is the way of things on this side. Gave yourself a scare, yes?” There is something distinctly sly about Baba’s smile. “Gave your wolfling a scare too, I’d wager. Shouldn’t keep him waiting for too long — there’s no more hair on that head of his head to tear out, hmm?” Another dry, not altogether benign cackle, and then Baba’s expression grows solemn again. “Sometimes we must die a little to learn something new. Do you see now what befell the branch from which you sing, my heart?”

Margo tries to put the experience into words. She scratches the kitten behind the ears absentmindedly and gets rewarded with a truly seismic rumble. How such a small thing can reach this decibel level is anyone’s guess.

“I saw... I think I saw how spirits are transformed into demons. It really does look like the Breach sucks them in and corrupts them in some way, though I don’t quite understand what causes the corruption. Or why the corruption would facilitate their transfer. It is as if it is much easier to cross over as a demon?” She takes a breath, braces herself for the question. Even thinking of uttering it feels blasphemous, somehow. “Baba... are you a spirit? By which I mean, are you a local spirit taking on my grandmother’s persona to communicate with me?”

That positively tickles the old woman, because she is overtaken by a raspy, infectious, completely irreverent fit of hilarity. Tears stream down Baba’s grooved cheeks, and she dabs at them with a corner of her stained apron.

“Oh, little thistle, you are a laugh.” When she finally quiets the last of her chortling with a fortifying sip of pálinka, Baba smiles and crosses her arthritic fingers under her chin. The metal crown on her left incisor catches the tawny light of the oil lamp overhead. “And what sort of spirit would you peg your old Baba as?”

Margo shrugs, and grins. “I have to pick just one? Sarcasm would be in there...”

Baba huffs another chuckle, but the amusement doesn’t stick. “The answer is only as good as the question, my heart, and the question is no good at all. What makes a spirit, hmm?” She leans forward, dark eyes glinting under sharp eyebrows untouched by white. “I am as you are, rootling, as we have been since the breath soul and the shadow soul grew as one. You came to me and I taught you, as my mother’s mother taught me, and her mother’s mother taught her . How to plant and pluck, how to know the íz, how to put things together and make them sing with one voice. We will see if it was enough. There is much work and little time.”

Margo shakes her head, trying to clear the fog. Her mind is groggy and sluggish with the increasingly dream-like quality of the vision, and the effort to ask questions instead of simply accepting Baba’s pronouncements is becoming almost unsurmountable.

“Baba... I don’t quite understand,” she finally manages, desperately trying to stabilize the dream, but something is rolling it up like an old tablecloth. “What work are you speaking about? Why is there little time?”

“Before all else, there is a blanket to patch,” Baba says, and pats Margo’s hand, her fingers dry and rough like tree bark. “Beware the lidérc and his murky mirrors, my soul. Things such as he do not keep their promises.”

And then, there is nothing but darkness and the faint scent of wormwood and juniper.

Chapter Text

When Margo opens her eyes, the first thing to come into focus is Solas’s face, and for a second or two before her perception readjusts she is struck by how alien he looks. It is ironic, then, that the elf is the one to reel back with a sharp intake of breath.

“You are alive,” he manages, and Margo is pulled under a tide of déja vu that conjures Redcliffe and Alexius’s crapsack future. Her mind flashes to the other Solas’s last words, before the monstrosity perforated his lungs. Ar lath ma, vhenan.

Her heart lurches. She squeezes her eyes against the vision, then opens them slowly, and looks around. They are still in the hut — and she is still in his bed. Solas is perched on a nearby chair, his staff laid out at his feet. The air is thick with a combination of ozone and iodine, with a hint of something earthy she can’t quite identify. She notices how exhausted he looks — lips pale with dehydration and eye sockets sunken and shadowed with the tell-tale symptoms of magicka drain.

“How long have I been out?” She sounds like a crow with a two-packs-a-day smoking habit.

“How long...” Solas shakes his head, as if to dislodge a mirage. He leans forward and grabs her wrist, palpating for a pulse with icy fingers, then he drops her hand as if scalded. There is a feverish blush across his cheekbones. Margo frowns. Whatever he’s been up to while she was out of it, it hasn’t done him any favors.

When he finally answers, his voice is oddly distorted, as if he is speaking through strained vocal chords — or around a constriction in his throat. “I stood as motionless as stone, unable to affect events, and watched you trapped within the flow along with others. None could escape. My efforts to retrieve you proved futile. I sought to wake you, but without success.” He takes a shuddering breath. “I saw your essence rent to shreds by forces that the Breach unleashed.” His eyes are haunted, as if another memory is lining up with this more recent shock in an awful overlay.

Margo tilts to a sitting position and notices the transformation in the elf’s posture — a subtle shift towards combat-readiness. She tries to make her voice soothing, because, of course, she has seen that look plenty, even before she arrived in Thedas. Baba’s village was far enough to the north to be spared most of the violence, but war casts the longest of shadows. “When you saw that you couldn’t get me out, what did you do?”

“I woke and struggled to keep your body breathing.” He stares at her with the edge of a challenge, gaze simultaneously angry and bleak. “A pointless task. Whatever has returned could never be the same. What are you and what do you seek?” There is no mistaking the command in his tone.

“Still little old me, I’m afraid,” Margo offers rather dryly. “And no, I am not building another magnet in an effort to prove that I am not an abomination. Strict one-magnet-per-week policy.”

Some of the tension releases him — exhaustion taking its place — but he doesn’t look entirely convinced.

Margo sighs, and rubs the sleep out of her eyes. “You’ve poked around in my head before. Be my guest — take a look. If you find any foreign objects, I’d love to know.”

The muscles in his jaw tighten. There is a cagey look about him, as if he is trying to decide whether the invitation is a trap, but when he speaks, his voice is simply resigned. “May I?” At Margo’s nod, Solas leans forward. The procedure is little more than him peering at her with slightly unfocused eyes, his hand passing at the back of her head. Evaluation completed, the elf withdraws back to his chair and lets his face drop into his palms.

“Solas...” In all fairness, if this were her world, some research ethics committee somewhere would have their hides, but it’s not like the Breach comes with best practices protocols. And there is something profoundly uncomfortable and not a little confusing about seeing him quite so thrown. The elf lugs around guilt like a snail carries its shell. “You’re taking this too hard. We didn’t know this would happen. And I’m fine. ”

When he finally looks up, his expression is thunderous. “It is a poor excuse. For all my noticing that you share certain qualities with spirits, I foolishly ignored the implications of my own assessment. To think that you would not succumb to the same dangers because you are enfleshed and fully self-aware was unforgivably shortsighted.” He hesitates. “The fault is mine. How... How did you survive?”

Margo shrugs. “I relocated to the chicken hut.” Which is not, strictly speaking, a lie. “If you could pause the self-flagellation for a moment, I do have some new questions. First question, do we need to worry about Cole?”

Solas’s eyebrows draw together, but Margo is pleased to note that he redirects his energy towards the more constructive task of solving a problem, rather than trying to drown himself in self-recrimination. “Cole’s situation is unique, as is yours, and though they resemble each other in some respects, they are by no measure identical. I suspect Cole knows how to handle himself around the Breach. But there may be other issues to consider that could affect you both.” He hesitates. “We should expect summoning to be a danger.”

By the time she manages to process this particular piece of news, Margo finds herself upright and pacing. Great. And here she thought her problems were limited to whether she herself was an abomination. The equally exciting prospect of being summoned to abominate someone else adds a whole new layer of unpleasantness.

On her third oscillation, Solas catches her wrist. Their eyes lock for a few seconds, and then he pulls her into his lap. His hold on her is a little too firm, but Margo decides that she doesn’t mind — they both can use the anchoring. “What other questions did you have in mind?”

“The second question has to do with Imshael.” Better grab that particular demonic chicken by the tail feathers — Baba has never been one to insist on something without good reason. At Solas’s frown, Margo quickly tries to get her thoughts — and words — in order. This is going to be tricky waters. “Imshael is sustained by creating impossible and morally awful choices for mortals, right?’

He nods in confirmation. “Yes. However, no matter what labels he gives himself, he remains a desire demon. He is simply more sophisticated in his approach.”

“Can a spirit like him feed on another spirit?”

A strange shadow passes over Solas’s face. He keeps silent and still for a long time — too long to leave any doubt as to whether or not he’s thought on this before. Time stretches and warps like a Dali clock. When he finally speaks, his voice is modulated towards cautious neutrality. “Not to my knowledge.”

It isn’t that he’s lying, exactly. She can see the truth of his statement. But it is as if there is something else he could have said — something that may or may not be relevant — but which, for some reason, he keeps close to the chest. Margo starts to get up, but Solas’s arms tighten around her. “I will... think on this further. You never told me what choice he forced on you during your last confrontation.”

Margo pretends to examine the evil abbot painting in order to buy herself a few moments to think. Damn the elf and his carefully worded fishing expeditions. Maybe she can trade her half-truths for his. Quid pro quo, Clarice , and all that. In principle, it would be wise to pool their information on Imshael’s modus operandi. But doing so would also open several particularly squiggly cans of worms, including the unresolved problem of Baba — and the rather ominous proclamation about deeds bearing fruit in the Fade. Surely, Baba didn’t mean this literally? While all of Earth’s rather rich mythology about inexplicable dream-based impregnations makes for some titillating storytelling, it couldn’t possibly be more than a way to negotiate the problem of uncertain paternity, right? Because if Fade stuff counts, then the timing could fit with the blasted memory ritual, and would circumvent the problem of Maile’s catastrophic abdominal injury and... She swallows. Oh unholy hell, no no no. Under the rug with that one. The nuns can collectively go take a running jump. Unreliable narrators, the lot of them.

“Redcliffe is a conversation I’d rather not have right before my appointment with the spymaster.” Margo represses a wince. She sounds entirely too curt to leave any doubt as to whether she is hiding something. This is irrational paranoia. She doesn’t need to take responsibility for every single one of Maile’s mistakes.

“Of course. We can talk of it this evening when you are not pressed for time.”

And there is a strongly worded suggestion if she’s ever heard one. Nor is it lost on Margo that Solas’s statement presupposes that her relocation to his house is not a one time event. She forces herself to take a deep breath. “Is that an autocratic streak I spy, Solas?”

The elf frowns, visibly taken aback. “I would not... No, fenor. My words were meant as an invitation, not as an assumption of compliance.” He shakes his head — a firm denial. “To lay such a proprietary claim on another being would be abhorrent, all the more so if done under the name of care.” Whatever he sees in her face, his own expression softens, then turns regretful. “My door is open to you whenever you wish to use it, in whichever direction — although this does not mean that I do not have preferences regarding the outcome. Still, I suspect Redcliffe may be a discussion best held in private, away from prying ears.”

“Radical, yet practical. How could anyone resist?”

His smile is ironic — sweet with a bitter finish. “How indeed.”

They sit quietly for a moment. At length, Margo allows herself to relax and leans her head on Solas’s shoulder. His lips brush a soft kiss on her forehead. The grey light that filters through the blinds suggests that some accursed local rooster will probably be announcing that it is time to earn one’s keep. And there she was, wasting time wondering about the connection between poultry and demonic intent — here it is, in plain sight.

“I should gather my stuff, go wash, and track down some tea before I have to brave Torq— Leliana.”

“Feel free to take what you need for the day, and leave your other belongings here if you wish. It would be no trouble to ward the door.” Margo makes to argue, but he nuzzles her ear, and her protest quickly comes to an inglorious if rather pleasant demise. “I have meant to ask you before: tell me of this Torquemada you keep substituting for our spymaster.”

The distraction tactic isn’t exactly subtle, but she offers him the abridged version anyway. Solas listens to her summary of the history of the Spanish Inquisition with an amused frown. “And in addition to all that, good old Tomás was a very fashion-conscious fellow, if you can believe it. Introduced a whole line of garments to be worn specifically by heretics, referred to as a ‘ sanbenito .’ Very tasteful. Flames, demons, dragons, ridiculous headwear — it’d fit right in.”

A chuckle. “I shall keep this to myself, lest we give the Inquisition’s leadership ideas.” His expression grows speculative. “Jests aside, it is uncanny how many parallels there are between your world and mine. One must ponder the likelihood of such apparent coincidence. What do you make of it? An accident of convergence?”

Margo sighs quietly. That’s the billion-sovereign question, isn’t it? “I don’t know. Our human cultures seem remarkably similar, but I am not so sure about the other races. The ancient elves would be different by definition, considering the use of magic and their long lifespans, unless that’s just later mythologizing.”

“You are skeptical of the magic? Or of the possibility of such longevity? Perhaps the latter was simply an extension of the former.”

Margo cocks an eyebrow. “It is hard for me to imagine biological immortality in something that isn’t a tree or a fungal colony. Something with a high degree of sentience is prone to boredom, so I suspect it might eventually become monstrous without death to keep its appetites in check.”

It’s subtle, but she could swear Solas flinches, then the skin around his eyes tightens — not a frown yet, but on its way there. “Considering the current state of affairs, a shorter life does not appear to guard against monstrosity.” He pauses. “Your people are short-lived?”

“Compared to trees and fungal colonies? Yes.”

He reflects on this for a few moments. “It is believed that elven elders, when they became weary of the weight of years, would voluntarily enter uthenera , a state of slumber that allowed their spirit to wander the Fade while their bodies slept in the mortal realm.”

“Interesting. What happened to the bodies over time?”

Solas shrugs. “Some were maintained by servants and assistants, or were cared for by kin. Others were left to deteriorate and die eventually. On rare occasions talented mages appeared to be sustained by the Fade itself — or so the legends claim.”

“You know, this sounds somewhat similar to the concept of samadhi in one of our major religious traditions, though with one caveat. Can one come back from uthenera? Is it like biological stasis?”

“In theory.” His lips quirk. “Though as I have not noticed many ancient elves around, I presume that such an event would be unusual.”

Margo grins slyly. “Would we even know? If I were an ancient elf running around contemporary Thedas, I’d not advertise it.”

There is a sparkle of wicked amusement in his eyes. “And what would your approach to such a predicament be, I wonder?”

“I’d probably try to hide in plain sight.” She shrugs. “Assume an identity — maybe something that would draw on my preexisting skills while offering an explanation for any idiosyncrasies.”

His laughter is rich and unusually unguarded. The sound of it sends a tingle all the way down to her toes. “Let us hope that our hypothetical visitor from the past would not have to contend with stepping into another’s shoes, as you did. It seems like an entirely unreasonable challenge.”

“I’d say the best course of action might be to find work adjacent to a university or other institution of learning and gain access to their library so one could catch up on the couple of millennia one missed. That’d keep me occupied for a bit.”

“Yes. Yes, I imagine it would.”

For a few uncannily elastic moments, they simply stare at each other, unable to look away, caught in suspension.

The bubble bursts. Her mind returns to the samadhi problem, and Margo worries at her lower lip, suddenly unsettled. “You know what, you’re right. The parallelisms are odd. I can maybe stretch the explanation for humans, though it smacks of a teleological view of progress, which I don’t particularly care for. But why would there be resonances with ancient elves if they were indeed quite so different?”

“I believe I am becoming familiar with this particular facial expression of yours. What are you thinking?”

Margo shakes her head. “I don’t know. But there is a mechanism that connects it all, I am sure of it.”

“I have the distinct feeling you intend to find out what it is.”

***

Margo expects her departure to involve some awkward negotiations, but it is the opposite, and that in itself leaves her puzzled, pleasantly surprised, and a little uneasy. Before she sets off, Solas intercepts her and pulls her into an unhurried and rather thorough kiss that somehow manages to come across as sweet, but a bit smug — the nonverbal equivalent of “gotcha,” but with more tongue.

She leaves him poring over a tattered tome on the history of the Nevarran court. “Can I borrow it once you’re done?” The request is out before Margo realizes she was going to make it — as if book exchange is an old practice between them. “Certainly,” the elf nods, a tad distractedly as he looks around, trying to locate what Margo surmises is a lost bookmark, “though if you are interested in writings on necromancy, I recommend Galen Vedas’s memoir. It is on the second shelf from the top.” He waves his hand at the bookshelf in the corner without lifting his eyes from the pages. The shelves have filled out since last she saw them. Margo decides that the gesture means something like my bookshelf is your bookshelf and sighs in resignation. Hook, line, and sinker, the bastard.

Then again, it beats the Inquisition’s color-coded library.

 

Chapter Text

Above Haven the skies are grey and laden with snow, though the prospect of an impending blizzard is still a more pleasant sight than the Dark Reticulum of Misery that encases the Dreaming version of the village. The route to the bathhouse is quiet — at this hour, the only inhabitants up and about are the sentries and the elves, most of whom appear to be employed in those largely invisible jobs that ensure the smooth functioning of the camp’s social machinery. Margo nods and smiles at a familiar kitchen worker — the same one who had told her, on Margo’s first, mind-boggling day in Thedas, that Charter’s patrol was gone for two weeks. The woman inclines her head in return and then goes about her business.

Despite the early hour the bathhouse is already heated, and Margo sends a mental thank-you to whomever ensured this. There are no other visitors in sight. She hesitates between the bucket method and an actual bath — although the more accurate term for the container might be “vat” — and decides that she might as well enjoy a proper soak.

The towels and soaps are unattended, and she helps herself, despite the muddled feeling of guilt. She has no money to pay for them — the few coppers she has left should be used on food. While she strips down, Margo deliberates whether she should start a side business of selling potions on the sly — because no one seems to be particularly interested in paying her — or devote herself to the favorite local pastime of looting corpses.

She washes her clothes and sets them out to dry on the heated hearthstones before easing herself into one of the baths. The water is a tad too hot for comfort, milky steam drifting along the surface. Upon closer examination, the vat looks like it was used to brew beer in its previous life. It has been retrofitted with a sitting ledge — unless Theodosian brewing barrels already come equipped with a full-immersion option — and, while the design clearly presupposes a human male body, Margo decides she is not about to complain. As long as she doesn’t make waves, the setup works.

She relaxes and closes her eyes. All that’s missing is a nice infusion of herbs. It is likely that Theodosians have their own traditions of herbal baths — though such life-affirming concoctions are probably not in Master Adan’s repertoire, unless they also happen to explode. Maybe she can tinker around and develop a couple of simple formulas — something with muscle-relaxant properties and maybe a mild antiseptic would probably go over quite well with both the soldiers and the civilians. If she could float the idea of introducing them to the masses — perhaps convince Lady Montilyet that this would be good for morale — then she might even secure herself some logistical support.

Margo sighs quietly. The thoughts are pleasant, mundane, reassuring distractions from the constant necessity of thinking two steps ahead. Torquemada hasn’t explicitly ordered her to withhold her status from the other members of the so-called Inner Circle — and the logical question is, why not? As long as her alien origin remains a secret, it can be used as leverage. By Leliana or Bull — for whatever long game each of them plays — or by others. Conversely, if the spymaster takes revealing it upon herself, there will be no way to control the narrative.

The creaking of the door startles her out of her thoughts. Margo jerks to her feet inside the tub, splashing water over the edge. And then she relaxes and grins. “I see you had the same idea of avoiding the crowds!”

“Oh! I didn’t think anyone would be in here!” Evie wrinkles her nose and smiles, all dimples and mild embarrassment. “Praise Andraste, it’s you. I know we all should be past this sort of thing, but I still find it terribly strange to bathe in front of other people.”

Margo nods in silent solidarity. “There is another tub over there — I can turn around while you get in, if you’d like?”

Evie gives her a grateful look. “You wouldn’t mind?”

“Of course not.”

The sudden memory of the trial — and of being peeled apart in layers by whatever magic Evie unleashed — ices down Margo’s spine in a jolt of primordial dread. Her teeth start chattering despite the scalding water, so she turns to face the opposite wall and focuses on unbraiding her hair with much more zeal than the operation demands. It takes a minute or two to get the panic under control. “How are you doing, sweetheart?” she asks, once her voice feels steady.

Behind her, clothes rustle. There is a quiet splash, followed by a muttered “Ow ow ow! Maker, are they trying to cook us?” More splashing. “I am all right, I think. You can turn around now.”

Evie’s head sticks up above the neighboring tub. Her injured lip is completely healed, but her hair looks as grimy as it did during the trial. Her bangs have grown out to that infuriating length where they are too long to stay out of the way and too short to wear up. The young woman pushes them out of her face with irritated grumbling.

“You’ll get used to the temperature, and then you’ll never want to get out. Trust me.”

“And then I will turn embarrassingly pink and pruny,” Evie states grimly. “I suppose there’s no helping it now.”

“But you will be clean, pink, and pruny.”

Evie pours some water onto her head with a pitted old dipper and begins working soap into her hair with obvious relief. “Did you know there are babies in Haven?” she asks suddenly. “There are. Four, to be exact. Or maybe more, but they weren’t out to be blessed.” At Margo’s utterly consternated expression, Evie winces. “I am skipping steps again, aren’t I? Varric says I leapfrog over sentences when I talk. What was... Oh! Babies. I found out when a group of women sort of jumped out from behind the tavern on my way here asking to bless — anoint? consecrate? — anyway, recite a piece of the Chant over their little ones. And the livestock, but I promised I would do that at some other time. Hopefully they’ll forget — druffalos terrify me, what with the fur, and the horns, and the snorting. It’s like they really meant to be bears, but someone somewhere mixed up the prescripts?” She sighs. “I don’t think they want a pink and wrinkly Herald to do all that blessing work — the parents, not the druffalos — though, come to think of it, maybe the babies would mind it less, since some of them tend to be pink and wrinkly, too. Maybe they’re thinking, ‘Aha! Look how pink and wrinkly that one is! Surely, it is one of us. Just exceptionally large.’ But then there are the other folk who try to ward against evil when I walk by — as if I can’t see the hand motions they’re making in their pockets. At least I hope that’s what they’re doing. Either way, I doubt they’d like to see me pink and wrinkly, either. They’ll probably think I’m a proper demon then.”

“There’s no pleasing some people.” Margo somehow manages to keep the chortling to a minimum — full-on laughter would probably drown her.

Evie pauses the lathering process. “I’d be happy with pleasing anyone at all.” She suddenly colors. “Oh, Maker, that’s not... Why doesn’t it sound right? It’s because of what I was thinking, isn’t it? It’s always like that — one moment you’re just thinking about blessing livestock, and then the next...” Evie presses her fists to her eyes with a pained growl, followed by another “ow ow ow, soap!” and a dunk under the water. “Oh Andraste’s sweet mercy, why is this so complicated?” she asks plaintively upon bobbing up to the surface.

“Honestly, if someone asked me to bless their babies, I would go off on a tangent about livestock, too,” Margo states firmly while trying to get the soap out of her own hair. The alkaline pH is quickly turning it into one single sordid clump. She will need to rub oil into it or hack the whole mess off. Maybe the local men have the right idea with their preference for shaved heads. How did Maile maintain this thing? “Are you still having trouble finding the right words?”

Evie, who has managed to regain some of her composure, reflects on the question. “Not in the same way. Before, it was as if there could never be enough words, and when I tried to pick one, it’d run away and hide. And now, there are too many , all crowding for a turn and crying, ‘Me, me, pick me!’”

This time, Margo chuckles in earnest — and then decides that she will be safer standing. “You know, the way you describe it, it sounds very similar to the experience of becoming fluent in a new language.” With any luck, the change in the young woman’s linguistic struggles is a sign that things are on the mend. “It doesn’t seem to be a constant problem,” Margo ventures after a pause. Evie’s speech in the chantry didn’t lack in eloquence.

Evie’s sigh is so heavy that it offers a live demonstration of Archimedes’ principle. Then again, someone really did overfill the tubs. “Sometimes, all my thoughts are orderly and take turns. Most of the time, though, it’s a muddle. I hope I am never asked to give a speech. Because that would be a disaster.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, love. It’ll come to you.” They sit quietly for a few moments. “Evie, there is something I want to talk to you about. Can I invite myself over for tea?”

“Yes! Yes, of course! I was going to ask you myself, but then I thought you are probably very busy... But I don’t have any food. Just oatmeal cakes.”

“Oatmeal cakes are food,” Margo nods emphatically as her stomach corroborates this classification with a plaintive rumble. She can’t remember when her last meal was.

“I mean I don’t have any guest food. You know? Food that is not horribly embarrassing to feed to guests? Those cakes are... rather solid.”

“Good thing I am not a guest, but your friend, then.”

“Oh!” Evie considers this. “That’s good. Then you can help me eat them.”

***

Evie still occupies the same modest wooden house, but its interior has been updated since Margo last saw it. It conjures the mental image of a small and very industrious urban squirrel using whatever unlikely materials happened to be at her disposal to build herself a nest.

A series of small wood carvings — mostly various animal figurines — populates one of the shelves. Margo wonders briefly where they’re from — they are all executed in the same style, likely by the same artist. The bedside table supports a tower of books: judging by the spines, adventure titles and an impressive collection of what appears to be romances. The one on top is Swords and Shields , by one Varric Tethras. The bed is piled with decorative pillows, quilted from somewhat random scraps of fabric.

They settle at Evie’s small table and wait for the tea to boil.

Margo steels herself. “Sweetheart, I have something to tell you, but it will sound... unlikely.”

Evie stares at her, guffaws artlessly, and then slams a hand over her mouth, horrified. “Oh, I'm sorry! I'm not laughing at you! It's just that... is it going to be more unlikely than whatever has been happening to me?” Suddenly, the amusement vanishes, and the young woman looks crestfallen and terribly tired. Margo feels a sharp pang of guilt over having to add yet another thing for the kid to try to make sense of. But before she can think better of it, Evie gathers herself around a newfound steely core. Her smile is almost painfully abashed. “Oh, that sounded like I’m complaining, didn’t it? I just meant that, whatever it is, if you’re worried that I won’t believe you — don’t! Because, you know.” She waves her hands in an ominous pantomime. “Suddenly, a necromancer! I don’t think it could get much odder than that. At least I hope not. Though I suppose that ‘suddenly, a blood mage!’ would be worse.”

Margo grins and pats Evie’s hand. “So is it settled then? You are officially a necromancer?”

Evie mulls this over, nibbling on the edge of her oatmeal cake in a very convincing interpretation of the aforementioned squirrel. As far as texture goes, the cakes put Margo in mind of a hockey puck. “Others seem to think so. I can’t seem to do any other magic, so I guess I am a one-trick-mabari.”

“Maybe other skills will come in time, too?” Margo hesitates. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. What is it like? When you do what you do?”

The vertical groove between Evie’s brows deepens, and the young woman shakes her head. “I can’t very well describe.” She presses her palms together, and twists them from side to side. “See, every moment and the next have this tiny little gap between them, like... the space between the pages of a closed book. It’s so narrow you can hardly see it at all. But if you squeeze through just right and sort of wiggle around, you can...” Evie shrugs. “Tweak things a bit. Not very far, because the gap is — well, it’s almost not there. And some moments are stuck together too tight, as if someone spilled sweet tea on the pages.”

Evie gets up and begins fussing with the kettle. Margo doesn’t press, letting the young woman ponder her explanation in peace. She accepts the cup handed to her with a grateful nod, but after the silence stretches into uncomfortable territory, Margo ventures a question. “So how does it relate to necromancy? To hear Varric say it, you resurrected Ser Barris by killing Envy. Is that what happened?”

“I don’t quite know.” Evie stares into space, mixing a lump of rock sugar into her tea long past the point of it dissolving. “I just really really wanted us to win that fight. Because Envy was nasty, and Ser Barris was so very brave, and it was unfair that he’d die and that Envy would win, and I didn’t want to disappoint Cole, who had tried so hard to help... I just remember thinking that if I didn’t do something, they would all die — Varric, and Warden Blackwall, and all the Templars. And Ca— the Seeker. So I prayed. I asked Andraste to show me the path.” Evie extracts her spoon from the cup and sets it down, the gesture slow and deliberate. “Have you ever heard Varric talk about picking locks? He tried to explain it to me once. I want to think it’s a bit like that. I just sort of... saw the gap. And pushed into it. And it let me. After that, there was another gap and another, and suddenly, it felt like all the little gaps lined up into a single path, and made a tunnel — and on the other end of it, I could see Ser Barris was alive, and Envy was gone.” She shrugs. “I didn’t mean to destroy Envy. And I’m making it sound easy. It’s not. It’s like trying to climb through a keyhole into the one place where everyone is all right.”

There is a million questions just begging to be asked. Are “gaps” probability bifurcations, and if so what is their relationship to time? How did this work in the chantry with raising the dead? Can Evie manipulate more than the transfer of beings across the Veil? What powers her magic? Margo tries to discipline the swarm of thoughts, but they just buzz louder. “With the caveat that I know nothing about how this works, what you describe sounds a bit like time magic?”

Evie looks horrified. “Maker’s breath, I hope not! I heard about Magister Alexius. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what he did...” Her eyes darken with a sudden flare of anger. “Margo, I am so terribly sorry they... they... just left you there,” she blurts out. “And that I never even asked whether... I am so sorry! Everything has been such a blur since Therinfal, and my head is a sieve on the best of days.”

“It’s all right, sweetheart. Don’t worry about me.” At Evie’s crestfallen expression, Margo forces herself to chuckle. It’s almost convincing. “Which isn’t to say that I would like a repeat of the experience, but all is well that ends well, right?”

“Yes? Except that The Iron Bull is still a colossal asshat? Which sort of makes sense, because where else would he wear one? He already doesn’t wear a shirt — what are the chances of a hat? And I don’t think a head hat would fit over those horns, except if you cut holes in it, and then it’ll just look like a pair of underthings and not a hat at all.”

Margo snorts — she has absolutely no trouble imagining Iron Bull wearing knickers on his head — then reaches across the table and squeezes Evie’s hand. “He made a tough call. He’s not my favorite person right now, but I understand why he did it. Evie, listen, about that...”

“Oh Andraste’s shiny crown, I totally forgot! See? Not even a sieve, a colander! You had something to tell me.”

Margo nods, but when it is time to launch into it, she feels oddly at a loss for words. When she finally does, her narrative is choppy, but Evie turns out to be an incredible listener — steady, empathic, and not once skeptical or suspicious — and, in the end, Margo finds herself telling much more of her story than she originally intended. After the initial gasp of shocked surprise on Evie’s part, it gets easier. And by the time Margo is done summarizing the circumstances of her dislocation and her last month and a half in Thedas, the young woman starts to prod her with seemingly simple questions about her life before. The words tumble out slowly, and then faster and faster, like water breaking through the cracks of an old dam. She tells Evie of her childhood — of Baba, of the little village on the shores of an ancient river, and of her family, pieces of it chipped off by illness, war, and seemingly endless social upheavals. She tells of her studies, of the bizarre caprice of fate that landed her in a PhD program across an ocean. Of her research. She tells her of Jake and how random and unfair it was that her younger brother, the one with all the gifts, would end up tangled up in addiction just because some substances make for the harshest of masters. Margo’s voice wobbles through her own guilt over it, because if only she hadn’t encouraged him to follow her, then maybe the chips would have fallen differently...

Eventually, the flow of words slows, becomes less frantic, and it is as if a terrible weight has lifted a little, leaving a soft wistfulness in its wake.

By the time her tale comes to an end, they’ve managed to finish all the tea. All that’s left of the oatmeal cakes is a pile of stale crumbs.

“Thank you, sweetheart. I’m so sorry I talked your ear off,” Margo says quietly.

Evie takes hold of both of her hands, her grip fierce. Her eyes are suspiciously misty. “No no no, it’s me who should be doing the thanking! The only reason you had to tell Leliana and the others is because of me. I... I don’t know how I contributed, but if something I did ripped you out of your whole world... Oh Maker...You said you had been... dying? Is this why you were able to — how do I even say it? Relocate? Was it an illness?”

Margo sniffs — her eyes are prickling too — and shakes her head. “No, hon.” At Evie’s furrowed brow, she sighs. And then she tells her. Not in detail — just the basic facts.

Evie remains silent for long moment. When she finally speaks, her voice is shaking with anger. “Do you think there is a world out there that isn’t so...” she fishes for a word, but nothing bites.

“Full of asshats?” Margo suggests helpfully.

“Yes.”

“One hopes.” It is odd how easily the kid has taken all these revelations in stride. “You don’t seem all that surprised,” Margo comments cautiously. “Did you suspect that I wasn’t who I said I was?”

“Oh, no, not even a little. I’m really glad you told me, because I don’t think I would have guessed on my own. Not that it makes a difference at all. You are my friend. Whether that means it’s Margo, or Maile — or if you want to go by Aveline tomorrow... Come to think of it, I think Aveline would be confusing, because of Varric’s writings. Have you read his books? Cassandra has! But never mind that... I knew there must be more worlds than this one.” Her face suddenly brightens. “Wait, what if I can reverse it? What if there’s a way to send you back?”

Margo forces herself to breathe through her suddenly spiking heart rate. “What do you mean about knowing of other worlds?”

Evie’s eyebrows draw together in concentration. “Well...The Chantry teaches us that the Maker, angry at the magisters’ arrogance, left the Golden City. But where did he go? I don’t think He has a summer residence somewhere in the Void where He can just stay when He’s in a strop.” She lifts one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Which means that there must be other places for Him to go to and make a mess of, doesn’t it?”

Before Margo gets a chance to consider Evie’s rather Manichean line of questions, they are both startled by the sound of the bells and the muffled rise and fall of the morning prayer, announcing the equidistant point between sunup and noontide.

“Void in a sack,” Margo hisses. “How did it get so late?”

Torquemada is going to kill her.

Chapter Text

“Mistress Duvalle, how lovely of you to be so punctual. Do take a seat. Tea?”

“Thank you, spymaster. I am fine.” Margo lowers herself onto a crate covered with the skin of a shaggy-haired beast. Leliana takes a seat opposite her on a similar perch. The tent protects them from the wind but not the frost, though the redhead appears unaffected. She pours the tea into a delicate little cup with a convincing rendition of a Mona Lisa smile. “Are you quite certain? I promise it isn’t poisoned. Or have you already had your morning tea elsewhere?”

Margo offers a courteous smile in return. “I did, though I do appreciate your offer.”

“Of course.” Comrade Nightingale adds not two, not three, but four lumps of sugar, mixes them in, and takes a dainty little sip before setting the cup on a pile of maps spread over the crude trestle desk. Margo eyes the resulting liquid and considers the possibility that the spypaster is an insect in a human suit. “As promised, I have your predecessor’s file, as well as some preliminary notes on your new identity. The latter will be a work in progress, and you will consult with me regularly as we develop it such that it best suits the Inquisition’s needs.” She produces an ornate metal tube from the folds of her cloak. “Everything is here. It is, as you can imagine, a copy. I strongly urge you to dispose of it after reading, but do take care to absorb the details.”

Margo takes the tube, and tucks it into the inside pocket of her coat. “Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time.” Politeness seems as good an armor as any. Still. Why is it that every interaction with Torquemada she’s ever had inevitably mutates into a power game? “Will there be anything else, spymaster?”

“Why, yes. I thought you would like to know that I have taken it upon myself to inform some of our other allies about your status.” Torquemada smiles pleasantly, but her gaze remains flinty.

Margo’s stomach drops into her heels. She manages an “I see” and then remains silent, unable to marshal the right words. A bleak thought flashes across the horizon of her awareness — she is too slow, too methodical of a thinker to play The Game with any success. Trying to outpace the spymaster is a doomed enterprise. Her only shot is to bog her down. “If I may ask, why the rush?” she finally asks.

Leliana’s chuckle is quiet and a little dark — and miles away from the tinkling laughter of her bardic persona. “I thought I would save you the effort, though I fear you may need to smooth over some ruffled feathers. Varric and Blackwall took it in stride well enough. I dare say Varric was suspiciously unsurprised. Sera, on the other hand, did not handle it well. But you are fast to make friends, yes? I was rushed and thus perhaps not as diplomatic as I could have been, but I had originally assumed you might be rather busy this morning. Clearly, I was right to make haste. A bath and a chat with Lady Trevelyan. How very sedulous of you.” Torquemada takes another sip of tea. “I trust your conversation was productive? And, on the topic of productiveness, how do you find your new accommodations?”

Margo manages not to swear, but it’s a close call. “Perfectly adequate, thank you.”

This time, Leliana’s laughter is full-throated and worryingly genuine. “Ah, Mistress Duvalle, it is a good thing we are not in Orlais, yes? I have seen scorned lovers hire a blade for much less damning praise.”

“Solas and I are not lovers, if that is what you are implying.” Margo isn’t sure that’s strictly speaking true, but the devil is in the details. The spymaster looks vaguely amused. So. Solas was right, and Clemence was not an oversight. “I... see. So you expected...” Margo trails off, unsure of how to complete the sentence.

Leliana’s smile is so prim and proper Margo decides that it must be some particularly refined form of sarcasm. “Well, not expected . One never expects such things, yes? Curious how they always come as a surprise, especially to their immediate participants. No, agent, I speculated, perhaps, that this may be one of the outcomes. Our resident apostate is a cautious man in many respects, yet he has been a rather steadfast ally to you, even at some risk to himself, has he not? Besides, the looks you two exchange are not entirely discreet.”

Margo shakes her head, because, abruptly, she is all out of reasonable questions. And patience. “Why? What do you gain from all this... puppeteering?”

Torquemada’s expression darkens. She leans in, pinning Margo with her pale gaze. There is new frost in her voice when she finally responds. “Do you know what the main difference is between us, Mistress Duvalle?”

Margo’s heart thumps painfully. One of us is not a cold-hearted bitch? Rationally, she knows this to be a performance, as carefully crafted as Torquemada’s charming, tinkling laughter. The spymaster is a consummate actress — which means she can amp up the fear factor whenever she feels that the occasion warrants it. It doesn’t make it any less terrifying. Or infuriating. “You like high-heeled shoes?” Because when on the verge of blurting out something that will likely get you killed, go with the non sequitur.

There is a brief flash of surprise that cuts through Comrade Nightingale’s ominous affect. “In a past life, perhaps. Alas, I can no longer afford such frivolities.” For a few moments, the spymaster is lost in thought. When she resumes, her tone is softer — more exhaustion than threat. “No, what distinguishes us is our loyalty. You see, my dedication is first and foremost to the Divine and her memory — and thus to the Inquisition. To building something that can outlast the rising tide and stave off the darkness before it engulfs us all. I cannot afford lofty ideals or sentimentality any more than a general considering a battlefield can afford to fret over an individual’s soldier life story, no matter how unique or compelling. Our opponents certainly shall not.” Leliana pauses, her expression expectant — whether of a rebuttal or a denial, Margo is unsure. When none is forthcoming, the spymaster continues. “Wherever you originate, you have some competencies and knowledge that will be useful to us — or, worse, could benefit our enemies. However, you are not the kind of person who is loyal to abstract principles or institutions. You have little respect for the chain of command, and I suspect that, were you to consider an order unjust, you would disobey it — quietly, without fanfare, but disobey you would. No, Mistress Duvalle, you may be from the other side of the Void itself, and yet I know your type quite well. I do not judge. I was much like you, long ago, but life has a way of delivering harsh lessons. You asked me what benefit I derive from attending carefully to each chess piece, yes? Personally, none at all. But I believe it is in the Inquisition’s interest to retain you. The question is simply which levers should be used to do so.”

With the tirade out the way, Leliana takes another sip of her tea. Margo tells herself very reasonably that dumping the contents of the teapot over the spymaster’s head in an effort to shock her out of her implacable cynicism isn’t likely to produce the desired results. “A very practical approach,” she finally manages. “Still, isn’t playing matchmaker somewhat beneath you?” She succeeds in keeping the anger out of her voice. The question sounds merely curious — and thus exactly as insulting as intended.

Torquemada’s eyes narrow. “In my position, one does not have the luxury of getting picky over methods.” The flash of anger dissipates. “Your friendship with the Herald is an asset in many ways, but it is insufficient to guarantee your compliance. It gives me leverage over her, but not over you. You understand why, yes?”

Margo chuckles humorlessly. “Because after what happened in the chantry, Evie is untouchable. For the people, she is the Herald of Andraste, whether you like it or not. She is beyond your ability to use as bait — you need someone disposable for that.”

“Indeed.” Leliana leans back against a supporting beam and cocks her head to the side, evaluating. “Make no mistake, Mistress Duvalle, our world is a pitiless place — for elves especially. Were this Orlais, you might have found yourself in the bed of a strategically useful noble, bound there with a weave of lies and blackmail so tight you would not so much as blink without consulting your superiors. How fortunate, then, that this is still Ferelden, and not the Orlesian court, yes? Everything is much simpler.” She pauses. “Are you quite certain you wouldn’t like some tea now? No? Where was I? Ah yes. Alliances. Cassandra and I routinely disagree on this matter. She wishes to see the principled logic behind people’s loyalty. I, on the other hand, find that emotions make for more potent ties than rational self-interest or abstract ideals. I have never understood those military commanders who would discourage intimacy among the soldiers in their charge. To die for the glory of a faraway ruler, or to die so that the lover fighting at one’s side might draw another breath — such things are hardly comparable. With all of this in mind, wouldn’t you say that a little nudge in the right direction serves all of our needs?” Leliana’s smile is her most charming yet.

It takes Margo a long time to formulate a response. “I do appreciate your candor, spymaster,” she finally says.

A flash of something vaguely reminiscent of respect, if one really squints — and then Leliana nods once. “You are intelligent, and you have the benefit of being a quick learner. I would like to think that under different circumstances, you and I could have been friends. A modicum of honesty is the best I can offer you, but it is more than you will receive elsewhere. I wish it were otherwise — that we could treat each other beyond the framework of utility — but you must fully understand the implications of your... transplantation. It is better that way.” Torquemada pauses. “I admit that I am curious — you mentioned your own world had only humans, no other races. What a peaceful, congenial place it must be!”

Margo snorts. “I am afraid that we would give you all a run for your money. One of my world’s influential thinkers called it ‘the narcissism of small differences.’”

For a brief instant, Leliana’s lips quirk in something close to a smile — perhaps in appreciation of the novel phrase, or perhaps in enjoyment of its irony. She drums her fingers on the map, right over the area where Orlais and Ferelden share a border.

“You will find no shortage of strife between the humans here as well, agent.”

“That brings me to a question, if you wouldn’t mind. Are there any circumstances under which the Qunari and Tevinter might ally? Or, let's say, the Dwarven kingdoms — if that is the term — and the Dalish?”

Leliana’s expression grows distant and thoughtful. “The Blight,” she finally offers.

Margo nods, unsurprised. This part of the picture, at least, has been crystallizing unchallenged. “A particularly jaded, functionalist interpretation would suggest that Blights are the only thing that keeps you all from annihilating each other. I do have another question — since we are speaking honestly.” Shit shit shit. What has gotten into her? This is suicidal. But if she doesn’t take a stand now, Torquemada will default back to pushing her around the board like a pawn. “What happened in Haven? It was reconstructed somewhat recently, was it not? Was it destroyed?”

Leliana’s face shutters. “Haven was a secluded mountain village, abandoned for a number of years before the Chantry chose to restore it. Why do you ask?”

“A historian’s interest, I suppose. Did the Chantry know about the blood magic?”

All the color drains from Leliana’s face. The two women stare at each other for a few moments in deathly silence.

“You knew,” Margo concludes quietly. “I am not judging. I think the ward protected the village from demons and new rifts, in its own way. Are you aware it has been damaged?”

“How— Who told you this?” Torquemada grits out.

“No one told me. The fact that the village is reconstructed is fairly obvious if you know where to look. As to the ward, I had a dream of Haven, and I saw it.”

Time stutters. Leliana appears to hesitate at a crossroads — and Margo is absolutely certain that one of the paths the spymaster is contemplating will result in a blade to the carotid and a quick but messy death. She doesn’t think she will have the skill to parry or outrun the bard if an attack comes, so she simply raises her head and stares at the other woman point-blank, waiting.

Comrade Nightingale opts for the other path. Her shoulders slump under some invisible burden, and she huddles around her tea cup, every bit the grumpy crow. “You would not credit a mere dream if you did not have external confirmation. I had wondered whether Solas knew but chose not to mention it.” She looks at her gauntleted hands for a long moment, as if seeing them for the first time, eyes emptied of everything but the memories that gnaw on her bones. “Are you certain it is damaged?” she asks finally, her voice bleak.

Margo confirms with a nod.

“Oh, Maker... Then it was all in vain in the end.” The spymaster’s eyes dart to Margo. “You are a scholar of history, Mistress Duvalle. Have you heard much about the Hero of Ferelden?”

“Not much beyond the basic association with stopping the Blight, though to be honest with you I am not sure I quite understand what that is.”

“Pray that you never do beyond what is on offer in history tomes and bards’ songs. The Hero was... a dear friend of mine, a complicated and very troubled man in many ways. He was a Circle mage before joining the Wardens, though I never learned whether he was from a Dalish clan or an alienage — he was brought in so young. The mage tower was all he knew.”

“Was he the one to create the ward?” Margo asks through numb lips.

“He... did what he thought was necessary.” Leliana’s gaze drifts inward, drawn by a memory that leaves a sorrowful imprint on her face. When she speaks, her voice is soft and wistful. “I spent the Blight years fighting at his side. Alim was the gentlest of souls, a healer before he was anything else. A poet who saw beauty in the most mundane of worldly textures. Which is why the callousness — the apparent cruelty — behind some of his choices was impossible to reconcile. When he explained why he did what he did, I do not think I believed him. On bad days, I thought him mad. It is only now that I am beginning to see that he spoke the truth — impossible as it seems. And now, there is no one left to ask.” Leliana shakes off the torpor with a visible effort. Her gaze turns shrewd and calculating. “Bygones. You will not speak of this to anyone else, you understand?”

“Can I ask what the ward was for?” The other part of the question hangs in the air, unarticulated, an absent presence. If Solas spoke the truth about what powered the magic, what could possibly justify such mass slaughter?

Leliana doesn’t answer for a long time. Finally, she makes a vague gesture with her hand. “This. The Breach. The Inquisition. A fighting chance in a future no less catastrophic than the Blight — and one that only Alim could see. And perhaps the witch, though I am uncertain,” she adds quietly, as if to herself. “A future he knew he would not be a part of. Maker, what a lonely path to walk.” She shakes her head, trying to chase away the swarm of memories, and casually wipes at her cheek with the heel of her gloved hand. “Enough reminiscing. I should thank you for informing me about the damage.” There is the barest hint of tremor in her voice.

“If it matters, most of the ward is still intact. The hole is confined to the area above the chantry.”

Leliana nods. “We shall take precautionary measures, then. In any case, now that the question of your accommodations has been solved, there is the matter of your salary, which you have not been collecting. Report to Josephine, and then go see Commander Cullen. With the Tranquil alchemist assisting Adan, you are of more use to us in the field. We are gathering a team to accompany the Herald on a short experimental expedition before we tackle the Breach. I do not share Cullen’s confidence in the Templars’ abilities to suppress the magic of the Fade — so we shall test their skills on a rift first. There may be some opportunities to grow the Inquisition’s influence at the same time. Cullen mentioned that he would like a support contingent. Oh, and don’t forget to familiarize yourself with your new identity.” Torquemada stands and, after a brief moment of hesitation, shocks Margo by extending her hand for a handshake. “Good day, agent. I am certain we shall speak again after your return.”

Margo manages “pleasantly polite” like the best of them and shakes the offered hand. “I look forward to it.” And, what do you know, it’s only mostly a lie.

Chapter Text

Josephine’s office smells of parchment, beeswax, and a delicious, bittersweet, nutty aroma, like chicory and cinnamon. Since the door is wide open Margo knocks on the wooden frame. The ambassador is alone — Minaeve is nowhere in sight, and the makeshift laboratory is missing about half of its glassware. Margo speculates that the enchanter might be in the process of moving into a more research-friendly location — there is no way that Josephine appreciates conducting her ambassadorial dealings with Minaeve digging around in putrid creaturely remains in the background any more than Minaeve appreciates listening to fussy Orlesian nobles prattle on.

“May I come in?” Margo asks.

Josephine looks up from her writing. “Mistress Duvalle, of course! Please, make yourself at home!” The smile she gives Margo is sunny and warm and the kind of artlessly genuine that only comes with years of rigorous training. “I am so pleased you have stopped by — I have to write a letter to some of our supporters in Starkhaven, and I am embarrassed to admit that I would very much enjoy a temporary distraction from that task.” Josephine purses her lips, equal parts admission of distaste and charming self-deprecation. Damn, but she is good.

Margo returns the smile and takes the seat offered to her. “I hope I am not interrupting too much.”

“Oh, not at all! I hoped we might have the opportunity to talk.”

Josephine flits about the room like a colorful hummingbird, and before Margo gets a chance to politely decline further rituals of hospitality she is equipped with a steaming mug of whatever was the source of the chicory-cinnamon smell and a small plate of sweets that are a dead ringer for rahat lokum , except more floral. “This is, in fact, a Rivaini specialty,” Josephine explains, “though we in Antiva are of course quick to claim it as our own.”

It takes Lady Montilyet all of five minutes to chip away at Margo’s initial wall of pleasantly polite wariness, and even if the vague thought that this is what the ambassador does for a living makes an uncertain appearance at the threshold of her consciousness, Margo opts to simply enjoy a conversation where she doesn’t have to carefully monitor every step. The sweet almost-coffee drink and the Turkish delight candies melt the rest of her defenses.

Apparently, it really doesn’t take much.

Josephine broaches the topic of her salary, and, at Margo’s curious question about how they prioritize resource allocation, the ambassador offers an explanation of the Inquisition’s budgeting structure. That gets them into a discussion of guilds. Josephine’s eyes flash with surprised pleasure at the unexpectedly sympathetic audience, and Margo has to suppress the temptation to badger the poor ambassador with overly enthusiastic questions, since the topic of early modern mercantilism is quite close to her own past academic interests.

As it turns out, the Inquisition’s finances are run on an Antivan guild model, implemented by Lady Montilyet to circumvent what she diplomatically calls “the somewhat more predetermined social hierarchies of our southern neighbors.” Margo quickly decodes this as the practice of ghettoizing and exploiting the proletariat, elven or otherwise.

“So, in Antiva, membership in guilds is open to everyone? Or is there a lineage system in play?” she asks.

“There are lineages of craftsmen, of course, but skill and raw talent do open many doors, irrespective of origins.” Josephine smiles a bit evasively. “Of course, the system is not devoid of nepotism and other inefficiencies, but this is where the Inquisition can be different. Leliana and Cassandra can tell you about our organization’s long and not always illustrious history, but I prefer to treat it as a new opportunity to correct some of the shortcomings of the present.” There is a distinctly reformist twinkle in Josephine’s hazel eyes. Margo wonders whether that little spark will eventually take Josie — and the Inquisition — from guilds to labor unions, skipping a couple of stages on the way. Maybe there will be opportunities to seed some ideas.

The experience of finding her name penned in the ambassador’s precise, elegant script in one of the Inquisition’s large ledgers is thoroughly uncanny. Her status has been updated from scout to craftsman. M. Duvalle. Field Alchemist, Apprentice. Margo reflects on her new existence as a bureaucratic object — at the same time as her identity is meant to be retrofitted to accord with the Inquisition’s needs. She nods a bit distractedly at Josephine’s apologies over the lower hazard pay that accompanies her new rank. The full coin purse in her lap is more money than Margo has seen in the last six weeks combined.

Her attention falls on the ledger again. Directly above her name, another entry is written in the exact same shade of ink. It reads Hludwiga. Field Medic, Master.

Noticing her gaze, the ambassador smiles. “I believe you have met my friend Lud, though I wish you had encountered her under more pleasant circumstances.”

Margo’s eyes widen. “Wait a second, your prison warden is a field medic ?”

There is something a little sly about Josephine’s expression. “Why, yes. Though she is no longer in that position — her talents are best utilized elsewhere. In fact, you will be working quite closely with her, as well as a number of others. Which brings me to the matter at hand, Mistress Duvalle. Following the events of the last few days, we thought it wise to implement a... new approach to how we present ourselves.”

Margo notes the dark circles under Josie’s eyes for the first time — they are mostly powdered over, but still visible in the flickering light of the candelabra.

“So this is a new development?” Margo asks tactfully. The advisors must have stayed awake the previous night, devising a response to Evie’s transformation. As it appears, she isn’t the only one who’s had an eventful night.

“To a degree, though the idea has been germinating for a time. It is crucial that we not be seen as an unmoored and stateless military force, lest we invite destruction.”

Margo nods. This sort of politics, she understands. “Right. You’re already claiming immunity from political borders because the rifts affect everyone. If the Inquisition grows bigger, it will eventually be perceived as a threat.”

Josephine’s expression takes a turn for the solemn. “Precisely. These past weeks prove that we are garnering enemies faster than we are supporters. Lady Trevelyan’s... peculiar gifts and persona give us a possible advantage, if used wisely. We must provide succor to the people in their time of need — it is the right thing to do, and within our capacity even now — but we must be better at being seen doing it.”

Margo eyes the ambassador speculatively. In other words, the Inquisition is in the process of sprouting a humanitarian arm and is fully prepared to brandish Evie like a heretical yet adorable rift-closing scepter that, conveniently, also happens to bypass national sovereignty. Margo stuffs her grudgingly impressed yet thoroughly horrified reaction under the inevitable rug.

“The spymaster mentioned an experimental expedition that might further the Inquisition’s influence.”

“You are correct. Hopefully a short stint that will assuage Leliana’s concerns about the templars’ ability to assist Lady Trevelyan in closing the Breach. But I thought we might kill two birds with one stone, as it were.” Josephine tops off Margo’s not-quite-coffee from an exquisite silver-plated carafe. “I hope that you do not mind my advocating that we place you on the support team. It is a position that should best take advantage of your talents — it occurs to me that in addition to your alchemical expertise, you might be uniquely suited to documenting... local histories.”

Margo stifles a surprised laugh. “It seems to me that you have an inordinate amount of spies already.”

Josephine’s smile is cryptic. “We have agents adept at overhearing deleterious gossip and rooting out enemy elements, often through less than savory methods. What we need is... a lighter touch. A branch of the organization to echo the gentleness of our Lady Herald. To ensure that settlements are not only safe, but have adequate supplies of medicines and food to weather these difficult times. But aid without foreknowledge often does more harm than good. And to this end we must collect people’s stories, political and religious attitudes, and small everyday concerns.”

People to be heard attending to such seemingly banal matters, alongside with the Inquisition being seen as helping. Of course, Lady Montilyet is too tactful to voice that part out loud. Still, the writing is on the wall — in flashing pink neon letters.

“And perhaps sift through all that gathered information and synthesize it into a picture that would help further the Inquisition’s goals?” Margo asks a little slyly — though without malice. Josephine is nothing if not crafty, but Margo can’t find it in herself to begrudge it to her — she is so damn charming about it. Margo’s eyes dart to the table, where a fresh bouquet of crystal grace rests in a gorgeous porcelain vase.

Poor dear Bear is in over his head.

Josephine pretends not to notice Margo’s glance at the vase. “An outsider’s perspective in such matters would be invaluable.”

Margo shakes her head, not quite managing to repress the mildly demented cackle that threatens to break through. Hadn’t she wanted to try her hand at ethnography? Well, there we go. Wish granted. All ethnographers might not be spies, but all good spies are ethnographers. Though, to be fair, among the plethora of readily available shitty options, this one at least is a role she can envision herself occupying. Beats being slotted into the assassin end of the spectrum, and it might get her some new information on local herbalist traditions.

Instead of all that, she compliments Josie’s impressive selection of books — the tomes are mostly on politics, economics, history, and a bit on religion, from what she can discern of the spines. Lady Montilyet absolutely beams at the compliment — and there is no doubt that the delight is genuine. Margo has a suspicion that the scholarly facet of the ambassador’s personality is too often taken for granted.

“Who are we going to ‘offer succor’ to, Ambassador? Anything I should learn beforehand?” The gambit to get her paws on Josie’s books isn’t exactly subtle, but those who risk nothing get nothing.

Josephine’s lips purse in thought, and then, as if reading Margo’s mind, she extracts a leather-bound tome from the bottom shelf. “I am sure you are already familiar with Brother Genitivi, yes? This is somewhat different, but still quite informative. Not necessarily something to emulate in style — the good sister had rather strong religious commitments — but the attention to detail is a delight.” The ambassador pauses, a shallow frown creasing her brow — whether in puzzlement or unease, Margo isn’t sure. “Our reports suggest that the Herald will be visiting a cult, if you will pardon me the expression. Despite the Chantry’s dominance in most of Thedas, we have no shortage of religious practices, some of them quite colorful. It is not entirely surprising that the rifts would cause a theological response, but worshipping them seems a little... unexpected. It behooves us to verify these rumors.”

Margo reads the inscription on the book’s spine. “Before Andrastianism: The Forgotten Faiths.” By one Sister Rondwyn of Tantervale.

The ambassador’s smile turns a little conniving. “In fact, once you are done with your reading, perhaps we could discuss it? I must admit I dearly miss the book salons of Val Royeaux, and while I would not presume to encroach on your time, I have many questions about your world...”

It is Margo’s turn to beam. “I would be thrilled.” And she would be. Even if she has no doubt whatsoever that this is simply a more palatable way for Josephine to extract information out of her.

Before Margo takes her leave, Josephine glances at her left boot — the one that’s developing a rather conspicuous yawn — and hands her a writ for Quartermaster Threnn. “A set of armor to better reflect your new position,” she offers mildly.

Margo nods her thanks and takes a look at the piece of parchment.

It is by far the prettiest voucher she has ever seen.

They part ways quite pleased with each other.

***

Quartermaster Threnn, with an expression of equal-opportunity disapproval, trades the voucher for a parcel wrapped so tightly into a stretch of colorless, scratchy wool that it could double as a trebuchet projectile. Inside the fabric — which, with some suspension of disbelief, might pass for a blanket — Margo finds a pair of boots, one set of what she decides are “field clothes,” one set of “civilian clothes,” and two new sets of rudimentary but clean “intimate apparel.” All of it exceedingly practical and with very little consideration for aesthetics. The unexpected boon is enough to make Margo want to jump for joy. She grins instead.

Threnn scowls at this display of idiotic glee and points her thumb towards the back of the tent. “Go try. I don’t want complaints three days from now about how something chafes.”

The new armor turns out to be a good fit — and it’s clean, to boot. It’s also delightfully practical — sturdy, warm, comfortable, with a wealth of pockets and a utility belt outfitted with some kind of metal contraption, likely to carry scrolls or writing implements. It comes with a large scarf that can double as a hood, all of it in perfectly reasonable shades of grey and burgundy. Margo notes the green sigiled armband that adorns her right arm. The insignia depicts the bastard child of an Evil Eye charm and an octopus — mercifully slain, if the sword still sticking through it is any indication.

“That’s the Inquisition’s symbol,” Threnn offers gruffly. “The green’s to show you’re an alchemist.” It doesn’t explain what the Impaled Octopus of Sauron is meant to symbolize, but Margo decides that Threnn might not be the best person to ask anyway. She stuffs her garb into her pack, and heads towards the training grounds in search of Commander Rutherford.

She spots the former templar some thirty yards away amidst the tents. He is deep in conversation with a shorter man in a remarkably pointy helmet. She slows, trying to decide whether to wait or interrupt.

“Hey, Blondie.”

Margo starts. How she’s managed not to notice the seven-foot-something Qunari sneak up on her is a mystery for the ages.

“Iron Bull,” she nods. She aims her voice for neutrally polite but misses. “What can I do for you?”

“Got a minute?”

She turns to look at him then. The Qunari is planted there in a wide-legged stance, arms crossed over his chest — an incongruous mythological vision of what a teenage boy might have imagined while doodling a fantasy warrior from an invading horde. She has the sudden uncomfortable realization that this is likely closer to the real Iron Bull and that the relaxed, casual, soldierly chumminess is a carefully crafted mask. He looms, equal parts Attila the Hun and Minotaur, grey and unmovable like a slab of granite.

“What’s that look for, Blondie?”

Margo shrugs. “Nothing. You remind me of a countertop I once knew.”

That earns her a cocked eyebrow, and, for a second, amused confusion cracks the facade of militarized efficiency — too briefly to glimpse what’s really beneath it all, but long enough to identify that this, too, is a mask. So he’s aiming to make a certain impression. Good to know.

“What do you need?” she asks.

The Qunari considers her with an unreadable expression, then he makes a vague gesture, apparently inviting her to follow him towards his tent. Margo stuffs her hands into her pockets in what she hopes is a convincing rendition of the proverbial unmovable object. When he realizes that she isn’t following, Bull turns around.

Their interaction is drawing some attention from the Chargers. The one called Stitches is packing stuff into crates next to the forge, assisted by Blackwall and one of Master Harritt’s apprentices. He casts them an uninterested glance but then returns to his task.

“You coming?”

“Nope.” She narrows her eyes, thinking. The intimidating affect is clearly meant to shift the power dynamic to the Qunari’s benefit — and this, in itself, is remarkably telling. He outweighs her by two hundred pounds at least. If he really wanted to relocate her somewhere else, he could simply pick her up and carry her off, and there wouldn’t be much she could do about it. Not to mention the difference in their social positions — so the idea that he would feel the need to casually assert his authority indicates that, for whatever reason, he is feeling uncertain.

Whatever of her thoughts percolates to her face, Iron Bull seems to read them easily enough. He takes a half-step towards her.

Margo stands her ground. “What do you want, Bull?” she asks again.

“You know I don’t bite, Blondie. Not unless you ask.” There is a lazy smirk on his lips, but it doesn’t make it all the way to his eyes.

“Quit it,” Margo grinds out with sudden, icy fury. Bull looks momentarily caught off guard — though probably not as much as she is. “I won’t dance this dance with you, Bull,” she adds after a heartbeat. “If you want to use sexual innuendo as a weapon, I suggest you find yourself a receptive Chantry sister. At a minimum, do not insult my intelligence.” She takes a deep breath. “And I would recommend you don’t do it with Dorian, either. Those who play with fire are likely to end up with missing eyebrows. Also, he deserves better.”

She expects belligerence. Or a deflection — for the Qunari to try to gloss over her anger with humor. What she doesn’t expect is the satisfied nod.

“Acknowledged,” he says simply. “It was the fastest way to make sure.

He is waiting for the logical follow-up question, so, instead of obliging, Margo shrugs and half-turns towards the training grounds, still keeping the Qunari within her line of sight. “Will that be all?” she asks.

“No.” Bull rocks slightly on his feet, then assumes once again his militarized stance. “I want to clear the air.”

“You have a funny way of doing it.”

“Most words are cheap, Blondie.” He pauses, expectant, but Margo decides to leave the uncomfortable silence to accrue dividends. When it’s clear that she won’t fire anything back, he continues. “You’re not antaam — not military. Still, in Redcliffe, you got that my decision was asit tal-eb given what I knew, but you didn’t make it difficult, even if it wasn’t fair. If you’d been born under the Qun, you would’ve been ashkaari , one who seeks precise understanding.”

Margo waits for an explanation of the terms, but none is forthcoming. She commits them to memory instead, for later reference — but says nothing.

“Got you something,” the Qunari adds after a pause.

She stares at him, momentarily stunned.

“Wait here.” He pivots on his heels, and departs towards his tent. Margo deliberates whether to simply walk away, but curiosity wins over. Rooted in place by indecision, she is forced to contemplate the unpleasant realization that she truly does feel betrayed by this being whom she had begun to consider, if not a friend, then at least a comrade of sorts. Until this confrontation, that particular unsightly emotional brew had been simmering quietly, out of the limelight of her full awareness.

Bull returns with a long, narrow book and hands it to her in an odd ceremonial gesture, left hand supporting his right forearm, broad palm open beneath the tome’s binding. His horns dip in a shallow bow. Margo speculates that the ritualistic exchange is meant to signify respect via disarmament — both hands are visible, and thus conceal no weapon.

A peace offering.

She tries to read him. His face remains stony, but there is a slight hunch to his shoulders, a hidden rigidity in the lines of his neck. A moment of hesitation, and then she emulates his gesture as she accepts the tome. Bull’s expression turns from tense to approving.

The book is a well-produced xylograph, printed on cloth instead of paper and bound between two thin wooden panels. The front tablet sports a rhomboid burn pattern of interconnecting charred lines vaguely reminiscent of a stylized fir tree.

“What is it, Bull?” she asks.

“A copy of the Soul Canto,” he offers, his voice deceptively casual. “A pretty good one, too. You’ve asked about the Qunari before. Figured you’d prefer to go to the source.”

“Hoping to convert me?” she asks dryly. Everyone is plying her with books these days — apparently, she really is that transparent.

“That’s not my role.” A pause. “Dorian and Solas should have told me. I would’ve found a workaround.”

“What’s the probability I’d still be alive if they had?”

Bull’s smirk has a trenchant, relentless edge, like the curve of an old, battleworn scimitar. “It’s always one out of two, Blondie. Either you would be, or you wouldn’t.”

Margo’s eyes widen as the sudden realization hits her. “Wait a second, Bull, this isn’t just a copy, that’s your copy, isn’t it?” She almost drops the book in shock. “Look, apology accepted, but I can’t take that.”

He shrugs and evades her gaze, all traces of the feral grin gone. When he speaks, his tone is flat, matter-of-fact. “Nah. Have it. Don’t have much use for that one. It was a... friend’s.” He pauses, contemplating his next words. “Lots of guys in Seheron get asala-taar . Soul sickness, from seeing too much shit. Can’t say whether reading this helped, but I had it when it happened to me.” He points his chin towards the training grounds. “Better talk to Cullen and get packing. I hear we’re leaving before sunset. Be seeing ya on the road.”

He walks off without waiting for a response.

Chapter Text

“No, no, no.” Even from across the courtyard, Margo can sense the roiling cloud of ambient anger and hangover fumes that surrounds the resident senior alchemist.  He is planted in front of the apothecary, doing his best to loom menacingly over a familiar dwarven woman who does not seem the least bit impressed with this display of temper. “I am not about to waste precious time and limited supplies on customizing potions when we don’t even know who we’re treating. Standard-issue restoratives will have to do.”

The dwarf, whom Margo recognizes as Lud by the blocky tattoos and no-nonsense manner, crosses her arms over her chest and graces Adan with a truly magnificent scowl.

When Cullen redirected Margo to “assist Adan with preparations,” she had noted the templar’s rather pinched expression. She mistakenly interpreted it as unease with her alien status. She needn’t have bothered — Commander Rutherford clearly has much more immediate problems than pondering the nature of the cosmos. Based on the unfolding scene, Margo decides that it will be a miracle if the resident apostate and the resident medic do not annihilate each other in a blast of mutual animosity.

“Your ‘standard-issue restoratives’ might fix your ‘standard-issue’ battle wounds long enough to hobble to safety and pray to the Ancestors that a medic or a mage is about, but they ain’t doing nugshite for a case of the frost cough that’s settled into the lungs, or for a bunch of poor sods who haven’t been eating proper for weeks.”

“I’ll have you know—” Adan starts, but Lud talks right over him.

And don’t get me started on your formulas. ’Standard-issue.’ Peh. Standard-issue for humans , maybe. What if we get elves there? Or dwarves? You got one Qunari. Found out what vitaar he uses? Or are you content with giving the giant bastard hives?”

“The Qunari has his own medic to mix poultices for him. Besides, I strongly doubt we’ll be seeing any Qunari there — or dwarves, for that matter. But never mind all that — we simply don’t have the resources!” Adan finally hollers, arms thrown up in dramatic exasperation. “And how many times do I have to say it, I am not a healer . I’m an explosives specialist.”

Lud taps her right foot. “Where’s the un-magicked fellow, then?”

“The ‘unmagicked fellow’s’ name is Clemence,” Adan growls, “and he is procuring glassware from Enchanter Minaeve. Did I mention resource scarcity yet? Yes? Well, let me mention it again. Besides, he focuses on toxins and antidotes — not treating malnourished refugees.”

“Then find me an alchemist who does , ‘cuz I wager Josie isn’t sending us out to blow up the sodding cultists — or poison them while we’re at it — unless you know something I don’t.”

Adan notices Margo loitering at what she hoped was a safe distance and waves her over. “There. Trained by a hedge witch. You’ll get along splendidly.”

Margo makes her way towards the irascible pair under Lud’s uncomfortably skeptical squint. “Ah, the elven lass. Josie mentioned you.” The medic takes a look at Margo’s sleeve. “Apprentice, heh. Well, better stupid ‘cuz still learning than stupid ‘cuz your skull’s crammed full of rubbish. Now. How’d you adapt a health potion for an elven elder sick with ague?”

Margo tries to stave off the panic, but she still freezes like a deer in the headlights. Ague? Is Lud talking about malaria? Well. She does have enough context to get a sense of what the dwarven medic is asking for based on the overheard argument. It would appear that Lud is intent of customizing the formulas for a civilian population — and away from the necessities of the battlefield. But there is more to the question. Do different subspecies of Homo theodosicus have slightly different biologies, then? And thereby slightly different responses to the local materia medica? Nothing of the sort was mentioned in any of the compendia she has seen, but it makes perfect sense. She wonders how much of the standardization is a product of the alchemical texts being written by humans, and, presumably, for a largely human audience.

Margo pulls a Munchausen, extracting herself out of the latest intellectual rabbit hole through sheer force of will, and tries to buy herself some time. “How far along are they? Is it a severe case of ague?” she improvises.

Lud narrows her eyes. “All of the blighted mosquito ailments are bad, especially for you lot, what with not having enough food to put on the table. Fine. High fever, and they’ve got the runs.” She thinks for a minute. “Liver’s swollen, too.”

Margo frowns. So malaria indeed — unless this is a confusing linguistic convergence, and Lud is talking about a completely autochthonous pathogen with no Earth equivalent.

Right. Extrapolate.

“I would...” She hesitates, then forges on. “I wouldn’t use a health potion. I’d use a restorative — something that helps support the body until the fever runs its course.” If it were Earth — and if it’s malaria — then she’d look for either quinine or, better yet, something containing artemisinin. The only plant she’s come across that’s even remotely reminiscent of sweet wormwood — in taste if not in appearance, since its morphology places it closer to the rhododendron family — is prophet’s laurel.

“Well?”

Margo decides to gamble. “I’d make it with prophet’s laurel,” she states with a nonchalant confidence she doesn’t feel at all.

Lud gives her another suspicious squint. “Why that one?”

Do they have a sense of the parasitic nature of malaria? If they know about the transmission vector... “Because it’s mosquito-borne,” Margo offers with a half-shrug, hoping that her performance of dismissiveness will be read as competence and not its opposite. “I’d also give them something that supports the blood,” she adds quickly. “And reduces liver heat.”

Just in case this is malaria, and there is accompanying anemia. This is how it would have been treated in classical Chinese medicine, anyway.

Margo’s response earns her a nod — calling it approval might be a little premature, but at least Lud is no longer watching her with naked skepticism. “Well, what d’you know, there’s a glimmer of intelligence in there. I can work with that.”

Margo grins at the dubious compliment.

Her joy at having passed Lud’s “test” soon gives way to the intense focus demanded by the craft. The next hours are spent making a truly impressive arsenal of various remedies. Most of the formulas are at least vaguely familiar, and the basic tasks remain the same: grinding, sifting, mixing, decocting, and, finally, as the daylight begins to wane, labeling and sorting the resulting medicines into padded crates. As far as taskmasters go, Lud could give Amund a run for his money. Even Adan sticks around and does his share. Eventually, Clemence reappears with an assortment of vials and a neutral “it is nice to see you again” extended to no one in particular.

“Best get ready.” Lud mutters with a look at the window. “Go gather your things, then help me load this stuff, will you?”

Margo nods, sets the last of the vials into their little nests, and takes off towards Solas’s hut.

An odd warmth courses up her hand when she turns the doorknob, but the sensation dissipates quickly. She finds the house deserted — Solas’s staff and travel gear are missing, but the embers in the fireplace are still warm. In the middle of the table she discovers a folded note weighed down by an odd piece of jewelry on a thin copper chain. She examines the pendant — a simple medal, its contours green with oxidation, the faint outline of a wolf’s head embossed into the metal.

She opens the note.

“Fenor, this made its way into my hands after the commander’s men eliminated a demon infestation in the Hinterlands. Considering your history, I would be grateful if you wore it: my preliminary examination suggests it may assist in keeping wolves at bay. Until we speak again. Yours. S.”

Margo frowns, twirling the pendant in her fingers. She is fairly certain this is meant as a tongue-in-cheek nod to their run-in with the wolfpack all those weeks ago — which started her entire involvement with the elf in the first place.

Except her first association isn’t that. It is baba’s odd moniker for Solas. Wolfling.

She is still frowning when she slips the pendant’s chain around her neck.

***

Of all the changes Margo expected her new role of Alchemist Sans Frontières to involve, riding in a horse-drawn cart never made the list. In part, because she has no idea how — or when — the Inquisition availed itself of horses. She is so distracted by present developments that even the presence of the domesticated Equus genus in Thedas skates along the surface of her attention without capturing it. In her defense, jostling around atop a crate of root vegetables of the turnip persuasion while attempting to master the intricacies of Wicked Grace is no trivial task.

“Prickly, you are awful at this,” Varric sighs with theatrical hopelessness after taking a look at her cards. “I dare say even the Seeker might beat you. Didn’t I tell you not to lead with the trumps?”

“It would certainly help if the trumps didn’t keep changing at every turn,” Margo notes acerbically.

Varric emits a martyred grunt, plays his hand, and rakes in the pile of coppers spilled on the canvas sack — this one containing an assortment of dry beans — atop the crate they commandeered as a table. Lud, next to Margo, swears under her breath about sky-addled beardless dwarves — and something altogether unprintable about ancestors. Her diatribe has Varric chortling in delight as if she just paid him a refined compliment. Stitches tosses his cards into the now-empty space on the canvas and gestures his resignation with both hands.

“The chief was right, Varric— you don’t just cheat. You cheat at cheating.”

“I am simply trying to teach Margo here how the game is really played. No need to get combative.”

The two medics narrow their eyes in unison. “Who doesn’t know how to play Wicked Grace?” Stitches asks with a puzzled scowl.

Margo shrugs. “Father gambled,” she offers by way of an explanation. And she doesn’t even have to lie — well, no more than usual. She’s had two days on the road to familiarize herself with the stack of documents that Torquemada unloaded on her, though she’s hardly made a dent. Perhaps because she got distracted by the letters from her new pen pal, Sir Lancelot the Verbose. His missives were intercepted and summarily read, of course, but at least Leliana had the decency to pass them on. In any event, the compulsively gambling father was a part of Maile’s file — and one of the aspects that has been retained for Margo’s new persona, an odd melding of Maile’s life with Torquemada’s fiction.

The others nod sagely — except for Master Tethras, whose smirk is quickly smothered under the most disingenuous expression of grave sympathy Margo has ever seen.

There hasn’t been any opportunity to talk to Varric — or any of the others, for that matter. Her section of the convoy is at the very tail end of the long snake that stretches for half a mile down the south road from Haven. Evie and most of the Inner Circle are too far ahead to make much interaction logistically sound. It doesn’t take a great strategist to realize that this is a march — whoever is making the decisions is setting a punishing pace for both the people and the horses. From their position in the civilian support team, which Margo has privately dubbed the Carequisition, the vanguard of their expedition is visible only when they crest a hill.

She isn’t entirely sure why Varric ended up as their escort — alongside Amund, Cole, and two templars from Evie’s new personal retinue — but Margo has the ungenerous suspicion that the dwarf might have volunteered. Still, the new arrangement offers little privacy for a surreptitious chat out of earshot.

If revelations about her nature disturbed him in any way, Varric doesn’t let on. On the contrary. Whenever the conversation touches on something unfamiliar — mostly dwarven caste politics and the events of the last Blight, which are the two topics both Lud and Stitches seem to gravitate towards in their discussions of their respective craft and backgrounds — Varric inserts humorous but detailed tales or simply stirs the conversation in such a way as to generate enough context for Margo to file away for future reference. It fits perfectly into his storyteller persona — to the others, it probably sounds like lighthearted banter from a man who has a healthy enjoyment of the sound of his own voice — but Margo isn’t fooled. She keeps stealing thankful glances at him. By the second day, Varric probably thinks she is smitten, what with all that grateful gazing, but Margo sees no reason to stop. She’ll have to get him an expensive bottle of brandy next time they’re out of the wilderness.

On occasion she catches a glimpse of Evie, a minuscule figure riding awkwardly ahead on her palomino pacer, the horse’s rolling gait easy to spot between the other mounts. The kid is surrounded by a rotating knot of allies — almost always two of the three mages. Cassandra and Blackwall ride on at the helm, and Bull and the Chargers — minus Stitches — move apace with a group of scouts and scribes in the middle of the convoy. According to Varric, the two wagons at the center transport weapons. Margo just hopes that they are not Seggrit-quality.

The trek affords her a better sense of her new companions and the time to catch up on her pile of reading. The weather is miserable the whole way through, rain mixed with sleet that gives way to simply rain, squelching mud, leaking tents, and campfires that only kindle with accelerant and provide more acrid smoke than warmth. By the end of the first day they are all covered in a thick layer of road grime, but there is little to be done about it. They share two tents between them, Margo electing the one that contains Varric, Cole, and Amund. She is so exhausted by the end of the day from constant forays into the underbrush to gather ingredients that all she can do is curl up, her back against Cole’s. Whether because of the spirit’s presence or because of something Amund is doing, she doesn’t dream — and for the first time in ages, she wakes up feeling rested. She doesn’t think Cole actually sleeps, but for some reason he puts on a show nonetheless, likely in a bid to make everyone more comfortable — or perhaps out of curiosity, role-playing at being human.

The further they move away from Haven, the more jovial Lud becomes. The medic turns out to be funny, irreverent, and terrifyingly competent. She cares for bipeds and quadrupeds with the same brusque, relentlessly efficient kindness.

Varric doesn’t miss an opportunity to tease her about her brief stint as a prison warden — “How does it feel to find yourself on the right side of the bars for once, Splints?”

Lud growls through a scowl. “‘Splints,’ Tethras? Really?”

“Well, since Stitches is already taken... All right, all right. Let me think. How about ‘Leeches’?”

Stitches is reserved and a little aloof, with a quietly sardonic streak to him that mostly comes out in his interactions with Varric and Lud. His body language suggests that he is clearly uncomfortable around Cole, but he doesn’t comment.

Against her expectations, the two templars turn out to be rather likable. Ser Subira, the dark-skinned Rivaini with a crop of wiry grey hair, has a poised, serious purposefulness that reminds Margo of Cassandra. There is something just a little schoolmarmy about the older templar, but not in an unpleasant way — perhaps the result of having spent the last ten years training first year recruits.

Her counterpart — in every sense of the term, as it turns out — is also her opposite in personality. In her late thirties and younger than her lover by about ten years, in Margo’s estimation, Ser Deirdre is red-haired, freckled, and volatile, as quick to laugh as she is to spit out a string of profanities — usually at the recalcitrant horses, recalcitrant firewood, and other uncooperative objects. Margo’s heart melts a little when she catches Deirdre delivering a sound kick to the wheel of their wagon after they get stuck — yet again — in the viscous mud. “Blighted Ferelden craftsmanship, I’m’a give ye to the darkspawn, see how that suits,” she mutters under her breath in Starkhaven’s thick brogue.

“How’d you two meet, anyway?” Varric pries on the first day, the nonchalant tone belying the greedy twinkle in his eye — ever the author in search of inspiration.

“We were stationed together in Val Royeaux,” Subira offers after a hesitation.

“Bet there’s a story there,” the dwarf presses. “Can’t say I’ve met too many happy couples in the order.”

“Why, she wooed me,” Deirdre grins, to Subira’s mortified grunt of protest.

“Don’t listen to her — she’ll tell you tales to make even your ears wilt.”

“My ears are very sturdy, don’t worry,” Varric chuckles. “Wooing, eh? How does one woo a templar?”

An impish twinkle dances in Deirdre’s green eyes. “You know... Poetry, flowers, serenades, midnight walks, hiding from the city guards on balconies...” She gives Subira’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Don’t get fooled by the steely exterior, Master Tethras, we were young and foolish once, too.”

“Speak for yourself, Dee,” Subira grumbles, but she shoots the redhead a hopelessly fond look.

When Envy began feeding the templars red lyrium, these two tried to shield as many of the young recruits as possible, inventing ridiculous excuses for why this or that templar was “indisposed.” Mostly Deirdre described instances of incontinence in lurid and very convincing detail, and Subira hid the kids in the larder. It hadn’t been nearly enough in the end — but it was something. Margo can’t help but feel relief on Evie’s behalf. At least two of The Nine seem like good folk.

The only one who appears significantly out of sorts is Amund. The further they descend into the valley, the more taciturn the Avvar becomes, and by the second day he is watching the sky almost constantly, deep frown lines bracketing his mouth. Margo asks him what is wrong, but he simply shakes his head and returns his gaze to the heavy cloud cover above the tips of swaying firs. He spends more and more time in meditation, seated cross-legged on his bedroll while the others sleep, his eyes glazed, unfathomable ghosts dancing in their depths.

By the end of the third day, as they roll in sight of the old fortress, the Avvar retires to a hilltop while the others fill their waterskins in the stream below. Margo leaves her sack of embrium and trudges uphill, greasy mud squelching under her boots. “What is it, Amund? You don’t seem like yourself,” she asks, winded. He lifts his head from the set of polished bird bones scattered on the ground before him — a sight she has grown used to by now, part of the augur’s practice of querying his Goddess.

“It is almost time, luzzil spinna. The missives do not lie.” He sighs, the sound heavy and desolate. “Lady of the Skies watch over us, because I’m not sure you are ready. Nor that I am, for that matter.”

Margo frowns and crouches by Amund in the wet grass. She has never seen him quite so... disconsolate.

“Amund, you’re actually beginning to worry me. Not ready for what?”

The Avvar pins her with a long, unreadable look. “For what the Lady brought you for,” he says with uncharacteristic softness. And then he gathers his oracle bones and walks away towards his horse. “Come, little spider. It is not wise to keep the gods waiting.”

Chapter Text

“They won’t let us in.”

Evie plops down next to Varric and pulls her travel cloak more tightly around her narrow shoulders. Five campfires dot the rocky lip between the two sides of the fortress. Only one of the closest fires is clearly visible in the frigid, milky mist. The fogbank has swallowed the wagons, horses, and Inquisition troops meant to guard them — an occasional neigh and the distant clanking of metal the only evidence of their invisible presence in the ravine below.

“Did you ask nicely, Your Worship?” Varric squints skeptically

Evie opens her mouth to defend herself, realizes that the dwarf is teasing, and huffs a half-hearted laugh. “I did say ‘please,’ if that matters. Speaker Anais won’t even let the medics through — nor the food, nor the weapons.” The young woman shakes her head in almost comical consternation and proceeds to stare dejectedly at her left hand. “They said that they don’t need help. That the Maker is going to cleanse the world of rot, and that the chosen will be lifted up to the Golden City. Except when I asked about the logistics of how exactly that would happen — and who is going to be chosen for the lifting up — Speaker Anais got rather testy.”

On the other side of the campfire, Dorian represses a rather inelegant snort. “What? Logical questions met with defensive posturing on the part of the illustrious cult leader? Such a shocking turn of events!”

Varric scrapes up the remnants of his rabbit stew with a crust of dark bread and sends the resulting clump into his mouth. He masticates thoughtfully. “Let me guess. They’re waiting for the Maker to send them a sign.”

Evie’s eyes dart to the neighboring campfire, some fifteen yards away. Cassandra, the Iron Lady, and four of Evie’s templars — including Ser Barris — are immersed in a tense discussion — no doubt about what sort of sign the Maker ought to be seen sending, and how the Inquisition might translate it to its benefit.

“Yes,” Evie sighs into the sudden, tense silence. “One way or another, it involves me closing the rift at the back of their fortress.”

“Let me get this straight, Your Heraldness. These cultists shut themselves inside a fortress... with an active rift in it?” The look of disgusted disbelief on Varric’s face is a true work of art.

Dorian shakes his head. “Of course they did."

“Remind me why we’re trying to help them, again?”

Behind the veneer of sarcasm, both men’s eyes are pinched with worry. Evie shrugs and fiddles with the laces of her boots. “Commander Cullen said that this fortress is of strategic importance. And Josephine thinks that if we can get these people on our side, then maybe they can help the refugees in the area.”

“One does have to wonder about their supply routes.” After a short hesitation, Dorian accepts a flask of liquor from Varric, takes a small swig, and swears in Tevene

Margo, silent until then, nods her agreement. “Exactly. I strongly suspect that the reason they’re not opening the door is because they can afford not to.” She turns to Evie. “It’s possible that this Speaker Anais is actually saying the truth. They might not need help — at least, not at the moment. In which case, you’ll have to impress them some other way.”

Evie sighs. “Madame Vivienne thinks that the strongest move for us would be to send me in with just the templars.”

Margo hides her scowl by pretending to fuss with the parcels she is about to dispense — the medical travel kits are the official reason for her walking from campfire to campfire. While the rest of the cavalry has been temporarily stymied into forced idleness, she and the medics have been busy setting up a field infirmary and an alchemy station.

“I guess nine templars is enough to take on whatever that rift spits out. It makes sense, in a sick sort of way. Say what you will about the Order, but they’re trained for dealing with demons. After a fashion, anyway.” Varric picks up an oil rag and sets Bianca lovingly into his lap.

“Before we take up the task of wringing our hands in earnest, did you come bearing gifts, my dear?” Dorian lifts up on one elbow and peers over at Margo’s satchel.

Margo grins at him and starts handing out the parcels. “I did. It’s basic, but there are some improvements to your usual fare. For example, your standard restoratives are now in pill form. They won’t absorb as fast as tonics but will work over a longer period, so just take one with liquid before you decide to pick a fight.”

She had already been miniaturizing the restoratives into tablets, but Lud showed her an encapsulation technique that allows for the pills to have an extended release. As it turns out, “some fungus” has the wondrous property of excreting an odoriferous resin when stressed — and, according to Lud, it is “stressed” quite often. While Margo tried to bat away images of a very anxious mushroom guzzling wine and calling its therapist, Lud proceeded to demonstrate that the resin combined with animal tallow formed a gel-like substance that could be used to coat the pills. For a field medic, Lud is amazingly adept at alchemy, and Margo wonders if this is part of dwarven culture more generally. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that without the dwarves’ ability to work lyrium — and without their firm control over the lyrium trade, in uneasy symbiosis with the Chantry — much of southern Thedas would simply implode.

“There is also rock salve and some other useful stuff in there. Just be careful where you put the salve — the loss of sensitivity lasts for about five hours.”

Dorian’s mustache twitches. “Is it safe to use on one’s ears? For my next encounter with Mother Giselle...”

Margo represses a snort, gives Evie a quick, one-armed hug, and waves her goodbyes before proceeding to the next campfire.

The rest of her delivery route could not be mistaken for anything other than work, so Margo slips behind the mask of professional efficiency she is beginning to pick up from both Lud and Stitches. Cassandra and the templars are amiable but a little aloof. Vivienne is studiously cordial, but her eyes follow Margo with the disturbing impassivity of a currently satiated cobra observing its future prey. Bull and the Chargers, reunited once again, are jovial, but their easy camaraderie is turned inward — a self-sufficient bubble of sociality that needs no outsiders. Blackwall and Sera are with them, and while the bearded bear gives Margo a long, complex look, he does not miss the opportunity to rest one heavy hand on her shoulder, his expression at once solemn and warm. “We should get back to your training,” he says simply as he receives his medical kit. “At your convenience.”

Sera... is more complicated. Her expression is a hair away from an angry scowl, and she accepts her parcel without comment and tosses it dismissively onto the grass next to her. Before Margo can depart, however, the elven archer catches her wrist. Her voice is pitched low. “Know what, Spindly? Don’t give a shite if your ears are round, or pointy, or sodding square, yeah? Don’t give a shite what the others say — can’t tell a blighted demon from their own arse, well, that’s not my problem. But friends don’t friggin’ lie to friends, do they.” Sera releases Margo’s wrist and turns away, her jaw set at an angry angle.

Margo stifles a quiet sigh. “I know. I’m sorry I had to.”

“Not. Was just easier, so that’s what you did.” Sera gets up and simply walks away to join the Chargers. She doesn’t look back.

Blackwall throws Margo an apologetic look. “Sera’s... hotheaded.” His eyes crease at the corners. “I’d chalk it up to the impulsiveness of youth, but I’ll spare you the bullshit.” He hesitates. “She’ll come around. And for what it’s worth, I understand why you did it.”

Margo smiles despite herself. “Are you also from a different part of the universe, Warden Blackwall?”

He rumbles a chuckle. “No, I’m afraid I don’t have that excuse. But the Wardens... I get the part about wanting to leave the past in the past.”

Margo offers the bearded menace a grateful nod but leaves with a heavy heart. She wonders idly what sort of past he is running away from.

On her way to the last campfire, where she expects to find Amund and Cole, Margo practically collides with Solas. He floats into view out of the fogbank like some spectral apparition — hands clasped behind his back, face tilted skyward. He seems to be deep in observation of the tower’s masonry, so he doesn’t turn at Margo’s muffled yelp — though the corner of his mouth lifts slightly.

“A remarkable structure, is it not?”

Two can play that game. “I’m sure the view from the ramparts must be spectacular.” Margo rummages in her satchel for one of the mage-designated kits.

Solas accepts the parcel with a slight bow and takes a small step towards her — too close for merely polite, too far for outwardly intimate. His nostrils flare on a soft inhale. “You have been working with embrium?” he asks casually. “It is believed that ancient elves concentrated an extract from the petals to produce perfume.” His gaze drifts to her neck — without the scarf, the copper chain of the new amulet is undoubtedly visible. For some unknown reason, his eyes widen a little. The faint blush makes his freckles more pronounced, but before Margo gets a chance to puzzle out this odd reaction, she finds herself entirely sidetracked — and mildly flustered — by a rather inopportune thought about the freckles’ general distribution. Whatever of this translates to her face, Solas’s smile takes a turn for the impish.

Margo mobilizes her rapidly scattering thoughts, threatens the butterflies in her stomach with the mental image of a Vladimir Nabokov happily scampering around with an insect net, and turns to observe the stonework.

“You were saying something about the fortress... I’m not a specialist, but it does look quite old and very well preserved.” She rubs her thumb along the seam between two stones. The cement that binds them is white and surprisingly smooth. Interesting. If she had a strong acid... “I don’t have a way to do a compound analysis, but I’d bet good money that this is a variant of limestone and egg white mortar.”

A brief flash of surprise lifts Solas’s brows. Then his smile widens before he returns to his observation of the wall. “I must admit, fenor, that while I have learned to expect your uncannily fortuitous guesses, watching you conjure them is still...” he hesitates, fishing for a word. “Unexpectedly satisfying,” he finally concludes softly. Margo’s breath hitches. The elf has a knack for layering several meanings into a single utterance. “I cannot offer you a means of alchemical analysis, but some of the memories that still linger in the Fade suggest exactly this technique. An ambitious project.”

“And costly,” Margo nods, catching his train of thought easily.

“Indeed. Accomplished by a wealthy lord in hopes of altering his son’s embarrassingly lazy disposition. A residence away from home for the young lordling to become a hero to these lands — or such was the intent, in any case.”

“Did it work?” Margo asks, curious.

“It is hard to say.” He turns to her. “Forgive me, fenor. Do not allow me to distract you with my musings. The Veil is thin here, and this land is rich in history. I wonder what we shall find once we are admitted into the keep.”

Margo grins. “A bunch of people who are emphatically not interested in our help, apparently.”

“I suppose it is not surprising that some should turn to worshipping the Breach. Still. A remarkably self-sufficient group sheltered by the sturdy walls of a fortress they did not earn.” There is an edge to the words, despite his light tone.

Margo frowns. “I assumed the fortress was abandoned and they simply... took over.”

“The noble family that built it still exists and remains influential, from what I understand. I find it difficult to imagine that they would simply relinquish their claim to lands they consider theirs. But no matter.” The thick fog affords a bit of privacy, and Solas exploits this. He captures her hand and brushes his lips against the inside of her wrist, the touch warm and incredibly soft. It earns him a reaction that Margo manages to convert into an accusatory look, but not before Solas’s expression morphs toward the irritatingly self-satisfied. “I have wasted enough of your time with my pondering. We should return to our duties.” He glides away with a final smile, and Margo heads towards Amund’s campfire, trying to puzzle out the elf’s odd irritation at the keep and its inhabitants.

***

The hour during which Evie and her retinue are in absentia is spent in a state of hushed anticipation. The decision to follow Vivienne’s proposal is finalized in the early afternoon — although, in the end, both the Orlesian mage and the Seeker are to accompany the Herald alongside the templars. Margo can guess at the reasoning behind it. The cultists are a direct answer to the Chantry’s failings — the negative image of official religious dogma. To budge them in the direction of the Inquisition requires a demonstration of its ability to outdo the Chantry, and the simplest way to achieve it, in this case, is to show mages, templars, and a Seeker working side by side.

Margo spends the time at her makeshift alchemy bench. There is little to do aside from tidying up — and for once she is grateful that the retort is such a pain to clean. Varric, with his habitual air of slightly sardonic amusement, regales Margo and Lud with stories about Kirkwall. They’re not fooling anyone, of course — Varric interrupts his narrative every time muffled noises drift from the keep, and they all listen in tense silence. By the time all is said and done, Margo’s alchemical paraphernalia is so spotless it is practically glowing.

When the portcullis emits a plaintive creak and begins its slow ascent, Margo follows Varric to join the others in the greeting delegation. Through the arch, she catches sight of Evie’s small figure striding confidently from the depths of the fortress, flanked by Cassandra on her left and Ser Barris on her right. Behind them, Vivienne glides with a sinuous grace, the templars marching stone-faced at her back.

They walk along a living alley of genuflecting worshippers.

***

It is not until their expedition is admitted into the fortress that the grating sense of confusion that has been nagging at Margo since their arrival finally resolves itself into a more specific picture. It starts with small surprises — for instance, that most of the inhabitants of the keep are exceptionally well-dressed. The robes they wear are similar to those of mages, but the cloth is expensive and well-tailored. Most people look... well-groomed. The mess hall at the back of the fortress boasts an impressively diverse array of foods that indicates a full and rather well-stocked pantry.

It doesn’t click until she is hailed by a young lordling with a short buzz cut and such a stunning sense of callow entitlement Margo is left momentarily speechless, even though she should have expected it.

“You, elf. Do you serve the Herald? Or are you yet another refugee?” He grimaces with distaste at that prospect. Margo pivots to demonstrate the All-Seeing Octopus of Sauron on her arm by way of an answer. With visible relief — and a hopeful, beseeching expression that on a better day might have garnered him some sympathy had he not spent that credit with the first few sentences out of his mouth — the lordling queries her about some Lady Vellina who was meant to join him in the fortress. Margo is so utterly flummoxed by the fact that the young lord clearly cannot fathom the possibility that his paramour perished in the civil war ravaging the region that it takes her a bit too long to come up with a coherent yet noncommittal response.

The lordling is more than happy to have an audience to wax poetic about his lover — Margo learns that Lady Vellina is his senior by about three years and betrothed against her will to one of young Lord Berand’s distant cousins. The love story is truly Shakespearean, which makes Margo suspect an inevitably tragic resolution. Margo decides that Romeo here will do perfectly well as her first ethnographic subject.

“How many other nobles are here, my lord?”

He blinks at her, uncomprehending. “What an odd question — why, most of us following Speaker Anais are of noble birth. We would not have use of Winterwatch without Arl Teagan’s consent. Despite the disturbing rumors about Redcliffe, Teagan Guerrin is still arl of these lands.”

Margo is not at all surprised to hear that most of the cultists have one striking commonality — they are the second or third children of local noble families. Some come from other wealthy social strata: the sons and daughters of well-to-do merchants with few prospects of an inheritance, likely because they managed to get themselves disowned. The cult’s philosophy fits organically into the young lords’ and ladies’ preexisting worldview: of course they would be chosen by the Maker. How could it be otherwise?

At Margo’s expression, Romeo looks momentarily discomfited — the vague discomfort that comes with the suspicion that one is being an insensitive ass, accompanied by the inability to grasp the exact nature of one’s social faux pas. “Well, we took in some refugees with useful skills — we needed a healer, and the elven lad has been most helpful.” Early on, Romeo patiently explains, they did admit a small contingent into their ranks in exchange for the work of keeping the fortress running. The nobles, after all, should be allowed to concentrate on prayer and communion without such pesky distractions as washing their stockings. But after those roles were filled, the gates closed. “Have you seen their camp along the northern wall?” Romeo asks with that same expression of appalled distaste. “A truly dismal sight.”

Good thing the Maker is scheduled to cleanse the world of its rabble, then. Any time now. Margo manages a polite thanks, and walks off to inform Evie about the refugees, her jaw clenched so hard her teeth hurt.

***

The meager shelters, cobbled together from sun-bleached debris scavenged along the keep’s crumbling barbican, hug the northern perimeter of the stronghold. As she walks alongside Lud and Stitches between the narrow rows of shanties — Evie, Cassandra, and Blackwall at the head of their procession — Margo is surprised to see an almost equal ratio of humans and elves. All fled their homes when the skies ripped open. It’s mostly families, quite a few with very young children and elderly relatives — three or four generations huddled together under a single leaky roof. She recognizes the shadows that haunt their faces, human and Elvhen alike — it’s always the same ones, lurking in the purple tint beneath the eyes, pooling in the hollowed-out cheeks, etched in vertical lines between the brows. Every family they pass still in the throes of phantom pains. A sister. A husband. A parent. A child. The quiet ache of carrying within you those whose path has ended.

The discovery of the shantytown sets Evie on a collision course with Vivienne and Cassandra — unless it is Cassandra and Vivienne who are clashing. Margo only catches the echoes of the conflict. Something about how to best deploy the cultists — and, presumably, whether to allow the exploitative relationship between the nobles inside and the commoners outside to continue unchallenged in favor of some other political gain.

Margo spends the next two days with the refugees alongside Lud and Stitches. Mostly she writes down stories, draws genealogies — a heart-wrenching task — mixes simple remedies. On occasion, she takes a couple of kids along to gather ingredients in the vicinity, always in view of their mothers’ exhausted, wary, relieved gaze. By the second day she develops a bit of a following of her own — a snot-nosed, delightfully grubby troupe. Many of the kids are already competent herbalists, and Margo happily lets herself be shown up, to the general merriment of her barefoot retinue. It’s oddly simple, and for a day she almost lets herself forget where she is — it is deceptively easy to recognize parts of her own childhood in theirs.

By the third day, it becomes clear that the Inquisition has splintered into those attending to the cultists and those working for the benefit of the shantytown. Margo has no way of knowing whether this strategy is intentional. She only returns to her own camp to sleep and wash up. Half the time, the tent is empty when she arrives. Amund and Cole are nowhere in sight, and Varric seems to keep odd hours. Aside from the Warden, few of the Inner Circle are on this side of the wall. Sera and Solas make the occasional appearances. Margo spots both in intense conversations with the local residents — Solas exclusively with the elves, Sera more indiscriminately. There is something casually conspiratorial about both of their demeanors, though she is fairly certain they are acting independently, with no immediate awareness of each other’s activities. Margo is absolutely sure Sera is recruiting for the Jennies — which leaves the question of what Solas is up to. She catches his gaze on her once or twice, but he doesn’t approach her otherwise.

At the end of the third day, Margo is nibbling on a chunk of garlic bread next to Carlissa — a middle-aged, classically attractive elven woman with copper skin, no facial tattoos, and the faraway look of someone who has seen too much death in too short a time. They are both rather absorbed in the process of watching a shirtless Blackwall dig a hole for an additional outhouse. At the foot of the large boulder where they sit, Carlissa’s twelve-year-old is sorting elfroot with an air of supreme self-importance.

“Reminds me of my husband, he does,” Carlissa sighs quietly and gestures with her chin towards the sweaty, bearded figure swinging a shovel. “Hairy as a mountain bear, too, Nevin was.” She pauses, caught by the current of memories. “My sister used to say dwarves are selfish between the sheets. Well, not my Nevin. Had the gentlest hands, never mind the calluses. Maker, I still have dreams, sometimes. Have you a man, lass? Bairns of your own?”

“I did,” Margo answers in the same quiet tone, and she lets the silence do the rest. “How’d you lose your husband? Can I ask?”

Carlissa says nothing for a long time. “Terror demons, they’re called. Nevin kept them busy long enough for us to run and hide.” She looks at the boy below. “I used to be bitter, what with the bairns never turning out like me . But now... couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing my Nevin again. Even if it’s just traces, like.”

Margo swallows painfully. Oh, unspecified and unmerciful deity. No cameras, no cellphones. Someone like Carlissa would never be able to afford a painting of her loved ones. All she would have is the unsteady shimmer of memories — and the ghostly imprint of her husband in her children’s faces. Still. It is more than Margo has — or likely will ever have henceforth.

A traceless world, then.

She is caught in the riptide of acute dislocation and doesn’t notice Amund until Carlissa’s son calls out in warning — a mixture of delight and terror at the sight of the white-maned giant.

“I have come to fetch you, luzzil spinna. All is ready. Come, we have work to do.”

He doesn’t wait for her to follow before heading towards the cliffs behind the keep. Margo blinks. In lieu of his habitual bluish armor, the Avvar wears an odd long coat — an incongruously intricate work of beads, leather, and small metal objects that clank dissonantly as he walks.

Oh, great. Rituals.

Chapter Text

The ascent is steep and arduous. They clamber up, pathless, over loose rock and craggy vegetation. Amund, for all the years he has on Margo, moves with the fluid ease of a man who learned to climb before he learned to walk. She tries to keep up, but her thoughts get in the way of her body’s instincts. Eventually she finds her own rhythm, but not before falling behind the Avvar by a good twenty yards.

When she crests the summit, the dying rays of the sun pierce the heavy cloud cover just above the horizon, dyeing the sparse vegetation atop the rocky plateau a dusty orange. The oblique light pulls purple shadows from beneath a scattering of stony pyramids — flat rocks balanced precariously in vertical and eerily familiar cairns, like mineral sentinels. A storm in the distance breaths with a steady northern wind.

The Avvar stops and squints into the setting sun, then turns his back on it and kneels before a circle of stones — half-buried in the earth and black with layers upon layers of soot. It is already stacked for a fire.

“Sit.” He gestures to the spot directly across from him on the other side of the stone circle. “Let us talk before we begin.”

Margo does as instructed. She realizes at that moment that their sitting arrangement must be strategic. With the red glare in her eyes, Amund’s face is swaddled in shadow, his expression indiscernible. After the Avvar fails to volunteer any further information, she decides that she is probably supposed to lead with the questions.

“Amund, why are we here?”

He observes her for a long time before finally breaking the silence. “You and I walk beneath the same sky, luzzil spinna , and yet you are as blind to the signs as the lowlanders. Let us hope your other eyes see better.” He sinks into his thoughts. Then, at length, a sigh escapes him, quiet and resigned. “If you could see, then you would know you are wasting your time.”

Margo frowns. “I’m...”

“All of you.” He gestures with his hand, an expansive, abstract motion. With the next words, the weariness drains from him, and in its place settles a steely intransigence. “Tell me, why have you come? What wish you to gain?”

She tries to puzzle out the slippery diectic pronoun. “I suppose the Inquisition hopes to gain allies, to raise its reputation. If it can help while doing so...” She trails off.

“I am aware of your organization’s petty politics. Like the fussing of mice. No. Why are you here, little spider? You have been filling your ears with the stories of those abandoned by their gods. Those hunted by the maddened ones. What for?” Amund leans forward, his eyes boring into her face. “Or are you as the priestesses of the lowlanders’ faith? Stringing the suffering of others like pretty beads for your own display of compassion, yet choosing to remain blind and deaf to its causes? Is your kindheartedness only as good as the eyes that would witness it and the hands that would applaud it?” His eyes glint with simmering anger. “Or worse. Are you like the dreamstrider?” Amund’s mouth twists in unrestrained disgust. “ Nagraðugr hornkerling , greedy to watch . Slurping the marrow from the dreams that linger in picked-over bones, but never one to lift a measly finger. Never one to pay the tithe, nay.”

Margo forces herself not to recoil at the Avvar’s sudden, inexplicable wrath. Well. He’s not mincing words, she’ll give him that. Though, in one sense at least, Amund is not wrong. She chuckles dryly. “I’m here for selfish reasons, yes. Just not the ones you’re thinking.” She rubs her face with both hands, buying herself a moment to find the words. “I look at these kids, and I see... well, me . Bits and pieces of my own past, however much such a comparison is even possible. Other times familial memories absorbed from countless stories, where you don’t know which one is yours anymore. If you’re asking me why I’m on this side of the wall, it’s because it’s the one place I understand. And I don’t know how else to help.”

“You wish to help?” He makes a sound deep in his throat, somewhere between a snort and a growl. “None of what this Inquisition of yours is doing here will help. Most of the lowlanders in this place will be dead within the year.”

The last sliver of the alien sun dips behind the mountain range. “Why?” Margo is vaguely surprised that she manages to keep her voice steady.

Exasperation creeps into Amund’s tone. “Because the tear has maddened whichever gods remained. This place is hollow. Who will guide the arrow so that the hunters can fill their families’ bellies, hmm? Who will bend the weather to summon gentle rains when the seedlings are young and fragile? Who will whisper a solution to a difficult problem into the ear of a slumbering chief? Who will lift the heart with dreams of sunlight when the night is darkest?”

Margo finds herself digging in her heels against the Avvar’s implacable animism. “The folks inside the keep don’t need gods, Amund. They have wealth, connections, and the safety that comes with them. And the ones outside need more than a little luck-bending.” The bitterness in her own voice catches her off guard.

“When the crows pick their bones white, little spider, then talk to me again about their ‘wealth and connections.’ Talk to me about luck then. You are not listening.” He turns away, extracts a piece of porous pumice-like stone and a fire crystal from the folds of his coat. The kindling catches quickly. Something about the fire seems to settle the augur, his shoulders relaxing into a tired hunch. He sits quietly, staring into the flames.

She tries a different approach. “I’m sorry, Amund. I’m trying. Surely, the gods will be back eventually, won’t they? Am I correct to understand that spirits... and demons are attracted to emotion?”

The strange metal ornaments on Amund’s coat chime in time with his headshake. “Fill your ears with more of this lowlander drivel and soon you won’t know which way the sun rises. Why do those maimed with the blood of the mountain know nothing but the desire to serve? Where do you think emotions come from, outworlder?”

Margo’s eyes widen. “Wait a moment, are you saying that spirits....” She hesitates. A discussion of neurobiology and culturally shaped habits of mind is not likely to sway him. “ I could feel emotions just fine even before I ended up in your world, but we don’t have spirits — at least not in the same way you do.”

In the unsteady flicker of the campfire, Amund’s expression looks momentarily amused. “Aye. Where did they all go, I wonder.”

He summarily ignores her request for clarification. Margo changes tactics. “But dwarves can feel without a connection to the Fade.”

The Avvar sits in silence for a long time, his gaze trained on the flames. “I cannot tell you what the children of the stone can or cannot feel. I can only tell you of what I know — and know it too you shall, for why else would the Lady put you in my path?” he offers finally. His eyes are distant and unfocused, firelight dancing in the onyx irises, and he sways gently from side to side, as if slipping, little by little, into a trance. When he finally speaks, his voice drops down an octave, a sound like distant thunder between barren cliffs.

“Gods with us for generations for as long as mountains stand,
See our children born and dying in the Mountain Father’s Hand.
Pride of mine in my clan’s doings is my mother’s brother’s Pride .
Love for glacial winds, my sister’s, flickers in my rival’s eye.
Side by side with our forefathers, all the Names that carve the Bone.
When a god dies, sing its passing, new, yet old returns as one.”

Amund stops abruptly. “The gods care not for strangers, little spider,” he offers with relentless finality. “One does not endure alone. We remember the gods so that they can know themselves. The gods remember us so that we can know each other.

It is probably the longest monologue she has ever heard pass Amund’s lips. Margo tries to wrap her mind around the symbiotic entanglement the Avvar is evoking. None of this is metaphor, she reminds herself. She needs to stop defaulting to treating it as such. If spirits are also emotions, then they are not mere echoes, not just refracted light — but also a source, a mirror twin that stares right back from beyond the looking glass. Conversely, memories must leave an imprint in the Fade, but the Fade laminates the material world, and thus memories become themselves material, attached to specific places. Her stomach tightens with the free fall of sudden dread. The cosmic model is terrifying for its uncanny familiarity. It perfectly ties together her own world’s concept of place spirits with that of ancestral spirits. For the Avvar, there seems to be no qualitative distinction between gods, emotions, and memories. She bites her lip, thinking. Are all of them aspects of each other?

The world is all that is the case .

And then there’s the other question, the one she has been studiously tiptoeing around — and that has her heart fretting painfully against her ribcage. How is such cosmological convergence possible? And what does this mean about the world she left behind?

“Amund, what happens when no such relationship is cultivated? What happens when the memories in a place have nothing to do with its present inhabitants?” She swallows. “What happens when the gods are strangers?”

A scattered sort of thing.

The Avvar’s dark gaze snaps into sharp focus. “Ah. Now , you listen. I already told you what happens. It is for this that my clan values your kind, luzzil spinna .” His thin lips press into a grim smile, bitter as wormwood. “The time for dawdling has passed. Do you still wish to help the lowlanders?”

***

At the sight of the two lichen — ougfan’sluzzil and ougfan’sloz — combined together into a truly ghastly brownish mush that stinks of turpentine and socks, Margo considers trying to plead with the augur — or, if that fails, run away screaming. But he hands her the ornate snuffbox with the horrid substance before she can so much as voice a protest.

“So how do you detoxify the Veil Lock? How does one take it safely?” she asks, mostly to buy herself time before she, presumably, has to ingest the nasty stuff.

She could swear there is a twitch to the Avvar’s lips, but it is difficult to say for certain in the unsteady light. “You do not use ougfan’sloz without ougfan’sluzzil , outworlder. Not unless you wish to leave your body behind and walk across the Land of Dreams to wherever your final path takes you. If so, there are easier ways to die. How did you come up with such a harebrained idea?

Margo hopes the flickering light of the fire obscures her blush. How indeed. Oh unspecified and mercilessly ironic deity, she even had tried to convince Lancelot the Rightfully Suspicious to take the blasted lichen. She really needs to stop grazing her way through the countryside like some demented locust. “So what happens if you combine them, then?” She takes the box with poorly concealed reluctance. Maybe she won’t have to eat the stuff. Maybe it’s enough to smell it — or, better yet, to stare at it intently.

“Do not plead foolishness. You know already.”

Margo sighs. Socratic method, then. “You’re going to tell me it makes it easier to enter the F— Land of Dreams, aren’t you?”

She identifies the guttural rumble as the Avvar laughing. “Lowlanders fancy themselves wandering into the Land of Dreams like it’s their own stables. No. Leave such nonsense behind. You take the lock and key so that the Land of Dreams can enter you. Such is the price the gods exact of those who would query them.” He considers her solemnly, his merriment gone as soon as it manifested. “I will guide you as best I can, but without a clan to add their voices, the cost is a Weaver’s to bear. Will you pay the tithe, outworlder?”

Margo huddles around herself. This is going to be awful, isn’t it? But then she thinks of Carlissa’s son sorting elfroot into neat little bundles at the foot of the boulder. Of the absent loves that dwell among the shanties, like forlorn uninvited guests — and the prospect of their slow yet inexorable multiplication. More and more ghostly absences. Or one sudden catastrophe, with no time to say goodbye.

All dead within the year.

At length, she nods. The Avvar gives her a long look, and then he brings his hands up, and, slowly, with a hunch to his shoulders and a hitch to his fingers, peels off his mask. Beneath the long white mane that frames his worn and weathered face — still handsome despite the years’ imprint, but suddenly and disconcertingly bare — four parallel pallid scars bisect the skin of his forehead and cheekbones. They look like claw marks.

He chuckles at her blatant staring. “I once had it in mind to refuse the gift of the gods. Perhaps you have more sense than I did, little spider.”

***

The nausea is crippling — but it is nothing compared to the unbearable thirst. The Avvar let her have two sips of water, then snatched the waterskin away before she could drink her fill. Margo lies still on the dry, packed earth, the whoosh whoosh whoosh of blood in her ears at once deafening and muffled, like the roar of a distant surf. Above her, stars float in the darkness, vast and blind and senseless.

She isn’t sure how much time passes — isn’t sure, in fact, whether time still exists in the strict sense of the term. Moments stretch and cycle, viscous, punctuated only by Amund’s raspy chanting. It is a strained sound, occasionally interrupted by shaky, guttural growls.

Whatever he is doing pains him.

The memory emerges from somewhere she has no name for, but it condenses at the periphery of her vision — a dark, glossy shadow — and she teeters on its edge. It pushes, undeniable, like the contractions of birth. She gives in, lets it slip into her with a single thought — to find some ease for her twisting, dislocating mind.

And then, she becomes with the memory.

Despair. Darkness, distant fires. The neighing of horses. Sweat, leather, and smoke — and something else, sweetish and wrong. She clutches the two bundles to her sides, one in each arm, and sits to rest her feet, heavy and aching, each step an agony, as if she were shod in leaden shoes. The bundle under her left arm has not moved since morning. She can’t look. If she doesn’t look, it’s not real.

At her side, a dragonfly lands on a wilted stalk of spindleweed and lays its eggs, oblivious and unperturbed.

The Avvar’s chanting — a tether she feels down in her very essence — falters, then changes. Something hollow-eyed and hungry is hurled away, past the uncertain boundaries of their flickering circle. The shadow drifts.

The respite is a brief one. The chant reels in another shadow, old, from deep within the stone.

Rage. Pure white rage pounding in his lower belly. Rage at the crumpled shape beneath him, rage and triumph that drowns out everything, even the burns, rage as the thing squirms and tries to crawl away. He is stronger. He overpowers it, fumbles with his belt, then frees himself. Pliant flesh, struggling no longer, and with a maddened gasp—

Margo cries out, wrenches the sticky awfulness away, and flops onto her stomach in time to vomit a thin string of caustic bile onto the dusty earth. Amund’s voice rises in pitch. The rage and the terror it calls home recede. She crawls away from the fouled-up spot, but another shadow jostles the previous horrors aside, impatient, its hooks already snagging on her mind.

Fear. The fire long since cold. Quiet outside, now. She clutches Bandit’s warm, furry hide, fingers tangled in the coarse fur. She’ll count to one hundred, and this time, when she’s done, they’ll be back. Shh, good boy. Just wait, this time it’ll work for sure, you’ll see. She has a good feeling about this one. And Mamma will hug her and tell her she was being so brave just like her big brother and kiss that spot on the side of her nose that always makes her giggle, even if she’s almost seven and way too old for that, and she’ll look all calm and say “of course,” like Brent when he comes back with a couple of fresh rabbits for dinner, and Bandit will bark and run in circles like when he was a puppy, and Father will scold her a little for letting the fire go out, and then he’ll ruffle her hair, and they’ll stack the kindling together. As long as she doesn’t skip any numbers, they’ll be back. She’ll take it slow, so she doesn’t accidentally lose track...

The memory drifts on. Margo’s eyes burn, but her body doesn’t have the water to sob.

“Too many dark gods, little spider.” Amund’s voice is hoarse. “I could spare you this, if you wish. Plenty of softer dreams within the walls.”

Her lips move soundlessly. “Will...” Her throat seizes. “Help all? Refugees too?” she rasps out.

“No. You must choose.”

She moves her head from side to side.

She loses count. Centuries pass. The memories rip through her, a vessel — a vassal to the dreams this wretched place dreams to itself. She is no longer sure which ones belong to the refugees and which are older, embedded in the rock.

And then, when there is little left of her, there, hidden at the bottom of the haystack of nightmares, she stumbles upon the memory that changes everything.

He climbs to the top of the broken wall — the one with the crow nest — and dangles his feet over the drop, kicking his heels against the rocks. Beside him, in a crack between two stones, a single elfroot grows, as if it never even noticed where it planted itself. He lays on the warm stones then, props his chin on his hands, and he watches a fat little bug, its shell shiny and dotted with red, crawl along a leaf.

He misses Father. He misses old Mag, too. Mother tries to cry all quiet-like, but it’s not like the tent has any walls. But she doesn’t cry as much now that they have a roof, so that’s something. He tells Fria silly stories about Clever Little Fennec — stupidest character he’s ever come up with, but it’s the one thing that’ll get a smile out of her. Probably ‘cause she looks like a clever little fennec herself.

He’ll go gather plants with Mother’s new friend tomorrow again, and maybe he’ll find grubs too — good when fried, just don’t eat too many or it’s to the outhouse with you. Maybe Mother can trade the elfroot for oil.

This place isn’t so bad. Better than the last one, anyway. He likes how the sun smells on the stones. He likes the stream below, the one with the mantis shrimp — he’ll teach Fria how to catch them when she is a bit older and grows out of the clumsy. He likes the large pine tree on the other side of the bridge — with the pinecones as big as his head, and the nuts that pop out when you toss the cones into the fire. He likes listening to them crackle and the way the smoke makes the nuts taste almost like the meat old Mag used to prepare for winter.

He likes the weird little piles of rocks on top of the cliff.

Margo clutches the dream, holds it tight, but it begins to slip away like all the others. Stay! Stay stay stay , she pleads with it. She tries to concentrate it like an elixir, desperate, fumbling for anchors to fix the scattering mosaic, grasping for the living thread of feeling that weaves it together, the hidden note in Amund’s raspy chant — the smell of sun-warmed stones, the rocky cairns atop the cliff, the tree with its bounty of nuts. Stubborn little roots clinging to the cracks of an old crumbling wall.

And then, seconds before it escapes her grasp, the dream suddenly snaps into focus... and stares back.

“What would you have of me, val’haselan ?” Amund asks with the voice of another.

Chapter Text

Margo forces her body into a sitting position, loses her balance, and careens to the side. London Bridge is falling down... Her cheek meets the ground with a painful yet distant thwack. She tastes copper at the back of her throat.

After some fumbling, she manages to regain a semblance of verticality — Tower of Pisa style.

She isn’t sure what she was expecting of the possession state. Some kind of visual overlay, perhaps, where she might be able to see the contours of another being beneath the Avvar’s skin. A change in mannerisms, minimally. But for all intents and purposes Amund remains exactly as he is — except for his voice. It’s neither high nor low, neither loud nor quiet, neither female nor male, neither hostile nor friendly. In fact, it has nothing whatsoever to recommend it — a complete and utter abstraction. Affectless, but not robotic. Passionless, but not indifferent. It is simply a voice. And it isn’t the least bit human — however one might define that term.

“Whom am I speaking with?” she asks, and she is momentarily overwhelmed by the utter surreality of the question.

Amund — and his passenger — watch her over the flames.

“I do not care for names,” the voice responds placidly, as if its nameless status were a mere observation about the weather. A pause follows, during which Margo has the distinct feeling of being examined — that particularly unpleasant species of observation that she has always associated with 19 th century naturalists in the throes of vivisecting small amphibians. “I am everywhere now. I am as multiple and common as is sand, and just as unremarkable. Though, if you would like, you may call me Legion.”

For we are many . Margo swallows back a wave of terror.

“You... are not quite what I expected,” she manages. Because when interacting with something that may or may not be a demon, blurt out the first thing that pops into your head. In her defense, there is probably no point in trying to dissemble — whoever is watching her through Amund’s eyes can likely see beneath appearances.

Very slowly, it nods the augur’s head, seemingly in understanding. “Yes. At one time, the thread you followed would have led you elsewhere.”

When it doesn’t say anything else, Margo tries to regroup her scattering (and unhappily bleating) thoughts. “Where would it have led me?”

“To a name I no longer carry.”

“Can you tell me some of your former names, then?”

“If you wish, val’haselan .” The thing cocks Amund’s head to the side. “Once, I was Resilience, but without Wisdom, I became Endurance. Once, I was Endurance, but without Faith, I became Survival. Once, I was Survival, but without Hope, I became... Legion.”

She hears the capitalization in the words. These are all proper names. “Why... What happened? Why did you end up without the... others?”

“Because the two sides are sundered.” It pauses. “Now there is only the Many.”

Margo frowns. The being would give Gollum a run for his money, as far as cryptic nonsense is concerned. But whatever it is, it still... came through. Something about that last memory, that last thread she frantically yanked on  led to something. Or, rather, called something forth.

“Can you help the refugees survive?” she asks. Because it is the only question that matters, in the end. The reason behind the entire operation.

“What for?”

For a moment, there is something discordant about Amund’s movements, as if his body is experiencing a mute sort of discomfort. Margo’s heart rate speeds up. She doesn’t know what being possessed feels like, but it is probably wise to not let the process drag on. She forces herself to slow down her breathing. Right. As long as it’s not crawling backwards on the ceiling and spewing green pea soup...

“You were Survival once. Could you not... recall that state? You did respond to the memory’s call, didn’t you?”

“I am what is the case, val’haselan . And the case is Legion.”

Margo grinds her teeth, trying to quell the sudden flash of frustration. And the award for least helpful mentor goes to the Avvar shaman. Amund so did not equip her with enough information to deal with this. Fine. When in doubt, ask for directions.

“Legion... What would you need to become Survival again? Hope, right?” She inhales. “I think there is quite a bit of hope in that memory. The one that pulled you here. It is what brought you, is it not? Some part of you dwells there.”

The Avvar’s expression remains impassive. “There is no place where I do not dwell, fleshling.”

Tricky bastard, it’s actually playing coy. Because it certainly didn’t come through with the other memories, did it?

“But there is a specific thread I pulled, built into a specific memory, and you responded. You said so yourself.”

“Perhaps I was curious.”

She hesitates. “Is... is Curiosity with you, then?”

Amund’s body jerks, the movement jagged and unnatural. And then he smiles — an uncanny rictus, not malevolent, but also not right , like something glued on as an afterthought. Margo fails to repress a shudder. The eerie smile dissipates as fast as it came on. “No. But it is with you . Many are with you, val’haselan . I have not met your kind before, though the I that I am no longer once did.” The Avvar’s expression shifts — and Margo shrinks back. There is something... It’s not wistful. Wistful is too gentle for the sentiment. Or, if it’s wistful, it’s wistful on steroids. More like... Covetous . Greedy. If it were a human wearing it, it would look like a species of lust. Though that’s not quite it, either. Even though the being uses Amund as its vessel for the expression, the translation is outside of Margo’s interpretive register — and she finds herself immensely grateful for that small mercy.

“You wish me to dwell with the mortals here? You are asking for the impossible, for I already am. I am what they share between them.”

She doesn’t know what it’s saying, exactly, but something about its intent feels suddenly recognizable. Something familiar about its awful, incomprehensible longing.

“No, I want you to help them. Help them... more than just survive.”

Amund’s body leans forward. “It is not in me to help.”

Do the Avvar draw a distinction between spirits and demons? Does the distinction matter in this case? Her lips feel numb. “What would it take, then?”

Amund shudders, and suddenly, it is the augur’s baritone that comes through, distorted by terrible strain. “Weave, spinna. Make the god remember. Weave it into place. Hurry!”

The panic courses through her veins like a poison. Her mind goes completely, helplessly blank. Shit shit shit, think, think! What did the thing say? Without Hope, it became... Legion.

Without... Like alchemy. Mixture. Another ingredient. Many are with you, val’haselan.

Memories. Ishmael wanted a memory. Her exchanges with Solas. Like a... like a currency. Her dream bubbles, sketchy and awkward, a toddler’s doodle.

She closes her eyes. Hope. She digs into herself in search of it, but in her panic all she comes up with are bitter draughts. The promise of her parents returning, despite the news on Baba’s old crackling radio — “ fire bomb ... five civilian deaths... Hungarian journalist, French documentary filmmaker ...” The promise of treatment for Lilly. Jake. I’m gonna stay clean this time, you’ll see . She wades through the debris as if through a bog.

She doesn’t think she’s going to find anything at all — so much for incorrigible optimism. And then...

It’s pathetically, absurdly banal. Personal to the point of being a little embarrassing. She is home, in front of a mirror, and trying on a new dress. It looks pretty good — brings out the bronze undertones of her skin, makes her eyes — a muddy hazel on the best of days — look respectably green. A third date. Not quite a colleague, since the astrophysicist is technically in another department, but it beats the howling train wreck that her experience with Tinder has been. It’s early fall, the little university town bustling with student life. There is a hipster bar off Main Street, with tabletop games and a whole lot of ironic Elvises. They make a lovely Dark and Stormy. As it turns out, and in addition to their shared love of Game of Thrones , she and the physicist have another thing in common. Backgammon.

“Are you ready to lose? *cracks knuckles*” she texts him. When she’s halfway through the makeup routine, the phone pings. She almost drops the mascara down the drain.

“Asked Napoleon at Waterloo.”

Margo grins like an idiot.

It’s that little feeling, the quiet laughter, bubbly, just below the surface. Something so often there in childhood — the same feeling that ran through the memory she plucked from Carlissa’s son. The anticipation of something bright and warm right around the corner, despite all previous experiences. Joy over the small presents the universe leaves under one’s pillow. She tries isolating the emotion, one thread among others... but there is no detaching it. It is what makes the memory, the solvent for all of its ingredients.

Her heart constricts, but she forces herself to bottle the whole thing, to encapsulate the bubble. A perfect moment, frozen in time.

She opens her eyes. Amund watches her with that eerie, covetous expression.

“You can have it,” she says quietly and closes her eyes again — as much to get away from that hunger in the augur’s face as to hold the feeling-memory together.

At first, nothing happens. But then something brushes against her consciousness — something hard and sharp and colorless, like a diamond — and the memory vanishes, leaving no trace. And with it, the warm, bubbly, fluttery tingle it contained is gone from her, no longer in her repertoire.

Margo opens her eyes, wipes at her cheeks with the back of her hand. Across from her, Amund blinks slowly. The presence is still there — though something about it feels changed.

“You can make more memories, val’haselan .” The voice is softer, brighter around the edges — and now gendered very distinctly female. “I do not have that luxury.”

“Whom am I speaking with?” Margo asks through sudden, mind-crushing exhaustion.

Amund’s passenger appears to mull this over. “You can call me Constancy.” It pauses, contemplating her. “I will do as you bid me. I will help them endure.”

And with this, it departs.

***

The moment the spirit vacates the augur, Amund’s eyes roll back in his head, and he collapses with a slowness that would be comical under different circumstances. Margo is not in a laughing mood. She tries to scramble up to her feet, but her world spins mercilessly off-kilter, and she finds herself on her hands and knees, narrowly avoiding planting her palm into the burning cinders. She plops back down on her ass, fumbles at her belt, and extracts an elfroot potion. She downs the contents in three gulps.

Absolutely nothing happens.

Right. Idiot lichens, unpleasant plant parasite on all of them. Ougfan -what’s-its-face, likely interfering with the elfroot. She crawls towards the augur, careful not to accidentally tip over or set herself on fire. Sharp pebbles bite into her palms, but the pain is distant and doesn’t cut through the mind-fog.

An eternity later — she loses time in the process — she presses her fingertips to Amund’s neck, trying to locate a pulse. It is strong and steady, but he doesn’t so much as stir.

Help. She needs help. Solas, or Cole, or Dorian. Except there is no way she can descend from the plateau in this state — she will fall to her death. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. And then took a hallucinogenic drug and went kersplat. She bites back a shaky laugh.

A branch snaps behind her. Margo whirls around — or rather spins ineffectually, fighting back sudden nausea — and peers into the darkness. Maybe Solas or Cole followed. Hell, she’d even be happy to see the Iron Lady right about now.

It’s probably bears. Hungry ones. With inordinately dirty claws.

The shadows remain still, but watchful.

She turns back to the campfire — and strangles a scream.

“Why, hello, poppet.”

Oh no. No no no.

Imshael isn’t wearing Solas today. Oh no. He is wearing Ser Asshat.

“Cosmic shitgibbon,” Margo nods, though her teeth have taken up the questionable task of clattering. “You’re early. I’m pretty sure a month hasn’t passed. Scat.”

It titters. Fucking titters . “I’m sure a month has passed somewhere. ” Imshael-via-Lancelot the Misused graces her with a sharp, blindingly white smile and arranges itself in a cross-legged position. “It’s always in the semantics, poppet. Gets them every time. Can you blame me, though? Tasty little morsel that you are, how could I possibly stay away? I was positively languishing. ” Its grin becomes feral. “Pining. No, no, surely there is a better epithet. Aching. Burning — now, burning, that’s a good one. Counting the minutes.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Margo scowls, with as much irritation as she can plaster over the terror. “I have no interest in your theatrics. Go rot in the Void, or wherever it is that you stay when you’re not being a waste of oxygen.”

“Language, poppet! Language. Or I might have to wash out that lovely mouth of yours.” It folds its borrowed features into a semblance of coyness. “Or find a better use for it. I can think of a couple.” It leans forward. “Fill it with screams. Fill it with blood. Make it beg. Yes. I think I would like that very much.”

Margo simulates an almost convincing yawn. Lady Vigard would be proud. “You done? What do you want?”

“Right down to business? No niceties? I do so like your forwardness, da’elgar.” The awful leer vanishes and is replaced by a kind of affable chumminess. It’s not an improvement. “Actually, I want to offer you a wonderful opportunity. You and I are going to be great friends. An offer you can’t refuse, is that the right turn of phrase?”

“What part of ‘fuck off’ wasn’t clear?”

It throws its hands up in mock conciliation. “Fine, fine, have your moment of indignant denial. It wouldn’t be fun without all the protestation .” It makes it sound utterly obscene. “No, this is good. You see, this world, if you pardon my language, is going to become a very interesting place, very soon. And yours truly has made some remarkable friends recently. Powerful friends. Changes are coming. May you live in interesting times, and all that.”

Margo shudders despite her best efforts. Goran. Goran had said something similar.

“What’s with the new costume?” she asks, to buy herself some time. Maybe if she can distract it...

“Oh, this?” The demon shrugs. “I suppose I have a taste for impostors.” Its eyes take on a steely sheen. “Such a curious thing, you know. I had thought the wolf — cunning old thing that it is — would have figured you out by now, what with all that surreptitious snogging. In the Waking, in the Dreaming. Hmm. Fun to watch, but still a bit... bland, if you ask me. But looks like the old Avvar beat him to the punch, and with no snogging at all! Now, now, I admit. I didn’t see it at first either. Tricky little da’elgar, you’re even more interesting than I thought. Selfless poppet, giving out this, giving out that. So generous with yourself. Restoring boring old Constancy back to its former glory. Well, here, anyway. We are Many, yes? Keep at it a little longer, and there won’t be much left of you.” It clucks sympathetically. “Now, that would be a waste.”

“Is there a point to your soliloquy?” Margo grinds out.

“You have somewhere else to be, poppet? The stuff you scarfed down — brave, foolish girl — isn’t going to wear off for another few hours. You can barely walk. Your self-styled mentor is taking a nice long nap. No one knows you’re here.” It lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “And you are... so deliciously open to the likes of me. The way I see it, you and I are going to have a wonderful time together.”

She needs to change strategies. The cosmic shitgibbon has a point. She can’t fight it, not in this state. If she has a couple of hours until the lichens wear off... she is going to have to pull a reverse Scheherazade. Right. Keep it talking.

“You’re beating around the bush a lot,” Margo comments. She picks up a nearby stick and pokes the fire, releasing a flare of sparks into the night sky. She keeps one end of the stick in the flames and holds on to the other end. Poker to your face, as Sera might have it. She wouldn’t dare use Molly, not in her current condition. “Is there an actual offer at the other end of all your yammering?”

The creature claps its hands, the sound drawing a sleepy and indignant avian hoot from the bushes. “Ah, now we’re talking. See, I knew you would be reasonable.” It rests its chin on folded fingers. “What if I told you that... you could go home?”

Margo almost drops the stick. A line from Robert Browning flits across her mind. My first thought was, he lied with every word. She can’t remember the rest to save her life.

Focus. Eyes on the prize. Keep it talking. As long as it’s in the business of trying to strike a deal...

“I doubt that’s possible,” she hears herself say. “I’m pretty sure I died in my world.”

The demon folds Ser Asshat’s features into a solicitous smile. “Oh, you mean Rage? Reparable. I can help you fix that, you know.” Its eyes twinkle with mischief, a horribly charming expression on its stolen face. “Ha! Let’s call it the Dispossessed.”

“I strongly doubt you’d be able to do that.” Stall it.

“Oh ye of little faith! Isn’t that what they say?” It laughs, delighted at its cleverness. “I could do that and much more.” Its voice becomes threaded with soft, sticky intimacy. “Don’t you want to go back? This world isn’t yours, poppet. It will eat you alive and lick its fingers. Don’t you want to see... your loved ones? Get back to your books? A normal life? What’s the name of that fellow you fancied? What about your brother? Jake, was it? I wonder how he’s faring.”

The ground drops from under her, so Margo busies herself with tending to the flames.

“Ah, my scrumptious little treat, did I hit a nerve? You are so delightfully transparent. The Herald will be just fine without you. Yes, yes, you’d miss the wolf a bit, but... well. Would you not trade him for your old life? You know he can offer you nothing but ruin, don’t you? What shall we call it? Ah, how about... Impostor syndrome! Yes, I do quite like that.” Another self-satisfied chortle. Her hands itch to drive the poker through its eye. Except, she can’t. And not just because she probably doesn’t have the coordination at the moment. Oh, unmerciful universe...

“What’s the catch?” It’s not her voice. She isn’t saying it. Is she?

It scoots over, and before Margo can draw back, the demon is seated right next to her. Their knees are brushing. The creature smells strongly of some kind of woodsy cologne, and faintly of dead things. Oh holy hell, what is she doing... It’s lying, it’s lying, it’s a liar...

“Why would I lie, da’elgar? I always tell the truth, give or take. Not like... some people we know.” It rests Ser Asshat’s hand on her thigh, the touch warm through the fabric. Margo recoils. The thing gives out a merry chuckle. “Too soon, poppet? I’ll be patient. I can be very patient. After all, time is irrelevant to my kind.”

Stall him.

It . She needs to stall it . “There is still the problem of transferring my consciousness back,” she ventures, for lack of anything better to say.

“Oh, that’s easy.” It leans closer, a perfect replica of de Chevin. Distantly, Margo wonders at the strategy behind the thing’s disguises. “The Herald will be off to close the Breach soon, yes? With all those templars pouring their power into suppressing the Fade. What if I told you that one might borrow a bit of that energy to... send you back? It might make things a titch unpredictable on this side, but that won’t be your problem anymore. You’ll have your world.”

Margo is gripping the stick so tightly she can feel the rough bark biting into her skin. “You never answered my question,” she says with a voice not her own.

“And what question would that be, poppet?”

“The one about semantics. What’s the catch?”

It laughs in delight, reaches with its hand, and brushes its knuckles along her ear. Margo shudders and fights another bout of nausea. Keep it talking. Eyes on the prize.

“You are a wonder , aren’t you, morsel? I do so enjoy a fast learner. Oh, you and I will have so much fun, it will be positively glorious! The semantics are simple. You’ll carry a bit of me with you.”

Margo makes a rude noise. It’s a passable rendition of derision, incipient horror notwithstanding. “A part of you? Will you be giving me a heart-shaped locket with a lock of your hair, then? Some fingernail clippings? Wait, wait, I’ve got it. A tooth!”

It leans in. She can feel its breath on the skin of her cheek. “If you want a more, how shall I put it, material memento, poppet, you have but to ask. But... no. Though, really, it’s still such a triviality. Nothing you haven’t already done with the wolf. Well. A bit more, but I’ll make it... enjoyable. Familiar, if you want. Or not. I’ll wear whatever face you‘d like.” It leans a little closer, lips against the shell of her ear. “You won’t even know it’s me.”

Stall it. Stall it. Oh unmerciful universe, if you’re listening...

“Why? Why would you want such a thing?” There must be a rule book out there somewhere about how to deal with cosmic villains. Indulging the tedious shitgibbon’s verbosity seems like a classic approach. “Or are you a bored demon? Getting itchy feet, want to see the sights the multiverse has to offer, that sort of thing?”

Choice spirit. Names matter.” It shrugs. “Why, she asks. Insurance for a rainy day, of course. See, this world is changing, my sweet morsel. One way or another. Have you asked the wolf about Mythal yet? Clever old bat, that one. A little bit here, a little bit there. Wouldn’t want to put all your eggs in one basket — in case someone decides to make an omelet.” Its voice becomes insinuating. “Although not just any basket would do, you see — unless you’re content with running around as an abomination. Very humorless, that lot. But you, my little poppet...” She can hear the thing lick its lips. “... are just the right fit. I wonder what you might become with a little bit of me mixed in. But I am getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? A whole new world to play in — and one without the Veil, did I overhear correctly? Imagine the possibilities!

She acts before she has a chance to think. Her movements are fast — thank you, Maile, for your incredible reflexes.

But, of course, it’s not fast enough. Or, rather, the demon cheats. All she manages to pierce is empty air.

It is upon her before she can regroup, and she is knocked on her back, the sudden weight crushing her into the ground. The stick flies into the bushes.

“Oh, it’s like that , is it?” it hisses, its face distorted with rage. “And here I thought I’d be courteous and ask nicely .” Beneath the mask it wears, she can see the utterly alien consciousness of the other.

There is a growl from the darkness. And then a shadow leaps across the campfire, knocking the demon off her in a mess of furry limbs, bared teeth, and snarling wrath. She catches a glimpse of yellow eyes, the light refracted into a beam of green. Jaws snap around empty air.

There is no trace of Imshael.

Her eyes meet the wolf’s. The animal is charcoal gray, squat and square, broad across the shoulders. Its snout is more elongated than those of its Earthly counterparts. It considers her for a few heartbeats, then howls to the indifferent sky — a long, bloodcurdling sound. And then, before Margo can so much as blink, it bounds off into the night.



Chapter Text

The shaking sets in belatedly, but Margo is almost grateful for its arrival — minimally, it’s a recognizable response. She knows better than to try to rein in the tremors. She maneuvers herself closer to the fire — close enough that the heat becomes unpleasant — and focuses on not biting her tongue. Her teeth are doing a rather convincing castanets imitation.

She isn’t sure how long she simply sits there. Every action, however banal, feels terribly deliberate. Her hand picks up a branch from the pile Amund prepared. The branch is placed slowly on top of the burning logs, propped at an angle. Flames lick at the bark. Sap hisses and bubbles. The hand returns to her lap, to clasp the other icy one. Every noise, however infinitesimal, makes her want to crawl out of her skin — or take off at a dead run in a random direction. The only reason she does not is that she feels glued in place, her mind painfully, helplessly vacant. It’s the frozen howling vastness of the tundra in there.

The Great Old Avvar Yoda is still sleeping it off, the bastard.

When a shadow materializes at the edge of their firelit circle, Margo emits a strangled yelp, but her body is so absorbed by the process of rattling that she doesn’t even attempt to get into a fighting stance.

Her luck seems to have turned somewhat. The lanky figure in the wide-brimmed hat stalks over soundlessly, and before she knows it Cole is throwing his arms around her and pulling her close. He smells like a teenager — sweat, grime, and something sweet and sticky, as if he just scarfed down a pastry — and Margo smiles despite herself, because the scent reminds her viscerally of Jake at that awkward liminal age, when his nose was still too big for his face, and she had to remind him that hair needs to be washed on occasion. She clings to the spirit as if he were a lifeboat, and he rocks them gently from side to side, humming something at the back of his throat in a eery, pitch-perfect tenor.

“I tried to come fast, but you were very far,” he chides.

“Is Amund going to be all right?” she asks, huddling closer. Slowly, the tremors begin to wane.

Cole looks over, then nods solemnly. “Slipping, sliding, slumbering. Voices like vines, twining in place, bringing the spirit forth. He sings alone. Only once before without the others, the Lady’s signs show only one path forward. Gambling on a little spider. Tired, so tired, eyes full of sand.” He exhales. “He needs to rest. Singing is difficult without all the voices.”

Margo’s sigh ends on a shudder. “Cole, I...” She deflates. Regroups. Tries again. “Help me. Please? I am so lost. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I don’t understand what Amund and I just did.” The sob expands in her chest like a balloon ready to burst. “I don’t understand anything.”

“Shh. You helped. Not just the refugees, you helped Constancy, too. With Hope, it can remember its purpose.” He pats her back tentatively, as if she were a skittish cat ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. “It was rude of Imshael to come when he did. He’s not very nice. I don’t like him.”

A watery laugh escapes her. “You can say that again.”

“I don’t like him,” Cole obliges. “Not even a little bit.”

They sit in silence for a few heartbeats, holding on tight, Hansel and Gretel.

“I’m sorry that I can’t help. I can only take away. But you don’t need less — you need more.”

“What do I do, Cole?” Margo disengages from the young man’s embrace but refuses to break contact completely, twining her fingers through his. His hands are rough, though the calluses do not seem a functional extension of their owner’s dagger use, but rather of some other habit of physical labor. “At the moment, I don’t understand enough to even know what questions to ask.”

“You should talk to Solas. He needs to know. He cannot help if he doesn’t know.”

“Know what?” Margo’s stomach attempts to find an escape route through her heels. How much can Cole actually see?

“About Redcliffe. About what Imshael stole. And about the one who tends the Roots, bone of your bone, separate but same.” Cole’s pale gaze grows distant. “Branches twining on skin, walking in the Tree’s shadow, he burned it off a lifetime ago. You should ask him. Trade secrets.”

More fucking trees, bark beetle take them all. Margo decides that it is entirely possible to overdose on cryptic utterances.

“Cole, please...” She isn’t sure what she is trying to ask. The surfaces of her mind feel slippery, the words scattering away without finding purchase. All right. One foot in front of the other. When it doubt, break it down into manageable chunks. “Can you tell me how Amund’s ritual worked? What did we actually do? No, no... wait. How did we do it?”

The spirit fidgets. “You returned it to its purpose. Like...” He drums the fingers of his free hand on his knee, swaying slightly to the rhythm of his thoughts. “Like a song. A melody, when it’s just on the tip of your tongue but it keeps slipping away.”

Margo scrunches up her face in muddled frustration. “Cole, I still...”

“I want to explain better, but words are hard. You have to listen between them. Singing into being. Like waves. Blackwall sings low, deep in his chest — chantry bells, traveling far, guiding the weary wanderer back to the village. The Nightingale sings rich and smooth — silver syllables, sharp and sweet. They could sing together — same, but different, it becomes more .”

“Oh!” The sudden insight breaks through her fog of terrified confusion. “Resonance! You’re talking about resonance!”

Cole nods emphatically and squeezes her hand. “Yes, like that. We are... like notes. Like when Maryden sings slow songs that taste of tears because Krem asked her. Each note just itself, clear quartz crystal. Like that. It’s different now. Before, it all rang together.”

Margo’s heart rate picks up, the excitement of understanding briefly overshadowing the dull static of residual anxiety — or perhaps simply beating in time with it. It doesn’t sound like the spirit means this simply as a metaphor. We are like notes. Well, then. Here’s to taking everything literally. “Are you saying that spirits are vibrations? Like a sound wave, but self-aware?” She frowns. “Wait a second, what do you mean, ‘Before, it all rang together’’? Before what ?”

“Before the Veil. It sings the world apart.”

Right. Solas had mentioned to her that the Veil is a type of vibration that keeps the Fade away from the Waking world. And blood magic interferes with this vibration. She frowns. It doesn’t quite add up, unless this is a problem of translation or false cognates. Vibration, after all, is a mechanical phenomenon. Margo forces her hand back into her lap. She has taken up the questionable tic of tugging at her earlobe to assist her thinking, an operation that her body’s rather sensitive ears do not appreciate in the slightest. Her knowledge of more complex physics is, at best, second-hand — so no point in trying to parachute it in in some laughable attempt to explain the unexplainable. It’s the vibrations, man . Right. She has a specific skill set. Might as well play up to her strengths. “Cole, from a spirit’s perspective, how does the Veil do that? How does it keep you apart from the Waking?”

“It doesn’t always. I’m here. But only a little bit. It is hard to cross and not forget. This side is heavy and slow — it sings otherwise. I had forgotten what I was, too, but a friend reminded me.”

So, more a problem of interference, then?

“Are emotions — and memories — notes, too?” She deliberately refrains from calling them “frequencies” — let alone, “energies” — opting for Cole’s idiom instead. Across the universe, some tarot-wielding, crystal-wearing New Ager with a professional name like Great Magus Thunderclap is probably shaking his astral projection’s fist in mute frustration right about now. Right, Thunderclap. Close, but no cigar. Margo forces her thoughts back on a more reasonable trajectory. “Cole, is this how you do what you do? You quite literally ‘tune in’?”

Cole shrugs. “Yes?”

At least the shock has receded — her mind is too occupied with making sense of the new model, like a puppy absorbed by the glorious task of destroying a designer shoe in snarling abandon.

Ok. All right. She can work with this. “So then... Let’s see. Let’s take an abomination. Could we describe it as the spirit’s note and the mortal’s note brought together in some way?” Margo chews on the inside of her cheek. Or is the spirit using the enfleshed being as a medium — as both instrument and milieu? Does its “note” change? Is that what corruption is?

“There are many kinds. Most are wrong . Discordant, distended, dissolving each other. The spirit forgets its song, becomes other than it was. Or sometimes, it’s the soul that forgets.” Cole pauses, apparently in search of a better analogy. “Like when Sera and The Iron Bull are very drunk and sing together.”

Margo blinks in consternation. Cole gives her an earnest, expectant look, very clearly pleased with the explanatory potential of this comparison.

A snicker bubbles to the surface. Before long, it turns into chortling. The chortling turns into giggling. And then the giggling mutates into a graceless, hiccuppy fit of hilarity, as if a dam broke and all the night’s horrors are spilling out in helpless, hysterical laughter. Every time she tries to stop, the image of a piss-drunk Qunari and an even more drunken elven archer bellowing at the top of their lungs in ear-splitting cacophony sends her into another round of horrid cackles — it doesn’t help that, for whatever reason, her brain decides that the performance is an acapella version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

Cole waits patiently for her to run out of steam.

“Sorry...” Margo gasps. “Not... funny... can’t...”

“It’s all right. You want to ask me about Imshael.”

Well. That helps with the hysterics, so there is that.

She takes a deep breath. Releases it. Takes another one, just to be on the safe side. “You said that there are different kinds of abominations. Is what Imshael trying to achieve with me also in that category?”

Cole turns to the fire, his expression concealed in the shadows cast by his hat. “You already know the answer to that. That isn’t what you want to know.”

Margo is perfectly certain that the spirit could simply answer her question without forcing her to utter it — but apparently he is in the business of freeing up some space under the long-suffering rug. “Why me ?” she asks after a pause.

Cole huddles around himself, sharp shoulder blades sliding beneath the thin leathers — an oddly avian atavism that conjures the image of absent wings. He sits in quiet, sullen pondering — every bit the ruffled sparrow... or downcast angel. “He heard you sing. So many notes, knitting together. Like before. You are very loud once one knows how to listen.”

Margo’s hands tremble as she brings them to her face, trying to rub some sensation back into her skin. “Because of the draught I drank.”

“Not just that. It was there all along — one just need to listen for the right note. Spun, strung so tightly they don’t see the weave, they walk unknowing. Where did they all go, I wonder .” He pauses. “You too are Many. A scattered sort of thing.”

Oh Void on a stick... Margo stills, as if the enormity of Cole’s pronouncement might just lumber on by and leave her unnoticed and unscathed. Instead, it mills around, breathing down her neck and raising the hairs on her nape. She swallows around a lump in her throat. Amund had asked her where the spirits of her world had gone. Without Cole, it would never have occurred to her to connect the dots. Baba’s strange, eclectic spiritual poaching, with its archaic attachments to pre-Christian animism and its belief in multiple souls. The old woman’s altar, populated by saints, and gods, and communist leaders — and an assortment of wooden idols Margo never learned to interpret. Lélek and íz . And in some of her world’s religious traditions, more than just two. Spirits and vibrations. Emotions and memories. Great Magus Thunderclap. She doesn’t know whether she wants to laugh, or cry, or scream — or all three, in no particular order. She just chided herself for mistaking this world’s descriptions for a figure of speech — the thought of extending her own world’s forgotten voices the same courtesy had never crossed her mind.

“It is easy not to notice what’s always there,” Cole offers gently.

“Cole, you’re going to have to spell this out for me. You are saying that my world is... Are you saying that we absorbed our spirits?”

A world of oblivious abominations.

Cole shrugs. “I can’t answer that. I only know one you.”

Margo hugs her knees to her chest, rests her forehead on her folded arms, shuts her eyes, and tries to take as little space as is physically possible. “I think I need a sabbatical,” she murmurs bleakly.

“You need to sleep. If you would like, I will stay. You won’t have to dream.”

Margo simply nods in tired acquiescence. She’ll take dreamless sleep when it’s offered.

Chapter Text

Kraaaa!

Margo stirs, huddles deeper into the cocoon of warmth, and tries to cover her ears against the intrusive noise.

Krrrraaawww! Loud, insistent, and thoroughly pleased with itself.

She opens one eye. The raven is perched on a nearby stony cairn, a smear of inky black against the dawnlit sky. It turns its head to the side, either to observe her or to show off its regal profile — Margo isn’t sure which. Satisfied with the results, the bird jumps down from its perch, takes a few preparatory hops, and launches off with a parting caw.

“Sleep well?”

Margo jerks upright, like Count Dracula out of a coffin. She is wrapped in a blanket, a thin bedroll beneath her. She doesn’t remember setting up a bed — let alone falling asleep.

Solas is crouching by a freshly restacked fire. In front of him, a compact travel pot of steaming liquid rests on a flat boulder. Whether he used the fire to boil the pot’s contents or cut some corners with magic, the smell that wafts over is unmistakably tea-like — a tannic reminder of how unpleasantly parched she is. The inside of her mouth feels like it’s been dusted with a generous helping of talc.

“Is that for me?” Margo asks hopefully.

“It is. Forgive me if I do not join you.” The elf’s tone sounds clipped.

“I’ll be right back.” She gets up, arms herself with her rudimentary toiletries and waterskin, and wanders off towards the bushes. Hopefully, the previous night’s lupine visitor won’t be making a strategic appearance.

When Margo returns, Solas hands her a clay cup. She accepts it with a grateful smile and inhales deeply before settling back on the bedroll. A local equivalent of a rather earthy pu-erh, judging by the smell.

“Courtesy of Lady Trevelyan,” Solas comments before she has a chance to ask the obvious question. “The Herald of Andraste appears to be under the impression that all manner of trouble can be easily remedied with this concoction. When you did not return to camp last night, she became concerned over your absence.”

Margo blows on the liquid and takes a tentative sip. It’s been rather generously sweetened. She looks around. Solas’s traveling gear is propped against a nearby boulder, but there are no traces of either Amund or the spirit. “Did you take over from Cole?”

“I offered to relieve him,” Solas confirms neutrally. “Under your Avvar friend’s rather disapproving glare, I should add, but Cole kindly intervened on my behalf.” His tone is bone dry, with a pinch of irony. Margo examines him carefully. Shoulders rigid, spine too straight, each movement meticulously, painstakingly intentional. The skin around his eyes is pinched tight — and, judging by the way the muscles of his jaw move, Solas is clenching his teeth like there is no tomorrow.

“Want to tell me what has you seething?” she asks lightly.

It jolts him into looking at her point-blank, at which stage Margo realizes that he had been studiously avoiding eye contact.

His expression grows thunderous. “I...” He turns away, his profile incongruously severe in the soft pink light. “I do not care to see someone I... Someone whose welfare concerns me be used so cynically and with so little regard for consequences. All the more so when done under the guise of tutelage. An apprentice is not some interesting pebble, to pick up haphazardly and pocket without a second thought. Such relationships come with responsibilities,” he adds tersely.

Well. If she ever doubted whether Amund’s animosity was reciprocated, the question has been firmly put to rest.

“Amund does have a bit of a sink-or-swim approach, but he is far from irresponsible.” It comes out sounding defensive. “He didn’t force my hand. He asked me if I wished to help, and I said I did.”

“And at what cost?” All semblance of composure evaporates. “Let us disregard, for a moment, the problem of your rather regular ‘visitor’ and what he might want with you — and focus simply on the manner of the Avvar’s magic.”

Margo takes a fortifying sip of tea. An argument with the mercurial elf wasn’t exactly at the top of her list of desirable ways to start the day, but she supposes the laundry would have needed airing eventually. Might as well roll up her sleeves and go a-hanging. She rubs her forehead, trying to get her thoughts into a semblance of orderly conduct. “Solas... I’m not a child, as well you know. Everything has a price. Every decision a sacrifice — one of the first things you said to me, as I recall.” She shrugs. “I thought you might appreciate that we helped Constancy. You do seem to care a great deal about spirits and their well-being.”

His eyes flash with some undecipherable emotion. “Oh, I care deeply about many things, lethallan .” His tone climbs in pitch. “One of which happens...” He stares at her with a familiar self-negating expression, heat and ice rolled into one spectacular mess of barely repressed and completely contradictory impulses. “No matter. What you did...” He interrupts himself again with a shake of his head. When he continues, his tone is calmer, but with a frosty bite to it. “Cole told me of your manipulations. What you did is remarkable. And irresponsibly foolish!”

Margo bristles, mostly on the absentee Avvar’s behalf. “The refugees aren’t Amund’s people, Solas, and still, he did what he could to help them. Even when it wasn’t exactly a cake walk for him, from what I could tell. And yes, I wanted to assist — since it turned out to be in the bag of tricks I inherited during my translocation into your world. I didn’t see too many others volunteering.”

“Yes! Ever eager to charge headfirst into the fray, without an inkling of understanding of what you are dealing with, and not a thought spared for the potential consequences! Tell me, has this wonderful tactic served you well so far? It must, if it has become ingrained with the force of an unbreakable habit!”

So this is how it’s going to play out, is it? The mug of tea is beginning to burn her hands, but the discomfort barely registers. “If you mean acting first and agonizing over the unexpected results later, then I might have met someone else by that description.” Margo takes a breath. “When I asked you to restore Maile’s memories, you weren’t exactly reticent to experiment. And then there was the unexpected fallout from stumbling around on the Fade side of Haven. As I recall, I had a partner in foolhardiness on both occasions — so, yes, kettle, fancy meeting you here. Always a pleasure.”

Solas stares at her in stunned shock, as if she physically slapped him. Margo glares right back.

“Have you considered,” he enunciates carefully, “what would have happened if the memory you gave away had been wrong ? If you had come up short?”

How much has Cole told him, exactly? She’s going to have a nice little sit-down with the spirit, and they will go over important milestones — such as the moral bankruptcy of tattling and the necessity of personal hygiene. It’s a thankless task, but someone’s gotta do it.

She shrugs. “I don’t think getting lost in the garden of hypotheticals is a particularly productive exercise. What’s done is done, and it turned out fine in the end.” Not her soundest argument, but fuck it.

“And what if you had corrupted the spirit further? Had you considered that ?”

Oh. Her forearms break out in unpleasant goosebumps. It’s not as if such an outcome is entirely outside of the realm of possibilities, in light of what Cole explained — and considering how much she struggled with finding the right memory. She can barely tune a guitar — thinking that she could tweak a spirit’s expression... A tiny misstep, and... “I’m pretty sure Amund was controlling the process. I don’t think he would have allowed for such a thing to happen.” How’s that for a hopeful platitude.

“Are you so certain? How much do you truly know about Avvar magic, beyond what might appear familiar from your own world?” Solas’s jaw tightens. “I personally do not share your confidence in your mentor’s infallibility. He did leave you unforgivably vulnerable to the Forbidden One — and not for ignorance of its interest in you. If not for accidental luck... ” He trails off, throwing up his hand in a gesture of disgusted dismissal, and returns to the task of staring off into the middle distance.

Margo exhales. Her heart beats in her throat, fast and painful, treacherous pressure building behind her eyelids and pinching her sinuses. He isn’t wrong , per se. But she is too raw for this shit, and not nearly caffeinated enough. If they continue on this track, they’re going to strangle each other. She should try to de-escalate before one of them does something regretful.

“You want to talk about Imshael?” There is a distinct challenge in her voice. So much for de-escalating.

Solas gets up abruptly and stalks over. He plants himself in her personal space, using every bit of his height advantage to loom disapprovingly. The general impression is spoiled somewhat by the fact that he folds himself into a lopsided cross-legged position, crowded by the circle of stones that frame the fire. Also by the fact that he recoils slightly when Margo raises her teacup in instinctive self-defense.

They glare at each other.

“What I want, fenor ...” he begins, his tone unsettlingly quiet. The rest of the sentence gets stuck somewhere along the way. His eyes search her face for some unutterable answer, before darting to her mouth. This close, she can hear his breath, shallow and too fast.

Time slows.

Very cautiously, as if the tea had suddenly morphed into nitroglycerin, Margo sets down her cup. The temptation to pour its contents over his head is a little too enticing. Solas follows the movement with his gaze, confusion momentarily breaking through the crust of frosty ire.

Margo purses her lips. “There. I laid down my weapons. Consider this a diplomatic overture.”

The elf stares at her with such profound, frustrated consternation that Margo finds herself trying to smother an impending fit of cackles.

That’s it. She’s losing it. Coffee’s on the stove. See you next year. —Your mind.

“You find this amusing,” he observes caustically.

“Not especially, to be honest. Coping mechanism. I had a rough night.”

He does not seem placated by this announcement in the slightest. “Tell me what the Forbidden One offered you.”

On a better day, the elf’s insistence on skirting around the cosmic shitgibbon’s moniker would draw her attention, but this is not that day. Margo narrows her eyes in a disapproving squint. Bastard. She has no doubt whatsoever that Cole already spilled the beans, and then added some barbecue sauce as a bonus. What is this, then? A power play? Splendid. He wants to tango, she’ll bloody well tango. She squares her shoulders, matching his rigid stance. “How about this. I will trade you. Why does Imshael refer to you as ‘wolf’?”

Something odd happens to Solas’s face. His expression kaleidoscopes through a series of convoluted emotions — shock, fury, and, briefly, something that looks suspiciously like horror — until, finally, it settles into a dangerous sort of stillness. “Oh, he does, does he?”

Margo nods. No need to introduce the fact that Baba does as well until she has confirmation that Cole shared his thoughts on that subject too.

“Do you intend to answer my question?” Solas asks after an uncomfortable pause.

“Do you?”

His lips pinch in unmistakable vexation. “I expect my query to be rather more immediately pressing.”

Margo suppresses a snort. Right. I asked you first. They might as well cut to the chase and start trading playground barbs. She makes a face. “I have a strong suspicion that you know already.”

His eyes narrow. “Then why suggest an exchange? Would such an offer not be blatantly disingenuous?” He pauses. “Or do you, perhaps, already have the answer that you seek?”

Beneath the anger, she catches a flash of something else. Unease? Doubt?

Margo freezes, her breath catching in her throat.. Could it be that she jumped to erroneous conclusions too fast? Perhaps Cole didn’t, in fact, tattle. Or tattled less than she thought. And if so, then she made not one, but two terribly ungenerous attributions, mistaking genuine concern, however miserably conveyed, for power games. But that’s the kicker, isn’t it. She doesn’t know . Not for sure. Not when the universe keeps changing the rules.

Right. Intellectual honesty. Clearly not to be confused with full disclosure, but, for better or for worse, it is the approach she adapted with the elf from the very beginning. Without it, the little that remains of her system of coordinates disintegrates for good, and from there it’s turtles all the way down.

Not a bridge she is ready to burn.

Margo hesitates. Then, at length, gathering whatever dregs remain of her courage, she shakes her head. “I don’t,” she says. “But Cole recommended that we should... trade.”

Trade. ” For a second, Solas looks profoundly scandalized. And then, as if something within him breaks and rearranges, his expression thaws, and in the next moment, he is chuckling soundlessly, his shoulders shaking with barely contained mirth. Margo’s heart pinches. She brandishes a mental fist at the treacherous organ — in that instant, he is utterly, breathtakingly lovely.

Oh, fuck no. Focus.

She gathers her wits — or whatever passes for them these days. “You find this amusing,” she parrots back in a decent rendition of his earlier aggravation.

“Yes! For lack of a better response!” Then, unexpectedly, Solas redirects his gaze to his hands. The tips of his ears take on a distinctly pink hue. “I...” Another chuckle, rimmed with a sad sort of incredulity. He sits in silence for a few long heartbeats, ruminating. “I met a friendly spirit who observed the dreams of village girls as love first blossomed in their adolescence.” Margo blinks at this wild non sequitur, but the elf forges on. “With subtlety, she steered them all to village boys with gentle hearts, who would return their love with gentle kindness.” His lips curl in a smile. “The Matchmaker, so I called her. That small village never knew its luck.”

The heartbreaking wistfulness is insidiously communicative, but Margo forces herself to escape the lure of its shimmering glow. Amund’s derisive accusation is lodged firmly somewhere in the back of her mind, a sharp fishbone that perforates the verbal enchantment of what she has begun to think of as Solas’s Fade prosody. “I was indeed a village girl once, Solas, but at this point you and I are both far from adolescence. Or first loves, for that matter.” She has a horrible suspicion she knows what he’s driving at, of course. Cole has apparently taken on the questionable role of Cupid.

He looks up. Their gazes snag — the infinite hallway between two mirrors. Resonance, unmerciful and unspecified deity help her. And then Solas sighs, and his shoulders slump. “Yes. I fear that we are far beyond my old friend’s capacity to intervene. At best, a task to draw a spirit of Compassion — if any at all.”

It’s not the first time that the elf tries to slam on the brakes — but this instantiation feels markedly different. A true point of bifurcation — a door wide open in both direction, and not merely ajar at random times and closed at others. He sits, rigid and grimly resolute, as if steeling himself against an inevitable blow.

It is Margo’s turn to stare intently at her hands. The silence between them swells. “I wouldn’t be so categorical,” she says finally. The rest comes out as barely a whisper. “The sort of thing your friend helped facilitate can take more than one form.”

For we are Many.

In the distance, a bird greets the rising sun with a rolling trill. A northern wind picks up, sweeping the stone-littered plateau and buffeting the strange cairns with whispering dust. She shivers. Time slows, pulses to the heavy thuds of her heartbeat.

“What did the Forbidden One offer you?” Solas asks, his voice sinking deeper, broken on some hidden underwater reef.

Margo doesn’t look up. “To go home,” she states simply.

She waits. Flames crackle over logs. At the edges of the clifftop, life scurries and fusses, bustling and oblivious.

“An impossible offer to refuse.” Heat beneath the ice.

“An impossible offer to accept.”

She glances up just in time. His movements are lightning-fast, inhuman. For a split second — and before his lips find hers — his expression registers surprise, as if his body has seceded and is now resorting to guerilla tactics designed to sabotage whatever best intentions might have remained. His hands tangle in her hair. And then it’s lips and teeth — on her mouth, on her jaw, on her throat, and then down, a sharp bite at the crook of her neck — she gasps — the hot glide of tongue in the sensitive hollow above her clavicle. She shudders with a startled sound.

Hands find purchase, and down and down they go, onto the stony ground. She barely registers the prickle of pebbles against her back before he rolls them both onto a softer surface. Her body seems to have developed a mind of its own, and she searches, frantic, for skin heretofore untouched.

“May I?” A ragged whisper.

She trails kisses along his jaw, and he shudders, a whole-body tremor. He tastes of dust and dawn and ozone. “You may.” The wryness is skin-deep.

It’s messy. He lifts her hips, one elbow hooked below her thigh, his other hand fumbling at whatever keeps her trousers in place. Clothes shifted out of the way just enough to grant access. Then, finally, a jolt, too cool against feverish skin. Hands always oddly cold, except the one time, in the summer heat of her dreamworld. A vague, half-formed thought fleets across her mind — something about ravens, and exposed rocky plateaus, and spirits, and how angry fucking is a bad idea, but then his fingers find their intended destination, and her capacity to reflect flies out the window, ravens and reservations along with it. She bites his shoulder, stifling a low moan.

Solas stills with a visible effort of will — to Margo’s inarticulate but no less heartfelt protest — then he lifts up on one elbow, and peers down at her, desire, exasperation, a smidge of humor — and something else — mixed in chaotic contradiction. She watches his lips quirk. “As I recall, you asked me once whether I was open to taking directions.” His voice is low, strained around the edges. He brings their faces close. Too much eye contact for two people long past the stage of adolescent pining. “Well? I am all ears.”

Her own slightly breathless laughter sends little jolts of electricity down her legs. “You’re managing just fine.”

“Am I, now?” He repositions his hand for a better angle, then he slowly rolls his thumb across familiar nerve endings — another accident of evolutionary convergence. Margo sucks in a breath. Two more fingers venture south in an exploratory but excruciatingly insufficient caress. His appreciative little “hmm” at the easy glide sends a jolt of raw heat through her.

A slow, unresolved back and forth, again and again, settling into a rhythm. Not nearly enough.

“Any specific requests?” A taunt, but his voice is rough, breath coming hard and fast.

He’s going to make her say it, isn’t he? She somehow manages a sarcastic smirk. “You’ve got the general idea. Steady as she goe-” The rest is lost. Without prior warning, he slides his fingers deep. Margo isn’t entirely sure whether the shaky moan is his, or hers, or shared — but her hips buck in needy echo.

His chuckle wraps around her, warm and velvety. “Was that a nautical metaphor, fenor?” Margo mutes the elf’s self-satisfied amusement with a nip at his lower lip, and then he is kissing her with deliberate slowness, tongues twisting in eerie contrast to the steadily rising tempo of his fingers.

Her new incarnations’ wants are subtly, unsettlingly surprising, but the elf turns out to be an attentive reader, and the guesswork is soon replaced with slightly cheeky confidence. Questionable metaphors notwithstanding, the sweet ache builds, too fast, with a razor-sharp edge beneath the pleasure. He breaks the kiss, nuzzles her head to the side to bring his lips in line with her ear. “ There . Like that?”

The capacity to form words is gone. Another moan, somewhere between acknowledgment and complaint.

An impatient, hungry little noise escapes him, and he obliges her inarticulate request. The building pressure turns into liquid fire. Her entire body tenses, balanced precariously on the brink.

“Vhenan...” Solas’s voice hitches on the word — a prayer, or a demand, or an incantation, or all three. Her hips jerk, and then she is hurtling past the point of no return with a gasp shaped like his name. The world falls away — her ears fill with fuzzy static, an involuntary spasm forcing her eyelids shut.

He guides her through the climax, chasing its tapering waves with clever fingers. Some vast, unutterable heartbreak unfurls in the afterglow, but he gathers her close before it takes root, soothing her through the last tremors of her pleasure, the lilt of Elvhen words left without translation, whispered across her skin.

When Margo finally manages to peel her eyes open, she catches Solas’s gaze on her. For a precious few seconds — and for the first time since she’s known him — his expression is starkly uncomplicated.

She reaches for him, but he intercepts her hand, pressing a kiss into her palm. “I fear this small window of privacy will not last much longer.” He sounds regretful — but also not entirely convinced.

“At least, let me return the favor.” A bit of a plea, really, her breath still coming in short, ragged bursts.

Solas seems to vacillate, pulled in orthogonal directions, but eventually shakes his head. He manages a completely unlikely combination of cheekiness and self-deprecation. “I am far too greedy not to wish to enjoy your company rather more... thoroughly than what we would manage at present.”

Margo lets her hand trail down his abdomen, then lower. Her explorations lend predictable results and an accusatory look. “Are you quite certain?” she smirks. “You seem to be of two minds on this topic.”

His eyes are dark, the odd amethyst tint at their center swallowed by expanded pupils — far too large to ever pass for human. “Either you have a cruel streak, fenor, or you are of the opinion that I am some unfeeling dwarven apparatus. May I accept your generous offer at a later date?”

“So that you may accrue dividends for time elapsed? Fine.” Margo purses her lips to hide the smile, and she retrieves her hand to more neutral locations. “Your loss.”

“Debatable.”

She cocks an eyebrow. “You’re not what one might call humble, are you?”

Solas makes a choked sound at the back of his throat — and his ears turn pink — but he collects himself quickly. “Oh, I would certainly not presume. I simply meant that I can see the benefit of... ‘accruing dividends,’ as you so delicately put it.” His smile turns sly. “Besides, I would much rather let you be the judge of whether the lack of humility is warranted.”

Not a humble bone in his body. Not a one. Margo attempts to fold her expression into something that approximates polite interest. “Does the counter reset at predetermined intervals? Are we talking asymptotic accumulation, or a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario?”

The elf’s wry expression turns into sudden searing heat. “Is that a warning, ma’nas? Or are you asking me whether I do in fact plan to ‘collect’ on your offer?”

At this point, Margo is chortling outright. “It was a perfectly innocent question about the hermeneutics of time’s assumed linearity. But I see where your mind went.”

He shuts his eyes briefly, allowing the moment to pass. “You do have a cruel streak.”

Margo pulls the blanket over both of them, fighting mild disappointment and the sore and tender emotional mess it overlays. “Considering you are escalating your distraction tactics, it’s a logical query.”

A little frown creases his brow. “What do you mean, fenor?”

She chuckles. Right. What big ears you have, dear grandma. “You never did answer my question. About wolves. That was rather unsportsmanlike of you, by the way. I did answer yours, after all.”

“Ah.” The silence is not altogether comfortable. “Should I assume that we are in the business of trading after all?”

Sudden exhaustion rolls over her, threatening to drag her beneath its murky surface. Margo forces a smile, but it has a bittersweet aftertaste. “Weren’t my nautical metaphors vastly preferable to these economic ones?”

The needling earns her a surprised chortle, and the odd tension between them eases a fraction. The feeling puts her in mind of a slightly dislocated joint settling back into place but leaving a soreness behind. Solas rather decisively tugs her underwear and trousers into their original position, then encircles her waist, rolls her on top, and tucks her head under his chin. She allows herself to relax against him, her hand finding its way beneath his tunic, and she lets her fingertips trail aimless patterns over his chest, tracing the outlines of lean muscles and old faded scars.

She doesn’t think he will answer. And then, with a shuddering sigh and lead in his voice, he whispers his response into her hair.

“There are old magics, lost to time and Chantry-led eradication.” A hesitation. “Such is the nature of the Dreaming that more than a single form is possible.”

Huh. Is he saying that he can shape-shift? Sneaky elf seems to be choosing his words rather carefully — it’s not lost on Margo that he failed to specify whom the active agent might be in his statement. Old magics, yes, but wielded by whom ? The easy inference is something like what the locals call an apostate, a mage outside the Circle, unfettered by whatever regulations they might impose. But on the other hand... Their previous conversations about the Fade as an ever-changing amalgam of infinitely multiplied perspectives might offer a different interpretation. Because if the Fade adjusts to the perception of the seer, then might it work in the other direction as well? If you could actively change the output, would the input change as well? She has gotten so used to Imshael’s rotating roster of masks that it never occurred to her to interrogate the mechanism underlying the demon’s ability to wear them. Could it be that the disguises are less strategic — and more refractory — than she originally thought? The cosmic shitgibbon is a creature of the Fade, and so there is a decent chance that his talents are shared by some of his other compatriots. And there is the matter of Cole and the shape he decided on when he came through...

Margo lifts her head to see Solas’s expression.

“Tell me this, at least. During your visit to my...” She clears her throat. “Chicken hut. I guessed correctly, didn’t I? You are a spirit, originally.”

That , fenor, is a separate question.” Solas’s quiet smile softens the evasion. His hands trail down her back, and then he cups her ass and pulls her higher, managing to add a rather opportunistic little squeeze in the process. He lifts up a bit and, somewhat incongruously, rubs the tip of his nose against hers.

Margo rearranges herself into a more comfortable position and rests her cheek on his shoulder. She doesn’t pry further — timeless wisdom about knowing when to fold, and all that. Solas’s hinted explanation is perfectly reasonable — except for one problem. Imshael insists on the wolf moniker. As does Baba. Is shapeshifting so significant in Thedas that it would stand in a synecdochal relationship to one’s identity?

Oh, Void in a sack, let this not be a werewolf thing. Beats demonic chickens, but only barely.

Fine. There is more than one way to skin a cat. What she needs is a decent library. And from there, it’s a matter of casting her nets wide: wolves as symbols in local heraldry, lupine lore in cross-cultural perspective, magics explicitly condemned by Chantry teachings, especially ones that deal with transmogrification. And, all right. Werewolf things. She’ll need a workaround with the Chantry censorship, but Dorian seems more than willing to stick it to the southerners, so he might be a good resource.

Of course, she supposes there is also the alternative “trade route.”

As long as she has this problem to set her mind upon, she doesn’t have to think about the implications of Cole’s revelations. Or about the fact that Imshael will probably be back trying to sell more interplanar bridges. Or the terrifying likelihood that the demon will dispense with the charade of exchange once he runs out of patience and simply take what he wants by force.

Margo suppresses a shudder and sets her thoughts on less awful horizons. More relevantly to the immediate problem, it’s an odd dance she’s settling into with the elf. Because it begs the question of not only what Solas is hiding, but why. If he is a spirit as she suspects, why hide the fact? With Cole in their ranks, it would not be so farfetched to share such a secret with a select few. Unless he trusts her a lot less than she has flattered herself into believing. The fact that he is hiding something is plain as day — infatuation or not, her mind has by now latched on to the puzzle with the ferocity of a pissed-off rottweiler. She warned him that she would not let this go — so either Solas’s opinion of her intelligence is insultingly low, or he is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs deliberately.

But leading where ?

A sudden wave of anxiety washes over her. Assuming her spirit hypothesis is correct, Cole, it would appear, knew right away what she is — even before she did. Consider Exhibit A. Cole said something the first time they met — something about how she reminded him of himself, but before. Before what? The only reference point the spirit uses consistently is the creation of the Veil. Which would make Cole ancient, boyish grubbiness notwithstanding. It would also mean that something about how she appears to Cole is similar to what he was like in the past. But similar in what ways? Ok, dead end for now. Consider Exhibit B. Imshael seems rather familiar with Solas — to the point that the demon was able to fake him rather convincingly the first time he visited. Down to the Fade prosody. It is reasonable to assume that Imshael is himself rather long in the tooth. Which leaves her with the obvious question: if Solas is a spirit, how old is he, exactly? And a spirit of what?

And then there’s the real kicker. Has Solas known all along about her nature, even before she did — and, by extension, about the nature of her world — and not let on? Her stomach drops with the sudden axial shift of her heretofore unquestioned certainties.

Is their apparent intimacy a ruse ?

Slow, steady breaths. A descent into paranoia isn’t going to do her any favors. Besides, she doesn’t think some things can be faked. Like that expression she caught on his features earlier before it morphed into cheeky smugness — that naked sense of wonder.

Trading. The entire concept presupposes a mutually beneficial exchange, ideally between more or less equally matched partners — the notion that they each might want something is itself quite telling. Why is he pushing so hard to learn of her interactions with the cosmic asshole? And about the events at Redcliffe for that matter. He knows everything Dorian knows — so what more does he think she might add?

There is, of course, the rather unflattering fact that their physical encounters seem to escalate in direct correlation with Imshael’s interventions... Imshael, in fact, has made this symmetry explicit on more than one occasion. Is Solas’s willingness to trade simply fear that she might accept the demonic fowl’s indecent proposal? And, if so, then is this personal concern born of whatever feelings he might harbor, or something else entirely? Or both that and some other invisible variable? Something she is missing...

One way or another, she will have to play her trade tokens carefully. Quid pro quo, Clarice.

Here’s to hoping the elf’s gastronomic tastes are not that adventurous.

“Forgive me for earlier, ma’nas.” A quiet, heartbroken whisper that startles her out of her grim thoughts. “My behavior was...” She feels Solas’s throat work around the bitter remainder of the sentence. “Ghastly in its selfishness. But the thought of... I would not lose you if I can help it. Especially not to the Forbidden One.”

Sudden warm and fuzzies aside, Margo doesn’t get the chance to point out that if he plans to turn this into a competition with Imshael, he can very well stuff it. The quality of the light changes as a shadow darts overhead with a loud kraaa! The caw is the corvid version of shocked indignation.

“Ah. It is best that we depart,” Solas says.



Chapter Text

They pack quickly. Solas meets Margo’s suggestion for a detour through the refugee settlement with an affable offer of company. An offer that really isn’t one, judging by his body language if not the tone — more of a nonnegotiable statement of intent. She sighs, swings her pack onto her shoulders, raises her chin a little higher, and sets off, the elf on her heels. She is a grown woman. What she does — and who she does it with — is no one’s business. There are more pressing matters to attend to than the questionable task of embroidering the proverbial scarlet letter.

Midway through their walk of shame — or, really, their scramble-and-occasionally-barely-controlled-slide of shame that comprises the descent from the escarpment — Solas brings them to a halt with a hand on Margo’s shoulder and gently pushes her to turn around and face him. “Fenor... I can be very discreet, if that is your concern.”

Margo winces. Is she really being that transparent? His tone is gentle, but with some other, more complex emotion lurking at the edges. She glances up and gives her mental train one final, well-placed kick. She really is being ridiculous about this. “I know we’re not doing anything wrong. It’s not that.”

Solas makes a point of holding her gaze. “Nor anything particularly remarkable. Why should anyone fret over how a humble apostate and a rank-and-file alchemist occupy themselves in their scant spare time?”

Margo chuckles a bit darkly, gives the hand resting on her shoulder a quick squeeze, and wordlessly turns to resume their progress. Why indeed — aside from the fact that, as far at Torquemada is concerned, everything you say, do, or think in the emotionally messy synapses of your limbic brain will be used against you, and with extreme prejudice. And then there is the other matter. Solas is a master of doublespeak. Is this another hint, another crumb dropped on the trail? Because, on the one hand, he is absolutely right — she is, from the perspective of the Great Inquisitorial Machinery, not much more than a rank-and-file alchemist apprentice occasionally moonlighting as a spy. If you ignore the alien bit. And she supposes that, from this same perspective, Solas is indeed simply a humble apostate. But is he an apostate to something else as she is an alchemist to her alien status and to whatever inadvertent talents got smuggled into this world along with whatever her íz is? Because there is still the puzzle of Solas’s courtly manner, of his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge, of his intellectual acuity. Of his affinity and familiarity with spirits. Of the whole “wolf” thing. And of the fact that Evie’s Glowing Hand of Doom, to plagiarize Varric, only responds to the aforementioned humble apostate’s ministrations. What had Solas said at the trial? “No magic like I have ever seen,” or something like it. How very curious — and how very lucky — that he can modulate it, its alleged novelty notwithstanding.

At the base of the cliff, the footpath levels off and widens into something approximating a crude road. They fall into step next to each other. Well. Enough wallowing. And speaking of writerly dwarves and scarlet letters... Margo casts a sly glance at the elf. He looks perfectly unsuspecting. Excellent. “See, it’s all well and good in principle, but when you find out that Varric’s latest romance serial features you as the lead and involves such powerful action verbs as ‘heaving’ and ‘throbbing,’ don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Solas makes a choked sound. Whatever he was expecting, it clearly wasn’t that. Throbbing?”

“Throbbing,” Margo confirms grimly. “And if you don’t particularly like that, wait until it gets to ‘plunging.’ There’s ‘impaling,’ too, but I always thought that crosses the line. And don’t get me started on ‘swords’ and ‘sheaths.’”

Solas’s face cycles through some truly interesting colors, and Margo forges on with a sense of perverse satisfaction. “I must admit I am personally partial to the botanical metaphors. I suppose that’s unsurprising.” The Rabelaisian romp works its magic, dispelling the overcrowded emotional mess left over from the previous night and compounded by the subsequent early morning. A smirk threatens to break through. She squashes it and blinks innocently. “You know, I wonder whether Varric is the sort of writer who overuses flower analogies.”

By this point the elf, bless him, is beginning to look simultaneously red and green, but he somehow manages a chuckle. “Desist, fenor, you have successfully imparted the gravity of the situation. I would rather be spared more... ah... overwrought depictions.” And then his expression turns impish. Uh-oh. Margo adopts the mental equivalent of her best fencing stance. They walk in silence for a few heartbeats — either he is formulating the next jab, or he is letting it accrue gravitas. “You do seem remarkably familiar with such literature — and its vocabulary. One of your many research interests, perhaps?”

Margo catches herself on a stumble and orders her ears to cease their inopportune foray into incandescence. Of course he’d go there. “Not as such,” she parries, with as much dignity as can be mustered under the circumstances — which isn’t very much at all. “See, each historical epoch has its own approach to the ‘education of the senses.’” A quick glance at her... What are they to each other, exactly? She shuffles through the deck of unsatisfying labels. Friends with occasional benefits? Intellectual sparring partners? Odd outsiders? Kindred spirits?

And, in the interest of calling a spade a spade... Lovers?

All of these? None of them?

In the meantime, Solas mirrors back her shoddy performance of abstract academic interest — it does absolutely nothing to hide the mischievous glint in his eyes. “If so, then I fear such writing might do more harm than good,” he offers. “A recipe for setting expectations and reality on wildly divergent paths. But if it would settle your worries, fenor, I could attempted to impart to Varric the importance of using more... precise language should he decide to incorporate any recognizable actors into his tales.”

Margo jettisons her efforts at composure in favor of a good old snort. She should have known he’d turn the tables. “In my experience, writers are a sensitive bunch. Run it by me first — what would you suggest to him?”

Solas lifts one shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “I suppose it would depend on what goal one seeks to achieve. If the aim is educational...” He puts on a show of pondering the question. “Perhaps a more technical cartography bears reiterating, lest those reading such writing become confused at all the allegories?”

“Laudable. However, I don’t think Varric’s readership would appreciate dry technical descriptions, drágám .” The endearment slips in advance of her ability to cage it safely.

Solas cocks an eyebrow and, after a hesitation, tries the alien word for taste. He rolls the ‘r” passably well. “Your native tongue? What does it mean?”

“Similar to your fenor , I suppose.”

They walk in companionable silence for a few minutes. The crumbling barbican and the shantytown that clings to its foundation rise at the far end of a fragrant meadow. Some chirping insect, warmed by the morning sun, solos for a while before it is joined by a scattered chorus of others.

“Not a word used lightly,” Solas offers suddenly. Surprised out of her thoughts, Margo glances at his face. Whose usage is he referring to? His eyes crinkle in amusement, though it is overlaid with a distracted sort of sadness. “Upon consideration, I would make for an overly gloomy guide to Master Tethras’s writely efforts, with too much time spent cautioning against unintended consequences. Perhaps it is best that our dwarven associate shoulders the task as he sees fit.”

Margo sighs. Right, right, what big teeth, dear grandma. Still, she finds herself reaching for his hand, and Solas twines his fingers with hers in a smooth, habitual gesture.

“If I didn’t know any better, I would come to the conclusion that you are fishing for a compliment,” she remarks.

It snaps him out of his wistful spiral. “I certainly do not necessitate verbal accolades, heart.” He lifts Margo’s wrist to his lips and brushes a kiss against the pulse point. “Quite often confidence is born from little more than careful observation.” His smile has a brittle, self-deprecating edge.

The laugh escapes, unbidden — and the weight pressing down on her heart finally dissolves, leaving in its wake a fizzy lightness, a buoyant pressure that swells and sparkles inside her ribcage. A small thing, but she’ll take an unkind universe’s unearned mercies whenever she finds them. “Tell me, has your world discovered hot air balloons yet? And the unsung merits of ballast?”

“Ma’nas?”

She succumbs to a sudden impulse, leans in, and plants a firm kiss of his cheek. The elf’s expression morphs from wry, to puzzled, to pleased, to slightly flustered. He stops, his hand still firmly encircling her wrist, an unspoken question in his eyes.

“Irrevocably lost in translation, I’m afraid,” Margo nods sagely. “We’re almost there — do you see that little shed, the one with the drying rack next to it?”

***

Carlissa meets them at the threshold, her skin flushed from the effort of wrestling with a load of laundry submerged in a murky solution of wood-ash lye.

“Good, you came! Tryan’s been looking for you, lass, says he’s got something to...” The woman’s warm smile slips at the sight of the unfamiliar elf, but she quickly fixes the expression in place — a habit that suggests her alienage origins. She considers Solas for a moment and, finally, adds a cordial nod. “Andaran atish’an, brother. Da’Samahl spoke well of you. Kind of you to offer healing. Not many would’ve bothered — not for frost cough in an old elf.” She wipes her hands on her apron — a reluctant gesture, her copper skin blistered and cracked from the caustic soap and the habit of the scrubbing board. “Would you join us for breakfast? Won’t be nothing fancy, mind, but the bairns’ll be back with some dough and eggs in quarter-of-a-candle, most.”

Solas nods formally. “Ma serannas, lethallan. But we would not wish to trouble you or impose ourselves on your hospitality.” His eyes dart to the shed, skitter across the drying rack — which still bears a close resemblance to the pile of debris from which it originated — and settle on Carlissa’s wash tub. Before his expression regains its patent neutral amiability, Margo catches a brief flash of distaste, quickly curdled into some darker emotion — anger, and a strange sort of resignation. In the next instant, it’s all buried deep beneath the mask. “Your hands pain you. Would you allow me to heal them? It would pose no difficulty.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to fret-...” The protests die down as Margo catches the cool reverb of the healing spell and the scent of pine needles and forest moss that accompanies it. Carlissa rubs the back of her hands and sighs with obvious relief. “Maker, that’s better. Thank you kindly.” Margo fishes in her pack for a diaper rash ointment and hands it to the elven woman with a nod that she hopes brokers no argument. She whipped it up while killing time and waiting for Evie to return from her cultist visit — with half a mind to give it to Bull as a diplomatic counter-gift. Time to let that fence mend itself. No matter. She can always make more. “Good for your hands — and for the children’s rashes. How old is your youngest?” The refugees must have improvised a creche for the little ones such that the parents could work, because she’s yet to see the younger child.

Carlissa’s cheeks dimple. “She’ll be four in two moons.”

Margo returns the other’s woman smile with one of her own, the small twinge of sadness quickly redirected into a display of professional interest aimed at some overly tightly packed elfroot set out to dry atop makeshift shelving. Tryan’s work, no doubt. She frowns. Considering the boy’s skills, this seems like a rookie mistake. He packed the plants too tight, and at this rate they would mold before they dry. Margo ruffles through the biomass — and freezes. No mistake. Beneath the outer layer of regular elfroot, a flash of glossy purple catches the morning rays.

Carlissa nods once, holding Margo’s gaze for a few moments too long, and then she taps a finger against her lips — a casual request for silence. Margo rearranges the regular elfroot to hide the stunning wealth of its royal brethren and follows their hostess towards the outside hearth, Solas at her side. He frowns in question, but Margo shakes her head once.

As if summoned by her thoughts of him, Tryan appears with a little girl in tow. At the sight of the two strange visitors, the younger kid takes off towards her mother at truly spectacular speed and dives underneath Carlissa’s apron. From the safety of her new shelter, she observes the intruders with a mixture of curiosity and distrust. She has a crop of wispy black hair that puts one in mind of a baby raven; she has her mother’s copper skin; and she is even more obviously homo dwarvicus than her brother. Margo catches her gaze lingering on the little girl before she reroutes it. She is not alone in her not particularly discreet gawking, though Solas buries his undecipherable expression beneath a socially appropriate mask rather more quickly.

None of this is lost on Carlissa, but the woman doesn’t seem offended. She rubs the girl’s back, picks up the ball of dough her eldest unfolds from a damp towel, and begins stretching it into flatbread with quick, well-practiced motions. “That’s Fria. She doesn’t talk. Not since... Well.”

Margo’s stomach plummets. Poor kids.

Tryan busies himself with setting up a frying pan over the fire. “D’you see it?” he asks Margo. He is trying very hard to look cool and casual.

Margo nods solemnly. “Quite the find.”

“Want to hear something strange?” He pours some oil into the pan from a small clay jug and gives her a conspiratorial look. “Saw it in a dream last night. That’s how I knew where to look.”

Margo forces her expression to remain absolutely neutral. So. Constancy kept its end of the bargain, it would seem. “Do you often have these sorts of dreams?” she asks lightly.

“Nope. Hardly ever dream at all. Anyway, it’s gonna keep us through the winter — there’s lots more where it came from — and the merchant caravan’s due in two weeks.” Tryan’s coolly self-possessed facade cracks, and he beams at them like the kid he is. He has his mother’s dimples. “The dwarves always give me a good price.”

“Think you could keep the patch going for a while?” Margo asks. The trick would be to not overharvest it. And since elfroot is rhizomatic, it shouldn’t be too difficult to replant some, spread it around.

The boy’s expression sours. “I don’t know. If someone else finds it, they’ll just gather it all and sell it to the folks inside...”

“The caravans don’t trade with us, only with Speaker Anais.” Carlissa interjects. “’Cept Tryan. Got his father’s face, he does...”

Tryan nods in confirmation. “And the nobles inside Winterwatch will just take it all on account of it growing on the bann’s land.”

Carlissa tosses the dough into the oil, and the flatbread hisses and sizzles, as if inspired to provide some acoustic accompaniment to Margo’s ever-souring opinion of the cultists, the caravaneers, and the whole sordid clusterfuck of intricately stratified prejudice that calls itself Thedas. On the other side of the fire, Solas stares at Tryan with a strange frown — somewhere on the road from intellectual strain to visceral unease and back again. When he becomes aware of Margo’s attention on him, his face rearranges itself into a familiar, pleasantly polite façade.

Interesting. If she were a betting woman, Margo would theorize that there is something about the mixed-race offspring that bothers him — Solas wore a similar expression when he saw Little Red Jenny in Redcliffe. Is it some sort of racial tic? Of course, there is the matter of wonky genetics — so far, the two examples she has seen suggest that elven phenotypic traits are entirely recessive.

A conversation for a later time. She regroups and offers Tryan her best used-car-salesman smile. Not that she plans to cheat him — quite the opposite. And here’s to hoping that Lud can be reasoned into this later, but Margo is not above going straight to Evie, now that the kid is growing into her Heraldness. Might as well encourage her to start throwing her holy weight around for the benefit of miscellaneous living beings. “I have an idea. What if we bought it off you? The Inquisition, I mean. Two weeks is a long time to wait for a caravan, and you’ll lose a lot of the plants if they’re not aired properly while they’re dried. There might even be some long-term coin in it, especially if it’s all kept discreet. The Inquisition is always looking for supplies.”

Tryan weighs this offer with all the seriousness of a twelve-year-old suddenly thrust into the potential role of breadwinner. In the meantime, Carlissa finishes cooking the flatbread and makes short work of the eggs.

“How do I know you won’t cheat?” he finally asks.

Margo accepts the folded dough and egg from their hostess and meets the boy’s suspicious squint with a solemn nod. “Good question. First, because there are enough people within the Inquisition trying to do the right thing.” All right, she will have to do better than that — the statement flows out like pulling teeth with rusty pliers. She clears her throat, blows on the flatbread to cool it, and continues. “But more importantly, because a well-cared-for patch of land that produces expensive herbs — and someone who knows how to harvest it lightly so that it keeps on producing — is worth a lot more than a few sacks of collected plants.” At least, in principle.

Tryan’s expression turns shrewd — a glimpse of the man he will likely grow into. “If your people can give us a fair price — then... I don’t know. You won’t have to worry about overplucking from us. It’s the others. Maybe send in some soldiers, just to know we’re not to be messed with... Under the protection of the Inquisition and all that.”

“Don’t mind him,” Carlissa cuts in with a pointed look at her business-minded eldest. “He’s not got the looks to know it on his own hide yet, and I pray to Andraste and the Creators and whatever else is of a mind to listen that he never will. But I sure know it right enough. If you got any sway with the shems that run this Inquisition of yours, then help if you can, but I know what happens to our kind when we speak out of turn.” There is no pity or sadness to the woman’s statement — she delivers it in a level, conversational tone between two bites of flatbread. On her lap, Fria is busy picking bits of egg out of the dough with grubby little fingers.

“Do not fret over us, lethallan.” Solas’s lips twitch with something like a smile — but there is only steel in his gaze. “It is never overly difficult to convince those in charge of their own interests.”

“Aye,” Carlissa nods, with that same calm knowing look. “Trouble is, those interests of theirs are ‘bout as reliable as the winds of Harvestmere.”

Tryan hurries through his mouthful of food so that he can butt into the adults’ conversation before getting permanently sidelined. “But mamae... it’s worth a try! And it won’t be just me. And it don’t have to be just the elfroot, neither.” Realizing all attention is suddenly on him, Tryan blushes but rushes on. His cheeks already bear the trace of a nascent fuzz that will eventually turn into a spectacular beard. “Jeb’s even better at finding beetles and spiders than I am, and Mistress Hludwiga said you can use the shells for splinting and the silk for staving off bleeding. Myrrh’s got a nose for embrium, says she can smell it. I can always find elfroot. And we’ll teach the little ones.” He looks at Margo. “Tell her, Mistress Em! We even knew some stuff you didn’t, didn’t we? Uh, sorry, I mean... ma’am?”

Margo grins. “Oh, ‘Mistress Em’ is way better than ‘ma’am.’ And yes. You most definitely did.”

Carlissa’s disapproving frown is haunted by a helplessly indulgent half-smile. Margo reflects that it is a good thing her eldest is such a sharp cookie — the woman won’t have much of a heart to discipline him, not with the ghost of his father’s face flashing beneath the childish roundness of his features. “If you can talk your way into it, then fine with me. I know my heart’ll rest easier if I know you kids are busy with something useful and not just loafing about and aggravating the nobles.”

***

The plan to recruit Tryan and his gang of young herbalists goes with a creepy smoothness that has Margo increasingly, amorphously worried. As they get ready to say their goodbyes, she spots Lud a few houses over — the medic just happens to be visiting an older elven man with a long white braid and a faded bluish vallaslin that paints his face with vein-like whorls twisted into the shape of an austere third eye between his brows.

Lud listens to Margo’s proposal, nods several times before the explanation is over, and concludes with a “good idea, we’re on it.” After that, the medic goes off to negotiate with Tryan and Carlissa directly, and Margo gathers her gear and follows Solas towards the Inquisition’s camp. Before the shantytown disappears from view behind the bend in the wall, she looks back. Tryan, Jeb, and some of the other kids are already racing down the camp’s central street, their heels kicking up dust clouds in the wake of their passage. You can see the band’s excited purposefulness from the body language alone.

She notes Solas’s expression. “Something is making you uneasy?” She looks at him more carefully, trying to pick apart the complex mixture of emotions. “Is it Tryan?”

He shakes his head and briefly brushes his knuckles against the back of her hand. “Not in itself. It is quite clear that his mother simply chose a man according to the desires of her own heart. I would not fault anyone for that.”

“Do the kids always end up looking like the non-Elvhen parent?” Margo asks gently.

They walk in silence for another ten paces. The Inquisition’s tents, scattered in front of the keep’s main entrance, are in a state of partial disassembly. She spots Blackwall and Bull dismantling the largest one, with Dorian standing at a safe distance and very clearly offering helpful but ill-received commentary.

Solas stops, and Margo follows suit. His gaze remains fixed straight ahead. “The Fade is not the most reliable keeper of history... Have you read much about the fall of Elvhenan, fenor?”

Margo shakes her head. “Only Genitivi. He points the finger at Tevinter, but from what I know, such things are usually a lot more complicated than a single external invader.”

Solas nods. “Yes. I would venture that the ancient elves’ downfall had been underway for some time. Yet war is war, and its causes, however complex, do not lessen its atrocities.”

Margo frowns. What is he driving at? What is the conne—... Oh. Oh, unmerciful universe. She sucks in a lungful of air. “Do... Was the pattern of heredity known then?” Keeping it academic staves off the prickle of sticky horror.

“According to the memories I witnessed, by the time Arlathan fell, it must have become obvious.”

The silence between them sediments, turns leaden. Margo forces the words out. “Something like this took place in the part of the world I come from. But in much more recent history.”

Solas’s face snaps towards her. “Were you...”

“No... no. I was still young when the war happened, and the region I am from was spared much of the direct violence.” She swallows. “My people do not have your world’s racial diversity. But the intent of such practices is... much the same.”

The policy circuit’s euphemistic tag for it fills her with wordless, helpless rage, even now. Perhaps some prudish Theodosian historian will also come to describe such things as “cleansing.” Beneath the old, half-overgrown anger, the memory turns in its grave. Her restless dead. She can almost taste the aromatic dust of Baba’s attic, and, cutting through it, the scent of heated plastic from Uncle Janos’s Walkman, borrowed under false pretenses. When they had tried to resurrect their parents through the traces their professional lives left behind, Margo and Jake had discovered boxes of audiotapes. The quality was awful, but they listened anyway, furtively, hidden in the dark between burlap sacks of dried herbs. Dozens and dozens of interviews with the women. Some had snippets of conversations. A few had full-length accounts, delivered in flat, matter-of-fact voices.

But what stayed with her through the years was the crackle of emptiness. Kilometers of magnetized silence.

Later, different humanitarian organization would quantify the victims at anywhere between twenty-five and fifty thousand. Only the women counted as “victims.”

“Solas...” She swallows. Tries again. “Are there records? Of Tevinter armed forces being ordered or encouraged to...” She doesn’t finish the sentence. Not that she needs to.

Solas’s expression shatters, then shutters. “There are no records, heart. Nothing left but memories.” The rest of his utterance is barely audible. “And I suppose this world you see around you.”

Chapter Text

 

The journey back to Haven proceeds so smoothly that Margo quickly develops the unshakable suspicion that the universe has gone off to regroup and is now quietly plotting some fresh, this time truly unsurpassed nastiness. The social forces that structure the internal clockwork of the Inquisition pull Margo back with her “team” towards the tail of their long procession of wagons and the weaponized cutthroats who guard them. The same invisible forces push Solas forward, with one last brush of his fingers against her hand and a private half-smile, and on towards one of Evie’s outer orbits. Before the march propels them out of view, Margo has a sudden, hyperreal vision of them — Evie at the center on her pacer, Madame de Fer at her right, Dorian at her left. Ser Barris and the rest of the Nine Riders — every bit the spectral wraiths in the gloomy, fog-drenched early morning that presages a turn towards a colder season — fan out behind the mages, an ambiguous escort that doesn’t quite know its own purpose beyond the need to stay within the gravitational pull of Andraste’s Herald. For a few moments, they seem suspended in time, a stolen snapshot of some deciding historical event that has not yet crested the summit of its own momentousness.

And then, a bend in the road, and they dissolve in the fog.

The hush that settles over the Hinterlands along with the milky mist is oddly communicative, and the little chatter there is in her group is carried out in hushed tones. At one point, when they stop to water the horses, her attention is drawn by the sound of quiet squealing. A little troop of nugs — pink, hairless, with squinty little eyes — scrambles across the tract and dives, one by one, into the ditch at the side of the road. In fact, the woods seem to be teeming with unfamiliar wildlife. Not the usual rams and fennec foxes, but nugs, freakishly large spiders. She could swear she also spied an odd, leathery creature that looked like a miniature velociraptor, but it could have been simply a strange effect of the fog.

Margo spends long stretches of the day perched on a crate at the back of one of the carts, alongside Lud and Varric, writing up notes on the refugee camp. It’s an odd feeling — one part satisfaction at a job done well, of old, well-honed skills finally being used appropriately, like stretching muscles gone stiff from disuse; and one part intense, soul-wrenching grief about the implications of what she is documenting. Family trees bristling with amputated limbs, absent presences that have her scratching out the familiar obeli after placing them next to the names of the lost or disappeared by sheer force of habit. At her question about how to typographically represent the dead, Varric, deep into his own writing and hard to distract from it, simply shrugs. “Just cross out the name, I guess,” he offers unhelpfully.

Later, when her job for the ambassador is completed to her own satisfaction, Margo spends some time with Torquemada’s concocted biography of her body’s previous owner. The documents are thin on the details, and Margo puzzles at what the spymaster chose to redact. The fabricated identity places Maile’s birth and early years in Nevarra — some small city called Ghislain, on the border with Orlais, and in a region Margo decides is the Theodosian counterpart of Alsace-Lorraine. For some reason, it erases entirely her Dalish years, substituting that period with a relocation to an Orlesian city called Halamshiral. She barks an uneasy laugh over the name — and the supremely gauche portmanteau of halal and haram . In any event, Torquemada’s condensed notes supply an account of alienage life painted in such bold strokes of red and black they read like the cliffnotes to some grimdark pastiche of Emile Zola’s Germinal.

Varric, ever the unobtrusively observant dwarf, takes note of Margo’s facial gymnastics, abandons his writerly endeavor, and peeks over her shoulder to get a better look at her reading materials. At close proximity, Margo notices that he wears a cologne — judging by the understated but complex smell, an expensive one. She lets him snoop. What harm can it do? The cat is out of the bag anyway.

“And this, Prickly, is why an assortment of events arranged sequentially a story does not make,” he snorts with barely veiled derision. “Want me to take a look at it?”

“You would?” Margo beams at him. She could, with some effort, create the semblance of a personal history out of this — but who is she kidding. It won’t breathe on its own. She’s never been the writerly type of scholar, always more interested in documenting the history of things than people. Recruiting an actual fiction writer for this? Yes, please. “And I give you permission to use this as inspiration in your own pursuits. Just...” She trails off.

“Not a peep to the spymaster, don’t worry. Mind if I hang on to it for a bit? I’ll have something for you by the time we get to Haven.” He tucks the vellum into the inside of his coat. “It’ll cost you that beer you’ve been failing to buy me.” And a chat, he doesn’t add — but he doesn’t have to.

***

From the crest of the mountain pass where they camp for the night, Margo can spot Haven. In the dwindling daylight the village looks like a flickering orange eye in the bruised socket of the lake bed that shelters it. She is trying to find a place upwind from the heavy, acrid smoke released by the damp firewood when Amund’s towering form materializes from the darkness. He crouches down silently, one heavy hand landing briefly on Margo’s shoulder.

“I have wronged you, luzzil spinna.” His voice is heavy and tense, the words clipped down to a socially acceptable strict minimum. Then he sighs, his shoulders relaxing a fraction, and he rumbles a reluctant chuckle. “It was brash to think that I could sing the spirit alone, without clan or kin, and with only you for kith. Worse than a fool is an old fool who forgets about the white in his beard just because he shaved it off, eh?”

Is Amund joking with her? Margo turns to take a better look at the Avvar. She could swear one corner of the augur’s mouth hitches up, but then he is back to his habitual stoic neutrality. Well. There’s a novel development.

She glances around. They are well out of earshot of the rest of their company, and no one is paying them any particular attention anyway. Varric, done with the day’s writing, wandered off to find a game of cards. Lud and two of Torquemada’s scouts whose names Margo doesn’t know are passing a bottle around and laughing over some yarn Scout Harding is spinning. Cole is nowhere in sight. The central campfire, where most of the Inquisition’s finest are congregating — Evie included — is a good thirty yards away, and none of the people around it looks possessed by the sudden urge to socialize with the periphery.

Still, when she speaks, she keeps her voice low. “We both should have planned for Imshael. I am as much at fault as you are.”

“I, of all people, should not have underestimated your wishmonger. The fault is mine, though I told you to stop calling on him.”

Margo decides to grab the proverbial bull by the horns. This is not the first time Amund has accused her of being a lot more agentive in her relationship with the Cosmic Shitgibbon than she believes herself to be. “What do you actually mean by calling ? I have a feeling you have a... rather precise definition of what that is.”

“In this and this alone, gods are much like us, little spider. It is not you they seek — their only wish is to hear themselves in our songs. They come to those whose songs sing them the loudest.” The augur’s dark gaze lingers on her face, his expression inscrutable beneath the mask. Margo forces herself not to fidget uncomfortably. She can’t shake the impression that the Avvar is expecting something from her — and that she is failing to deliver, like an actor who not only forgot their part of the dialogue but appears to be rather confused about what play this is in the first place. Another few seconds of indecipherable staring, and Amund makes a dismissive gesture with his hand. “No matter. Mourning a broken axe won’t make it any more whole. What is done is done. I owe you skuld, spinner.”

Margo frowns, and peers at the augur. “A... debt? Is that the meaning?”

“It remains to be seen whether either of us lives long enough to see it settled.” He straightens from his crouching position. “Rest while you can.”And with that, Amund turns on his heels and departs in an unknown direction.

After the Avvar leaves, Margo dutifully attempts to skim through the tome Josephine lent her on pre-Andrastian religions, but Sister Rondwyn’s prose is peppered with a generous helping of descriptors like “savages,” “primitives,” and the ever popular “heathens,” and Margo’s readerly diligence quickly loses the battle against her rumbling stomach. She tracks down a cooking fire by the smell. Blackwall, on culinary duty, waves her over. Next to him, Sera is plowing through the contents of her wooden bowl with great gusto — which doesn’t prevent her from speaking around the food or gesticulating wildly with her spoon. Bull, who has forfeited the company of his Chargers in favor of Blackwall’s cooking, is in the process of demolishing the charred haunch of some unfortunate land mammal, grease painting his fingers and chin slick in the firelight. Margo has the distinct feeling she is wandering into the middle of a heated conversation.

“Hungry?” Blackwall asks. “Join us.”

“Yeah, Blondie, come sit. We were just talking about you.” Bull pats the ground next to himself with his free hand.

Margo glances at Sera, expecting hostility — but is pleasantly surprised. Shrewdness, yes, but not animosity. “Five,” Sera says, a fierce little glint in her eyes, there, then muted.

“Five?” Margo asks, since the archer clearly expects her to supply a follow-up question.

“Five. For the Jennies. Right side of the wall.” She narrows her eyes. “ You know.”

Ah. They both chose the refugees — and it is abundantly clear that to Sera that choice matters. Margo whistles appreciatively. “That’s a lot, then?”

“Frigging yeah, that’s a lot. ‘Course, sodding tosspots in the keep didn’t make it hard, with how they been treating them. Which is what you’d expect from a load of gits who look at a rift and go, ‘Whoa, look, an ugly green bunghole spitting out demons. Guess I’ll worship it.’ Say...” Sera’s eyes narrow, that shrewd little glint returning. “Wouldn’t happen to know what Old Long, Bald, and Ugly wanted with the refugees? I’da thought he’d go cozy up with the tossers in the fortress. So, seeing how you two are chummy chummy...” Sera leers, and pantomimes a predictable — if not technically accurate — form of sexual congress. Fortunately, Blackwall, bless the considerate bear, chooses this moment to hand Margo a bowl of stew, which gives her the opportunity to occupy herself with the food, fail to respond, and preserve a shred of dignity. On the other hand, the more they’re focused on her love life, the less likely they are to dig into the other stuff. Somehow, she has the distinct feeling that the idea that she transacted with a spirit by the questionable name of “Legion” in order to skew the probability of the refugees’ survival would not go over well with this particular audience, no matter how many living beings may have benefited.

“Nah,” Bull rumbles, clearly amused. “You seen Solas, Sera? That’s not the look of a guy who’s got someone to help him let off steam. Trust me on this, I can spot these things. My money’s on the Avvar.” He squints at Margo with his good eye. “Been giving Solas the runaround, Blondie?”

“Let the woman eat in peace, you two,” Blackwall intervenes. “Don’t bloody see how who’s shagging who is anybody’s business but theirs.” Margo notes that there is bit of a flush creeping up above the luxurious vegetation that covers most of the Warden’s face.

“Or not shagging. Beardie won’t tell us about Josie, either,” Sera confides, scraping up the remnants of her stew with enviable meticulousness. “More in there, yeah?” She thrusts her bowl at Blackwall.

“Yes. And if you want more stew, this conversation is done.”

“Is this what you‘ve been discussing?” Margo asks, vaguely relieved that the spotlight has moved on from her and deeply reluctant to potentially bring it back — but at this point she feels like she needs to show support for Blackwall’s valiant effort at redirection.

There is an odd, pregnant pause, and then Bull tosses the bones left from his meal into the fire. “Nope. You notice the nugs, Blondie?”

Margo blinks at this stunning non sequitur and pauses in her chewing. The nugs? “Is that what we’re eating?” It’s the only association she is able to dredge up on short notice.

“Sure is,” Bull confirms.

She frowns. Not that the unsettlingly naked little creatures are an unusual meal, and Margo has gotten used to seeing them hopping around Haven, blissfully oblivious to the two inevitably doomed trajectories that lead them to Master Harritt’s hide racks and Flissa’s stews.

“At least no deepstalkers so far,” Sera adds. “Ugly frigging bastards.”

“You’ve lost me,” Margo admits finally. “I’ve seen a few nugs on the road. Is it nug migration season?”

“You’ve been in these parts for months, Blackwall. Ever seen anything like it?” Bull’s tone is deceptively casual.

Blackwall hands off the next portion of stew to the insatiable elf, settles cross-legged by the fire, extracts a short clay pipe and a pouch from an inside pocket, and begins packing the bowl with a strong-smelling herbal melange. “No, but I’m not a specialist on nugs, Bull.”

The Qunari squints. “Aren’t they all over the Deep Roads? That’s what I hear, anyway.” When Blackwall offers a noncommittal grunt, Bull shakes his head, and, for the briefest of moments, unease flashes across his features. “Back on Seheron, the Vints used fire to smoke out enemy troops. Especially in the dry season — goes through the brush so fast there’s no way you can outrun it on foot. Know how you can tell when to get out of there?”

The metaphorical lightbulb flickers on, and Margo is nodding vigorously, her mind already a few thoughts ahead of the communicative needs of the situation. Fleeing animals. That’s usually the first sign. “Nugs are underground creatures, aren’t they?” She remembers reading about the Deep Roads in Brother Genitivi’s ever-helpful magnum opus, but up until this moment the dwarven thruways were at best an intriguing abstraction. “It’s been raining a lot,” she volunteers, trying to puzzle out what has Bull looking so grim and Blackwall looking so uncomfortable. And why Sera is huddled over herself and staring boorishly into the flames. “Do you think they’re getting flooded out in this area?”

Her question is met with uneasy silence. “Well, it ain’t a Blight, innit?” Sera cuts in. “Right, Beardy? Don’t you Wardens hear Blights coming, or some shite?”

Margo frowns. At Sera’s question, Blackwall shifts uncertainly. Then he takes a drag on his pipe, releases a cloud of smoke into the damp night air, and shrugs in almost convincing dismissal. “Doesn’t have to be a Blight. Maybe darkspawn movements have them spooked. Maybe it’s just the rains.”

“We haven’t seen any darkspawn on the surface, big guy,” Bull opines. “And it ain’t just the nugs. It’s the predators, too. Fucking spiders.” The Qunari makes a disgusted noise. He maneuvers his giant axe onto his lap, fishes for a polishing cloth in his rucksack, and sets to work with absurdly dainty, fastidious attention. Margo reflects that there is a man with a healthy love for his weapon. “Something’s got them running,” he adds after a pause.

Well, shit. From what she’s read of the Blight, it doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience. “We should tell Evie,” Margo suggests cautiously.

Bull doesn’t lift his gaze from his weapon. “Due respect to the kid, but what do you think she can do? The Inquisition needs to distance itself from the Chantry. The Herald makes for a good figurehead. That’s not the same as making the decisions.” He glances up, trading a brief look with Sera. And then he stares at Blackwall, but the Warden averts his eyes. Sera scowls at both men but doesn’t add anything — or contradict. “This needs to go higher.”

“Higher than the Herald of Andraste?” Blackwall huffs a chuckle around a puff of smoke. “And say what? That the nugs are shifty? Get Leliana to send a raven to the University of Orlais, ask if the stuffy blighters have a specialist on underground critters? We have a Chantry conspiracy to murder the Herald on our hands and a bunch of unvetted templars who can’t tell their commander from an envy demon milling about — and any of them might’ve been in on that little stunt the clerics pulled, for all we know. Our recruits are barely able to hold their own, and we’re still short on men and supplies. You want us to bother the spymaster with nugs? She’d laugh us out of the room.”

“All the more reason to go to Evie with this. And maybe Cassandra? Bull, what about your contacts? Sera, you got anything from the Jennies?”

“Nothing noteworthy on my end,” Bull evades.

“Not the Jennies...” Sera trails, and then she squints speculatively. “Might know a bloke who might know something, though. Bees, yeah?”

Margo grins. “Goran!”

“Speaking of. Almost forgot.” Sera sets down her empty bowl and starts rummaging through her pack. “Wasn’t gonna give it to you, ‘cause dirty liar, yeah? But you’re not so bad. Maybe. Also old codger’ll chew me out. Plus, felt bad. A little. Where’d it go?”

A triumphant “gotcha!” later, and Sera hands Margo a rumpled note, visible grease stains making the folded parchment translucent in places. The beeswax seal has been visibly — and unceremoniously — tampered with. “Can’t make sense of it anyway, because Goran.”

Margo unfolds the note with a mixture of eagerness and odd, inexplicable dread.

Nested Doll,

Toothpaste good? Works?

Friends in high places, old Goran hears. Higher places soon. If alive.

Bees come home, dance dance dance, show the way. Sometime show where not go, yes? Sometime show who else coming.

Nice nested doll ask good questions, yes? So. Goran tell story, nested doll open ears and listen.

Long ago. Goran old, remembers. Clever young man. Climbs Tree, sees much. Falls off branch. Wakes up, thinks knows. Makes things better, yes? Saves world. Be hero.

Tree tricky, yes? But young man clever! Knows better! Sees old lizard, blood useful. Ashes? Not so useful. Changes coming, big changes. Break eggs, make omelette. So spill, spill, spill, bleed a few, get hands dirty. Worth it, yes?

Makes net. For later. Keep in, or keep out?

Hides surprise under floorboards. Found it?

But. Big lizard, roomy, secret inside. Like egg with needle, hidey hide, good trick, that. Break egg, lose needle. Haystack, yes? Pretty little princess pricks finger. Dreams things. Learn much, grow old fast.

Understood? No? Ask good questions.

Long journey ahead. Burden heavy, road short. Burden light, road long. Carry dead, not get far.

Dress warm. For winter. Mind the wolves.

Goran


Chapter Text

She knows something is wrong the second she glimpses the mirror. It is huge — five meters of opalescent shimmer in brilliant blues and oranges, with flashes of a dark violet so rich it takes every bit of Margo’s willpower not to reach out and run her fingers over the shifting surface. Her eyes tell her that it is liquid, but her brain, apparently strongly dedicated to the concept of gravity, stubbornly refuses the input and demands verification.

“Hello, poppet.”

In the dream — she must have fallen asleep in the exceedingly uncomfortable armchair in her office, an event that has been known to happen during marathon grading sessions — Imshael’s voice is disembodied yet intimately close. She doesn’t need to see him to recognize the mask he donned.

“Oh, you piece of shit.” It comes out flat.

“You know, you are becoming rather unimaginative with your insults. And ungrateful to boot. Here I thought you might enjoy a reminder of your only living relation. Not to mention of your former life.”

“There is very little about you I enjoy, other than your absence.” She almost manages a conversational tone — or close enough, anyway — and turns around to survey the dreamscape. Tree-like sculptures sprout haphazardly from the dusty ground, their limbs curved into spheres that look like they are missing some crucial component. Margo decides that they could do with a glowing orb at the center. The scene appears at once brilliantly saturated and oddly discolored, as if glimpsed through a golden fog. If King Midas had a personal pocket universe, this is what it would look like.

The voice in her head laughs her brother’s laughter, quiet and achingly familiar. “And yet, I suspect you might learn to appreciate me over time. I’m very patient, you see. I have all the time in the world, after all. Do you know what this is, love?”

“A verbose conversation opener?” She takes a step towards the closest tree. If she’s going to be stuck in another dream of the Cosmic Asshat variety, she might as well make virtue of necessity and explore the local flora. The trunk appears carved of a resin-like substance akin to black amber. It feels strangely warm to the touch. A quick glance towards the mirror confirms that the frame is made of a similar substance.

“See, much better. Whatever would I do without the pleasure of your clever repartee. They’re called eluvians. Well, not the real thing, of course, since we are in the Fade, and you’re... not likely to find one here. This — all of this — is a replica. Constructed by yours truly solely for your benefit, I should add.”

“A replica of what?”

“A very curious little place, but never mind that for now. Would you care to learn the mirror’s purpose?”

“Let me guess.” She glances at the gothic arch of the mirror’s frame before returning her attention to the tree. “It’s either a portal to another dimension, or a vindictively misogynistic piece of furniture that will undermine my self-esteem through unfair comparisons to a younger woman, and will thus drive me to murder via magical fruit.”

Imshael misses a beat, and Margo scores the round in her favor.

“Jest if you must, my sweet morsel, but have a care.” A sense of something ancient, malignant, and utterly alien seeps through the cracks in the veneer of affability. “Where do you think you are?”

She shrugs. “In my office, I presume. You try to grade eighty-seven midterms, and then we’ll talk.”

For some reason, this puts the jovial back into Shitgibbon’s disembodied voice. Somewhere along the way he has stopped pretending to sound like Jake — the timbre is unfamiliar, with a strong English accent she can’t place more precisely, one shade away from theatrical villainy. “Ah, my lost little lamb, I fear you are confused. You are in Haven, of course, asleep over some formulary, no doubt. Have I mentioned that I do have a sudden fondness for your very... placid collaborator? Is that the term? He seems to rather effectively chip away at all your hard-earned defenses.”

A chill ices down her spine as the memories snap into focus, and with them the dream loses its inoffensive contours. She isn’t in her office, dozing off over a pile of grading. That world is gone from her. What is the case comes back slowly. The delay to their part of the convoy, courtesy of a broken axle. Their return, a day behind the rest of the expedition, into a village teeming with frenetic activity. A brief moment spent in Solas’s hut — his travel gear set out to dry next to the warm hearth, but the elf himself is nowhere in sight. A note from Josephine directing her to submit her report and then to go assist Adan.

And, of course, the oddly long list of formulas. She doesn’t recall falling asleep.

“All better?” Imshael asks, mocking.

“What do you want?”

“I thought we might finish our previous conversation.”

Like hell.

She tries to reach out with that strange, alien part of herself — it has become stronger over the past weeks, more robust. It still falls outside of her taxonomic classifications — too gentle to be described as “will,” too fluid for the term “awareness,” but still kindred to both concepts. She tugs, discreetly, at the dream’s infrastructure. It snags — like reeling in a fish — then it slips right out of her grasp. Margo swears quietly.

“Leaving so soon?” The voice inside her head turns insinuating. The scenery shifts, and Margo’s heart stutters and sinks. She is in her apartment, standing in the hallway that leads to the living room. Mirror Mirror on the Wall is blocking the entrance, its surface rippling to great aesthetic effect. And through the mirror, she can see her brother, impossibly pale and impossibly thin, sprawled on the couch with a tourniquet loosely looped around his arm.

From there, it’s instinct. She lunges forward with a single thought. The naloxone kit should still be right there, under the couch. But before she can breach the surface, she is yanked back violently.

“Not so fast, poppet.” Imshael materializes — like the Cheshire Cat, starting with a familiar flash of white teeth. He’s wearing Lancelot the Ill-Suited for the Occasion again. The facsimile of the ex-chevalier crowds Margo into the wall, its hands coming to rest on her shoulders — an almost friendly, companionable gesture if not for the radiating malice. “There is a small condition. In my estimation, we have just enough time — your little Herald and her templars are admirably punctual. Still. You see — you and I are much in the same predicament, are we not?” Its tone turns confidential. “I can’t approach the Breach, either. Not safely, anyway. Not until they dampen it enough.” He leans forward. Warm lips brush against the shell of her ear. “Whatever should we do in the meantime?” the thing asks.

Terror prickles down her spine — not the least because Imshael activated what Margo decides must be a desire demon’s pheromonal function, and her body begins to react accordingly. So much for “choice spirit.” “Does the smarmy shitbucket act work on all the girls?” she squeaks out. “If you want me to negotiate, give me some fucking space.”

“Did I use the wrong mask again?” it tuts. “Would you rather I wore the wolf pelt?” It slithers closer, pressing her into the wall, but aside from its hands slowly curling around her neck, the demon makes no further moves. She tries to focus on this oddity in a desperate attempt to compartmentalize the mixture of horror, lust, and revulsion that batters at her consciousness. There is a methodology to his advances — a logic, or pattern... or a set of limitations? Rules?

“Does it have to be through sex?” she asks, in a bid to stall. Right. Keep it talking.

“Nothing has to be anything. Not with me, in any case.” It almost sounds peeved. “I would appreciate a little faith in my complexity, poppet.” And then its lips stretch into a perversely charming smile. “But it might as well be, hmm?”

She narrows her eyes. “Ah, but I have to agree to it, don’t I? Is that how it works?”

Its thumbs caress the sensitive skin at the sides of her neck, sending down a treacherous shiver. “I have been around for a long time, pet. I’ve found that everyone has a set of conditions under which they will agree.”

Fuck this. Margo puts her hands on the bastard’s shoulder, shifts her hip back, and, using the momentary flash of surprise on Ser Michel the Inappropriately Deployed’s borrowed face as her cue, knees the creature in the crotch.

It has the desired effect. Imshael stumbles back and folds over himself with a groan. Margo releases the breath she was holding and yanks at the dream’s fabric. Something snags and rips. She tastes pennies against the roof of her mouth. Pain blooms at the back of her head, and then...

Margo jolts upright and smacks the top of her forehead on a low shelf above the desk. The stool on which she was sitting wobbles from under her,  and then her ass lands on the hard planks of the apothecary’s floor with a muted thud.

“Ow ow ow, goddammit!” Margo growls and slams her palm against her bruised brow. She’s going to have a goose egg to make an ostrich proud. She spots Clemence sitting on a chair in the corner. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she hisses, more harshly than she intends to.

Slowly, as if through layers of water, the Tranquil’s gaze focuses on her. There are tear tracks on his cheeks, but his expression betrays confusion rather than distress. “I am... uncertain? Apologies, Apprentice Duvalle, I am afraid I cannot remember.”

***

It is an immense relief to find Dorian loitering in the courtyard. “You didn’t go with the others?”

He gives Margo a critical once over, his eyes lingering on her forehead — apparently the elfroot potion did not entirely erase the results of her encounter with the shelf. He cocks an eyebrow. “Nor did you, it would seem, though may I suggest that beating your head against the wall over it is entirely more than any of them deserve.” Dorian’s mustache twitches above the dove-gray weave of his clearly expensive scarf — the fabric soft and downy in appearance, like a hybrid of silk and cashmere. His smile is shallow, however, and his eyes remain serious. He looks either road-worn or severely underslept — or perhaps both. “I hear there was debate. Which of the mages would make for the best adornment of the undoubtedly impressive display of templar might as our steel-clad friends march to smite the Breach. With our lovely young Herald at their helm , as it were.”

Margo manages a snort at the terrible pun, some of the residual terror receding at the prospect of the northerner’s company. If she were to suddenly succumb to another fit of narcolepsy, Dorian would probably attempt to wake her up — if for no other reason than to indulge his curiosity.

At Dorian’s rather demonstrative shiver, Margo throws open the door of the apothecary wider and gestures him inside. “Would you like to warm up?”

“As a matter of fact, I would. I don’t suppose you happen to have wine?”

Margo shrugs, and steps aside. “Sadly, only alchemical spirits. Not that it stops Master Adan.” Dorian winces. “So who made the cut, if not you?”

Clemence, his earlier confusion forgotten or filed away, is loading potash into the kiln they use for calcination. He greets Dorian with a neutral, “Good day, Lord Pavus,” before promptly returning to his work.

“Who didn’t make the cut is the more relevant question. I suppose the single criterion for barring admission was national origin.” Dorian arranges himself on a nearby chair, sticks his nose into one of Margo’s unstoppered potions, and waves his hand theatrically in front of his face to dispel the nonexistent stench. “What vile concoctions do they have you brewing this time?”

“It is a simple enhanced restorative, ” Clemence offers before Margo has a chance to respond. “Though some do find the smell of deep mushroom offensive. It is a rare sensitivity, but not unheard of.”

“I did not mean...” Dorian’s pained expression is quickly replaced with something more affable. “Oh, never mind me, I fear my idleness only confounds the industrious — boredom is the breeding ground of vice, and all that.” His attention returns to Margo. “My dear, would you indulge me in a short walk? I would recruit your undoubtedly peerless intellect to temporarily augment my own, should you be willing to spare it.”

Margo decides to jump at the opportunity. If she is walking, she won’t fall asleep. “Flattery will get you everywhere, but I still have—”

“Three more crates of sixteen restoratives remain on today’s list, Apprentice Duvalle,” Clemence offers neutrally.

“I won’t be long. Are you hungry, Clemence? Should I bring food?”

She’s not going to drop off to sleep while chewing, right?

The Tranquil squints through the condensation on the mica glass. “I expect I will be by the time you return. Food would be useful.”

The air is bracingly cold, but its crisp chill is refreshing after the pungent humidity of the apothecary. Dorian captures Margo’s arm and laces it through his own, one gloved hand resting on top of her fingers at the crook of his elbow. A few of the locals give them odd looks, but their gazes do not linger — by now perhaps habituated to Dorian’s antics. They must make a curious pair — a Tevinter mage promenading around with an elf on his arm, when his countrymen unapologetically practice targeted chattel slavery. For an ungenerous moment, Margo wonders how much of this is performance, designed to signal something like “not all Vints.” And whether he would feel quite so at ease with her if she weren’t a body-snatching alien. She lets the thought sit on the back burner, simmering uneasily. In the meantime, the show of gallantry affords them a bubble of auditory privacy. Still, Dorian begins far afield.

“Quite the busy morning.”

Margo looks around. Their walk towards Haven’s central artery leads them towards the tavern, where a crew of workers is in the business of giving the Singing Maiden a cosmetic makeover. Further down, a half-dozen men dressed in the practical, sturdy wools and leathers of itinerant merchants are chatting with Seggrit and gesticulating towards an assortment of crates. In the courtyard at the foot of the temple, a delegation of nobles, their brightly colored, tightly fitted gambesons shimmering satin in the morning light, is receiving what Margo promptly identifies as the tour from one of the ambassador’s assistants.

“Preemptively festive,” Margo comments, receiving a sardonic snort for her trouble.

“Closing the Breach is not patching a sock, my dear. I dare say it is the political event of the year.”

Margo turns her back towards the Breach — still conspicuously open — and represses a shudder. What if Shitgibbon wasn’t lying? What if she could, in fact, go back?

What if it is right about Jake?

Don’t stare into the abyss. Don’t think about the pink elephant. Instead, she squints at the glittering dome of the chantry. The ravens that circle it have taken to amusing themselves by landing on the top of the cupola and tobogganing down the glittering curve, probably scratching up the gilt in the process. “If Evie succeeds, this will get the Chantry’s knickers into an even further twist. We’ll be legitimate competition then.” Her voice almost doesn’t wobble when she speaks.

“‘We’ — and it remains to be seen just how capacious this we will prove to be — are competition already. But this is not why I asked you on a morning stroll.” Dorian’s expression remains mild — a small smile playing at the corner of his lips — but his gaze is fogged over with a kind of abstract, unfocused irritation, as if looking for a more specific target, yet unable to settle on anything more tangible. “Look closer, and tell me I am not losing my mind.”

Margo frowns and surveys Haven’s morning bustle. By all appearances, it looks like any village gearing up for a festival — or a wedding. Except... something is off. There, next to the requisitions tent, several carts are being loaded instead of being unloaded. An unusual number of Cullen’s men trot purposefully in small formations, lugging what Margo decides must be maintenance and repair equipment for the two siege weapons.

“I am still a little shaky on your seasons, but it seems a bit early for a spring cleaning,” she comments.

Dorian nods pensively. “For a spring cleaning, yes. But perhaps not too early to prepare for unpleasant eventualities, all under the cover of anticipated celebrations.”

Margo frowns, but decides to humor the mage. “Care to develop this alternative hypothesis further?”

“Oh, I do!” He grins brightly, but the smile is too sharp around the edges. “I...” He trails off. The muscles of his jaw tighten — a strange, fleeting expression somewhere between embarrassment, anger, and confusion. “I had a chat with our Qunari friend last night. He mentioned your discussions about nugs — and what their presence on the surface might signify. I must admit, the south is proving entirely too interesting for my tastes — vanishing Wardens, underground creatures inexplicably deciding to change their habitat, some insufferably mysterious ponce calling himself the Elder One throwing Alexius at what remains of the southern mages. What’s next? A Blight?”

“Why do I have the feeling you’re only half-joking?”

“I suppose because my sense of humor has been suffering erosion under the onslaught of all these portents of doom. Of course, it would be too much to expect the powers that be to inform the rest of us common rabble of the master plan, should one exist.”

Margo frowns. Is this what has Dorian so sore? Being left out of the machinations of whomever is currently making leadership decisions? Or is it more personal — something to do with Bull and how much information the Ben-Hassrath was willing to share... or feed him. “We do have an inordinate concentration of spies.” She gives Dorian’s forearm a friendly squeeze. “Transparency and disclosure aren’t exactly on the list of professional best practices around here.”

“Yes, I suppose excessive inquisitiveness is not a trait upon which Inquisitions tend to look favorably.” His eyes flash with an unusual flare of anger, typically hidden under layers of well-honed social decorum. “Which reminds me...” he adds, in a tone that makes it abundantly clear that what comes next is a carefully premeditated conversational turn. “Do you have a contingency plan? If all of this goes terribly wrong?”

“You’re worried Evie might not be able to close the Breach?”

“No. Not quite. But now that we are on the topic, I do, in fact, worry about Evelyn. Our lovely young Herald is most unusual, don’t you find?”

Margo shrugs. Somehow, the turn to Evie recenters her, clearing her mind of the sticky cobwebs left by the nightmare. There is no going back. She’s known this from the beginning — Baba, after all, had implied as much. “Considering the hand she’s been dealt, I think Evie has been playing it admirably well.” It comes out drier than she would have liked.

Dorian tenses but then forces out a chuckle. “Oh, certainly. Forgive me, I occasionally forget how different your world must be. You see, a mage’s skill set, however it was developed, tends to have a certain unifying quality. Let us call it flavor , for the sake of simplicity. Mages of course will have different innate capabilities — and different degrees of facility with different types of spells. For example, yours truly has always had a certain affinity for fire. Vivienne, while impressively well-versed in several schools — for a southern mage, anyway — is a virtuoso at manipulating ice spells, and water more generally.” Dorian’s smile becomes a little wicked. “As to your apostate associate, he is a rather curious case in his own right, isn’t he? But I would venture that in his otherwise eclectic grab bag of magical abilities, lightning effects tend to dominate. Which brings us to Evie.”

Margo nods. “Do go on.” She tugs Dorian back towards the tavern in the hope of grabbing food before the lunch crowd files in. He lets himself be led willingly enough, half-lost in his thoughts.

“Well, let us start with the fact that Evelyn seems entirely unable to learn any spell at all — not even rudimentary ones, hardly above children’s tricks — from any of the elemental schools. And not from lack of trying on our part or hers, mind you.”

The door of the tavern swings open to let out a cloud of steam and several dust-covered dwarves of the stonemason persuasion. Margo and Dorian let them pass before stepping into the warm cacophony of cooking smells and ambient conversation. “Is this unusual, then?” Margo asks quietly, skirting around two familiar oafs who are in the process of affixing a freshly painted Hairy Eyeball to a set of mean looking meat hooks above the hearth. Behind the counter, Flissa is shoveling a batch of bread rolls into a brick oven. From his high vantage point on a rickety ladder, Tweedledee graces Margo and Dorian with a spiteful stare. Tweedledum is at least three ales south of tipsy, and if there is a flicker of recognition, it is quickly jettisoned in favor of ogling Flissa’s backside.

“Since I do not know of a precedent for Lady Trevelyan, I fear that I cannot possibly answer that question.” Dorian summarily ignores the Tweedles and proceeds to the bar. Done with wrangling the baked goods, Flissa turns towards them and blushes prettily, her cheeks dimpling with a preemptively exasperated grin at the sight of the mage.

“And what will Lord Pavus be criticizing today?” she inquires.

Dorian leans one elbow on the bar, and smiles brilliantly. “Criticize? Me? Perish the thought! As a matter of fact, I was preparing to sing the praises of those undoubtedly delightful little bread things you have stashed behind this fortress you call a counter.”

Flissa, who turns out to be just as susceptible to Dorian’s flattery as Margo, parts with three rolls and a small jar of pickled squash with an indulgent grumble about certain people whose names shouldn’t be mentioned expecting special treatment.

“But Evie does just fine with necromancy, doesn’t she?” They amble slowly back towards the apothecary.

“That, my dear, is an understatement. She does not just ‘do fine.’ It is as if—”

They don’t get the chance to finish the conversation. An extremely grim-looking green-hooded elf skids to a stop in front of Margo and Dorian. “Report to the Nightingale. At once.”

Chapter Text

The massive oak door that bars entry to the war room belies its acoustic conductivity — the words of the conversation inside are only partially discernible, but the rising inflections of what is clearly an argument filter through well enough. Margo strains her ears, slightly unnerved to realize they actually move with the effort.

“... not seen any enemy movements, Leliana...”

“... Venatori, yes, but ...”

“... expected if we consider Redcliffe...”

“... terrible timing...”

“Wait here,” Margo and Dorian’s guide orders. He knocks — three rapid raps, a pause, then one more strike. The voices grow quiet. Margo and Dorian exchange a look, but there is no time for any elaborate nonverbal communication. The door swings open. Instead of admitting them inside, Torquemada steps across the threshold and gestures at Dorian.

“Lord Pavus. The Commander requires your expertise. Some questions have come up regarding your compatriots. I trust you will assist?”

Dorian’s eyes narrow, and beneath the sardonic smirk Margo catches a glimpse of unease. “I will strive not to disappoint.” He hesitates, then turns. “My dear, I shall seek you out later to continue our conversation. Should I call on you at the apothecary once again?” There is an undercurrent to his question, one that is very clearly directed at the spymaster herself.

“Mistress Duvalle will no doubt be at her post. There is much work to be done, and very little time to do it.”

With that, Dorian proceeds inside with one last sympathetic look at Margo.Instead of joining the remaining Three Footmen of the Apocalypse, Torquemada shuts the door and waves her hand at the silent scout, who pivots on his heels and stalks off down the colonnade.

“Follow me.” The spymaster doesn’t wait for an acknowledgement. Margo trails after her with the grim certainty that she is about the become reacquainted with Torquemada’s interrogation chambers, but the former bard takes a sharp left instead, leading them down the hallways to the chantry’s nave. Margo frowns. Whatever this is, it cannot possibly end well.

The cavernous hall is deserted, save for one lonely sweeper — an elderly elf clothed in threadbare, discolored robes pushes a broom around with a quiet shuff shuff shuff . Torquemada proceeds to a small alcove, and Margo follows her to the foot of the sword-and-shield wielding stone maiden that looms menacingly from the unsteady shadows.

The spymaster lowers herself into the lone pew and gestures for Margo to take a seat beside her. “I had hoped this would not become necessary, but at this stage, I fear inaction is the more harmful approach.” Her voice is muffled by the acoustics of the narrow space. Margo swallows a wave of rising terror — she is really beginning to develop a Pavlovian reflex to Comrade Nightingale, and not of the pleasantly anticipatory variety, either.

Leliana turns, her face in three-quarter profile oddly soft in the flickering candlelight. The skin around her eyes looks thinner, the crow’s-feet more deeply grooved. The cinnamon-colored strands that escape her hood flash with new silver. “I terrify you, don’t I?” she muses. There is neither sadness nor glee in the tone, only a quiet sort of resignation.

“Most of the time, yes,” Margo hedges. No point in insulting Torquemada’s intelligence with unconvincing bravado. Silence descends upon them, nothing to break it but the faraway scraping of a broom against the stones.

“I would have you look at something.” Leliana makes no move to follow up on this declaration of intent, and Margo forces herself not to fidget on the hard pew. At length, the spymaster releases a breath. “I have little taste for theatrics these days. Suffice it to say, what you will see is revealed in utmost confidence.” She cuts Margo a steely look. “Under no circumstances will you share it. Is this clear?”

“Abundantly so,” Margo retorts, more dryly that she was aiming for. Torquemada’s alleged tastes for theater notwithstanding, the threat is perfectly effective.

“Good.”

The journal she is handed is like nothing she has seen this side of the Breach. It is pocket-size, with a supple, fine-grained leather binding. The pages are actual paper — a little uneven around the edges, but smooth and creamy, with a pleasant heft to them.

Margo casts a questioning look at the spymaster. “May I ask what I’m looking at?”

“A memento. One I had expected to take with me to the pyre, if it came down to that.”

Margo hesitates. There is such desolation in Leliana’s voice that for one uncanny moment she almost reaches out to put a reassuring hand on the woman’s shoulder. She remembers herself quickly and instead taps the cover with an open palm. “Why... me?”

“I suspect it will become self-explanatory once you look. And if it does not, then we will simply forget this entire conversation, and you will pretend it never happened.”

Right. Need-to-know basis. Some things never change. “Anything specific I should be looking at?”

Torquemada smiles pleasantly — the bard’s mask is back on, as impenetrable as the glossy face coverings Margo has seen on the occasional Orlesian visitors to Haven. “I would have you leaf through the entirety of it, if you would. They are drawings, mostly. You should not find it too taxing.”

Margo stifles a grim chuckle. What better way to hide the important parts than to shove them into a haystack of irrelevance. Either that, or Comrade Nightingale is staging yet another test. Or, likely, both.

She cracks open the journal.

The pages are filled with sketches. Graphite, the occasional charcoal, some ink. Predominantly portraits, interspersed with the odd landscape. Whoever the artist was, the style is confident yet unique, a half-step past realism, edging towards abstraction. Bold lines that capture expressions and poses perfectly, in a laconic economy of form. The first volley of drawings are of people — a man with a rueful smile but eyes that seem sad and faraway. A woman — a striking, pale brunette — with a haughty expression, but a smirk lurking at the corners of her mouth. Another man — his features just a tad off to be fully human — is drawn in profile, his forehead resting against the hilt of a two-handed sword.

Margo turns the pages slowly, committing the faces to memory. An elf — not classically handsome, exactly, but sharply attractive — fixes the viewer with a knowing, slightly ironic look. Devilish little sparks dance in his eyes.

She freezes at the next illustration. Leliana, softer, gentler, with the roundness of youth still in her cheeks smiles from the page with such naked, unadorned trust that Margo finds herself fighting off vague embarrassment. The other Leliana, the one sitting next to her, remains silent and still, as emotionless and aloof as the statue before them.

What happened to you?

She notices Leliana’s gaze on her. “You and the artist were close,” Margo observes cautiously, just to say something. She regrets it immediately.

“We were. And before you ask, no, we were not lovers. Intimacy is not always a factor of whom one takes to one’s bed.”

Margo prudently doesn’t comment and returns her attention to the pages. She comes across several landscapes — quick drawings, with small inscriptions at the bottom, which she deduces are place names. A small village with a crumbling structure at the back suspiciously reminiscent of an aqueduct. A tower that juts out of a moonlit lake, ominous. More sketches of people. Scenes of weary, road-tested companionship. A warrior sharpening a blade. An older human woman with a severe bun but a kind face and a dwarf with a spectacular beard are saluting each other over a toast.

As the pages progress, there are more and more sketches of the striking brunette, always with that small, cryptic smile tucked into the corner of her full lips. A few are nudes — never explicit, but something about the woman’s captured expression leaves little doubt as to the nature of the relationship between her and the artist.

And then, Margo turns the page and draws in a sharp breath. She feels the ground shift from under her in a ripple of queasy vertigo, the sudden shock like a jolt of electricity to the soles of her feet. On the left page is an iconic city skyline, the twin towers of the World Trade Center like two giant incisors at the focal point of the sketch. And then, on the right, the same towers, folding in on themselves in a chaos of smoke and flame, concrete debris crumbling in a monstrous waterfall.

“What...?” Margo asks through numb lips.

Torquemada is staring at her, an avid edge to her attention. “I see that you recognize it,” she offers, but does not elaborate, letting the pause hang.

When Margo lifts her finger to tap the image on the left, her hand does not feel like her own. She supposes that it technically isn’t. “This... from my world.” She swallows. Apparently, her mouth has forgotten how to form full sentences. “But what is this?” There. That’s more sentence-like. She points to the page where chaos reigns.

Leliana lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “By the time this journal came into my possession, there was no one to ask for clarification. Is this image not familiar?”

Margo shakes her head. “No. They added a third tower in ‘08 or ‘09, if that matters, but... Nothing like this ever happened.”

Torquemada remains silent, her face tilted towards the indifferent granite of the shield-maiden. “I have spoken to you of Alim before, have I not?”

“The Hero of Ferelden,” Margo breathes. Her stomach attempts to retreat somewhere in the general direction of her heels. Oh, Void on a stick. “This was his, wasn’t it?”

Leliana fails to answer. Instead, she clasps her hands in her lap, the gesture a shade away from prayer. “Alim devised a game of sorts, to pass the time as we traveled. He called it “how far would you go.” The premise was simple — if you knew something catastrophic would occur, what would you be willing to do to prevent it? He’d offer a scenario and let you talk through it. He was very good at imagining unintended consequences.” She hesitates, eyes unseeing, trained on the past. “He liked to joke that it was to prepare Alistair for kingship. Of course, he never did intend to put Alistair on the throne — but I did not know that at the time. No, I think he wanted to see where each of us would draw the line. Maybe he was hoping for absolution.” The former bard shakes off the memories with a visible effort. “Do you understand why I showed you these, Mistress Duvalle?”

Margo closes the journal with one last uneasy look at the New York City skyline. “If my guess is correct, then your friend and I might share an origin story. Although his world... It would appear that his world is not the same as mine.”

Leliana nods slowly. “When I discovered what you were, I remembered this drawing. Alim complained of strange dreams. Odd visions. Bizarre nightmares that did not have the Bligh at their root. Most often he would burn whatever drawings came of these, but a few remain. For a long time I attributed their eccentricity to whatever magic afforded him a glimpse of the future.”

Torquemada extends her hand, and Margo returns the journal, smothering the sudden, irrational urge to stuff it into her pocket, and bound off, Gollum-like, in a random direction. Preciousssss .

“Would you mind if I asked you something?” Margo ventures.

The former bard chuckles. “Save your breath, Mistress Duvalle. No. I never suspected what he was, not until you came along. How could I? I am still not sure whether my guess is correct — perhaps his visions simply extended far afield. There are many things about the Fade I do not pretend to understand.”

Margo mulls it over, formulating. It probably won’t do any good to point out that she already surmised that, whomever this Alim was, he hadn’t shared the nature of his secrets with Torquemada. Maybe that’s what set her on the path towards “Inquisiting.”

“The catastrophe he wished to prevent. The one that required the creation of the ward over Haven... Are you quite sure it was the Breach?”

Leliana considers the question with an expression that makes Margo conclude that this particular thought train is one the spymaster has ridden before. “If you had asked me this prior to this conversation, I would have been inclined to dismiss such possibilities.” She smiles darkly. “But we are all too ready to defend those we domesticate, don’t you find? Anything that will keep at bay the suspicion of monstrosity. It is why I am so very fond of the Orlesian tradition of donning masks. Much more honest when the promise of corruption is only one layer of lovely porcelain away.” She tucks the journal into her coat. “It is why I have called you here. Ironic, is it not, that you would be the one with whom I can divide this burden.”

Margo’s mind churns on itself, calculating the possibilities. She quickly represses a vision of Solas, his body riddled with the awful red mineral, crumpling to the floor like a broken marionette. Instead, she formulates her next question, crafting it carefully. It does her no good. “Did Alim predict an attack on Haven?” she blurts out. Apparently, her mouth is not taking orders from central. “Because I noticed we seem to be preparing for something, and not just celebrating Evie closing the Breach, should she succeed.”

The spymaster exhales softly, and for a second there is none of her usual quiet menace — only an exhausted, aging woman carrying the weight of an unraveling world. “You are observant,” she says at length.

“You can’t use this, can you? To convince the others to evacuate?”

Leliana shakes her head once. “And reveal that the man who ended the Fifth Blight was likely something we do not have a concept for? No, agent, I cannot.”

Margo tries — and fails — to keep the urgency out of her voice, but when she speaks, her words wobble. “What did he foresee? Are you certain his predictions were accurate? Maybe your friend was wrong.”

“The Breach was not the only thing he had anticipated correctly. But I am beginning to suspect that he was circumspect about which truths he chose to share.” Leliana sighs. “There is one more thing I would query you on. Another parting gift of his, if you will — if you would indulge me. Are you fond of poetry, Mistress Duvalle?”

“Depends on the poetry,” Margo retorts, suddenly suspicious.

“Then I wish that my younger self had your discernment.”

When Leliana speaks again, it is with the tinkling lushness of her bardic voice.

“For all we have and are,
For all our children's fate,
Stand up and take the war.
The Enemy’s at the gate!
Our world has passed away,
The Blight within our bone.
There is nothing left to-day
But steel and fire and stone!
Though all we knew depart,
Andraste’s words must stand:—
"In courage kept your heart,
In strength lift up your hand."

Once more we hear the word
That sickened world of old:—
"No law except the Sword
Unsheathed and uncontrolled."
Once more it knits our kind,
Once more the nations go
To meet and break and bind
A crazed and driven foe.

Comfort, content, delight,
The ages' slow-bought gain,
They shrivelled in a night.
Only ourselves remain
To face the naked days
In silent fortitude,
Through perils and dismays
Renewed and re-renewed.
Though all we made depart,
Andraste’s words must stand:—
“In patience keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand."

No easy hope or lies
Shall bring us to our goal,
But iron sacrifice
Of body, will, and soul.
There is but one task for all—
One life for each to give.
What stands if this world fall?
Who dies if this world live?”

It is so utterly surreal to hear Rudyard Kipling’s verses fall from the spymaster’s lips that for a second Margo almost forgets where she is.

“Ah. You are familiar with it.” Not a question.

Margo just nods. Her mouth has grown bone-dry, the tingle of terror scuttling down her spine. “It’s not his. He tweaked the words,” she says quietly.

Leliana says nothing for a long time. And then, something rearranges, and the steely mask is back on. “Thank you, Mistress Duvalle, for this enlightening conversation. I shan’t keep you any longer. I suspect you have potions to make.”

Chapter Text

Outside, the wind howls, buffeting Haven’s buildings with tiny abrasive shards — the ice crystals like sand caught in desert winds. Through the clouds, the alien sun slants its rays, the hue one shade wrong, sickly orange as if dispersed through too many atmospheric particulates. Margo stuffs her hands into her pockets, hunches her shoulders, and trudges back to the apothecary, fresh snow creaking under her boots. Haven as she knows it is endless winter. She tries to shove Leliana’s revelations beneath the long-abused rug, but the sanity-saving decor has developed a defense mechanism and mutated into a wall-to-wall carpet. The Hero of Ferelden refuses to turn into a mite and fit beneath it — instead, his figure looms larger than life, a colossus on a horizon already populated by too many abominations.

“Who were you?” Margo mumbles, the question — which is quickly becoming a bad habit — coalescing into a cloud of vapor. It hovers unresolved.

What did his drawing of the mangled New York skyline mean? Was this some personal nightmare or fear? Or is the universe even more batshit crazy than she expected, and the whole pop theory of bifurcating quantum possibilities isn’t just some New Age nonsense but is actually grounded in truth? And, if so, then what next? Are there millions of Margos, generated at every fork in the road? Are they multiplying even now, right at this moment, each time she takes a step or draws a breath? Is there, right now, another Margo who decided to go towards the tavern instead of the apothecary, and her life, from there, branched off into another limb on the monstrous tree of infinite possibilities?

Is this what her world’s many shamanic traditions meant with their visions of the always suspiciously dendritic axis mundi ? Is this the Tree of which Baba speaks? And is there a Margo to whom none of this happened — one who is writing her lecture, or quietly seething over the asinine and unhelpful feedback an anonymous reviewer left on her latest manuscript? One who is having a coffee with a colleague, or distractedly watching a show while cooking dinner?

She hopes the cat’s ok. And Jake. Maybe there is a version of her somewhere where all of them are fine.

And one where Lily gets to grow up.

Then again, there are likely an infinite number of versions where everything is even worse.

Margo grumbles a medley of multilingual expletives, mostly in the hope that they might drown out the anxious head chatter. She somehow manages to herd her attention back to the present immediate — before her thoughts scatter into the foothills, bleating senselessly. The world is all that is the case. Perhaps this is something to bother Amund about next time they have a spare moment. Either way, in the absence of The National Hero to conveniently explicate his motivations and conditions of arrival, this is all moot speculation.

She can almost feel the hollow darkness of Leliana’s resigned grief, fed by the impossibility of getting answers. It casts the spymaster in a new light — the ghostly absence lurks at the edges of every word, the solvent to her sentences, a shadowed reminder of the things Torquemada became under the murky guidance of another. One more cosmic horror, one more puppet master with aims unknown.

Margo will need to be cautious. Even without the poorly disguised threat from Leliana about not spilling the beans, it is plain enough that this information is a potential powder keg. Not to mention that it seems that The National Hero was nothing if not unambiguous. Maybe there is a convenient epic about the fellow lying around somewhere. Does Thedas have epics?

She refines her original question. Who were you, and what were you playing at?

By the time Margo returns to the apothecary, the mental buzzing has subsided to manageable levels. Clemence greets her with a neutral, “Welcome back, Apprentice Duvalle,” and returns to pouring a clear, viscous liquid into small clay pots with meticulous slowness. Margo files a mental prayer with whomever is on listening duty that this is not nitroglycerin.

The Tranquil has company. Both Minaeve and Adan are bent over the alchemy station, their foreheads almost close enough to touch. Margo has the strong suspicion that they are in the midst of a long-standing disagreement. They pay her entrance absolutely no heed.

“— not stabilized properly.” Adan’s voice is even gruffer than usual. “It won’t disperse unless...”

“Yes, I can see that well enough, Adan, I told you a water solvent won’t work!”

Margo clears her throat. The senior alchemist casts a look over his shoulder, gestures for her to come closer, and returns to his work. “The errant pupil. Come contribute. I have this idea...”

“An absolutely nonsensical one we’ve wasted this last month on,” Minaeve butts in dryly.

“And yet, here you are, enchanter,” Adan grins through his beard. “Still.”

Wait. Is this why Adan is routinely in absentia? He has been working with Minaeve on some ill-advised alchemical experiment? Margo surveys the ingredients laid out on the table. She frowns. “Master Adan, are you trying to bring your love of grenades to the art of healing?”

The grin takes on an alarmingly gleeful edge. “Brilliant, isn’t it? I kept thinking, what if we could heal at a distance? And then I remembered the tale of your and Pavus’s shenanigans in the Hinterlands with that blood lotus extract dispersal — Harding’s account was colorful, I’ll give her that. And from there...”

“Adan insists on a water-based solution, and I am telling him that this will not work.”

“With a stabilized fire essence that activates on impact, it would.”

“You can’t put a rune in every grenade, Adan, it’s cost-prohibitive!”

Clemence lifts his head from his work. “I agree with Enchanter Minaeve, with a caveat. Between lyrium and the costs of demon essence, such a preparation would necessarily be limited. At the same time, such a thing might change the course of a battle. I would suggest we test the alcohol solution first and examine the results.”

Adan squints at the two detractors with open annoyance. “Alcohol will evaporate too fast — it won’t suspend as a mist.” He harrumphs. “But it would be cheaper to test. We’ll need assistance.”

Two pairs of eyes scrutinize Margo with new, unhealthy interest. “Not it!” she stammers. Last time these two were testing formulas on her, she got saddled with Imshael.

The two bastards — red-headed and otherwise — look at each other, and then just nod. “We won’t test it on you.” Minaeve’s smile is creepily friendly. “Quite the contrary, in fact. What we need is someone to do the testing.”

***

The hardest part of talking Sera into the ill-conceived scheme is tracking down the elven archer in the first place. Margo eventually finds her on the roof of Master Harritt’s hut. Sera is sitting cross-legged on a coarse piece of felt, no doubt pilfered from one of the tents. Her back is propped against the warm bricks of the chimney. By the time Margo manages to climb up, Sera is brushing crumbs from her leggings, and trying to chew through an enormous mouthful of cookies.

“Nofin’ lef’,” she announces by way of a warning.

Margo prudently gives up on the project of scaling the icy roof all the way to its crest and instead adopts her shit-eatingest grin. “Sera? How would you like to conduct an experiment?”

Her explanation of the intended use of the formula is schematic at best, but Sera takes it well-enough in stride. “Toss it and see if it droplets. Got it.”

“Is ‘droplet’ a verb in Common?” Margo inquires with genuine interest.

“Should be, right? Made of two already. Anyway, is now.” Sera grins and uses the piece of felt to toboggan down the slanted roof, flips in mid-air, and catches herself on the ledge before jumping down. Margo descends, albeit less spectacularly.

Assistant recruited, she sets off to acquire tests subjects. This too proves alarmingly easy. They spot Blackwall in the sparring grounds, running a half-dozen recruits through sword-and-shield drills. Iron Bull observes from a nearby crate and offers occasional “encouraging” commentary of the growling persuasion. The lot of them appear distracted, to put it mildly. Heads turn towards the Breach at regular intervals — a collective movement with the mysterious contagiousness of a yawn. The Hellmouth remains profoundly unaltered by this scrutiny and keeps on swirling ponderously.

“How much longer, you figure?” Sera bites at a nail.

The Great Bearded Ursus takes a break from mentoring the new generation in his efficiently murderous ways. He rakes his fingers through his hair to get the sweaty strands out of his face, then proceeds to tie it back into a loose knot with a piece of leather cord. He dismisses the younger recruits with, “Good show, soldiers.” When the Warden turns to face their questionable research team, his eyes are pinched at the corners in worry, but his body language remains studiously casual. “They started late. With the snowdrifts, it would’ve taken some time to get to the temple with a group that size.”

Margo quirks an eyebrow. The underlying meaning, for all its reassuring packaging, does not inspire optimism. “Do you think something went wrong?” she asks, as neutrally as she can.

“I’ve not seen any changes in the blighted thing. If it’d gone wrong, we’d know it.”

Sera squints at the sky. “Should be done soon, then, yeah?”

Bull stands up from his crate and drifts to their little group. “What are those, Blondie? Bit larger than the standard stuff Adan makes. New grenade?”

Margo extracts one of the three prototypes from the vial holder Adan equipped her with. “As a matter of fact, it is. Master Adan wants it tested.”

“What does it do?”

Sera grins brilliantly. “‘S a surprise?”

Margo shoots her a dirty look. “It’s supposed to produce a mist that heals you on impact.”

“Heals, or kills ?” Blackwall asks with a suspicious glance at the brilliant green liquid sloshing around in its glass container.

“You need volunteers?” Bull rolls his shoulders and cracks his neck, and Margo decides that the Qunari is looking for a distraction from contemplating the delay in the world-saving efforts. She wonders if she should make them sign a waiver. She decides to settle for verbal consent instead. “I’m not sure it’ll work as intended,” she cautions. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”

“Beats sitting on our arses and waiting for the sky to close,” Blackwall shrugs.

“Damn right. Fists or swords, big guy?”

The first grenade — as should have been expected — does not produce any discernible effects, safe for splashing the participants in a viscous, sticky liquid that fills the air with the unmistakable smell of peppermint schnapps.

“Do you feel any changes?” Margo asks, raising her voice above the steady stream of taunts the opponents exchange. The grappling match is entertaining enough that it attracted a small audience of loiterers, all too happy to shirk their duties — and ignore the green swirling elephant in the room.

“Yes. Now I’m sticky,” Bull volunteers, right before attempting to lift Blackwall off his feet and pitch him into the snow — only to get an elbow to his ribs for the effort. There are some enthusiastic jeers from the onlookers.

“Well. We do have a baseline,” Margo trails, trying to count how many bruises the Qunari collected. Do they seem to be fading? Or is that just the effect of the light. “We can just compare —”

“What d’ya call it, ‘Phase 2.’ Got an idea. Toss it over them, will you?” Sera readies her bow, to Margo’s horrified realization of what the archer intends. “Just high, ‘cause glass.”

“This is a bad idea,” Margo protests.

“Best kind, that. Now toss.”

Margo lobs the grenade in a neat parabola. Somewhere, a universe away, an IRB is having an apoplectic fit. A bowstring creaks and releases with a sharp twang, air whistles, and at the apex of its arc the grenade bursts into a million fragments, precipitating in a spray of glass and minty liquid. The experimental subjects interrupt their mutual bashing long enough to brush the residue from hair and horns. Bull takes a sniff.

“Is that Abyssal Mint , Blondie?” Bull asks, his good eye widening in incredulity. “Let me see that last one you got.”

“Is that a capitulation, Bull?” Blackwall does not step out of his fighting stance, in case the Qunari is staging a distraction.

“Pass it over, Blondie.”

Margo narrows her eyes suspiciously. “It’s meant to be applied topically, Bull. No drinking the... um... grenades.”

Bull steps out of the rink, appropriates the last bottle, uncorks it, and — exactly as predicted — takes a hearty swig. “Yup. Abyssal Mint. Bit herbal, though.”

Not one to lose a research opportunity, Margo gives him a critical once-over. “How are you feeling?”

He doesn’t get a chance to answer. She hears it before her eyes register the change. A strange, muffled keen at a frequency almost beyond human perception, and then Margo’s head turns on automatic, attention caught on a brilliant flash of green at the horizon. A beam, blindingly white at its core, pierces the swirling vortex and pools at the center of the Breach into a vibrating orb of crackling energy, a giant cluster of lime-colored ball lightning. Margo sucks in a breath, the burst of adrenaline telling her body to flee, to hide, to find cover, futile as it might be. And then, with a sonic boom, the energy dissipates in a monstrous ripple that, for a brief moment, warps the sky from horizon to horizon in a centrifugal shockwave. For a second or two, Margo waits to be obliterated, a speck caught in the radius of a hydrogen bomb.

When she finally opens her eyes, the Hellmouth is no more.

“Pass me that, will you?” Blackwall’s voice cracks. Bull hands him the grenade-turned-libation without a word, which the Warden accepts with a nod. He takes a gulp, his eyes still fixed on the skies.

“Get to have fun now, yeah?” Sera asks.

As if on cue, wild cheers erupt all around them, then domino through the village in a matching shockwave of pure, unadulterated joy.

Margo is jolted out of her stupor by a hearty slap on the back. “Well, Blondie. Your potion doesn’t work for shit, but it tastes decent, at least.”

She looks up at Bull. “What happens now, in your opinion?”

Bull hesitates. His expression remains jovial and perfectly relaxed — but also entirely too still. He lets his gaze drift, and Margo follows its direction. The cart she spotted being loaded earlier is now at full capacity. A couple of men — she’s not sure whose they are — are hitching two druffalo to the cart’s yoke, barely sparing any glances to the miracle of the sealed skies.

“Guess we wait for the crew to come back,” the Qunari offers.

Chapter Text

The apothecary reeks of rotten eggs. Either Adan and Minaeve are messing around with something sulphurous, or closing the Breach simultaneously opened a nearby portal to Hell, a thermal spring, or both.

The Terrible Two receive the results of the not particularly random and certainly not at all controlled pharmaceutical trial with admirable poise. Adan’s shrug is downright philosophical. Minaeve barely looks up from her task of slowly stirring a dark, unpleasantly glossy substance inside a cast-iron cauldron that simmers over the hearth.

Even Margo’s final bad news — “I’m afraid they self-administered the remaining prototype internally, Master Adan” — garners little more than a short snort of amusement.

“Well, then. Let’s see if there are any interesting effects by tomorrow.” Adan motions with his beard in the general direction of the Cauldron of Unpleasant Ooze — a substance likely known in more technical circles as a balsam, but Margo decides that it has yet to earn this more noble title. “Trade out with Minaeve for a bit, lass. Keep stirring it, and try not to breathe in the vapors.” He squints skeptically. “You’re peculiar enough without adding deathroot fumes into the mix.”

Margo eyes the pot. She can guess what’s expected of her well enough — it’s standard evaporation used to concentrate the solids in the plant extract. It occurs to her that the deathroot has likely earned its ominous moniker not from whatever entheogenic alkaloids it might contain, but from its less than commendable olfactory properties. She pulls her scarf over her nose. “What are we cooking?”

Minaeve hands Margo the wooden spatula with an expression of rueful relief, and then she quickly retreats towards the desk, where a row of flasks is waiting to be turned into explosive devices. Margo assumes her post by the hearth.

Adan, bent over a ledger, is meticulously crossing out lines with an exceptionally squeaky quill. “Maker knows why the Nightingale wants this many pitch grenades at this stage.” For a few seconds he remains silent. And then, incongruously, he drops his quil into the inkpot, straightens, and guffaws — a bark of resonant incredulity so unexpected Margo almost loses her spatula to the viscous ooze. She wrestles it back at the last moment, and stares at Adan in alarm.

“By Andraste, it’s over, isn’t it? The Herald actually closed the blighted thing.”

Later, Margo will remember the look that passes between the three of them. The glow of giddy, exuberant hope glimmers then fades too quickly, dampened by the suspicion of trickery.

“I suppose we have a few hours before they return victorious and the festivities begin,” Minaeve offers. She wipes her hands on a rag, and lowers herself into a chair with obvious relief. “The pitch shouldn’t take much longer.”

“Let’s get these done,” Adan nods. “Got a bottle I’ve been keeping for a special occasion.”

Minaeve’s optimistic temporal estimations notwithstanding, by the time the flasks are filled with tar the sky outside has turned dark. Margo scrapes off the last dregs of the foul-smelling ooze into a porcelain beaker and ferries it off to the desk. Her head swims slightly — not inhaling the vapors proved easier said than done, even with the windows fully open.

Once the last flask is stoppered, Adan rummages underneath the workstation. He extracts what can only be described as an amphora sealed with a glob of greenish wax. Minaeve brings three mismatched glasses to the desk.

Margo’s attempt to perch atop a crate is interrupted by Adan’s indignant holler. “Mind the new cucurbit, fledgling! They don’t grow on trees, you know.” He pushes a rickety stool in her direction with the tip of his boot. “I’ll personally send you to Serault — on foot — if you squash it.”

Margo offers an apologetic nod and plants her behind on the offered stool. “Are we getting all of our glass from Serault, then?” She eyes the crate and its apparently precious contents with greedy curiosity. Does this Serault have a monopoly on glassblowing? Surely, the dwarves must have their own glassworks — in her own world, the technique is ancient.

Minaeve snorts, rather good-naturedly for once. Adan just shakes his head. “Don’t be absurd, lass, of course not. I’m struggling to keep us supplied with the basics — you think we’d be able to afford a full collection of Serault glass? Alchemical grade Serault glass?” He peels the wax seal off with a pocket knife. “No, this one was a gift from one of the ambassador’s admirers, I suspect. Now, this should be a pretty decent Carnal. Courtesy of Commander Cullen, so color me grateful.”

While Margo tries to decide whether “ In Vino Veritas ” should be considered an encouragement or a warning, Adan pours a measure of the pale golden liquid into the three receptacles. The drink is a strong, fruity liqueur, with a nose that mixes raspberry and embrium.

Task complete and libations supplied, the alchemist leans back on his chair and kicks his feet up on the workstation before extracting a worn wooden pipe from the folds of his robe. The mixture he packs into the bowl layers the air with the scents of licorice and cloves — and some other, unfamiliar, pungent aroma. One way or another, an improvement over the hydrogen sulfide.

Minaeve rolls her fingers together until a miniature fireball stretches and globulizes between them. “In need of assistance, Master Adan?” she asks. There is a faint trace of something mischievous in her voice.

Adan grunts, extends the pipe in the enchanter’s general direction, and clears his throat unnecessarily.

Margo bites back a chuckle, and raises her glass. “To the Breach being closed?”

“And to it staying closed, Maker willing,” the alchemist grumbles.

“I’ll gladly drink to both, but the Herald’s work is far from done. Many rifts remain.” Minaeve’s brow crinkles in worry, but she chases the emotion down with a sip of cordial.

Adan frowns. “What’s got you stewing, enchanter?” The thick layer of gruffness doesn’t quite conceal the note of concern.

“I...” The elf shoots Margo a dubious look, but then her shoulders fall, and she exhales sharply, nostrils flaring. “You know I do not hold any hatred towards the templars...” She trails off and takes another swallow of cordial.

Margo looks between Adan and the enchanter, trying to decipher the underlying currents of meaning. The animosity the templars hold towards mages doesn’t exactly require advanced microscopy to detect, if Evie’s show trial was anything to go by. How seriously does the Order take the task of protecting mages from themselves, exactly — especially when afforded the privacy of the proverbial total institution? Genitivi described the Circles as a place of learning and safety for magically inclined Theodosians, but there must be a reason why the good brother has such a monopoly on local history. Before Margo can give Genitivi’s hypothetical financial backers proper consideration — her money is on the local version of the Vatican — Adan sets his drink on the table with a firm thud.

“Yeah, I know. I know.” He puffs on his pipe and exhales a cloud of clove-laced smoke, looking every bit like a small but unaccommodating Goth dragon temporarily stuck in human form. “They’re going to be drunk as piss, and there’s a lot of ‘em. Tell your... charges to stay indoors over the next three days, or however long the Ambassador plans to extend the celebrations for.”

“Three days? It’s not exactly what Margo means to ask, but the words rush ahead of the other thought. What charges does Minaeve have? Are there baby mages stashed away somewhere in Haven?

Adan lifts a shoulder in a shrug, making the gesture look at once incredulous and resigned. “Three full days off for everyone. I already told Clemence to go join the rest of the Tranquil in the chantry, so here’s to hoping he’ll be safe enough. It’ll be madder than a rabbid fennec around here until Flissa’s wine runs dry. Then — mark my words — they’ll come sniffing around the apothecary. As if I’d let Cullen’s knuckleheads, let alone the rest of the assorted riffraff the Herald picked up at Therinfal, get their paws on alchemy-grade spirits.”

“Is there some danger to the Tranquil, specifically?” Margo asks, her stomach constricting into a leaden ball around the sip of liquor. The sudden vertigo has little to do with the drink — or the fumes.

Her question is greeted with an awkward silence.

“Where did you say you were from again, lass?”

Margo swallows. “Nevarra, originally.” The lie no longer tastes bitter — in fact, it doesn’t taste like anything at all. Perhaps, on one branch of the monstrous tree, this statement is true.

In the silence, the quiet crackling of Adan’s pipe sounds downright deafening. Minaeve’s eyes dart to Margo and linger on her for an uncomfortable few seconds, but, finally, the enchanter nods. “I would imagine it is different with the Mortalitasi so close to the seat of power. Besides, this sort of thing does not happen in every Circle.”

Adan’s gaze drifts to the inky square of the window, the mica pane too opaque to throw back any recognizable reflection. “Soldiers are soldiers, apprentice. How they behave when they let off steam depends on whose command they’re under. Cullen’s got most of his people in check, give or take, but...” He pauses, draws on his pipe, and blows a smoke ring that drifts slowly towards the ceiling until, caught in the draft from the partially open door, it scrambles and melts in the air. “The ones from Therinfal are a mixed bag. Some familiar faces from Kirkwall, if Master Tethras isn’t mistaken.”

The patchwork of knowledge gleaned from books and scattered conversations congeals into a particularly bleak picture, and Margo hides a wince. She remembers perfectly well how easily Solas, Dorian, and Bull dismissed her concern for Clemence and his brethren in Redcliffe. For all their differences, none of them seemed to think that Tranquil lives were worth the extra legwork. And she remembers Solas’s bitter expression when the topic of Evie’s potential tranquilization was broached. A fate one wouldn’t wish even on an enemy, indeed.

“So... the Tranquil are easy pickings.” It’s not a question.

The enchanter’s lips fold into a hard line. She takes a small sip of cordial before shaking her head once. “Here, they will not be.”

The door squeaks. Lord Pavus of the Impeccable Timing materializes in the opening, fresh snowflakes glinting in his hair and catching the tawny glow of the brazier. “So this is where you’ve b—... Oh.” He looks between the three of them. “I sense a remarkable — and altogether suspicious — lack of vivaciousness. You are aware the Breach is closed, yes?” He knocks the snow off his boots before stepping inside. “Is that Carnal I spy? And yet you are successfully maintaining funereal faces.” His lips twitch in a nascent smirk, but he manages to maintain a straight face. “Allow me to guess. The price of goose shit is taxing the Inquisition’s coffers? No, no, wait. You are drawing straws over who will clean the calcinator?”

Adan’s expression switches quickly from unease to his usual gruffness. “The conversation strayed, Pavus. We’re as cheerful as a tinker on Satinalia.”

“Are southern tinkers a particularly dismal lot? By all means, do not let me interrupt your gloomy contemplation of... whatever it was that the three of you gloomily contemplate.”

“As if we could stop you.” Adan gestures towards the last plausible seating surface — the bottom of the stairs to the loft. “What brings his lordship to our humble shop?”

“I have never seen you actually sell anything, Adan. I was under the impression that, as far as the Inquisition is concerned, the procurement of goods and services is of the commandeered variety.” Instead of taking the offered seat, Dorian wanders towards the shelf of beakers and selects one that could, after a few glasses of the cordial, pass for a goblet.

“Give me that.” Adan grabs the offered receptacle and measures out a painstakingly reasonable amount of booze before handing it back to the mage. “Is Flissa out of wine already?”

Dorian’s eyes glint with amusement. “Not yet, but I am certain this will be remedied in no time. Why are you three ensconced in here, exactly? You are about to miss the Victorious Return.”

Adan takes a slow drag from his pipe. He squints at the mage through the bluish smoke. “Some of us work.”

“A task from which we are strongly discouraged for the next three days, I hear.” Dorian takes an exploratory sip of the liqueur. “Ah, a perfectly adequate beverage, for a change. What about you, Mistress Duvalle? Shall we join the rest of the beatific spectators outside?” Beneath the smirk, an unasked question lurks.

Margo offers a tight smile in return. With any luck, Dorian will want to resume his discussion of Evie’s unusual magical properties, and not embark on a fishing expedition about Torquemada’s — and now Margo’s — little secret. “If Master Adan and Enchanter Minaeve can spare me.” When in doubt, suck up.

Adan just waves his hand in disgust. “Go. The grenades need to cool before we store them. Just... be cautious, too. It will get rowdy around here, mark my words. Mind yourself, lass.”

Margo pulls on her coat and leaves the sulphurous hut to the Dismal Duo.

“What did I miss?” Dorian asks as they make their way down towards the village center. Margo fails to respond. Her eyes are fixed on the skies — it is the first time the stars above Haven are plainly visible, luminous clusters shimmering in the void. Her eyes water from the strain and icy air. Echoes of worlds long gone.

Perhaps her own, too.

“Incredible now that the Breach is no longer dyeing everything green, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Margo nods, not trusting herself with a longer utterance.

When Dorian speaks again, his voice is gentle. “I would imagine your skies look much different.” He loops his arms through hers and covers her gloveless hand with the wide sleeve of his ornate winter cloak. “I have yet to encounter a cure for nostalgia, but I find that wine and reasonably good company go a long way.”

In the span of the previous few hours, Haven was transformed. In lieu of Seggritt’s stall of shitty merchandise, an enormous bonfire crackles in the center of the courtyard — with any luck, powered by the merchandise in question. The streets are crowded. The civilians — workers, craftsmen, merchants, many of them with their families — move between the food stalls managed by a few of Flissa’s kitchen maids. Makeshift tables are piled high with the sort of winter festival foods that keep the belly filled and the fingers reasonably clean.

Further down, another bonfire serves as the center of gravity for the military contingent. Voices already loosened with drink mix with the clanking of armor to drift on the night air. The tavern is roaring with noise: slightly dissonant fast-paced fiddling spills from the open windows, along with the din of laughter, clapping, and rhythmic foot-stomping.

“Prickly, Sparkler!” Next to his tent, Varric is presiding over a game of cards of truly epic proportions — one that has already sucked Bull and some of the Chargers into its vortex. “Come lose some coin!”

Dorian shoots a look at Bull, then looks askance at Margo, torn between curiosity and another compulsion.

“Go. I know you want to talk about the spymaster, but it can wait.”

The mage turns to her then, his gaze serious. “You are a kind — and frightfully observant — soul, my dear Mistress Duvalle. I will not go unless you tell me you are reasonably safe from whatever our illustrious spymaster is recruiting you for. I made a terrible mistake in Redcliffe. I do not intend to repeat it.” His moustache twitches in a smile. “My sleep is a miserable thing as it is. I do not plan to compound the restlessness with more smears on my conscience.”

Margo grins and squashes the sudden impulse to throw her arms around the preposterous dandy’s neck and blurt out something embarrassingly sentimental. “I’m fine, Dorian. Go unwind. We can speak later.” It has the advantage of getting her off the hook, for now at least. There is more than one frightfully observant character in this encounter.

Dorian hesitates for another second before joining the cardplayers, to Varric’s approving chuckle. “Prickly? There’s room for one more.”

“I don’t have any money to lose, Varric.” Not strictly speaking true, since the gold she received from Josephine is still weighing down her purse, but they don’t need to know that. “Unless whoever wins gets one of those delightfully gauche romance novels you secretly write.”

In the light of the bonfire, Varric’s squint looks positively disreputable. “I don’t write romances, Prickly. Too much structure. I like to kill my darlings.”

“You’re dealing, Varric.” Bull’s rumble is the sort of lazy tone that makes Margo decide that he will probably be checking with his organization about Varric’s writerly activity and genre preferences. She hides the smirk in her scarf. There is something delightful about the idea of a mid-level Qunari bureaucrat trudging through the muck of purple prose.

She briefly considers that she would perhaps be better off joining the others, but some vague impulse propels her down the path, past the revelers and bonfires, and towards the set of wooden stairs that leads to the observation platform at the right side of the gates. Margo looks up. A familiar plaid-clad leg dangles off the side of the wooden perch.

“Sera?” Margo calls out. “Is that you up there?”

“Not even,” comes the slurred but jovial reply. “There’s no room unless you want to sit in Beardie’s lap. Or mine. I guess. But then there won’t be room for the flag—... hic ... —on.”

Margo frowns. “Sera, are you drunk ?”

“Am not!”

A bearded head appears over the railing. “Aye, that she is.”

Margo ascends the stairs and almost runs into Lace Harding, who, by the looks of it, is the only reasonably sober one of the trio. Her bow is propped against the wall, and she is munching on a bread roll. The other two sit with their backs against the palisade, a large flagon of booze cradled between them.

“Are we celebrating, then?” Not Margo’s most astute question.

“Waiting for the Herald to show up.” Sera wobbles to her feet. Blackwall obligingly stabilizes her until the elf regains verticality. “ I ’m celebrating, ‘cuz fuck that... hic ... hole. Not that way. But it’s over, yeah? Beardy here’s drowning his sorrows. And Lace is... Dunno. Lace, whatcha doing?”

“Providing cover fire in case of an attack on her ladyship.” Harding takes another bite from her bread roll.

“I am not drowning my sorrows, Sera. Can’t a man have a drink in peace without there needing to be some tragic reason for it?”

“Depends.” Sera cups her hands around her mouth in a pantomime of sharing the world’s dirtiest secret. “Warden Blackwall’s got competition .”

“It’s no bloody competition when no one is competing! Lady Josephine is free to receive flowers from anyone she damn well pleases...”

“Beardy’s not taking it well,” Sera declares in a theatrical whisper.

Blackwall grunts in disgust and makes room for Margo to join them on the platform. “Mind playing nanny to this drunk elf? I have to... step away for a moment.”

“He means he needs to piss,” Sera confides in the same tone.

Margo gives Blackwall a sympathetic wince and takes up her new position next to a flushed, grinning, and very bouncy archer.

“Didn’t even have that much? And then — whoosh — nothing left. How’d that happen? Your fault, actually. ‘Cuz green minty stuff.” Before Margo gets a chance to impart the importance of not drinking the prototypes, Sera pivots sharply and squints into the darkness.

“Well, shite. They’re back.”

Margo tries to follow the archer’s gaze. A small file of torches snakes down the mountain path, winking in and out of view between the dark silhouettes of fir trees — black spears against the cobalt blue of the starlit glacier.

Sudden dread grips her — a muddled, restless anticipation that radiates from her solar plexus and binds her limbs at the edge of fight or flight.

“Alright there, Spindly? Got pale a bit. Don’t worry, it’s them. See that thing?” Sera waves rather expansively. “Like a beehive, but purple? Vivy’s new hat.”

“Nicely spotted!” Harding points a gloved finger towards the procession. “There’s the commander up there. The Herald right behind. And that’s Solas, judging by the posture.”

“That glowy thing?”

Harding frowns. “I don’t see a barrier spell.”

“The head . Definitely glowy.”

Margo nods distractedly. She strains her eyes to see the tiny shapes trailing down towards Haven.

Are agreements made in the Fade binding? She hasn’t forgotten her deal with the aforementioned “glowy-headed” elf — the fact that it was made under the overly optimistic assumption that they would not survive until the Breach was closed shouldn’t annul it. The Hellmouth is no more, and Solas promised answers. Conditions met, and all that. Of course, she’ll likely have to take the mental equivalent of a seam ripper to the resident apostate’s carefully tailored answers.

Margo stuffs her hands into her pockets. Well. No time like the present.

“Feel like we should be throwing shite at them.” Sera muses. “Petals, maybe. Nah, too wilty. Grains? Eggs?” She sighs. “Should’ve gotten petards.”

Chapter Text

Waiting for Evie and her entourage to breach the gates takes an eternity — a temporal extension on a logarithmic curve that feels downright spiteful, much like when a watched kettle seems to delay the moment of boiling out of sheer maliciousness. The anticipation even gets to the otherwise admirably even-keeled Scout Harding, who taps her foot against the boards with rising impatience.

Margo blows on her fingers in a futile effort to keep them warm and tries to stomp some feeling back into her feet.

Then, finally, the vanguard of the procession bursts forth from behind the bend of the road, Cullen and Cassandra riding at a good clip on their almost identical chestnut mounts, the horses huffing great bursts of vapor into the frigid evening air. Behind the military duo, Evie follows, flanked by Ser Barris on one side and Vivienne on the other. The Orlesian mage’s expression is a perfect mask of dignified triumph, her full lips curved just a little in the ghost of a smile. As Evie’s pacer picks up speed, its nostrils flaring at the scent of home, Margo catches Barris’s gaze on the Herald, the knight’s face an odd mixture of worry and wonder. He drives his heels into the flanks of his own mount to keep apace — as if an invisible tether tugs him towards Evie’s small, fur-wrapped form.

Evie spots the welcoming committee on the sentry platform and waves as her horse approaches the gates. Margo waves back. Next to her, Sera sticks two fingers between her teeth and follows up with such a deafening whistle that Margo’s ears pop.

“All hail Our Lady Herald!” Sera hoots, pumping a fist into the air in an exuberant salute.

Behind Evie, Solas rides alone, his expression fixed in abstract contemplation. Margo’s gaze snags, tracing the sharp line of his cheekbone and the hollow beneath, the bold angle of his jawline. Her attention lingers for too long, because he jerks his head upward, and his eyes land on her. His smile is so subtle it might as well not be there, but he maintains eye contact past the requirements of a friendly greeting. At the periphery of Margo’s vision, Warden Blackwall salutes the riders below, military style. Solas offers a brisk nod in return, and returns his eyes to Haven’s gates.

Margo decides not to wait for the contingent of templars marching behind Evie’s vanguard. Instead, she follows Blackwall and a slightly wobbly Sera down the steps. Harding retains her position and waves them on with a, “Someone should keep an eye out.”

Cullen departs quickly, but the others linger near the entrance. At the sight of their newly annointed hero, the village rustles into a shocked hush, then erupts into cheers — one or two at first, then a mounting chorus that spreads like wildfire between the revelers. Margo tries to jostle her way forward through the condensing crowd — though it becomes quite clear that the best approach is to follow in Blackwall’s wake, as he parts the sea of bodies like an icebreaker. She manages to secure a front-row position, just in time to watch Cassandra pull the reins and lean down to whisper something in Evie’s ear. Judging by the girl’s wide-eyed horror, Margo decides that Seeker Pentaghast just suggested Evie give a speech.

Margo meets Evie’s frantic gaze and gives her a thumbs-up, with a belated prayer in the general direction of the local unmerciful deity that the gesture doesn’t translate into something obscene. She follows up this pantomime with a more neutral nod. It probably says something about the entire situation that Margo’s one and only trip to Bulgaria, with its reversed nodding conventions where “yes” means “no,” felt far more jarring than her transplantation to Thedas, at least as far as ingrained bodily habits of communication are concerned. She stifles the habitual hysterical giggle, wondering whether the reaction is secondhand nervousness over Evie’s impending formal address to the populace or something to do with her scheduled conversation with a certain elf.

Just as Margo decides that the thought doesn’t get her anywhere productive, Evie clears her throat.

A pause. And then the kid opens her remarks with the timeless, “Hummm.”

The crowd hushes, tense, anticipatory. Faces turn upward — some lifted in adoration, a few shuttered behind a glaze of skepticism. And others outright fearful, with an undercurrent of hostility.

“P-people of H-Haven,” Evie stutters. She clears her throat again, blushing desperately. “Oh Andraste’s mercy, I’m terribly sorry, I am no good at this sort of thing at all.”

A few snickers erupt, but the tension remains, taut as a string. On the other side of the narrow circle currently not occupied by the spectators, Vivienne turns her horse around with an unhurried elegance, her expression frozen in a mask of polite interest. Behind it, a flash of something suspiciously close to concern — though whether for Evie’s well-being or the potential consequences of a social faux pas, Margo isn’t sure.

“I... I’ve not given many speeches before. I asked Seeker Pentaghast how one goes about addressing people where there’s lots of them — like now. And she gave very good advice, I think. Like I should look just above everyone’s head, and not make eye contact. But then, Ambassador Montilyet suggested that if I get very nervous — like now — I should imagine that I am speaking to a group of nugs.”

A few awkward giggles, and a couple of snorts. Margo feels her heart fluttering in her throat. Oh, kiddo, what are you doing? Evie’s blush deepens, but the kid forges on with grim determination. “The Iron Bull thought I should picture everyone in their smalls, which I thought was not very sound advice, what with the weather and all. I think this is probably a Qunari thing. And Ser Barris said I should just say what is on my mind — but by this point, all I can think about is nugs in underwear. So you see my predicament.”

This time, the laughter is a great deal warmer, and some of the tension leeches from the crowd.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry.” Evie takes a deep breath. “I wish I could be the hero you all deserve. But I can’t. And I wish I could say that it’s all over — that the Breach is closed, and that it won’t happen again. But I can’t. And I wish I could tell you that everyone can just go home, and that there won’t be any more blood spilled, and that everything will go back to how it was.” She takes another shuddering breath, and the words that come next no longer quaver. That piercing, tinkling lilt Margo remembers from the horrid witch trial creeps into Evie’s voice again, an undercurrent of steel and silver. “And that, too, I can’t. Because there is always a next time, isn’t there?”

Evie’s words fall into dead silence, the wind her only interlocutor. She draws herself up, and for a moment, in the unsteady glow of the bonfires, she flickers like a mirage, a creature of flame and shadow, ancient as the stones of the temple she left behind.

“But what I can say is that the next time you face horror we will be at your side. And when blades are raised against you and yours, they shall meet our steel. And when the world is ablaze, we shall counter its fire with ours. And even when we falter against the odds — and falter we shall, for all things in this world are finite... ” She pauses — perhaps to take a breath, but the timing could not be more fortuitous. The crowd stills, spellbound, hanging on the edge of the young woman’s ellipsis. “And should we fall... we shall rise again,” Evie finishes.

The seconds of stunned silence gather, crest, and then, finally, break into a deafening roar. “Praise the Herald of Andraste!”

How are prophets made? How do they become what they are, crystallizing from the unpredictable mess of the day-to-day into the catalysts of history? Margo balls her fists against a sudden jolt of vertigo. Hats soar in the air, helmets and other random objects are brandished in a paroxysm of enthusiasm, knees hit the snow in genuflecting religious ardor. There are whistles and shouts, and the mass of bodies presses closer. Margo manages to retain her place at the front by the grace of Blackwall’s strategically deployed shoving. Around her, people extend their hands towards Evie — only to be driven back by the ever vigilant Seeker Pentaghast and Ser Barris, who maneuver their horses with practiced ease to exert crowd control. Once the populace settles a bit, Blackwall harrumphs. He leans to Margo, and she catches a whiff of frost and liquor, but when he speaks, there is no trace of inebriation in his voice — only quiet reverence. “Our Lady Trevelyan will be leading armies before we know it, mark my words.”

Bodies press around her, inching forward, and Margo finds herself progressively jostled towards the back of the crowd. Before she can put her elbows to work to regain her position, a commotion erupts. Over the heads, shoulders, and necks that obscure her line of sight, Margo spots Evie suddenly swaying in the saddle and clutching her hand to her chest with a muffled cry. Ser Barris catches the bridle of Evie’s pacer and soothes the spooked horse — and its pale rider — with a string of soft nonsense.

“Solas!” The command in Cassandra’s voice is unmistakable.

“At your service, Seeker.” Margo can’t quite see the elf — he must have dismounted. She tries to crane her neck to get a better look, but then an exceptionally rectangular fellow with inordinately large ears — round and wide like satellite dishes sticking from underneath a bucket-shaped helmet — materializes in front of her.

Trying to step around Mr. Very Large Array proves impossible — other gawkers fill in all available spaces like gas.

Cassandra’s voice carries over the ruckus. “The Herald requires rest. Please, everyone. Enjoy the festivities. You have earned it.”

“Is the Herald sick, then?” A woman’s thick Starkhaven’s brogue cuts through the ambient din.

“The He—...”

Cassandra doesn’t get the chance to finish.

“I am fine!” Evie’s voice is tired, but oddly forceful. “Please, don’t fret on my behalf. It’s been a long day, though, and I think I could use a cup of wine and some sleep.”

This is met with loud cheers — especially, Margo suspects, at the reminder of free booze. Naturally, instead of dispersing in search of the aforementioned liquid, the crowd mills around — now as eager for the prospect of gossip as it is for other forms of entertainment. Bread and circuses, and what have you.

Since the way forward is clearly impassable, Margo decides that the best offense is a strategic retreat. The part of her mind in charge of self-preservation offers the perfectly reasonable argument that this is a prime opportunity to absquatulate, that she is likely neither needed nor welcome in the theater that will surround Evie’s subsequent prophetization — the kid will have more than enough caretakers, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that, as far as the social hierarchy of the Inquisition is concerned, an apprentice alchemist and the Herald of Andraste are now on diametrically opposite ends of the food chain. Though, who is she kidding — this has always been the case.

The voice of reason might as well be talking to a wall — Margo’s feet propel her towards Evie’s hut. She dodges gawkers, a food stand, and two very drunken oafs of the Tweedle persuasion — mercifully too drunk to pay her any mind beyond the obligatory watery leer. She pulls her hood over her head and weaves her way up the path under the assumption that the powers that be will want to tend to Evie out of view of prying eyes. Hierarchies be damned, she’s not leaving the kid at the hands of Xena the Warrior Princess, whose bedside manner probably evinces as many social niceties as a cinder block. And then, there is the other issue — the question of Solas’s capacity to exert control on the magic in Evie’s mark. Now, why would that be? Besides, structurally speaking, for all of Solas’s claims of his own marginality — humble apostate and all that — the one who keeps the golden goose from turning into foie gras gets to bring a grenade launcher to a knife fight. She wonders whether he’s ever thought of using that leverage with Torquemada.

Now, what she needs is a plausible reason for being there. Beyond, that is, the dubious excuse of providing emotional support — like that argument would go well with the rest of Team Inquisition.

“And where, might I ask, are you headed, Mistress Duvalle?”

Margo freezes — just before running headlong into Vivienne’s horse, which shies away with a startled snort.

“The same way as you are, I suspect.”

Vivienne surveys her from above with an expression of abstract scientific curiosity — the kind that involves chloroform and a scalpel.

“Whatever else you might be, you are neither a medic nor a mage — what insights, exactly, do you hope to offer regarding the Herald’s situation?” The Iron Lady stretches her lips into a perfectly amiable smile.

Margo shrugs, smothering the impulse to spook the horse on purpose. “Maybe none.” This is not the time to devolve into petty bickering. It won’t serve her — in fact, she is reasonably certain that it is exactly what Vivienne is hoping to provoke. “But sometimes just a friendly presences goes a long way.”

“There is a fine line between comfort and coddling — one that, in the case of the Herald, might have far-reaching repercussions.”

Margo stuffs her hands in her pockets, along with her mounting resentment. “I don’t think she’s had too much experience with either, to be honest. So while I appreciate your caution...”

Vivienne doesn’t let her finish. She waves the rest of the utterance away with an impatient flick of her hand. “This is neither the place nor the time to debate Lady Trevelyan’s upbringing, if that is what your protest is aimed at, ‘Mistress Duvalle’ — or whatever you are.” The Orlesian courtier pauses and drums her fingers on the pommel of her saddle, as if lost in thought for a moment. “But neither is this the time for verbal jousting — such things are best kept to the salon. In fact, I have a much more concrete suggestion, insofar as you insist on making yourself useful.”

“Oh?” It’s not even particularly acerbic.

“Come along, now. We might require someone to go fetch a few things from Master Adan.”

*****

They catch up to the others just as they are about to enter Evie’s hut. If Margo’s presence in Vivienne’s company elicits surprise, none of it shows. Evie takes one look at her, and her face smoothes out into a smile — though the dark circles under the girl’s eyes and the way her jaw is locked against whatever pain ails her are not lost on Margo.

After the frigid night air, the inside of the hut is sweltering hot, the hearth fire licking at a giant log of something that looks like birchwood, but with a brownish tint to the bark.

“I’m really fine! You don’t need to...”

“With all due respect, Evelyn, worrying about your well-being is part of my duties. Part of all of our duties.” Cassandra removes her winter cloak and hangs it on a wall hook. Ser Barris plants himself by the door and leans against the wall in a pose that Margo decides is “templar-casual” — relaxed but vigilant.

“May I examine your hand, Herald?” Solas positions himself on a chair next to where Evie is seated on the bed. Vivienne, on the other side, occupies the only other available chair. The kid shrugs out of her cloak, letting it fall behind her, and extends her left hand. Margo perches next to Cassandra on a wooden bench by the wall. Evie’s palm and fingers look swollen, and the skin around the mark is patchy, with an unhealthy, angry red tint.

The sudden scent of iodine alerts Margo to the healing spell, even before Solas has finished casting. While he works, Margo leans towards Cassandra. “Shouldn’t we fetch Lud? Or Master Adan?”

Cassandra’s expression remains unaltered. “The Herald is already the center of a vortex of gossip and speculation. It is inevitable, I suppose, but it would be best if we contained it as much as possible. Inviting a healer would simply confirm some of the rumors. Besides, Madame Vivienne is an accomplished alchemist in her own right, if we decide we need aid.” She pauses. When she speaks again, she sounds almost apologetic. “However, you offer the benefit of ambiguity by virtue of your... less defined position. If you could provide alchemical support, should it be needed — and mix the necessary ingredients without drawing attention — it would be appreciated.”

Margo nods. Of course. With the added advantage that being an elf slots her easily into the “handmaiden” role, at least as far as the general population is concerned. Just another knife-ear attending to the Herald. Nothing to see here, move along.

“The magic of the mark is stable, Herald.” Beneath the gentle tone, Solas’s voice harbors a note of something else. Unease, perhaps, or sadness — or both. Whatever emotion it is, it remains buried — albeit, in Margo’s opinion, in a rather shallow grave. For a brief second, she finds herself almost resentful of the others — judging by their tentatively hopeful expressions, this ability to read the elf’s affective undercurrents is not a skill anyone else felt the need to develop.

“Solas darling, this magic — whatever its nature — is foreign to Lady Trevelyan, as I am certain you realize. But you appear to know a great deal about how it might be modulated. Wherever did you glean such exceptional knowledge?” Vivienne’s tone is entirely too casual.

“I am an apostate, as well you know. My travels have afforded me insights outside of the conventional wisdom of your Circles.”

The two mages regard each other with matching flawlessly polite expressions — and as much cordiality as a cobra facing off with a mongoose. Solas is the first to return his eyes to the matter at hand — which is currently pulsing a soft, ethereal green. “But you are correct. I have no more insight into how such magic might impact its unintended host than you do.”

“I really am fine. I think I just need to ice it,” Evie mutters apologetically, her cheeks suddenly reddening.

“What if it’s anaphylaxis?” Margo blurts out, in amorphous distress over Evie’s embarrassment. At least, the loonie statement has the benefit of redirecting the attention from the kid and to her — not an improvement, all things considered, but Evie, at least gives her a grateful (if mildly confused) look.

“Speak plainly, apprentice.” There is a note of warning in Cassandra’s tone.

She tries to think frantically of a better translation — or, minimally, a culturally appropriate analogy. Does Thedas have the concept of allergies? “What happens when you get exposed to rashvine nettle?” Not the most elegant parallel, but she decides it will do in a pinch.

There is a long, terribly uncomfortable pause. Succor arrives from an unlikely quarter — Ser Barris, still by the door, clears his throat. “It itches and burns like nobody’s business. Ahem. Agent. And it’ll get worse the more it happens.” He shifts from one foot to the other — looking surprised and discomfited by this sudden interjection. “When we were just starting out in the Order, the other kids...” He clears his throat again and shoots a troubled look at Evie. “Never mind, I suppose. It’s not pleasant.”

Margo beams at him. “Right. Your body mounts a defense against something it perceives as a... foreign substance.” Here’s to hoping that rashvine nettle operates a bit like poison ivy. Why not? Plenty of medicinal plants are toxic. “Red rash, swelling, itchiness. Evie, love, does your hand itch?”

“Andraste’s tears, it does,” Evie sighs. “I try not to scratch,” she hurries to add, her eyes going wide, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. A very allergenic cookie jar.

“Why did you not mention this?” Solas asks, peeved, but, Margo decides, quite a bit relieved, too.

“It didn’t seem all that important, what with all the other stuff, and the rifts, and the Breach, and all the people expecting me to say things that make sense... I mean...” Evie deflates. “And besides, I always thought you were more worried about when it flares and pulses, not so much about the hand itself.”

“You should have mentioned it, darling,” Vivienne cuts in, her tone shockingly gentle. “But if Mistress Duvalle’s guess is correct, then the problem can be addressed with relative ease.” She turns to Margo, who decides to not take to heart the brief flash of something that almost borders on grudging approval. Probably just a trick of the light. “It would appear that you can make yourself useful after all, apprentice.”

***

Making herself useful turns out to involve a trip to the apothecary, which stands deserted and dark — fiddling with the brazier, miserably failing at activating the fire rune, fumbling for Master Adan’s box of fire crystals, igniting a candle, and then rummaging through the bookshelves in search of something called Franny’s Poultice Recipes , which she has a vague recollection of seeing but hasn’t had the chance to appropriate yet. And then skimming the section titled “Rashes and Other Unpleasant Skin Conditions, Except for the Ones That Happen Because You Should Have Kept Your Pants On, Which Is Sound Advice More Generally .

Margo immediately decides that she likes this Franny, whoever they were.

After that, she pilfers enough premixed balms to start her own mail-order cosmetic business and marches back to Evie’s hut, dodging more drunken revelers who, at this stage of inebriation, have passed the phase of life-affirmingly joyful and have bifurcated into the two complementary camps of inexplicably mopy and amorously gropy.

Her arrival is greeted with vague alarm at her haul of remedies — except from Vivienne, who surprises her for the second time this evening by gesturing expansively towards the table with a, “Good, this should certainly do.” After that, the Orlesian mage proceeds to quickly sniff — with utmost elegance — through the assortment of jars, locating one that passes critical inspection. “Ah, good. Embrium-based, from what I can tell — a bit pedestrian without the spider venom, but not a bad place to start.”

From there, Vivienne takes over the proceedings, slathering Evie’s hand with a thick layer of brown, viscous paste — the consistency like red clay pretending to be honey. “Twice a day, morning and night, and let us revisit this in a day or two. Do you have anything to cover this with?” Evie produces a pair of industrial-sized rough gloves, based on their appearance more appropriate for gardening. The courtier wrinkles her nose in distaste. “I will send you some gloves to wear over this. These... what are these exactly? Mittens? Either way, they will certainly not do. Wherever did you procure these horrors?”

“Aunt Lucille...” Evie begins, but Vivienne pats her shoulder with a sympathetic wince.

“I understand. If the Inquisition is unable to offer an alternative, I am certain I shall.”

Evie eyes the glove dubiously. “I’ll put it on before I go to bed.”

There is an awkward moment of milling about, where the assembled company decides how to best depart. Ser Barris mutters something about “orders” and “Commander Cullen” and is promptly excused by Cassandra, who follows up with her own curt — if more socially graceful — goodbyes, and a summons for Evie to meet the advisors in the morning. Vivienne departs without feeling the need to offer any explanation whatsoever — but not before planting a light kiss on Evie’s forehead. “Make sure you get sufficient sleep, my dear. Let the rest of them enjoy their fete — trust me when I say you will not miss a thing.” At the threshold, she turns to Solas. “I believe your work here is done. You said yourself — the mark is stable.”

“Indeed,” Solas retorts dryly and stands up to leave. “Rest, Herald.”

Evie nods. Margo stands up to leave as well, but the kid catches her hand. “Stay for a moment? I promise I’ll let you go to sleep, or celebrate, or what have you soon?”

“Sure thing, kiddo.” Margo takes a seat on the bed but catches Solas’s gaze on her. “Solas, I will speak with you shortly?”

Apparently she is not the only one who has developed the ability to read the other’s hidden expressions, because Solas’s eyes linger on her — a question, then the answer that resolves it fleeting across his features. He nods. “As agreed, as I recall. You know where to find me.” The corner of his lips twitches — and with that he exits, the thud of the door closing behind him full of gravitas.

Evie leans her head on Margo’s shoulder and exhales, her body relaxing. Margo hugs the kid to herself and rests her cheek against the young woman’s hair. At least the ointment smells passably nice, of rose water and hay.

“You did awesome, hon.”

Evie sighs but huddles closer. “Did I?” She looks up. “Do you think people could go home now?”

Margo reflects on the question, suddenly uneasy. “Some might. But you said it yourself. It’s not exactly over. Whoever was behind the explosion is still out there.”

“It’s not like many people would leave, anyway — I mean, some actually live in Haven, right? And Lady Nightingale and Seeker Pentaghast, they’re not going back home, I don’t think, even if the Breach is closed. I guess Ambassador Montilyet could return to Antiva — and Madame Vivienne could go back to Orlais, and...” Evie trails off.

“Evie, hon, I don’t think anyone is leaving. What’s this about, love?” Margo’s stomach makes a valiant attempt at trading places with the organs below. Of course, she knows exactly what this is about — but she lets the silence grow, allowing Evie to voice the thought when she’s ready.

“But, eventually, when everything is solved, they could go home, couldn’t they?”

Margo nods slowly. “Those who have a home to return to, yes.”

Evie lifts up her head. “So what about the rest?”

The line between support and coddling glows into view, fine as spider silk. “I don’t know, sweetheart.” Margo kicks Imshael’s indecent proposals under the rug where they belong. “I don’t think I, for one, have that option.”

Evie stares at the hand cradled in her lap. Margo is pleased to note that the skin of her palm at the edges of the layer of ointment is starting to look less angry. “So what does one do when one does not have that option?”

“I suppose one makes a home wherever one is.” She points her chin at Evie’s explosion of embroidered cushions. “You’re well on your way towards that goal — this place is starting to look cozy.”

Evie beams at her. “I like them. I don’t know where Sera gets them, but they make me happy. I just wish...” She doesn’t finish, interrupted by a jaw-splitting yawn. “Oh, I’m so sorry. That was very rude. Though I suppose it’s less rude if I’m yawning at my own words rather than at someone else’s, isn’t it?”

“You should get some sleep.”

Evie curls up on the bed and lets her head rest on one of the aforementioned pillows. “Don’t drink too much,” she advises through another yawn.

Margo grins. “Words of wisdom right there.”

“Stay away from the sweet ones with fancy names.” Evie’s cheeks dimple with a melancholy smile.

Margo chuckles. “Not to my taste. You’re still talking about drinks, right?”

“Come to think of it, I think you should offer one to Solas. Does he ever get drunk, do you think?”

Margo almost chokes but somehow manages a passable repair. “I... haven’t seen it.”

“I bet you Seeker Pentaghast drinks like a fish, though.”

This time Margo chokes in earnest.

Evie pulls the blanket over herself and rubs her eyes. “When no one is looking. Good night, Margo.”

“Good night, kiddo.”

Margo takes the long way back, detouring through where the requisition tents stand deserted — the snow in front of the chantry is mushed into frozen mud, but the space is mercifully free of inebriated citizenry. Songs and laughter drift on the evening air. She walks down the alley between the houses towards the dark courtyard by the apothecary. The window on Solas’s hut is the only one still illuminated, light seeping through the crack between the shutters.

It takes a conscious effort not to knock before entering. With a firm reminder that, technically, this is her house too, Margo pulls the door open, and steps inside.

Chapter Text

Margo finds Solas seated at the table, in the company of a large book and a bottle — an expensive one, if the fussily ornamental wax around the top is anything to go by. It hasn’t been uncorked, but two glasses — proper wine glasses, at that — sit next to it, arranged with fastidious symmetry.

Solas lifts his head from his reading — his expression inscrutable save for the slight tremor in his fingers. He sets the book down with a great deal more caution than the operation warrants and clasps his hands in his lap.

Margo takes off her coat and boots and pads to the other chair. He looks like he is about to say something — a greeting perhaps — but no words come out, only a soft, almost reluctant exhale. He gestures, a little brusquely and entirely belatedly, at the seat in front of her.

“Are we celebrating?” Margo asks, and if her voice trembles a little, it is surely the effect of the abrupt temperature changes, and not, say, nervousness.

“We...” Solas’s eyes search the room in momentary confusion and land on the bottle. He stares at it in mild puzzlement, as if only now remembering its presence — or its intended purpose. “Ah. Yes. I thought that, given the circumstances, we might make use of this.”

“Liquid courage?” Margo teases, and sits down. “Wherever did you get it?”

“I won it in a card game,” Solas retorts absentmindedly, stands up, and begins pacing. His bare toes make almost no sound against the floorboards. “Master Tethras has a habit of strategically losing, I believe to gain information.”

“What did he win in exchange for the bottle?” Margo asks, squinting at the label. A small stamp identifies the beverage as Rivaini.

“Nothing he did not know — or suspect — already.”

Margo cocks an eyebrow. Whatever beans Solas decided to spill to procure this prize from the local auteur, rogue, and upstanding businessman, she has no doubt that they were very carefully measured out, weighed, and dispensed conservatively.

“Should we open it, then?” she asks. Liquid courage sounds like an excellent idea right about now.

Solas clasps his hands behind his back, and resumes his pacing. “In a moment, if you permit. First...” He trails off and comes to a halt in the middle of the room — looking at once full of resolve and a little lost. “We will establish rules.”

Margo blinks. “Rules? Rules for what, exactly.”

The elf draws a breath, and when he speaks, he appears to have regained a modicum of composure. “I promised to answer your questions, fenor, and it occurs to me that I have a few of my own. We should agree on the rules of engagement for this procedure, if there is to be an equitable exchange.”

After a brief battle against the need to fidget — fought, and promptly lost — Margo pretends to examine the tome left on the table. She reads the title three times before it even registers. The History of the Chantry, Volume 2. Fascinating, no doubt. “Why do you suppose my answers would not be freely given?”

Solas’s lips quirk into a humorless smile. “Because you are remarkably proficient at giving answers while leaving much outside the frame.”

She chuckles. “Well then. A match made in Haven, as it were.” She shakes her head at his light frown.

“Another untranslatable play on words, I presume?”

“I’m happy to translate, actually. Heaven — as in ‘the heavens’ — tends to have a great deal of religious significance for many of my world’s cultures.”

Solas glides back to his seat, but his posture remains rigid. “Then it is another interesting parallel that I look forward to discussing, though perhaps not tonight.”

Margo clinks a nail against the bottle. “Solas...” The words get stuck mid-way. Right. Intellectual honesty or bust. “We’re both nervous, it seems. Open it, will you?”

He exhales around a rueful chuckle. “I... Yes.” He peels off the seal and pulls out the cork — a procedure that requires neither corkscrew nor magic. The air fills with the scent of coconut and molasses. Rum? Solas pours the thick, topaz-brown liquid and pushes one of the glasses towards Margo. She takes an exploratory sniff. No avoiding sweet drinks after all. Sorry, Evie.

“Care to offer a toast? Mine tend to always default to the same topic.” She grins. “Living beings, suffering, benefiting, that sort of thing.”

“I have not forgotten your predilection for ritual invocations.”

Margo shrugs. “Where I come from, drinking without a toast would be considered rather gauche.”

Solas accepts this explanation by raising his glass. “Then may I suggest we drink to the possibility of a better future.”

“Better than which one?” Margo squints, suddenly terribly suspicious.

A smile touches his lips, and his eyes crinkle with amusement, but beneath it, something else simmers, murky and troubled. “Better than the one you saw in Redcliffe, for one. With the Breach closed, there is a chance that it shall not come to pass.”

Margo clinks her glass to his and takes a sip. Rum indeed, but with a bitter, almost medicinal finish. Yo ho ho, and all that.

“I don’t think we are out of hot water yet,” she offers cautiously. In the back of her mind, the monstrous tree looms into view, unfathomable — and on one of its infinite branches, another Solas smiles a final goodbye, lyrium-riddled and doomed. Margo blinks the vision from her eyes. The world is all that is the case.

“Sealing the Breach is no minor victory, fenor.”

“Which brings us to the matter at hand. We survived, surprisingly enough.”

Solas redirects his eyes to the drink between his palms. Silence settles, bringing with it an awareness of the world outside. The celebration seems to have gained a second wind, if the muffled music and discordant singing is any indication.

“So,” Margo takes another sip of Rivaini Finest and sets her glass on the table. “Rules of engagement.”

“Indeed.” Solas looks up. The odd edge is back, once again putting her in mind of something caged and possibly feral lurking beneath the polite exterior. “I... will make an offer. You may amend, correct, or counter with your own suggestions. We will continue until we reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. The terms will be binding, at least for this particular aspect of our interactions.”

Margo chuckles despite herself. “Spoken like a lawyer.” Or a swindler, she doesn’t add, though she supposes the two are not mutually exclusive.

He eyes her with an odd, complicated expression, and Margo notices that, once again, a subtle tremor has returned to his fingers. “I shall not offer you lies, fenor.”

Margo frowns. Something about the utterance strikes her as slightly off-kilter, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. “So how are we playing this?”

“A question for a question. We will let chance determine who initiates. Until each of us receives an answer that satisfies, we will not advance to the next round.”

Margo props her chin on her fist, and whirls her glass, reflecting. “Simple, but flawed. How does one determine whether the answers traded are equivalent? You said it yourself, in so many words — a partial truth is also a partial lie.”

It is Solas’s turn to frown. “I do not see it that way. The lie is in the eye of the beholder — a product of the interlocutor’s failure to ask for clarification.”

Margo narrows her eyes. Not so fast, buster. It is not the liar’s fault that the fool is trusting. Thanks, Baba. “To ask for clarification, one has to know what to ask for . And for that, you need to know — or guess — what’s left unsaid. Which brings us back to the earlier point. We need a system of penalties.”

He cocks an eyebrow, and takes a sip of rum. The tremor in his fingers is gone. “Penalties? One presumes these would require an impartial arbiter.”

“Or a great deal of good faith.” Margo tries to keep the slyness out of her expression. “But I suppose we are both passably intelligent — enough to notice the other party’s glaring omissions — and point them out, should the need arise.”

They regard each other over their respective libations — an exchange laden with an odd sort of intimacy — the type shared by familiar opponents, taking each other’s measure over an invisible chessboard. Margo allows her eyes to drift out of focus, turning the parameters of the game around in her head. How might this play out, hypothetically speaking? Consider Scenario A. She has no doubt whatsoever that asking the elf point-blank what he’s hiding will lend no satisfactory result — he will answer truthfully, but with so much relevant information trimmed from the edges that there will be no way to intuit the bigger picture. Not to mention how it will muddle his trail. She takes a sip of rum, letting the sweet burn settle in her stomach and spread its softening tendrils through her limbs.

Consider, on the other hand, Scenario B. What if he asks her about things she would rather not divulge — at least, not yet, not until she understands them better herself? Things that would take too long to explain, and for which her vocabulary is insufficient — blanks filled in by half-baked intuitions and scraps of disjointed information, by scribbles of childhood memories, barely legible. Matters of trees, and branches, of roots buried deep, of old women who by the day grow more other , ancient fibrous beings with skin like leaves rustling on a November wind. Things that dwell in mythical chicken-legged huts.

Or questions about deals and demons, and about just how deep she is down the rabbit hole, the toxic tango with the Cosmic Shitgibbon, step and counterstep, at the edge of the slippery slope.

Or the other matter, the secret that’s not hers to give away if she wants to keep her skin attached to the rest of her — because she’s not at all sure that Torquemada’s above a good old-fashioned flaying if it comes to that.

Solas does not press her for a response. He remains so silent and still Margo almost forgets that he’s there at all. She catches him in the act of surveying her expressions with utmost attention. He averts his gaze — his ears turning traitorously pink.

“The first question can only be a yes or no one. You get only one follow up, and that one can be open-ended. If either person refuses to answer the follow-up, the other party gets to request a boon.”

“What sort of boon?” Solas asks, caution creeping into his voice.

Margo lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Not the answer, obviously. From there, it depends, I suppose. An object. A favor. An action of some kind. Something that in the other player’s opinion offers adequate compensation for the failure to respond.”

Solas nods slowly, his eyes twinkling. He looks suspiciously pleased with this turn of events, and Margo concludes that he has just classified this new arrangement as benefiting him in some way. She drums her fingers on the table and rests the other hand on her knee. Her palms feel cold and unpleasantly clammy despite the ambient warmth.

“These ‘boons,’ as you call them, cannot be abstract or deferred to a later date,” Solas adds after a pause. “They will be specified during the round, and paid in full within a reasonable — or agreed upon — timeframe.”

Margo nods. “No running up a tab.”

A small smile ghosts across his lips. “Anything else, fenor?”

“Once the round comes to a close, the next round can only begin if both parties agree to it.” Margo leans forward, and does her very best impersonation of the hairy eyeball. “Just so we’re clear. This only applies to ‘sensitive’ questions. Such as things we’ve asked each other on multiple occasions, and consistently gotten an evasion...” she bends a finger, “... a deflection...”, she bends another, “... or a non-answer to.”

Solas smirks, all cheek. “A reasonable amendment. I can certainly see some... misapplications of this procedure, where the questions and answers lose relevance — depending, that is, on what a ‘boon’ might entail.”

Margo converts the hairy eyeball to its evil eye cousin. “I see where your mind went. Shall we start then? I propose ‘weather’ — timeless topic, that. Always a classic”

If wounded innocence ever got in trouble with the law and had to have its mugshot taken, it would look an awful lot like the elf does at that moment. “I thought no such thing.” He grows serious. “And perhaps the weather can wait. I do, in fact, have legitimate questions I would like answered. I am certain you do as well.”

“Very well.” She leans back. “Who starts? Do you have a coin?”

A chuckle, and then Solas produces a silver, seemingly out of thin air, with a little theatrical flourish. And promptly pockets it. “May I suggest that we use one of yours?”

It makes her laugh despite herself — the clever layering of sleight of hand against an anxiety Margo had not even formulated clearly until his performance brought it into the open. “Don’t trust yourself not to cheat?”

“I would not cheat, fenor. But if we can avoid the very idea of such temptations, all the better.” He brings his glass to his lips, takes a sip, and then his smile blooms, open and strangely unguarded. “I promised you to strive to even the terrain, as I recall.”

“I am getting the distinct feeling you do not take promises lightly.” She fishes for a coin in her pocket — and comes up with a few rather cruddy bits. “Will one of these do?” She lets them spill on the table and gestures for Solas to pick one. He picks the least grubby one, and hands it back to her.

She settles the coin on her thumbnail. “You call.”

“Heads.”

Margo launches the coin into the air — it spins wildly before she catches it on its way back. She slams it against the table with a bit more drama than strictly necessary. Solas leans in. She retracts her hand slowly. Beneath her palm, undecipherable heraldry, but no profile.

“It would appear that the first question is yours.” Solas’s tone is so devoid of any tonality it is downright eerie. He takes a rather more substantial gulp of rum, winces slightly, and sets the glass on the table before clasping his hands in his lap.

Shit. She’s the one who argued for the “yes” or “no” format. Staircase wit all the way down — bumping its head on every step along the way. She should have negotiated for a trial run. Fine. Go with the best educated guess. She forces herself to take a breath, exhaling it slowly. Stupid clammy hands.

“Did you start off as a spirit?”

A shadow fleets across his face, and some unfathomably melancholy thing stirs behind his eyes — broken, adrift, and terribly old. “In a manner of speaking,” he says finally.

Margo gapes in bottomless outrage. “How is that even an answer?

His shoulders slump a fraction, but then he draws himself up. “It is the best one I can offer to this particular question. The other alternatives would be more duplicitous.” He lifts his glass, and to Margo’s utter consternation, simply knocks back the rest of his drink. He sets the empty goblet down softly, and leans back in his chair. In the dancing light of the candles, she can see his heartbeat pulsing at the hollow of his throat, fast and fluttery like a caged bird. “My turn, I believe. Then on to the clarifications.”

Margo succumbs to temptation, and wipes her hands off on her pants. Ice prickles between her shoulder blades and trails down to the base of her spine. She nods.

“You struck a deal with the Forbidden One during your incarceration at the hands of the mad magister. He must have taken something from you. Was it a memory?”

Margo freezes. Shit shit shit. “That’s cheating.” Her voice comes out rough — like the wheeze of an elderly asthmatic crow. She clears her throat. “You’ve managed to wrap two additional questions into it.”

Solas frowns, and slices his head to the side. “No, lethallan. I merely brought to light the inferences that led me to the question. Were I to limit it to the last portion, it would alter nothing.”

Aaaand, shit. Of course, he’s not wrong. Semantically, it works out to the same thing. Margo picks up her glass, apologizes to her borrowed liver, and shoots back the rum. It burns all the way down. She waits it out for a few long moments, until the fire in her esophagus settles a little. Eventually, she meets the elf’s gaze. “Yes.” There. Done and done. She congratulates herself on her newly found firmness. Liquid courage to the rescue.

“Why would you do such a thing?” For a split second, his face contorts with something close to pain — and not a little anger — but he collects himself quickly, then shakes his head, as if to dispel whatever emotion gripped him. “Oh, vhenan, was there no other way?”

Margo sighs. “That’s two questions, Solas. Within the parameters of this exchange, anyway. Pick one.”

He looks at her then, and Margo represses a flinch, blinking away the familiar illusion — that ethereal sense of him, the countenance of a forgotten demiurge, carved into some arcane mineral by an artist long reduced to shards of shattered bone. A scrap of a poem flickers across her mind — a fleeting and disintegrating meteor, lost to identification. “ My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, look at my works, ye Mighty, and despair...”

Margo returns to herself with a start. “You still have one question left,” she says quietly.

Solas turns away, his eyes looking for something to rest on, and finding no satisfying purchase. “What did the memory entail?”

Of course. The why was rhetorical. He had already answered that question for himself. Margo doesn’t know whether the realization is a relief or not.

It suddenly occurs to her that she could lie. It would be simple — to tell the formal truth — here, ladies and gentlemen, this here iceberg is very small, very small, nothing to see, just this tiny little frozen thing floating about. Nothing beneath the murky waters. Steady as she goes. It would not even be a lie — not technically . Who cares about the particularities of Maile’s sexual escapades, right? Irrelevant, in the grand scheme of things. And if Imshael wanted that — well, that’s his problem, she certainly is not equipped to make inferences about the twisted bowels of whatever passes for the Cosmic Asshole’s mind. Maybe it was just a power play. To show her that he could.

She almost convinces herself.

“Ask me for a boon,” Margo says instead.

Solas’s eyes widen. “Ah.” Soft, on an exhale. He regroups, but not before peering at her, again with that searching look that tries to pry beneath the surface. And then he shakes his head. “You could have given me a... simpler answer.”

“I could have.”

They watch each other.

“Before any requests are made, would you care to pose your second question?”

Margo hesitates. She reaches for the bottle, and pours them both another swig of rum — mostly to buy herself some time. What big eyes you have, dear granny. They did not specify whether the “boon” had to be clarified before the end of the first round of questions, or by the end of the entire exchange. He’s waiting her out, the clever bastard.

She cradles the glass, letting her hands warm the liquid inside. “Very well.” They’re not exactly pulling their punches, all things considered. She could ask him about the wolf thing, but she has a strong suspicion it would end with an argument about changing topics. Might as well go to the core of it. Consider Scenario C, and Torquemada’s little revelations. There are other worlds than these, Margo . Minimally, one possibility she might be able to cross off her list. If not A, then B.

“I suspect your difficulty in answering the previous question is taxonomic — which tells me that whatever contemporary Theodosians mean by ‘spirits’ doesn’t quite match your world’s categories. What world do you come from, Solas?”

He keeps his face studiously neutral, but it doesn’t quite cut it. She sees it then, the moment of speculation — undoubtedly not so dissimilar from the one that played out on her own features only a few minutes ago.

Her blood turns to ice. It would be so very easy to offer a non-answer. “This one, of course. Or “One not so dissimilar. And if her hypothesis about his spirit origins is correct, perhaps “One long gone. Any variation of safe little untruths. Of course, the answer itself is tangential by design. A litmus test.

He meets her eyes. “Request a boon of me, fenor.”

Margo releases a breath she did not know she was holding and shivers involuntarily. She forces her shoulders to relax and takes a hearty swig of rum. “You could have given me a simpler answer.”

If Solas finds irony in the symmetry, it doesn’t show. “I could not,” he retorts gravely.

They sit in silence for a moment.

“I would like whatever books you might have on wolves.”

This is clearly not what the elf was expecting, because Margo’s incongruous demand is met with an uneasy chuckle. “Anything in particular about wolves that interests you?”

“Let’s start with mythology. Myths and legends that mention wolves. My world has many — I wager ‘ yours’ does as well.”

His smile is a tad uneven. “My library is yours to use.”

Margo leans back, and crosses her arms over her chest. “And quite an impressive one, for a humble apostate in such a modest village. It would take me a long time to navigate through your book collection.” She shakes her head. “No. I think I should like a reading list.”

“As you wish.” He stands up and walks over to the bookshelf. Margo watches him gather a number of volumes, commiting where most are located to memory. His hand hovers over a particular tome, but he dismisses it for whatever reason, and selects the ones next to it. Margo makes a mental note. The green one, with the tree design on the spine. After a few minutes, he returns with five rather hefty doorstoppers. Judging by the titles, none of them are solely dedicated to anything discernibly lupine. Right. Select the omnibuses. If he’s hoping to score a victory by boredom, he’s got another thing coming.

“Begin with these. They are rather... exhaustive.”

“I look forward to reading them,” Margo says sweetly.

His quiet chortle summons the blasted warm and fuzzies. “My turn, I believe?” He doesn’t retake his seat.

“Shoot.”

He hesitates. “Dream with me.”

Margo blinks. “Pardon?”

Solas begins to pace. “You are capable of entering the Deep Fade, or something very close to it — you summoned me there once. From there, I suspect you built your sanctuary.” He meanders back to where she is seating, and crouches in front of her. After a brief pause, he lets his hands rest at the edges of her chair, his wrists brushing against her thighs. “Your Avvar mentor calls it weaving, as I recall. I... would understand how you do it.”

Margo narrows her eyes, but her heartbeat picks up. This close, he is all angles and smooth, lean grace.

“Solas, I’ve no idea how I do any of it.” She winces. “Ok, that’s not strictly speaking true, but it’s not that far off.” He cocks his head to the side, mirroring her own skepticism. Margo wrinkles her nose. “Can’t you ask for something simpler?”

He laughs softly. “Such as?” Apparently, the proximity — and probably the rum, who is she kidding — are having an effect on him as well. His hands relocate to her thighs, the touch cool through the fabric.

“A brooch? A handkerchief? A kiss? You know, the usual.” Margo allows herself to trail a finger along the shell of his ear. Solas shudders.

“The latter, at least, is as freely given as it is received. Or so I hoped.”

Fuck it. “You have another offer you might collect upon.”

Solas’s expression takes a sharp turn for the melancholy. “I will not hold you to it.”

“And why not?”

He swallows. “I would not lie with you under false pretenses, vhenan.”

Margo snorts. “There are no pretenses, Solas — a whole lot of obfuscating, but not exactly false considering we both know it. If this exercise demonstrated anything, it’s that we’re both willing to do serious intellectual acrobatics to let the other know how much we’d rather avoid lying to each other.”

He stills. “And you would consider this sufficient?”

“Not in the slightest, but the night is young, as they say.” She covers his hands with her own. “Besides, if I am to dream with you, I should probably be sleepy first.”

He shakes his head — an odd, half-hearted denial — but his hands trail up. Margo parts her thighs. Solas sways closer, now mere inches away. His palms rest against her hips, as much for balance as anything else — at first, anyway. And then his thumbs trace the lines of her hip bones, pressing lightly into the sensitive hollows beneath. She exhales around the sudden jolt of heat.

In retrospect she’s not at all sure how they end up on the floor — whether he pulls her off the chair, or whether she slides off on her own accord, but by that point they are both beyond caring about the specifics. Clothes are peeled off, tangling along the way. They manage to make enough room for laughter to smooth over the mishaps until nothing besides bare skin remains.

They never make it to the bed. She grips his shoulders as he hoists her up on the table — she knocks over a wine glass, a hand thrown out to keep her balance. Solas shoves The History of the Chantry, Volume 2 to the side, and it hits the floorboard with a muffled thump.

He really does run cold, Margo thinks. Something about different metabolisms. The thought goes exactly nowhere. His lips find the hollow beneath her ear, his hands trace the contour of her breasts, again with that unresolved caress that has her arching into his palms with a needy moan on her lips. He takes his time to oblige the wordless demands, nothing if not methodical. The meaningless mind chatter fades away.

Eventually, she reaches down to align them, but he pulls back a fraction, slowing their momentum long enough to meet her gaze, a question there, left unarticulated. “See,” Margo breathes out, somehow managing a vague approximation of irony. Her body protests her newfound chattiness, the sweet tug in her lower belly blooming into aching heat as Solas presses against her — again, so close, but maddeningly insufficient. “No need to worry about who lies... with whom. Technically, this one doesn’t even count. We’re vertical.”

Her ill-timed witticism wrestles a dark chuckle from him. “Doesn’t count ? I should certainly hope that it would count for something .”

“To be determined, isn’t it?”

“Always with the provocations...” Solas traces her lower lip with his thumb — and with his gaze, his eyes dark. He cheats, too. Of course he cheats. A tingle is left in the wake of his touch, the same one Margo remembers him using prior to Redcliffe, when he was “fixing” the long-suffering flower in her hair. The need to put her lips to good use is maddening. For once, the thought of Redcliffe brings no horror — instead, it conjures other vistas where that particular tingling technique might be deployed. Apparently, whatever expression she wears is not lost on the elf. His mouth curves into a small but rather self-congratulatory smile.

“You seem to require some nudging.” Her current position doesn’t afford much range of motion, but Margo locks her ankles at the small of his back, grips the edge of the table, and lifts herself off — enough to arch her spine and rock her hips forward in a single motion. The movement breaches the final distance. Liquid heat, a moment of resistance, and then the sudden sensation of fullness just at the painful edge of pleasure wrenches a startled moan from her. Solas gasps and grinds into her, his palms slamming against the table with a thud.

The treacherous piece of furniture chooses this moment to slide backward, and for a few precarious seconds they vacillate on the cusp of losing their balance, the jolt of vertigo mixing with the hormonal high. The table crashes into the back wall. Solas throws out a hand to catch the bottle of rum before it spills — not fast enough, and it rolls away and comes to rest against the wall. They choose to ignore it. By that point, of course, Margo is long past caring — the damn house could collapse around them, and she would be unlikely to notice. Solas cups her ass, his grip tight against her skin. She rocks her hips again, her pelvis no longer under conscious control. He meets her half-way, his movement slow at first — almost tentative. The caution erodes with another thrust, and then another, and then they lose themselves to the mounting rhythm. He grabs her hair with one hand — her braid came undone at a point she can’t quite recall, not that it matters — and pulls her head back, his lips and teeth at her throat.

After her first orgasm crests and crashes over her like a tidal wave, and Margo goes limp and shaky in his arms, Solas slows down to ease her through the aftershocks. She can still taste the faint hint of rum and alien herbs on his tongue. He breaks the kiss with an apologetic “wait,” and takes the opportunity to cast a belated muffling spell. The first attempt fails. He curses incomprehensibly, casts one more time, his hips already moving in slow, deep strokes. Margo manages to mobilize enough muscle coordination to push the candle out of her way before collapsing back against the wooden surface of the table. He growls and hooks one arm under her knee, tilting her pelvis to deepen the fit, the half-finished spell forgotten. The fingers of his other hand work her towards another climax, on the reverb of the previous one. “No longer committed to verticality?” he grinds out. His rhythm turns urgent, then ragged.

She arches her back, her body clenching around him with her own building pleasure — as well as with a bout of helpless chortling. “One of us... still standing... technically... not counting it...” she gasps.

They come together in breathless laughter.

Chapter Text

That night, she does not attempt to fill her part of the bargain and weave for him. They sleep little. They drift between dozing and the hypnotic daze of soft touches in the dark, lips and hands and skin on skin, caught in the shimmering space at the edge of the Dreaming where time distorts and folds on itself. Closer to morning, when the noises of the festivities outside finally die down, the hearth fire burns out and the air turns chilly. Margo stirs, trying to talk herself into restacking it, but Solas’s arms tighten around her. He nuzzles her neck with a sleepy, “Leave it, ma’nas.” She can feel him harden against the curve of her ass, his fingers tracing lazy circles over her breast — never more than a hint of things to come, until Margo inches higher with a shuddering sigh, adjusting her hips in an invitation he receives with a soft chuckle against her nape.

“Again, vhenan?”

“You have somewhere else you need to be?”

His quiet laughter is almost devoid of its habitual bitter finish. “Two days of mandated idleness yet remain. I suppose it would be shameful to waste such a rare opportunity.” He lifts up on an elbow and leans forward. In the darkness, she can’t quite make out his expression, but she can hear the smile in his voice. “Unless you do, in fact, wish me elsewhere?”

Margo snorts, but beneath the elf’s cheeky innuendo, a serious question lurks. He holds himself very still, waiting for her response.

“I can’t tell whether you’re being exceptionally grim and fatalistic — or just greedy.”

“I am grim and fatalistic,” Solas demures with a chuckle. “And if you must choose yet another dubious epithet, then I would prefer ‘thorough.’” He draws back a fraction, putting some space between them. “Jests aside, I would not wish to assume that an invitation issued once equates to any permanent claim on your... time.”

Margo smiles into the murky darkness. “An invitation issued twice, if you want to be technical. Anyway. Consider it reissued.” She shimmies against him and arches her back. Solas inhales sharply, but his earlier compunctions erode, and he eases into her with deliberate slowness. They move together, sleepy and sated enough not to rush to the finish.

Afterward, as they lay tangled, sweat cooling on their skin, Margo hogs the blanket and drifts off.

The Tree comes to her then — an impossibility beyond her capacity to comprehend and almost outside of her ability to perceive. So monstrous it is in its vastness that looking at it, even from the shallows of the Dreaming, causes physical anguish. In retrospect, she could not say with any certainty what makes it tree-like. The vaguely dendritic structure of what might be called its branches patterns into infinity in a soaring dome that tucks itself into a horizon of countless fractal multiplications. Its trunk is total absence, a column of negative space so absolute it might as well be the Void itself — and yet, over its improbable surface that isn’t a surface at all, dark storms roil and ripple. Its roots twine, and burrow, and stretch into the essence of all things, though that analogy is woefully inadequate — they are the essence of all things, the armature of what exists and what does not, the veins of what is, what was, and what could come henceforth.

The vision morphs with the sickening feeling of Margo’s perception being turned inside out like a sock. A radical reduction across incommensurable scales — and in the next instant, the Tree is tiny, a miniature that would fit into the palm of her hand. She panics, certain that another perspectival shift would either leave her with brain damage or kill her outright. She struggles against the vision, but it is no use. She is trapped like a fly in a spiderweb. She would scream if she could — if she had a mouth to scream with.

Nézze, a szívem! Nézze! Look! ” Baba’s voice slices through the soundless horror, and Margo’s attention is shoved into the labyrinth of the Tree’s “canopy.” A segment — each tiny part containing infinite multitudes — twists and fragments into endless iterations. One section comes into focus — or, rather, it focuses her , fastening her awareness to the scarlet polyps that jut out in jarring disorder, ponderous and patternless, like some grotesque fruit. “Know what ripens, lelkem, ” Baba’s voice urges. “ Know what spreads .”

It never occurs to her to refuse. She tries to follow the crimson tendrils, boring into the branch alongside them like a tiny bark beetle, but they extend too far, too deep, and she is too small. Still, she persists, burrowing further, inching towards their thickenings, to the source. There is noise to their color, a melodic pattern, like whispers in another language, the tune of another lifeform beyond ken. And then, at the very edges of her capacity to perceive it, Margo gets a glimpse of the terrible, alien order beneath their entropic distribution...

I can’t. The dream crumbles as she wrenches herself out of it, horror freezing her insides. A sense of disappointment — or disapproval — clings to her consciousness like cobwebs, but she is too damn terrified to care at that moment what the old woman’s future scolding might entail. I’m not that brave, Baba.

Margo forces her eyes to open. The effort is monumental — as if her eyelids have been glued shut. The world wobbles, but, at length, something floats into focus. For a few seconds, she has absolutely no idea where she is. A table, its surface in disarray. The contents of a bottle spilled along the wall and into a drying puddle below. Books and notes on the floor. In her stupor, she reads the spine. History of the Chantry. Vol 2.

She sits up with difficulty. The familiar interior of the cabin anchors her in the present — in the real, the material — and the Tree, cosmic awfulness that it is, recedes to the contours of an impossible dream world.

Beside her, Solas is asleep, and she stares at his prone form, struck thoughtless by his utter alienness . Something as mundane as sleep is anything but. The lines on his face have smoothed out to the point of almost inanimate flawlessness — his skin perfectly even, like marble polished for the viewing pleasure of an anonymous spectator and not a lived-in surface prone to wear and tear and the embodied emotional habits of everyday life. Even his scars seem ornamental rather than functional. His chest rises and falls in a rhythm so regular it borders on automation. His body in repose appears vacant, as if stuck in suspension and waiting for the spark of life to reanimate it.

He could at least have the decency to snore — or anything else that would make him appear less like some arcane craftsman’s pet project.

Who in the everloving hell am I sleeping with ?

Margo rubs her face, trying to coax some semblance of normalcy back into the moment, but the uncanny valley is having none of it. Next thing you know, it’ll be gigantic mushrooms and talking caterpillars with a hashish habit.

Right. One thing at a time. Solas certainly didn’t confirm her spirit hypothesis outright — but it is quite possible that he did corroborate it through intentional refusal. Or at least corroborated some aspect of it. And now that her brain is overtaken by mildly hungover post-coital anxiety, the implications of that little revelation have set up camp and brought their embarrassing buddies with them. Such as, if he was a spirit at one point, how did he avail himself of a body in the first place? And why would spirits want to have sex, to begin with — how did they evolve for sexual reproduction? From what she remembers of Cole’s cryptic explanations — and from her own restoration of Constancy — transactions with most Fade denizens seem more... vegetative. Or perhaps something akin to gene swapping. Though, considering Imshael’s advances, it just might be a mixture of both, which begs the question of why? And perhaps more relevantly, if Solas is a spirit, then a spirit of what ?

The unpleasant idea — heretofore amorphously niggling at the back of her attention — smashes through her mind with all the subtlety of a semi transporting nitroglycerin down a winding mountain road. What if Solas’s hedging around his origins has to do with the duality of what counts as a spirit in the first place? In other words, what if he is not a spirit at all — but the less inoffensive counterpart? There is a reason, after all, for why Imshael keeps insisting — or downright staging — their symmetry.

Before the sheer terror of the thought consumes her, Margo forces herself to refocus on what she does know. Back to wolves. What do wolves symbolize in Thedas? Surely, expecting the symbolism to resonate with her own cultural habits would be yet another exercise in ethnocentrism. But then again... “ A fene farkas egye meg !” Baba liked to swear, twisting the common “damn it” to its more archaic variant whenever the old woman’s linguistic code of choice was Hungarian — though Baba tended to gravitate to Slavic languages for her curses. “May the blighted wolf eat it.” Blight accounted for, wolves accounted for — it’s not even such a wild translational stretch. Maybe she should introduce the expression to Thedas and see if it takes.

Margo forces herself to take a breath, then another one, and then she eyes the pile of books that somehow managed to survive the previous night’s activities on the long-suffering table — a statement to how monumental the tomes are. Linguistic speculations aside, she has her work cut out for her. She’ll start with the one Solas made a show of not choosing, still on the shelf — the one with the tree on the spine.

Solas stirs. Even before his eyes open, his lips pinch in an expression of mild disapproval as his arms try to close around the now empty space at his side — and the eerie spell of his otherness dissolves, leaving in its wake an unexpected wave of anxious tenderness, somehow a direct product of their incommensurability rather than their similarities. An interspecies intimacy. Margo tries to kick the strange emotion under the rug, but the mental room decor is impersonating linoleum and doing an awful job at camouflaging her pile of unprocessed crap.

Solas’s hand comes to rest on her lower back, his uneasy expression resolving into a rather self-satisfied little smirk. He opens his eyes, warmth settling into them. “If you are planning a strategic exit, ma’nas, might I convince you to reconsider? Or did you not... sleep well?”

“I...” Margo swallows. “The not sleeping part was much more pleasant than the sleeping part, if you must know.” Her mind snaps back to the vision of the Tree — and the spread of misshapen crimson polyps. Red. Exactly like the lyrium of Alexius’s crapsack model. “I had an odd dream, actually.” The understatement of the century.

His earlier playfulness evaporates. Whatever Solas sees in her features snaps him into full focus, and he sits up. To give credit where it is due, his eyes glide only briefly over her naked skin before he meets her gaze. “What did you see?”

Shit. Margo pulls the blanket around herself and reaches for his hand, interlacing her fingers with his in a gesture of reassurance, though whether undertaken for his benefit or hers, she isn’t sure. One way or another, it buys her a moment to think. The cat is out of the bag, so she needs to say something , and lying outright feels wrong — a betrayal of their odd, fragile arrangement. Besides, who better to ask about dangerous and unexplainable Fade phenomena? The dream doesn’t feel like some random, abstract nightmare.

She isn’t entirely sure why she wants to keep the Tree to herself. Cole, after all, told her rather explicitly to “trade” for it. Still, she dithers. Maybe because it’s too tightly tangled up with Baba, and Baba is too tightly tangled up with the events of Redcliffe. Or maybe it’s because of what Goran wrote about the National Hero in his cryptic missive — and the National Hero, in turn, is a subject to be treated with great care if she wants to keep on the right side of Torquemada’s more unsavory habits. A tangled web indeed. But there must be some common ground, some mutually acceptable territory on which they can meet. For all her quips the night before about their newfound intimacy not “counting,” there is something that feels markedly different about this emotional space, though she isn’t quite sure what that something is. It is as if the actual rules of engagement are being determined now, and not during their earlier questions and answers match.

“Solas, what is red lyrium, exactly? In my dream, it looked like... an infection of sorts. Or a parasite.”

“What did it infect?”

Damn it. Leave it to the clever elf to ask the relevant question. “The world,” Margo offers after a pause. Then she shakes her head. Not sufficient, and not accurate. “A world’s conditions of possibility,” she amends.

He gives her a startled, complicated look, but then he simply nods in acknowledgment. “What I can say with certainty is that it thins the Veil wherever it is found, allowing spirits to enter into contact with the physical side with greater ease.” His expression is faraway, focused inward. “It would appear that after the Breach opened, it began to multiply on the surface, in quantities heretofore unseen.”

Margo ponders this. “The blood ward over Haven — could it be the reason we haven’t seen any red lyrium here?”

“I suppose it is possible, although I am unsure whether that was its intended function or merely an epiphenomenal effect.”

He needs to know. It’s one thing to keep him in the dark about Baba and all the other crap she’s managed to step into with both feet while stumbling around in her new world — it’s an altogether different thing to withhold the connection between the ward and Evie. She doesn’t need to reveal National Hero’s presumed origins for that — everyone knows he was a mage, and, outworlder or not, his motivations remain murky either way.

“Solas, I need to show you something.”

She extricates herself from the covers, collects the clothes strewn around the floor, and gets dressed. After a moment, Solas follows her example. He pads around the room, entirely at ease in his nakedness as he locates his garments — somehow, his tunic ended up halfway across the hut. Margo finds herself staring at the elegant lines of his shoulders and back — and the rest of him. He cuts quite the figure. And then she gives herself a firm mental kick, another timeless Babaism surfacing in her mind — there is more to a man than a shapely backside, little thistle — and she proceeds to rummage through her pack until she locates Goran’s grease-stained missive.

Margo quickly tidies up the disaster on the table and pulls up a chair. (She’s not entirely sure when it got knocked over.) Solas joins her, after magicking away the alcohol stains and returning the History of the Chantry to its spot on the shelf.

“After Sera got me away from Redcliffe, I made a friend, of sorts,” Margo begins. “I’m not entirely sure what he is, exactly, but he seems to have some interesting insights.”

A shadow passes over Solas’s face, but he folds his fingers under his chin, expression attentive.

“Ignore the linguistic peculiarities — he talks like this too — but tell me what you think.” Margo hands Solas the note and watches his eyes move over the text until they hitch on some aspect of the letter. After a moment, he continues reading, then returns to an earlier part.

“I do not pretend to understand this talk of trees, omelettes, and haystacks, but the portion about the ‘roomy lizard’ likely refers to a dragon.”

Margo nods. “Yes. The ambassador lent me a book before we went off to see the rift-worshippers. Something called Before Andrastianism . Did you know that Haven was the site of a cult dedicated to a dragon? I’m beginning to think that might have been Goran’s ‘roomy lizard.’”

“The Disciples of Andraste, yes. My understanding is that the official Chantry opinion of that cult dismisses its members as misguided recluses, engaged in the worship of a high dragon, which they believed to be Andraste reborn. A group of madmen led astray by centuries of isolation and inbreeding, according to Chantry doctrine.”

“Until National Hero wiped them out, yes.” Margo points her chin at the letter. “There’s more.”

Solas skims the text again. Margo keeps her face deliberately neutral and watches her companion’s frown resolve into astonishment, then understanding. The shift of expression is subtle but unmistakable. “ Hides surprise under floorboards, ” he reads out loud and lifts his gaze from the page. “Ah. This does potentially solve the mystery of how the blood ward was created. Unless the Hero of Ferelden used the dragon’s blood to animate the spell.”

Margo nods. “I think the ‘surprise’ took a choreographed stroll at Evie’s behest. But look at the other part. Makes net, for later. Keep in, or keep out ? So far, Haven has been free of demons, at least on the physical side,” she carefully sidesteps the problem of Imshael’s most recent Fade visit “and free of red lyrium.”

“A curious fact, considering we have encountered both everywhere else. It is possible that the magic that created the Breach pulled on the lyrium beneath the Temple of Sacred Ashes, corrupting it in the process. The reason for its presence in other places is less self-evident.” He leans back with a speculative squint. “A surprise under the floorboards, and a net... for later . I wonder, ma’nas, whether this odd temporal accounting is an artifact of your friend’s approach to time — or that of the man who stopped the Fifth Blight.”

Margo smiles tightly. “Has the Fade kept a record of the events of the last Blight?”

“It has, more so in some locales than in others.”

She waits for him to elaborate.

“I dreamt at Ostagar. I witnessed the brutality of the darkspawn and the valor of the Fereldan warriors. I saw Alistair and the Hero of Ferelden light the signal fire... and Loghain's infamous betrayal of Cailan's forces.”

“But the Fade is a matter of amalgamated perspectives, isn’t it? It shouldn’t produce a singular story.”

He smiles. “Of course. One moment, I see heroic Grey Wardens lighting the fire and a power-mad villain sneering as he lets King Cailan fall. The next, I see an army overwhelmed and a veteran commander refusing to let more soldiers die in a lost cause.”

“But that’s just one side, isn’t it? What about these darkspawn?”

A line etches itself between his eyebrows. “If the darkspawn attacking the Ferelden forces had a view on these events, they left no imprint of it in the Fade.”

“Interesting. What about Haven? Is there anything in the Fade here — other than the ward — that might tell us what really happened with National Hero?”

Solas’s frown deepens. “That’s just it, ma’nas. No spirits here remain that bore witness to these events. I attributed this to the proximity of the Breach, but...” He remains silent for a few moments. “Leliana and the Hero of Ferelden were rather well acquainted — if the stories of their journeys are to be believed.”

He waits for her to respond. Danger, Will Robinson.

“How much do you want to bet that’s a matter of perspective, too?”

He chuckles quietly. “It would depend. What would we be playing for?” At her skeptical look, Solas hands Margo the letter, his fingers brushing against hers as if by accident. She squashes the sudden flutters — blasted butterflies, can’t they see she’s busy?

“Have you noticed anything strange since you’ve been back to Haven?” As long as she can skirt around the reasons behind Torquemada’s latest maneuvering and simply point out its outwardly visible symptoms, there’s no harm done, right? Dorian noticed. And she’s pretty sure Bull did as well. And the advisors have been arguing over it. As far as secrets go, this one, at least, is a rather public one.

“A great deal of apparently rather contradictory preparations.”

Margo breathes a sigh of relief. Oh good. She can’t possibly be blamed for him guessing , right? “And what do you make of them?”

Solas’s smile has a barbed edge. “I take it you do not mean the improvements to the tavern.”

“No.”

His gaze drifts out of focus. “In that case, I suppose you are referring to the surreptitious efforts to set the ground for a civilian evacuation while keeping the military personnel close at hand under the guise of rest.”

Margo chuckles. “Exactly right.”

His eyes return to hers. “It is a prudent plan. The Inquisition has grown — in social relevance as well as military might. And I still share Warden Blackwall’s concerns regarding Haven’s defensibility.” His lips press into a hard line. “Of course, Haven’s defenses may very well be more than what meets the waking eye.”

She makes a noncommittal noise. Solas gives her a sharply amused look, but he doesn’t push her for an elaboration, so Margo shrugs and forges on. “Now that we’ve closed the Breach... the proof of the Inquisition’s relevance is in the pudding, as it were.”

“A questionable location for proofs, but yes.” He appears to reflect for a few moments, his gaze adrift once again. “Regardless, it would be wise if we undertook our own preparatory measures. Whoever was responsible for opening the Breach — this Elder One — will not sit idly by, now that the Inquisition has demonstrated the capacity to thwart his efforts.” Solas surveys her with a worried cast to his eyes. “If an attack should come, ours will not be the first convoy to leave, fenor. Nor the second.”

Margo chuckles sourly and props her cheek on her fist, fingers drumming an irritated rhythm against the table. “No, you will be on whichever convoy ushers Evie out of here, if the powers that be have any sense at all.” She doesn’t have to add that it is unlikely she will receive the same consideration — but the unspoken thought hovers between them, and Solas’s face turns stony, a hard crease at the corner of his mouth the only indication of his thoughts on the subject.

When he speaks, his tone is taut as a bowstring. “And you believe that I would turn my back and walk away, content to leave you with those considered inecessantial, abandoned to slow down an enemy army so that the important people might escape.”

“Well, maybe not content .” The jape turns bitter in her mouth, and Margo looks away, trying to find something to distract her from the sudden upwelling of rancor. She’s being unfair. There is absolutely no point in dredging up Redcliffe — no good will come of it. What’s done is done, there’s no turning back the clock — Alexius, after all, tried just that, and he ended up mad as a box of frogs.

“I have made grave mistakes, ma’nas, most of which bear no undoing. I would like to think that I will not repeat the same ones, at least.” There is an odd finality to his words — and such a generous helping of self-loathing — that she finds herself drawing back to look at the elf. He holds himself still under her scrutiny. Margo is about to say some resigned platitude about duty, but she doesn’t get the chance. “If you believe this to be the likely outcome, then... You must go now.” His words are rushed, edged with an odd vehemence. “I counseled you to do so before. This is not your fight, heart. Take your Avvar mentor — I suspect he would be more than happy to oblige your request if it will secure you to h-... his clan — and leave.” He averts his gaze in a somewhat futile attempt to hide his expression.

The absurdity of it is so monumental that Margo can’t help herself — it starts with a snort, and then devolves into a fit of hilarity that is one flimsy step away from demented cackling. “Solas...” She hiccups with laughter, which leads the elf to adopt a confused, if mildly annoyed expression — one that does nothing to ease her giggling. “A fene egye meg, csillagom... ” It takes her a few tries to manage to form coherent words and corral them into Common. Solas crosses his arm over his chest in a pantomime of impatient irascibility. “How can someone so intelligent be such an obtuse ass?!” Margo finally chokes out, wiping the tears from the corners of her eyes.

“Ah, more flattery, I see. And a step above your usual reptilian analogies, no less.” Despite his dry tone, there is a little flicker of mirth in his eyes, and Margo reaches out and brushes her thumb across his knuckles, the nascent tension between them rerouted in a different direction. He exhales — in relief, or resignation — and captures her hand before she can retract it.

Her erstwhile dream extends its monstrous canopy in her mind’s eye, and Margo squeezes Solas’s fingers, her earlier amusement replaced with a deep sense of foreboding. Perhaps there is a world out there where she takes his advice. A world where National Hero was not a transplant from a New York City with a mangled skyline, playing some unfathomable puppeteering game with the lives of those who trusted him. A world where she never saw a lyrium-riddled husk dying with blood and words of love on his lips, fully convinced of his reality, and fully ready to relinquish his life on the hope that his world would not come to pass. Perhaps there is a Margo somewhere who has been spared the Tree, and Imshael, and Evie’s cosmic castling. Instead of all that, she looks up. “Is it your fight, Solas?”

She expects an evasion, but not the one he offers. “I wish that it were not.” He looks like he’s struggling against the desire to add something else, the familiar internal contradiction hardening his features into a brittle mask. “Vhenan... I currently hold little use to the Inquisition beyond my ability to stabilize the Herald’s mark, but I will wield what influence I do possess if... it should come to that.”

Margo narrows her eyes. “Whatever you do, you can’t endanger Evie.”

Her admonishment is met with a grim chortle. “I am still capable of some degree of subtlety, fenor, despite my thoughts being too often occupied... elsewhere, as of late.” He exhales slowly, as if bracing himself against whatever comes next. “You trusted me with this —,” he gestures at the letter still in her hand, “— and I would reciprocate, if you would allow it.”

Margo nods, fear unfurling in the pit of her stomach. As if in echo of her apprehensions, something awfully close to dread flashes in Solas’s eyes. He draws a breath. “The magic of the mark is slipping beyond my ability to exert power over it. I will eventually become unable to modulate its fluctuations.”

Before Margo has a chance to ask the obvious question, they both jerk at the loud knock on the door. “All right, you two, rise and shine.” Varric. Of course. “Prickly, put some clothes on and come along, will you? We have some blond Orlesian type — claims to be a friend of yours — asking to see you.” A pause. “Chuckles, you too. Could use a healer.”

Chapter Text

Morning-after Haven has a severe case of Postapocalypsis vulgaris . During the night, the village streets had been mashed into snowy mud — which come morning proceeded to freeze into jagged edges and treacherous patches of ice. Chunks of broken barrels, miscellaneous furniture debris, an assortment of empty bottles and pottery shards that might one day be meticulously documented by a very excited archaeologist, and even a few garments — some of them of the more intimate variety — litter the central grounds. A few tents are pitched where no tents should be, and Varric, at the helm of their trio, just shakes his head, dodging a lumpy, questionably clean bedroll that might or might not contain a sleeping — or dead — reveler. The dwarf is walking remarkably quickly, and Margo has to break into a light jog just to keep up.

“Looks like things really got going after we left,” she muses at the dwarf’s brightly colored, velveteen-clad back.

“Well, let’s see.” Varric gestures expansively at the general state of affairs without breaking his stride. “Three brawls — four, if you count the duel; two orgies — three, if you count the one where Bull was convinced there were two Chantry sisters, not just the one he was seeing in duplicate; and... I stopped keeping a tab on the destruction of Inquisition property once we got the Twins to play tug-o’-war.”

“Sounds like an eventful night,” Solas comments with perfect neutrality, but the glance he throws Margo conceals a rather sardonic little smirk. She quirks an eyebrow in warning — the last thing she needs is a certain auteur to take this as a conversation opener for undoubtedly mortifying prying — purely for “writerly purposes,” of course.

“Oh, but I bet you two more than made up for what you missed out here,” Varric deadpans. “Good thing some folks received a pretty vehement little note from the powers that be not to overindulge, eh? Because otherwise, Prickly, your Orlesian friend would still be banging at the gates — or bleeding out all over them, more likely.” Varric takes a sharp right towards Lud’s infirmary. “Where’d you find him, anyway? Because, I gotta say... even Fenris at his most Hawke-addled — before Hawke swung to Blondie, for better or for worse... Oh, who am I kidding, definitely for worse... wasn’t quite this bad.”

Margo scowls, but Varric’s back fails to be suitably impressed by her expression. Solas, at her side, makes a little noise of amused irritation — though his face remains perfectly placid. “How did things proceed with your errant knight, ma’nas?” he inquires.

“Oh, you mean after he and Sera fetched me from Redcliffe?” Margo asks sweetly.

“Indeed.” Solas doesn’t miss a beat. “It would appear that you availed yourself of a few allies in that process.”

Margo just shakes her head. Leave it to the elf to connect the dots. The unspoken question — whether de Chevin might be acquainted with Goran — hangs unresolved between them.

They come to a halt in front of the infirmary door, and Varric pushes it open without knocking. They are greeted by the scent of blood, burning herbs, and boiling fabric. The space inside is surprisingly well-lit, the windows cracked open to let in the morning sun. The rows of cots are mostly empty, and the few patients present do not appear to be in critical condition. Which is why de Chevin sticks out like an extremely sore thumb, and when she spots him Margo hisses in shock. Ser Lancelot the Worse for Wear looks decidedly awful. He is reclined on the cot, pale as a shroud against the furs bunched up around him. His shirt clings to his chest, the fabric soggy and smeared with blood and lymph. A bandage is wound tightly around his head. Beneath it, his face is bruised to a mottled black, the left cheekbone grotesquely swollen, the skin over it distended, with a sickly sheen to it. Despite the injuries, he is conscious, and when one pale eye lands on Margo — the left one is swollen shut — he exhales, his features, distorted as they are, registering unmistakable relief.

In the corner of the infirmary, Lud is plonking surgical tools into a steam pot. She doesn’t turn at their entrance. “Finally. Sure took your sweet time. I said he was stable, not well . I need more healing potions — take care of that, apprentice. Restoratives, human-tailored, nothing too fast-acting. And one lyrium potion, low concentration. Solas, I could use assistance with controlling the bleeding. As to you, Tethras, don’t see what kind of use you’ll be, but since there’s no getting rid of you either way, log the minutes while I work.”

Margo doesn’t need to be asked twice — she pivots on her heels and takes off back towards the apothecary. It occurs to her that they could have saved themselves a step if only Varric had mentioned how badly off de Chevin actually is. Still, she makes it to the hut quickly enough, immensely relieved to discover that Clemence already opened up shop. She rattles off Lud’s request, and the Tranquil issues three vials with an impassive, “My salutations to Senior Medic Hludwiga.”

She runs back to the infirmary and bursts through the door, winded, her lungs burning from the cold and the exertion. Lud and Solas are on each side of de Chevin. Both sport identical expressions of intense concentration. “Get the draughts over here, lass. You’ll be dosing him — mind that you don’t give him too much at once, or the healing process will go too fast. We can’t have the wound reknit before I remove the shards. Solas, keep him from bleeding out while I cut.”

Margo meets Ser Lancelot the Not So Healthy’s eyes, and he holds her gaze, some impatient, troubled emotion just beneath the surface of pained exhaustion. As if he is itching to speak but chooses to hold his tongue.

Margo pulls up a stool to position herself at their patient’s bedside and measures out some of the restorative into the spoon Lud hands her. She brings it to the former chevalier’s lips, and he sips at the liquid, his throat laboring around each swallow. The odd intimacy of his physical vulnerability makes Margo feel amorphously embarrassed. On the other side of the former chevalier, Solas casts her a brief glance, but he redirects his attention to his work before she can read his expression. Magic pools beneath the elf’s fingers with a gust of iodine and ionization, a translucent weave that pulses but does not absorb into the mangled skin beneath. The muscles of Solas’s neck are corded with the effort to hold the spell aloft. Lud cuts the shirt off de Chevin’s torso, the gentleness of her gestures a stark contrast to the verbal aspect of her bedside manner. In the meantime, Varric installs himself behind a desk, extracts a pair of spectacles from his coat pocket, and turns the giant ledger in front of him at a diagonal, ink and quill at the ready.

“What happened?” Margo asks as she feeds Ser Lancelot the Gravely Injured another spoonful of tonic.

He barks out a bitter chuckle that devolves into an alarmingly wet coughing fit. “I have obtained some answers to my questions, but I fear sharing them with you will have to wait,” he finally manages. “I have come to warn you. There is an army marching through the Deep Roads. I believe it is intent on Haven.”

“Less talking, more focusing on not twitching,” Lud scowls. “This’ll hurt.”

“Did you try to take on said army all by your lonesome?” Margo is not entirely sure when she and Ser Asshat established this classic instantiation of a “joking relationship,” but it beats considering the alternative — up close, there is something distinctly off about the fellow. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but her arms break out in goosebumps in an atavistic need to fluff up and make herself look bigger. Maybe it’s the smell. Familiar. Like burned rubber.

“I am a bastard, my lady. Not a fool. I ran afoul of a patrol. As you can see, the odds were not in my favor.”

The shirt finally comes off, and Margo makes the mistake of looking down. “Oh, fuck a duck,” she mutters before she can bite back the obscenity. It earns her a chuckle from Varric — and the sound of a quill scratching on paper — but Margo’s too busy staring at the wound. The slash itself doesn’t look that deep — though it is long and wide, running across de Chevin’s chest in a diagonal, from the upper pectoral down over the sternum, and then twisting and deepening in the area of his solar plexus. Bad, but she’s seen Solas fix graver injuries — Blackwall looked much worse after the Templar skirmish in the Hinterlands. Not to mention her fall off the ramparts. No, the thing that has her holding her breath is the perversely charming glitter of red crystals.

“Less commenting, more dispensing the restorative,” Lud instructs in her usual curt tone. “Now, as you can see, we need to get the red shite out of him. Lucky for you, Orlais, it hasn’t touched any vital organs from what I can tell, and because it heats up it’s cauterized much of your wound, so you didn’t bleed out. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of hot water. Seen this happen with regular lyrium during mining accidents, and let me tell you, it’s a bitch to treat, and that’s for dwarves — never tried on a human before. Good news is, it numbs the pain. Bad news? Once I clean out the debris, you’ll be feeling it.”

De Chevin’s jaw tightens, and he turns to Margo with something awfully close to desperation. “Margo, ecoutez moi.” It takes her a few moments to register the linguistic shift. His French is heavily accented, though she can’t quite place the pronunciation. Margo nods for him to continue. “Le groupe qui m’attaqua se composait de templiers et de mages Tévintide. Les templiers étaient déformés, corrompus par le lyrium rouge. Au cas où ça s’est déjà enraciné, ne me laissez pas devenir l’une de ces horreures grotesques. Même si... Je vous... je t’en prie, promets moi. J’aimerais mourir en étant moi-même.”

“Si tu penses que je vais laisser cette saloperie rouge te tuer, tu m’connais vraiment mal, de Chevin.”

“Je te connais bien mieux que tu ne le crois.” A flash of white teeth. “Têtue comme une mule.”

“Oy, lad! Less making eyes at my alchemist, more sitting still and letting me work. In case you haven’t noticed, Orlais, you’re in no shape to flirt, but Tethras here will find you a looking glass if you need a reminder. Now be quiet, stop twisting your head around, and try not to flex anything. Don’t want the shards to sink deeper into the muscle. Solas, heal in my tracks. We’ll start with the bigger pieces, here, and here. Then we’ll flush out the smaller ones.”

“All excellent suggestions,” Solas comments, rather dryly at that.

Varric, who has abandoned any pretense of writing and has drifted over to the cot, sports a spectacular frown. “All right, Champion, I gotta ask. How exactly did you manage to get this shit embedded in yourself?”

“You’re supposed to write the report, Tethras, not badger my patient with questions that can wait. Back to it.”

“It’s red lyrium, Splints, not a Mabari nip. Do you know how dangerous this shit is?”

“If you don’t want me to throw your surfacer arse out of here, you’ll heed a warning when it’s given. Now. Apprentice. Three spoons of restorative for the next one. Orlais, you hanging in there?”

De Chevin, pale but resolute, grunts in acquiescence.

From there, they work in silence. Margo dispenses the restorative whenever Lud motions at her with the pair of silver-coated pincers she is using to extract the crystal debris. After the bigger pieces are out, the medic dropping the shards into a copper bowl packed with snow, they take a short break. De Chevin’s eyes are closed, but the muscles in his neck are taut with pain and the effort of stillness. Margo locates a clean rag and dabs at the sweat trickling down Ser Lancelot the Red Lyrium Porcupine’s forehead and temples. She can hear Solas’s breath, strained with the effort of holding the healing magic under close control so as not to flood the wound before all the lyrium is out. He looks up at her once, his brow furrowed, a question in his eyes.

“What is the likelihood of corruption, medic?” de Chevin asks into the sudden, tense silence. “I would know my chances now, before you labor on me further.”

Lud, busy emptying the lyrium potion Margo brought into a freshly steamed sack — one that might have been some small mammal’s bladder in a past life — lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “They’re better than they were when we started, lad, I can tell you that. Now, you’re lucky this wasn’t the raw stuff. What did you say did this? A claw?”

“Not a claw.” Ser Lancelot the Profoundly Grossed Out winces, goes green around the gills — or more green than he already was — and represses a shudder. “I believe it used to be his hand. Or his arm.”

“Either way, I’ll need a sample of the raw crystals to compare it to, but I’d wager the derivative is a lot less potent.”

“How can you tell?” Margo blurts out. It didn’t take her too long to put two and two together — whatever attacked de Chevin must bear some sort of resemblance to the red-lyrium-encrusted characters of Alexius’s crapsack modeling. Weaponized, based on the evidence gathered. “You mentioned something about its temperature...”

“That’s right — this type gives off less heat, for one,” Lud supplies. “Aside from that, I have to test it. And consult with an arcanist, if we can track one down in time. Now, listen up here, Orlais, what I’m about to do isn’t standard procedure. Best case, it’s a hunch. Worst case... Well, worst case, it won’t do you any good. I’m going to use a regular lyrium draught, diluted, to flush the small debris from the wound. Then I’ll flush that out with salt water. And then Solas and I will patch you up.”

“And then?” Lancelot the Stoic asks with commendable calm.

“And then, you will recount exactly what happened to you, Messere de Chevin,” Torquemada supplies from the threshold. Behind her, Josephine is peering anxiously into the infirmary. “And you will share whatever information you might have on this army.”

Chapter Text

The medical procedure designed to turn Ser Lancelot the Inlaid with Red Lyrium into Ser Lancelot the Laid Out and Resting (Leave My Sodding Patient Alone Can’t You See the Lad Had Enough) takes the better part of the next hour. The remaining patients file out one by one, equipped with prescriptions for the apothecary — which Lud dictates over her shoulder and Varric dutifully records — and terse admonishments to mind their humors. Margo quickly files away the new information for future cross-referencing. Minimally, the local medical idiom incorporates the element of “fire” — which isn’t surprising, if Earth medical traditions are anything to go by — and “lightning,” which she has no ready way of mapping. If there are other humors, Lud doesn’t mention them.

Torquemada and Josephine depart shortly after their initial appearance, but then they return — very clearly with the intent to stay. Their numbers are soon augmented by two dubiously useful additions. Commander Rutherford arrives first, with the air of someone who has been asked to verify whether the monster rumored to be slaughtering the cattle and absconding with the local virgins has ten — or eleven — toes. At the sight of de Chevin and the bowl of red crystals, Cullen’s expression veers off from sour annoyance, passes through queasy disbelief, and stops somewhere in the vicinity of grim resolve, though it isn’t entirely clear to Margo what said resolve is directed at. Shortly after Rutherford takes up the task of ominously propping up the wall near the entrance, Cassandra arrives as well. A quick, wordless exchange ensues between Torquemada and the Seeker, which seems to suggest the existence of a previous conversation, prudently left out of public view.

Unfortunately for the Inquisition’s finest, Ser Lancelot the Currently Indisposed loses consciousness as soon as Lud begins to clean the smaller debris. As the medic predicted, the pain must have caught up to him. Margo leans in to see whether any chemical reaction happens once the two types of lyrium encounter each other, but if it does, it isn’t anything visible to the naked eye. The diluted lyrium draught does seem to clean out the wound remarkably well, the reddish particulate flaking off into the slightly viscous blue stream. Margo does her best to sponge up the mess with a quickly depleting supply of boiled rags. Her work gloves protect her hands from the runoff, but the sight of the reddish glitter still sets her teeth on edge. See what ripens, lelkem.

“All right, lass. Get me the spider silk while I rinse the blue out of him — might as well stitch him up.” Lud wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. “Not much else we can do at this point.”

Margo locates the bobbin of thread among Lud’s surgical tools — gossamer-thin yet remarkably sturdy pearlescent silk that serves as another reminder of Thedas’s armamentarium of unpleasant but useful fauna.

Solas, with visible relief, allows the healing spell to soak fully into the damaged tissues, and Margo wonders, not for the first time, whether the energy that powers his spells — or any other — depletes somewhere else. Is someone like Solas — on the surface, at least, a talented mage — a conduit, or a source himself? And if he is, originally, a spirit, then is the magic he practices qualitatively different from what other mages do? Vivienne, as far as she can tell, doesn’t use healing magic. Neither does Dorian. Compared to them, Solas’s range of abilities seems rather remarkable.

“Senior Medic, please excuse the interruption, but what are the chances that Messere de Chevin will emerge relatively... intact from his ordeal?” Josephine asks from the chair she is now occupying next to Varric.

Lud looks up, her expression made all the more grave by the austere inkwork that darkens the left side of her face. “From the slash? Not bad, unless a fever sets in. From the red shite?” She shakes her head. “Don’t know for sure. Let him rest, for now.”

“What caused the wound?” Cassandra’s voice is terse, businesslike.

Lud bobs her head. “A templar. Like one of those red bastards in your reports from Therinfal. Beyond that, ask the lass. Orlais here had a whole speech prepared, but all I caught was something about horrors and lyrium.”

Margo finds herself in the crosshairs of the Quadrumvirate’s rather heavy gazes. Torquemada’s eyes narrow. “Ah, your ever-useful roster of linguistic abilities, agent. What have you gleaned?”

Margo swallows. “From what I understood, he was attacked by a patrol composed of deformed templars and Tevinter mages. He didn’t say much beyond that. Just...” They stare at her expectantly. “He was afraid it would infect him,” she finishes. No need to go into details about why he would ask her to perform the final mercy of dispatching him — that would too easily segue into his prior associations with Maile, and that, in turn, would bring up Imshael. Not a topic to discuss in polite company. She catches Solas’s eyes on her — he lifts an eyebrow, but fortunately he doesn’t comment. All in all, Margo has absolutely no doubt that Torquemada might want to ask the elf about his “roster of linguistic abilities” as well.

“If what he encountered is the same things we saw at Therinfal, then far more templars have turned against the Chantry than we originally thought,” Cassandra interjects, her jaw set in a grim expression. “We will ask those loyal to us to weigh in — we need to know how long the transformation takes, should it happen.”

“It would depend.” Cullen rubs his face with both hands. “Same as with Chantry lyrium, I would imagine — not everyone takes to it equally. Ser Barris’s reports mentioned a red liquid. Some templars turned rapidly — a matter of days. Others didn’t seem to be much affected, if at all.”

“All of this presupposes the capacity to procure red lyrium and to process it.” Josephine stands up. “We will make inquiries about supply routes. There are several noble houses in the vicinity of Therinfal, and we have cordial relations with two of them. I am certain that—”

“It matters not at the moment.” Torquemada silences the conversation with a quick jerk of her head. She shuts the infirmary door and bolts it shut against surprise visitors. “If Celene’s former chevalier is correct, then we must commence a full-scale evacuation at once. Haven can stand up to brigands and opportunistic attacks from small bands of hostiles. It will not weather an army. The only question is how much time remains.”

“I do not disagree that we are pressed for time, Leliana, but a full evacuation — as you proposed before — is madness.” Cassandra rests her palm on the hilt of her sword. “Without walls and siege machinery, we will leave ourselves exposed. We have civilians to consider, and even with our recruits and the templar contingent, we will be stretched too thin. Whoever marches on us will simply pick us off like nugs.”

Torquemada whirls around. “And if you had heeded my warnings instead of wasting your time trying to convince me that I was being paranoid, we would be halfway to Therinfal already.”

Cullen throws up his hands in a sudden show of frustration. “Your warnings are based on the half-demented ravings of a mad mage, Leliana! With all due respect...”

Torquemada’s expression turns corvid. “The Hero of Ferelden—”

“Oh bugger the Hero of Ferelden!” The former templar detaches himself from the wall and stalks over, his face flushed with sudden, blind anger. “The sodding Hero of Ferelden was a blood mage . I was at Kinloch Hold — do you think I don’t remember the slimy little weasel? Uldred’s favorite protegé... Though he didn’t bat an eye when he had to cut down his mentor, I’ll give him that. How could you possibly have trusted anything that came out of the bastard’s mouth?”

An awkward silence ensues.

“Because he was right,” Leliana enunciates with perfect, icy clarity.

Cassandra shifts uncomfortably. “Cullen... stand down. This isn’t about Kinloch or Alim Surana. Leliana has... a point. Haven cannot compare to a fortified keep, and, had we relocated to Therinfal earlier, we would have support from our local allies.”

“Positioning ourselves deeper in Ferelden would have cost us our already precarious neutrality vis-a-vis Orlais.” Josephine pinches the bridge of her nose. “Which, in our current position, we can scarcely afford.”

“This debate is pointless. We must act now, not waste time arguing over what we should have done.” The spymaster surveys them all with an oddly satisfied expression — a general confirming that the battlefield is hers, regardless of the ongoing skirmishes.

“Then what do you propose?”

The former bard turns to Lud and fixes her with a cool stare. “Wake up your patient, medic. We do not have the luxury of solicitude.”

The dwarven woman returns Torquemada’s gaze. Beneath the irascible, efficient facade is a flash of flinty insubordination. “You have your answer already, ‘s far as I’m concerned. Don’t see what waking him up would accomplish, other than robbing him of needed rest.”

“We must know how much time we have to prepare, which will determine our strategy. Does that answer satisfy?”

Lud turns away with a pinched look. “If he doesn’t make it, it’s on you, so that we’re clear. Tethras, pass me the salts. They’re right there, on the table. No, not that one — the... Yes, that’ll do.”

Ser Lancelot the Blissfully Sleeping jerks his head away from what must be good old ammonia, judging by the smell. His eyes flutter open — the combination of restoratives and healing magic has healed the swelling and bruises, and he has regained his Nazi poster boy good looks. For a split second, De Chevin’s face contorts in utterly abject horror, but then he seems to realize where he is, and he gets ahold of himself. “Is it done?” he asks no one in particular. His eyes search the room frantically until they land on Margo, and they linger on her face with an eerie sort of longing. Then he averts his gaze, and Margo stifles a sigh of relief. Lud and Varric might have a point. Ser Lancelot the Recently Moribund but Doggedly Amorous is starting to make her skin crawl with the lingering-glances routine. The unsettled feeling is probably a side effect of the cosmic shitgibbon’s most recent disguises, but still. Not a complication she needs.

“Good as new,” Lud grumbles. “Looks like you’re in for some questions, Orlais.”

De Chevin winces, but then he seems to steel himself. “I will answer to the best of my abilities,” he offers after a pause.

Torquemada chooses this moment to switch personas. Gone is the implacable coldness of her earlier interactions with the rest of the Quadrumvirate. In its stead, the bardic affectations soften her face into something youthful and almost contrite, and when she speaks, her tone is a perfect mixture of apologetic but firm. “I wish we had met under more favorable circumstances, Messere de Chevin. Forgive me my curtness — we have little opportunity for pleasantries.”

The former chevalier nods.

“What have you learned of this army?”

“They move through the Deep Roads.” He swallows — a labored, parched sound. “They answer to something they call the Elder One. I cannot say for certain how large his army is, but it is nothing you would be able to withstand. Not here, in any case. The army’s mages alone are well-trained and deadly, and that’s not accounting for the templars. The men who attacked me...” He frowns, perhaps at the memory. “They asked me about the Herald. Offered me my life in return for information. If I were to make a guess, I would assume she is their primary objective.”

“And how far is this army, in your estimation?”

De Chevin hesitates. “Three days,” he says with lead in his voice. “Four at the most.”

Margo frowns. Not that Ser Lancelot the Wounded Yet Remarkably Swift would have any reason to lie, but how exactly did he get here so fast?

“I take it the dead horse at the gates was yours?” Rutherford asks. Apparently, his mind went in the same direction.

“It is. I did not have the luxury of rest.”

Lud cuts a disapproving glance at the spymaster, but then her attention returns to her patient. “Precisely, Orlais. So now that you’ve satisfied everyone’s curiosity, you are going back to sleep. You can walk, can’t you? Here.” The medic maneuvers her patient into a sitting position, and drapes his arm over her shoulders. “That cot in the corner should do well. Less yammering.  Alchemist, pass me the sedative, will you? No, no, the clay bottle. That’s it.”

Margo does as instructed. The bottle in question puts her in mind of a miniaturized amphora. Lud grabs it from her before leading de Chevin to a recently vacated bed at the back of the room. Once he is settled in, the medic unstoppers the amphora, and passes it under the former chevalier’s nose. Based on the fact that Ser Lancelot the Apathetic is adopting a distinctly pre-Raphaelite sprawling position, Margo decides that the bottle contains the local analogue of chloroform.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have things to burn.” And with that, the medic retires to a back room with the mess of lyrium-stained rags.

Torquemada waits for a few heartbeats. “Then I suppose it is settled.”

“Three days will put us a third of the way to Therinfal.” Cullen has managed to regain an air of brute efficiency. He paces the length of the long, narrow room, a hand at the back of his neck. He gestures as he speaks. “If Trevelyan is the primary target, then we must either get her out of the way, and fast, or...” He looks up. His face registers momentary surprise — as if he had completely forgotten where he was. Under the interrogative gazes of the other advisers, his cheeks flush with color. “We might consider... ahem. Some alternative solution…”

“What alternative solution, Cullen?” Cassandra frowns.

Cullen hesitates, his eyes darting to Varric — and then to Margo. He averts his gaze quickly, his discomfiture overridden by a flash of irritation. “We can discuss it later.”

“Everyone here has demonstrated their loyalty to the cause, Cullen, have they not?” Torquemada interjects in a tone that manages to be both reassuring and menacing. “And we have little time for word games. Speak your mind.”

The former templar rubs the back of his neck. He braces himself, like a man on the edge of precipice, contemplating the jump. “Ahem. We might be forced to sacrifice some… strategic assets.”

Cassandra’s eyes widen. “Tell me you are not seriously suggesting what I… the Herald?”

“Cullen!” Josephine almost drops her quill — Varric catches it in mid-fall and returns it to the ambassador with a dramatic flourish. The smile never makes it to the upper half of his face — in fact, his expression is frozen in something awfully close to shock. Josephine’s own return smile is visibly perfunctory — an automatic habit of politeness. “Have you forgotten about the rifts?”

Rutherford’s earlier anger returns with dividends — there in the sudden smattering of red over his cheekbones — but he keeps himself in check otherwise. “The Breach is closed. With enough research and troops, the rifts might be... contained. Or at least minimized. Besides, Trevelyan is...” He makes an expansive sort of gesture, halfway between incredulity and helplessness. “Well, she is divisive, isn’t she? She has served her purpose, but it doesn’t change...”

“That she is a mage,” Torquemada cuts in. “Is that it, Commander?”

He spins around. “She is a mage who is resistant to the templar smite, Leliana! She has no training, and yet she makes the dead dance like they’re nothing but...” He cuts himself off and pivots to Cassandra. “Won’t you speak up?”

“Speak up on what? The Mortalitasi? Nevarra? I will not abandon the Herald because it is expedient, Cullen. You overstep.”

“Oh, I overstep, do I?” Cullen turns abruptly and paces in the opposite direction. “We have allowed covert assassins to slip into our ranks undetected. The Chantry has declared us a heretical organization. We have garnered barely enough support to keep Haven supplied. ‘The Inquisition renewed.’ A bloody fine picture we make.” He stops. “And now, we are about to be overrun because, somehow, some radicalized Tevinter mage group — no doubt backed by the Magisterium — fancies itself a trophy. Can’t you see Trevelyan paints a target on our back? We did what we had to with the Breach, but do we truly need her?”

“Tears in the Veil will not be mended by shouting the Maker’s prayers at them, Commander.” Heads turn to Solas, and Margo’s heart skips a beat. The elf meets her gaze for a split second — he has donned his neutrally polite mask, but for the briefest of moments he lets her see the emotion beneath it. An impossible mixture of wrath and resignation, and a strange, dark sort of sorrow. “I doubt that whatever power caused the Breach has been dispelled. Would you discard the only person capable of closing it again — should it be reopened — just because you take her magic as a personal affront?”

Cullen balls his fists, but then he relaxes his stance, letting his hands hang loosely at his side. He draws a breath. “Trevelyan is unstable ,” he spits out. “And I’m not just referring to her magic, whatever its Maker-forsaken nature might be. Am I truly the only one to consider the implications?” He turns to Torquemada. “We’ve all heard her speak. Have you any idea how dangerous she will become if people actually, Maker forbid, start to listen? And they will listen to the Herald of Andraste. That stunt at the trial — she was deriding the Chant of Light! Making a mockery of it!”

“Now, now,” Varric, silent until then, glances over at Josephine. “Let’s not rush straight to the catastrophic. It’s all in how you spin the story, Curly. Evie just needs a bit of... guidance.”

We put her on trial, Cullen.” Cassandra’s grip on her weapon tightens, but when she speaks, her tone is remarkably even. “We allowed it to happen. As I recall, it was a joint decision — I heard no dissent from you, in any case. And we orchestrated it. What should the Herald have done? We threw her into the pit and let her fend for herself! And now, you are blaming her for playing the role we foisted on her.”

Cullen pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don’t advocate we leave her to the enemy, whoever he is. Not as an asset, anyway.”

The silence is so thick you could use it to armor a tank.

“Speak plainly, Cullen. What are you saying?”

“Now that the Breach is closed... We should reconsider the possibility of Tranquility.”

Margo fails to repress a gasp. Varric’s eyes widen in stunned horror. Even the ambassador, normally a virtuoso at hitting the exact pitch of social propriety, goes ashen and brings her hand to her mouth.

“Rutherford, you are out of line .” Cassandra takes a step towards the commander, pivoting her hips into something awfully close to a fighting stance.

“Hear me out. I know this is not the ideal solution, but difficult decisions are often the ones that save lives.” The ex-templar motions with his hand towards the infirmary door. “Think about it. We can’t have an enemy army pursuing us through Ferelden — and if this army is intent on Haven, we can be sure they will be more than ready to pick us off on the road. How many civilians do we have? People who’ve never held anything more dangerous than a sewing needle or a hoe? There are children , for Maker’s sake!” He resumes his pacing. “I’m not suggesting we leave her on a silver platter. Haven will have a garrison. A small, qualified group able to slow the enemy down long enough to buy the rest a passage to safety. Should Haven fall, then so be it, but I will not let it fall without at least making them work for it! If the Rite is undertaken quickly, we do not need to make it public. Trevelyan will still be remembered as the Herald of Andraste, the one to save us from the Breach. I do not like this any more than you do, but if this Elder One wants her... I fear that he will raze anything in his path until he has her, and if Tevinter is behind this, how long before it devolves into a full-scale war? How many more lives will be lost?”

“So, scorched-earth policy, is it?” The words are out before Margo can bite them back. She considers the local version of William Sherman with what she hopes is a passably calm expression. Either Rutherford has lost it completely, or he has been hiding his true colors with an artistry that’d give Torquemada a run for her money. “What else? Will we be stuffing the chantry full of Antivan fire and detonating the whole thing while we’re at it, commander? Pity we don’t have gaatlok, huh? And while we’re on the subject, who will you be volunteering for this garrison? Clemence and the rest of the Tranquil? Maybe some of the mages? Any other political undesirables you would like to dispose of while the rest of you saunter off?”

Torquemada opens her mouth to speak, but Cullen cuts her off. “I don’t know how things are done where you come from, agent, but I will not allow anyone unqualified to carry out this task. Nor will I have the men and women under my command do something I would not ask of myself.” He draws a breath, then exhales it slowly. “I will remain in Haven with the Herald.”

Everyone tries to speak at once.

“Have you gone completely mad ?” Cassandra’s voice rises over the collective racket. “Enough. You asked me to intervene if your... decision began to impact your faculties.” The tumult quiets down, and heads pivot to the Seeker. The color drains from Rutherford’s cheeks, their flush replaced by a ghostly pallor. He goes completely still, but his eyes dart to the bowl of lyrium crystals. The snow beneath them has melted, and they glitter at the bottom of the copper bowl in a puddle of reddish water. Cassandra’s tone softens a fraction. “I cannot order you to step down — we cannot afford it. But I strongly urge you to consider whether this...— whatever this is — merits a vote of confidence.”

Rutherford stares at Cassandra as if the Seeker just slapped him.

“How long since you stopped taking lyrium, Commander?” Torquemada inquires in a deceptively casual tone. “And when were you planning to share this information with the rest of us, Cassandra?”

The ex-templar flinches.

“Well, shit.” Varric takes off his spectacles. No one says anything, so the dwarf finds himself compelled to fill the stunned silence. “You mean... Don’t you templars lose it when you’re off the stuff? Samson sure was in a bad way, last I saw him.”

“I am a templar no longer, Varric. As well you know.”

“Could have fooled me,” Varric mutters.

Rutherford turns to Torquemada, his expression full of newfound grim resolve. “Long enough that I have learned to function without it.” He hesitates. “I swear to you, this is not withdrawal talking. Therinfal is too far, and in the wrong direction. If this army is coming through the Deep Roads, they could simply cut us off. You remember the Blight, Leliana. You know how the darkspawn spill out from under the surface. And that was with half-sentient creatures. With an army of mages, red templars, and Maker knows what else? Organized?” His voice wavers. “It’ll be worse. Think of how many lives they will trample on the way if they give chase. No. We have to keep them locked here and occupied. And I’m the most qualified to work the trebuchets into a defense strategy.”

“Are you seriously suggesting that, after everything that’s happened, we subject Evelyn to the Rite of Tranquility and then deliver her to this Elder One — while you embark on what is effectively a suicide mission yourself?” Josephine’s polite, delicate mask cracks, revealing a core of indignant anger. “She has done nothing but help us! Whatever she is now, it was done to her, by people who should have had her best interests at heart!” The ambassador’s voice hitches, but she pinches her lips and glares at Cullen.

Rutherford exhales forcefully. “I am not...heartless, Ambassador. I know perfectly well that she is a victim — she should have been put in a Circle like any other child with magic, and not kept like some embarrassing secret under the stairs at a noble’s whim. But no amount of sympathy will change the logistics. This is hardly survivable. Not, in any case, without some sacrifices.”

The Quadrumvirate glare at each other in silence.

“There may be an alternative to Therinfal.” Solas straightens and clasps his hands behind his back. “If it matters.”

Cassandra turns sharply. “Speak.”

The elf appears to vacillate, but then he inclines his head. “Scout to the north. There is a place that waits for a force to hold it. A place where the Inquisition can... Build. Grow.” He hesitates again, then he passes his hand over his face — a weary, wary gesture. “Or, at the very least, where it might endure.”

Torquemada narrows her eyes. “My people have scouted the Frostbacks for miles, Solas. There is nothing but glaciers and the occasional group of Avvar hunters. What is this place you speak of?”

“It is known as Skyhold. A fortress, sheltered by a mountain pass. With the correct guide, it will offer you sanctuary.”

“And I suppose you have seen it in the Fade?”

“I have.” Solas’s tone is deceptively mild. “Though any half-decent historian of the Towers Age could confirm its existence.” He pauses. “Guide your people there, ahead of this invasion. Any army that would choose to pursue would have to weather an inhospitable landscape. Our relatively modest numbers might afford us a small advantage.”

“Provided we can find it,” Cullen says sourly. “And provided it is as empty as the mage claims. Three days is not enough to scout. We’d be going in blind, and the Frostbacks are nothing to trifle with this time of year. If we get stranded, we’ll simply freeze to death and do this Elder One’s work for him.”

“What choice do we have?” Cassandra shakes her head in disgust. “Solas, would you be able to find your way there?”

The elf cocks his head to the side. “Perhaps.” He lets the pause stretch. His posture shifts — a subtle, almost imperceptible movement towards a fighting stance. Margo has absolutely no doubt that it is carefully calculated. “Though I will not support this plot of abandoning the Herald, let alone of severing her from the Fade. Nor will I advise you to leave anyone behind against their will. These people are under your protection — you do not own their lives.” A hard smile etches a line at the corner of his mouth. “Unless, of course, this new Inquisition has taken upon itself to outperform Tevinter in its instrumentality and wishes to add slavery to its list of historical accomplishments? In which case, I fear I have been terribly mistaken in offering my aid.”

“Tread carefully, apostate.” Cullen’s anger flares again, and Margo decides that this must be a chronic problem — though usually better concealed.

“I normally do not take kindly to extortion, Solas, but the alternative you offer, while not devoid of risk, potentially minimizes our losses. Cullen is right in one thing — our chances are better if Haven can be made to buffer the attack.”

“We are not leaving Evelyn behind, Leliana.” Josephine’s eyes glisten, but she has regained her composure.

Torquemada smiles, not at all pleasantly. “Naturally not.” She surveys them all, again with that expression of a general assessing a recent victory — and finding its costs acceptable. “No. We will use a decoy."

Chapter Text

There are no public meetings. No town halls. No charismatic leader comes to stand in front of the chantry, delivering rousing speeches to the populace or rallying the troops for a final stand for dignity — or, minimally, for survival. No proud banners rise to fly over the palisade. No town crier pierces the unseasonably mild afternoon air with a shrill call to arms. The notes of the midday chant cascade from the temple with familiar, unperturbed resonance.

Instead, the state of emergency lurks in sealed envelopes delivered to key personnel. It settles in grimly pressed lips and rustles in hushed murmurs in dim hallways and back alleys. It courses through the brusque movements of flinty-eyed soldiers, who escort confused civilians towards the requisitions tents. It ripples through the tight circle of anxious faces that surrounds one of Torquemada’s agents, the man's expression shrouded in shadows beneath his hood and his tone swaddled in bureaucratic opaqueness as he reads names from a roster. A brief glimpse at the vellum as Margo passes the knot of people lends a half-formed thought — the scroll is too neat and the ink too dry to have been drafted in response to recent developments. Haven pulses to the rhythm of a calculated silence, one kept for so long that no other form of rule is conceivable.

But Margo does not get the chance to contemplate the theater of Torquemada’s ascendence to the apex of the Quadrumvirate. She is sent to the apothecary to assist Master Adan, with no further information on her projected position in the impending performance, aside from a terse, “Expect further orders.” She walks on legs she barely feels, her thoughts circling purposelessly like agitated birds. What now ?

Solas leaves with the rest of the advisors — though that description seems uniquely ill-suited for their actual roles at this point — with a final backward look. The hierarchy of the Inquisition shifts like sand, but the next steps are clear enough: to inform Evie of the plans formulated in her absence and with none of her input. No doubt strategically omitting the whole Tranquility proposal, too. The elf offers Margo a parting, “We will speak again, lethallan,” delivered in a noncommittal tone from beneath a mask of neutral affability but with the slightest overemphasis on “ again ,” marking the word for her ears only. She casts an uneasy glance at Rutherford’s retreating back, still visible through the open doorway, and then she returns her attention to Solas, her eyes lingering on his. She nods once. Be careful , she doesn’t say.

She finds herself outside the infirmary, with no clear memory of exiting — trudging through melting snow under a cloud of dense, wordless anger. Fuck. How did she get this so wrong? How did she manage to convince herself that Evie’s mark would protect the kid — that, by virtue of being indispensable, the young woman would have the time and space to come into her own, to slowly make room for her voice until it would be heard — and heeded? How unforgivably naive for an alleged historian to believe the figurehead could ever ascend to the same level as the forces operating behind the scenes. Not that Margo's own voice has any weight — and not that she had a clear sense of how to help Evie in the first place. But the reassuring self-delusion allowed her to coast. To avoid taking a stand. It’s not like the signs weren’t there all along, but she played it safe — tucked away into the illusory security of marginal irrelevance, while the organization on whose coattails she’s been riding pivoted around a core of... Well. Not “rot,” exactly, or “wickedness,” or anything quite so bombastic. Debating the Inquisition's moral standing feels like an exercise in absurdist humor. But—

“You alright there, Prickly?” Margo jerks her head up. She was so occupied with fuming that Varric’s presence at her side didn’t register until he spoke. “If you’re contemplating murder — and, based on your face, I’d say you’re getting awfully close — may I recommend waiting until nightfall?”

Margo forces herself to take a steadying breath, but the air rushes out of her lungs in a sigh of pure frustration. She regroups, turning to the rogue. “I guess this is your way of saying that I need to work on being a bit more subtle about it?” Her quip lands flat. “Any chance you’ll help get rid of the body?”

Varric harrumphs, but his amusement is skin-deep — the man hiding beneath the ironic persona seems long since out of jokes. All that’s left is a dry sort of irony, bitter as wormwood. “If we were in Kirkwall, I’d tell you that I just might know a guy...” He exhales through clenched teeth, making a chuckle of it as if in afterthought. “And just when I was starting to think we might have a shot at fixing all this... Well.” Varric gestures in abstract incredulity. “At times like these, I seriously question my sanity. Should’ve stayed far away from this mess.”

“Did you have a choice, Varric?” She is still not entirely clear on whether the dwarf volunteered or got himself conscripted. Though one does not necessarily preclude the other, as recent events seem to suggest.

The rogue offers another one of his not particularly humorous smiles. “Well, that's just it, isn't it? Choice is a funny thing. You can ‘have’ an ale. Or coin in your pocket. You can ‘have’ a charming personality, or dashing good looks.” He winks. “Can you actually ‘have’ a choice, Prickly?”

Margo stuffs her hands into her pockets, but she makes sure to return Varric’s half-smile, even if the expression fits about as well as a tuxedo on a pig. This talk of choice has the unpleasant side effect of conjuring thoughts of the Cosmic Shitgibbon, and, by association, of Ser Lancelot the Bearer of Dire News, and then of red lyrium. And, from there, the dream of the infected Tree. What is that thing? The thought, urgent now, ricochets across her mind, garnering no answer but sending her right back to where they started — the impending attack by a red-lyrium-riddled army. Has Alexius’s modeling been right all along, then? Perhaps the mad magister actually managed to anticipate the craptastic future correctly and this — this moment — is the early stirrings of that unfolding trajectory? One that will lead to ugly deaths for most, and uglier outcomes for those who have the misfortune of surviving...

“I suppose 'possession' isn’t exactly the right idiom, is it?” Margo manages. Wittgenstein's words in Amund's voice resonate with the unbidden insistence of a memorized mantra. She doesn't have time for hypotheticals, one way or another. That future is not there yet.

“In my experience, Prickly, possession is never the right idiom.” Varric lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “Anyway, don’t let me hold you up — we have an escape to plan.” He squints, his expression cagey. “I don’t know where they’re putting you, but... I’ll make some inquiries. Who knows, maybe they’ll stick us together — along with all the other folks the Inquisition has no idea what to do with.” Judging by his tone, the dwarf finds that possibility rather unlikely.

“Thanks, Varric." Margo collects herself, and the smile she shapes feels at least passably genuine. "I hope you have a way to get your books out.”

Varric claps her on the shoulder. “See, Prickly, that’s what I like about you. You’ve got your priorities straight.” With that, the rogue departs towards his tent.

Instead of immediately following Torquemada's orders, Margo pokes her head into the tavern. Sera is absent, but Flissa sends her down to the smithy with a shrug and a harried expression. Check there.

The unexpected thaw has turned Haven’s unpaved streets into muddy mush, the reddish clay painting the snow in russet streaks, and the rusty color sends a twinge of foreboding across Margo's spine. She jogs to the forge, boots squishing unpleasantly in the melting, muddy snow, the northern breeze soft on her skin. The air is heavy with moisture and the scent of warming earth. Unless the night brings another freeze, the village will be knee-deep in mud by the following morning.

She slows down next to the stables. The few horses that remain are restless. A bay mare with her front legs encased in standing wraps shakes her head from side to side and rolls her eye at Margo’s approach.

The forge is eerily silent. Blackwall and a few of Master Harritt's apprentices are loading a rough-hewn cart with weapons and armor pieces. The blacksmith and a spotted, gangly youth with a shock of ginger hair are disassembling one of the forming presses. The contraption they use for improving weapons is lying in parts in the low bed of the cart.

Blackwall spots her first, and Margo waits for him to finish his task. At length, the Warden approaches. He leans a shoulder against the stable’s fence and cocks a dark eyebrow at his visitor. The bay mare takes this opportunity to nose at his shoulder with an impatient snort, clearly angling for a treat or a scratch. Blackwall pats the horse’s neck with absentminded familiarity. "Hope your head's feeling better than mine, agent. What can I do for you?"

"I'm looking for Sera." The thought of why she wants to find Sera rattles around, half-formed — nothing like a plan, only a hunch and the vague need to do something . "Have you seen her?"

"Not since this morning. Fuzzhead woke me up by dumping snow on my face — not that I'm complaining, all things considered. Took off after that. Want me to pass on a message?"

Margo chews the inside of her cheek, suddenly doubtful and weighing the next question. What are the chances that Sera was accidentally up early enough to wake up Blackwall after a night of heavy celebratory drinking? Varric mentioned that notes were delivered to strategic people with orders of moderation. He never mentioned whom the notes came from — though it was implied. Now, Sera's Friends, from what Margo understands, are a network of informants — unremarkable ones, unlike Torquemada's hooded spies. Sera’s people — those who sweep floors and launder linens and, perhaps, clean the rubbish generated by the scribes — would be easy to overlook. "Blackwall, when did the order to pack up the forge come in?"

The warden's eyes narrow. "Early this morning. I would’ve slept right through it, if not for Sera."

Factoring in the time treating De Chevin’s wounds, it adds up. Her hunch, then, was correct — the scene in the infirmary must have been orchestrated. Torquemada decided to act on Ser Lancelot the Fleet's bad news as soon as he showed up, if not earlier, effectively sidestepping the rest of the Quadrumvirate while they were occupied with arguing. It bears asking how much the spymaster's willingness to let Rutherford put forth his Tranquilization solution was a way of keeping the powers that be tied up in one place and unable to interfere with whatever the Left Hand had already set in motion elsewhere.

As to the rest... Hungover people are less likely to question orders. Or have the mental and physical bandwidth to panic.

***

Margo takes her leave of the Warden, trying to intuit the choreography of Torquemada’s plan. A quick survey of the camp — swarming in purposeful if somewhat confused agitation — fails to turn up Sera, and Margo finds herself hesitating, suddenly caught between two contradictory impulses. The cautious side of her wants to do what she’s been told — if she is to subvert directives, best make it a quiet, unobtrusive subversion, the resistance of subtly added friction. But the other side, the one stirring beneath with the cold, calculating anger of disillusioned pragmatism — grown untended from the memory of a thin, rancid straw pallet, from the sharp end of a spoon used for digging a tunnel, from the sour leer of a man with flat, reptilian eyes — is not particularly inclined to obedience. Problem is, she has no idea how to channel the emotion productively. Grab Evie and make a run for it, as Sera once suggested? Untenable. Find out about how the distribution of the Inquisition’s “disposables” shakes out as the decoy strategy is implemented... And do what with it, exactly? Warn the right people? Argue with Torquemada? Flee?

And what, besides, did the spymaster mean by “a decoy”?

The thought is so sudden it halts Margo in her tracks. The pair of soldiers who were walking behind her practically trip over her suddenly still form. One of the men swears, though without particular anger — watchit, rabbit — and pushes her out of the way with barely a look. They hurry on towards the trebuchets. Margo steps into the shadow of the palisade, rubbing her bruised shoulder. Is Torquemada factoring in Evie’s hex — or luck suck, as Sera would have it? Because if she is, then she must realize that the highest risk is not to Evie herself — or even to whomever or whatever might serve as the decoy — but to whomever comes with their lethally lucky Herald.

Solas must realize this. Cassandra, too.

Would Evie be safer inside Haven or outside of it? Perhaps the key question, then, is about National Hero’s predictive capacities. Supposing that he knew about an attack on Haven in some hypothetical future beyond his reach, and supposing that he decided to prepare a ward for it — how much did he foresee? Did he predict Evie? Would smuggling Evie out ahead of the attack launch them on a different path from the one National Hero was anticipating — along a different branch of the Tree, to use the thrice-cursed dendritic horror for metaphorical purposes? Or will they have an Oedipus-style outcome on their hands?

Margo closes her eyes. Her head pounds with the circular logic of the potential temporal paradox — round and round it goes, chasing its tail. So. National Hero was a blood mage. Did he inherit blood magic like she inherited Maile’s linguistic knowledge and murderous reflexes? Minimally, it explains why he was able to construct the ward. But what eventuality was the ward meant to address? The Breach? Keeping Haven safe from maddened spirits and red lyrium eruptions? Keeping it from an attack? But if so, how ? The Writhing Farthingale of Supreme Creepiness certainly doesn’t prevent people from entering or leaving — based on evidence gathered, a physical army would march through Haven and not even notice the ward was there. So what is it for ? And it invites the rather obvious other question — what, exactly, did National Hero know, and why did he know it? If he was like her, was it simply that he snatched a body capable of seeing the future? Or were his insights something that came with him across worlds? Goran did mention National Hero’s affinity with the Tree... And what of Leliana herself? Hypothetically speaking, if National Hero was trying to prevent something from happening, and if he implemented the blood ward for that purpose, then is Torquemada acting with or against his prophecy?

The decision comes to her like something floating up from murky depths, and Margo lets her legs carry her forward, up the road and back towards the dark, jagged tree line behind the temple. She squints against the snowy glare until she spots the triangle of Amund’s fur tent and the wispy smoke of his campfire about five hundred meters up the slope.

By the time she reaches the campsite, Margo is winded and sweating beneath her leather coat. She finds Amund sitting placidly on a tree stump. He passes her a skin of ale, his face creased in wordless amusement, and she gulps down the liquid greedily before handing the skin back.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, little spider?” the augur inquires. His dark eyes are remote and unreadable, and he seems unhurried and otherwise unperturbed. If he has an opinion of recent developments, it doesn’t show.

“You know we’re evacuating, right?” The question is only one on the technicality of syntax.

Amund inclines his head. “Compassion said as much.”

“Where is Cole, actually?”

Amund shrugs. “Wherever he must be.”

Margo fidgets in place. The wind rustles in the pines above, breathing resin and snowmelt. “When are you leaving?” she asks.

“It depends.” The Avvar glances at the sky. “Would that I had convinced you to abandon this Inquisition when time was on our side, spinner.” Above them, dark dots soar in a wide circle against the soft blue. “Though I doubt you’d have heard reason,” he remarks with good-natured mockery. “And I suppose I am too old to spirit you away in the dead of night — besides, I would’ve had to take you for a wife, then.” His eyes glint with quiet humor. But,” he adds more seriously, “it would have spared us what is to come.”

Margo swallows. “Amund...” she hesitates. “Query your Lady for me, would you? I’m...”

Lost she wants to say. Lost, and uncertain, and unable to understand the messages this insane world keeps flinging at her in dreams and in cryptic letters — or why she should be their recipient. Can’t the universe find another pen pal? Or, minimally, provide her with an interpreter?

The Avvar measures her with a narrow-eyed look. “Are you sure prophecy is what you wish?” A cautionary note creeps into his voice.

Margo nods.

At length, he fishes out a small cloth parcel from inside his coat, unfolding it on his knees. The thin bird bones, yellow with age and worn to a smooth ivory polish, fall into unreadable glyphs in his large palms. “Ask your question, then.”

Tell me which branch we sing from, augur . The voice in her head doesn’t quite feel like her own. She shakes it off and the question dies on her lips. She stares at the bones, amorphously furious with the lingering sense of helpless disorientation, with the lack of opportunity to sit and think through it all properly. Ask how? Ask what? “Just... tell me what I need to know.”

Amund bends forward, sets a strip of felt onto the snow at his feet, and tosses the bones onto it. He traces the patterns with his eyes, one palm scraping thoughtfully against the beginning of a greying stubble. “Too many lies, little spider, and not just yours. Mind who does the speaking. The net will hold, but blessings and curses are simply two sides of one blade. For you, two roads from here, both bloody.” He looks up from his scrying, his jaw set. Margo tries and fails to keep her expression neutral. Whatever Amund finds in her face, his own softens a fraction. “I yet owe you skuld , spinner,” he notes gravely. “I shall not desert you, however the bones fall. And then, perhaps, we shall be even.”

***

Margo finds her way back to Haven in a daze of buzzing thoughts.

A net . Goran had called the ward a net. Had the old man — or whoever he really is — not known for certain? Why did he formulate the next part as a question? “Keep in, or keep out?” Idle speculation, or a provocation specifically aimed at her? Ask good questions.

Fine. What is a net used for? For keeping things out. Or for catching things.

The only other model she has for understanding the blood ward is, paradoxically enough, the Veil. Perhaps not a perfect analogy, but the similarities are there, aren’t they? It too was supposedly designed by the proverbial Maker to keep something at bay — the world of spirits, according to the established explanation. It too had, until recently, a giant hole in it. It begs the question — is it possible that the Tentacled Dome of Considerable Foulness actually mimics the Veil itself? Or mimics some of its mechanisms? And, if so, then what sort of magic might have been used to create the Veil in the first place?

Maybe Solas or Dorian would have some ideas on the subject, if she can track either of them down in the mad rush of preparation.

Keep in or keep out?

Margo forces her body into motion. Is the Veil truly meant to keep spirits out of the physical world? Or is it the opposite? Spirits, after all, fall into the material realm with enviable regularity. With unpleasant consequences for everyone, to be sure, but... Why is the reverse not happening at the same frequency? If the Veil was indeed fabricated, what if its purpose is the opposite of Chantry doctrine? What if it’s not meant to keep spirits out , but fleshlings in ? Might spirits be benefiting from the Veil’s protection?

A vivid image of Baba’s vegetable garden blooms in her mind’s eye. The crude, sunworn black plastic thrown over the strawberry beds. Small, tender bushes starred with white poke out from circular holes like perfect little green spheres. Beneath the plastic, naked earth where the weeds remain light-starved.

If the Fade is the source of magic, then—

“Oi! There you are!”

Margo is wrenched out of her thoughts with a start. Somehow, her feet have carried her to the courtyard in front of the apothecary, and she finds herself staring mutely at Adan, who looms in the doorway, looking particularly disheveled and even more hungover than usual. Despite the shadows darkening his eyes and hollowing out his cheeks, his expression is focused and purposeful. He beckons her with a quick twist of his head. “Don’t just stand there; we have very little time.”

Margo follows him inside. Formulating a plan of action while trying to pick apart the snarls of disjointed thoughts is an exercise in futility. Time. I need time to think .

But time she doesn’t have.

The shop is barely recognizable. Ingredients have been pulled off the shelves, stuffed into sacks and crates, everything piled haphazardly at the entrance. Adan is in the midst of packing the glassware with felt and straw. Clemence, silent and seemingly indifferent, is bent over a ledger, presumably writing up the inventory. Minaeve is absent — likely tending to her own research and livelihood.

“I’m sorry I missed most of the packing,” Margo ventures, with a sudden pang of guilt. In her rather aimless meanderings, she had ignored one of her primary social obligations. No matter what the Inquisition’s Finest might want from her otherwise, Adan took her in. She owes him.

The alchemist shakes his head in dismissal. “Never mind that for now. Clemence, you’ll bear witness, as agreed.” The alchemist carefully avoids Margo’s gaze. “Listen up, fledgling. I’m going to ask you some questions as we work, and you are going to answer them correctly , every single bloody one of them, so that there are absolutely no inquiries later. Do you understand me?”

“Not quite,” Margo offers cautiously, her shoulders tense and her palms clammy with a sudden jolt of fear. What is this about?

“Trust me, if I could, I’d do this properly, but there’s no time for ‘properly,’ so here we are. You finish packing these while we chat. I’ll start taking apart the work station. First question. Antivan Fire. Main formula and three alternatives.”

Margo rattles off the standard formula, conjuring up Auntie’s writing and illustrations in her mind’s eye. She adds the improvements Adan has made, the addition of two other plants — dawn lotus for stability and dragonthorn to make the flames burn hotter.

A test, then, but why? Why did Adan decide to test her now of all possible times?

He offers no explanation. More questions follow as they work — intermittent, punctuating the slow, fastidious labor of tearing down the apothecary. She glances at the alchemist. His lips are pinched in a grim scowl.

The reality of her situation hits Margo with full force when Adan opens a window and a gust of wet, snowy air dispels the familiar smells of elfroot and sulfur and myrrh resin. The hut looks more and more like an empty shell, an uninhabited carapace already containing within it its future ruin. One way or another, they are leaving. This part of her new life is over.

Margo bites back a sudden pang of sorrow, focusing on Adan’s next question. Not that all of his inquiries are equally easy, but they are nothing compared to the challenge of her first test, where she was asked to produce the formula that ended up conjuring Imshael. She trips up on a question about bezoars, but she draws on her memories of her world’s alchemical histories to fill in the blanks. “Mostly not very useful, as far as I know. Might help against some poisonings, but won’t do much good otherwise,” she ventures, her heart hammering in her throat. Except for lyrium, their minerals seem close enough — close enough, anyway, that it’s likely that they might have arsenic, or something like it. Not that the experiments with bezoar and arsenic were ever particularly conclusive, from what she recalls, but... “It could help with some mineral poisons, I suppose,” she adds cautiously.

Adan looks up. “I’ve not taught you that, fledgling.” But then he returns his attention to his work, his jaw set.

“No,” Margo agrees. “You haven’t.”

A few more questions about processing follow, but they are simple — he keeps them to what he knows she knows. Finally, Adan straightens, pressing his palms into his lower back with a wince. “Congratulations, Journeyman Duvalle. Clemence, will you confirm?”

Clemence lifts his head from his writing, fixing his calm eyes on Margo. “Agent Duvalle certainly passed, Master Adan, but the test was too simple. Not up to the standards of Journeyman rank. I am afraid that...”

“Clemence.” Adan pins the Tranquil with a heavy stare. “The standards are the Senior Alchemist’s decision.”

“Were she taking the test in a Circle...”

“She’s not taking the test in a Circle. She’s not a mage.”

“No.” The Tranquil pauses, strangely. “Not a mage.” An awkward silence falls between them. “As you say,” he relents with the barest touch of coldness to his tone — though it might be the habitual indifference of Tranquility.

“Adan, what is this about? Why now?” Margo fits a lid over the last box of glassware, and she reaches for a hand hammer left on the floor next to a pile of discarded rags.

Adan rummages around in the satchel tied around his waist, coming up with a handful of crude nails. He hands them to her, his expression clouded with unease. “Got the order to pack mid-morning.” He hesitates. “And then, right around noon, I got a message from your archer friend, while you were... doing whatever it was you were doing instead of reporting to your post.” Adan’s squint registers a mild rebuke. “Had a feeling it might come to this, but I’d hoped... Well, never mind that.” He turns. “Clemence, please check outside and see if you can track down a courier. We’d better get the news to the ambassador — journeyman, not apprentice. Let’s make sure the record is straight.”

The Tranquil rises to his feet and proceeds outside without a word. Once the door closes behind him, Adan returns his attention to Margo, the odd tension still in his face. “Don’t know how that Sera lass got the information, but... You might have noticed we’re leaving Haven, yeah?”

Margo smiles sourly. “I may have suspected.”

The alchemist greets her jape with an unwilling chuckle. “Haven’s no stronghold. Some of us knew it was coming, sooner or later — I’d hoped later. Anyway, there’s an order to who leaves and when.” He averts his gaze, letting it roam across the shelves still full of books. They have yet to pack his library. For a brief moment, he seems incredulous and a little lost, but he masters himself quickly. “We have a few days, so not everyone is leaving together. A few convoys leave tonight.” He pauses. “Master craftsmen and journeymen are tomorrow morning.”

Margo swallows, her throat dry. “And the apprentices?”

“The day after, I’d guess. Not with us, in any case.”

“Why so spread out?” But the answer is obvious. To make Haven look inhabited for as long as possible. She doesn’t wait for him to confirm her suspicions. “How are all the separate groups going to find each other? Afterwards, I mean?”

“There are tunnels under Haven that lead into the mountains. A pilgrimage route, according to Chancellor Roderick.” He shakes his head. “A load of horseshite, that. What sort of pilgrims scurry around in tunnels like field mice? And what sort of pilgrims build tunnels wide enough to leave enough room for horses and carts? It’s an escape route put it by the dragon cult — for when the Chantry came a-knocking, which believe you me it did.”

Margo nods. It would certainly explain why the Disciples of Andraste survived for as long as they did. “And what about the people with no rank? What about the... regular workers? When do they leave?”

Adan doesn’t look at her when he answers. “I don’t know. But as far as you’re concerned, fledgling, you’re my responsibility. I should have gotten you through the examination earlier. That’s on me.”

“Adan...” Margo forces her clenched jaw to loosen. “How they’re doing this, it’s not... the whole thing, it’s... unconscionable. ” The words get stuck half-way, the helpless outrage suddenly welling up inside her again. An unbidden memory of Redcliffe stirs and swells in her throat until breathing becomes hard labor.

Adan shakes his head once. “It’s war, lass. It is what it is.”

They finish the rest of the work in silence. Clemence returns, his mission apparently accomplished. They break for food in the late afternoon — a simple fare of bread and hard cheese and the perennial winter vegetables, pickled in sharp, tangy brine. Adan passes around a clay jug of weak ale.

They pack the library last.

A rhythmic creak punctuated by a few irritable snorts heralds the arrival of a cart. Margo looks through the window. The shaggy coat of something that appears to be a druffalo hybrid — though a hybrid with what isn’t particularly clear — blots out the waning light. The local ruminant rumbles a gutteral call, something between a bray and a growl.

Above, the evening’s first pale stars wink in the darkening sky.

Margo follows Adan outside. She is entirely unsurprised to see Blackwall, his hand resting on the animal’s harness, standing by the cart. “Need help, Adan?” the Warden asks.

“Almost done here. As long as you and I manage to lift that accursed ingredient mill.” The alchemist thrusts his thumb over his shoulder where the aforementioned contraption rests in the snow, wrapped in cloth and padded with straw against potential damage. Clemence and Adan got it this far, but the alchemist, as it turned out, has a bad back. Adan turns to Margo. “Go, fledgling. Get some rest.” He hesitates. “While you can.”

“But I will see you tomorrow morning, right?”

“Better you not oversleep,” Adan counsels dryly. “You’re not with us, are you, Warden?”

The warrior shakes his head. Margo turns to Blackwall, trying to stuff that feeling of lost helplessness as far down as it will go. “May I ask when...” She trails off.

“Tonight.” Blackwall clears his throat. “Bull, the Chargers, and some of Cullen’s men.” His expression strikes her as strange. “We go to Therinfal,” he offers after a moment, in a deceptively light tone.

So that’s part of Torquemada’s decoy strategy — to divide up the evacuation so that the enemy will have to make an educated guess as to where to strike, and when. Like a shell game — guess which container isn’t empty. Except, of course, considering this is no doubt Torquemada’s doing, the shell game is probably rigged. Still, the entire scheme depends on a careful evaluation of disposability.

“With the Herald,” Blackwall adds, as if in afterthought.

Margo’s stomach drops. Either the Warden is outright lying on purpose, or... or he doesn’t know that Evie is not headed that way. Unless... She opens her mouth to reply, and then she closes it. “Are you Andrastean, Warden?” she manages.

He nods slowly. “Not an especially good one, I’m afraid, but yes, I suppose I am.”

“Then Andraste be with you,” she says through cold lips.

He inclines his head slightly. “And may your gods be with you, agent. Maker willing, we’ll meet again.”

Chapter Text

Margo leaves Adan and Blackwall to the task of wrangling the ingredient mill. She hurries to the house she shares with Solas — no point in calling it her house now , she supposes. Whether Evie’s convoy is really meant to leave tonight, to Therinfal or otherwise, she has no doubt that Solas will be in the kid’s evacuation party. If so, he is likely packing, and she should be able to catch him before he leaves. The practical thought — that there might still be time to work out how to minimize the risk of the hex, if only they have a chance to discuss it — flits above the murkier, heavier waters of unconsidered feelings. Some quiet, private part of her feels wound tight as a string and brittle as glass.

Margo pushes the door open. The house is dark with evening shadows, the shutters closed against the day’s dying glow.

She navigates by feel. She takes a few steps, noting with a hollow in the pit of her stomach that the sound travels differently. A shard of fire crystal filched from the apothecary allows her to ignite the candle on the desk.

Solas’s things are gone. All the furniture is still there, of course, complete with the heinous portrait on the wall, the table, the bed with its threadbare blanket.

The bookshelves stand empty. His travel pack and staff are missing, as is the collection of papers and other miscellanea. Her own garb is arranged neatly in a corner, her bedroll folded for travel. The space, stripped of any imprint of its previous occupant, suddenly feels as eerie and impersonal as a roadside motel.

Her eyes land on a note on the table. Margo picks it up and congratulates herself on her steady hands. She stares at the scrap of parchment, the sense of déjà vu tinged with a grim sort of irony. She’d very much like to leave Solas a parting missive one of those days. See how he likes that .

The scroll is uncharacteristically uneven.

Forgive me my abrupt departure, ma’nas, there was little time to warn you of it — when I sought you out, you were nowhere to be found. I trust Sera passed the order of evacuation to Master Adan (despite her distaste for the messenger) and that your alchemist mentor took the necessary steps. Trek to the north. Seek me out in the Fade — I will provide what guidance I can. Yours. S.”

Then, at the bottom, added in a hurried hand:

Do what you must, but live.

Margo folds the note and tucks it into the inside of her coat where Auntie’s compendium rests in its habitual pocket like a talisman.

She hesitates for only a few moments before walking over to her travel garb. Her pack feels a tad heavier than she remembers it. The cord that holds the top closed is tied with an unfamiliar knot. She pulls it apart, rummages through the contents, and her fingers graze against a rectangle of smooth leather — not one of her books, by the feel of it. She extracts the foreign volume. The dim orange glow of the candle leeches the green tint from the cover, but she recognizes the tree design stamped into the spine well enough. An ungenerous thought fleets across her mind — either the book will prove utterly useless, or Solas doesn’t believe she will survive long enough for whatever revelations it might contain to matter. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t think that he will.

Margo shoves the thought aside as unproductive and returns the book to the knapsack. She’s not entirely sure what decides her. The note, maybe.

She procrastinates a bit — adjusting Molly’s harness for a snugger fit around her waist, tightening the straps that hold her bedroll to her pack. Eventually, she runs out of stalling tactics, so there is nothing left to do except to swing the travel gear onto her back. Her palm brushes against Molly’s hilt, and the dagger hums in her head, as if sensing her mood.

Fun? Fun soon? Stab stab?

Margo huffs an uneasy chuckle. “Bet you and I have strikingly different definitions of fun, buddy,” she mutters. Somehow, the absurdity of conversing with her apparently possessed and possibly evil weapon keeps the mounting sense of dread at bay.

She leaves the house and shuts the door behind her.

Since showing up at the tavern or at the requisitions tents to request travel rations strikes Margo as asking for unnecessary attention, she sets off as is. She will have to return, anyway.

Getting beyond the palisade turns out easier than she expected — Margo avoids the back gate entirely. Instead, she makes her way up the slope behind the temple. Above, the mountain’s flank is dark — Amund’s campfire is no longer there. She clambers up the rocks that form a natural fortification, the stockade built flush against each side of the outcrop. A moon, low and vast, hangs above the treeline, and Margo has no trouble spotting the sequoia look-alike she and Sera used as a cache marker.

She slows her pace once she is about fifteen feet away from the tree. Between the dark trunks, torchlight flickers. She can hear voices, pitched low, but not low enough not to recognize at least one of them.

“Sera?” she calls. Better make her presence known before the archer decides to put an arrow through whoever is creeping up on what is clearly intended as a surreptitious meeting.

A hush follows, but then a figure steps forward — in the unsteady glow, Margo recognizes the outline rather than the individual features.

“Well, don’t just lurk, yeah? Since you’re here.”

Margo steps into the circle of torchlight. Aside from Sera, three other people — two human men, one of them little more than a boy, and one elven woman — are building what Margo assumes to be some kind of shelter. Beneath a rudimentary roof of branches topped with snow, she spots several crates. The elven woman does a double take, and her expression changes — surprise, recognition, and then a wry half-smile — and Margo finds herself grinning back, probably with totally idiotic glee. “Ellandra! I didn’t know... How did you... How’s Jenny?”

“What d’ya want?” Sera cuts in. Her tone is bone dry.

Margo frowns, confused by the sudden hostility. “Sera, what’s going on?”

The archer’s face pinches in irritation. “That’s no business of yours. I passed Old, Long, Bald, and Ugly’s message to Adan, didn’t I? Should’ve gotten your new fancy title all sorted out, so you’re not gonna be left behind when the important people scat. As long as you’re fine, right?” Sera crosses her arms over her chest.

“Wait-”

Sera talks over her. “‘Cept, still leaves all the little people they don’t friggin’ give a shite about — no one’s pulling strings for them , are they? But bet Lady J’s gonna give a nice speech ‘bout it later, all teary-like! Something something, ‘Our brave workers! So proud of our cause... ’” Sera spits into the snow, a viciousness in her face Margo has never seen before. “So, asking again — whatcha doing here?”

“Looking for you, among other things,” Margo says — with commendable calm, too. She points her chin at the crates half-hidden in their shelter. “You know they’re splitting the evacuation, right? Some are leaving for Therinfal.”

“Pfft.” Sera’s scowl deepens. She shifts, almost vibrating with barely contained impatience. “Had Friends put caches on that route weeks ago , but it won’t matter now, will it? Not after Baldy’s, ‘ Let’s all go through the mountains because the Fade feels soothing on my arse,’ or whatever. Yeah, I know. Friends in places, yeah? Friggin’ brilliant. Can’t you keep Elfy occupied so he won’t come up with more ideas — ‘cause someone’s gotta. Be doing the rest of us a frigging favor, like!” Sera sticks both hands into her hair and scratches furiously before she catches herself and crosses her arms over her chest again — a suppressed nervous habit, Margo guesses. “You seen the rosters? Well, I might’ve had a peek, yeah? This ain’t new, they’ve planned this — but for Therinfal . Even then, knew it wouldn’t be everyone, but now?” She gestures, vaguely, into the darkness beyond the flickering circle of light. Sera’s three companions have stopped working and are watching the archer with matching tense expressions. “Not enough food or blankets or... Not for sitting arse-deep in the friggin’ Frostbacks for however long, waiting for Elder Wank to turn into Frozen Wank while he chases us about. So Leli and the lot are pruning, yeah? Stall whoever don’t matter too much ‘til the bloody tosser and his bloody army take care of the extra mouths we can’t feed proper while the big people march off.”

Margo nods. “I’m not stupid, Sera. I know how this works. But the road to Therinfal is potentially way more dangerous than Solas’s option — there’s no sense in blaming him for that. So, with that in mind, how can I help?”

Sera surveys her with the same hard, angry twist to her mouth. “Why would you care?”

Margo stuffs her hands into her pockets, letting the annoyance percolate into her expression. “Do I really need to answer that?”

“Enough. You picked a shite time for bickering,” Ellandra interjects suddenly, turning to Sera with amused irritation. “Since when does it matter who any of us is bedding? You never liked the blokes I took up with either — and yet here I am, still...” she flashes a sly grin, “... digging around in the snow like a blighted gopher with you lot, ‘stead of rolling around on my nice featherbed with my rich and handsome nob, hmm?”

Sera, despite herself, snorts. “Last time you had a featherbed was when you nicked the bloody geese! And don’t get me started on... what was the name of that last one?”

Ellandra waves the question away. “Point is, she’s clever. We can use that. The Vint magister was all but browning his trousers when he realized they’d just... lost her. You know he threatened to drain the lake if they couldn’t find the corpse?” The redhead’s eyes twinkle with a fierce sort of humor. “And an alchemist, you say? Useful.”

Sera’s expression thaws a little, before turning shrewd. She casts a quick glance at Margo, then suddenly breaks into a rather feral grin. “Blow up shite well enough, Spindly, I’ll give you that.”

Ellandra nods. “Redcliffe’s no longer ours, however you twist it. And our closest alchemist is in... what? Jader?”

Sera squints sourly at her friend but, at length, she nods. “Fine.” She turns to Margo. “Fine. Already know Ellie, ‘cause idiot magister, yeah? Not the others. This is Thornton,” she points to the older man, who offers Margo a slight nod, “and this is Gar.” The boy grins, and Margo realizes that his youthful looks are just that — a sharp-featured face and a slight, lanky build. He’s no younger than her own borrowed body, and possibly quite a bit older.

Margo glances at the crates again. “How much of a ‘redistribution’ operation can you really set up in the time we’ve got left?”

Sera’s scowl is back. “Well, that depends, don’t it?” She pauses. “Jenny’s here, you know? In Haven. Got other kids, too. Just cuz you don’t see them… ‘Cept haven’t seen them written down on any roster. So can’t very well just sit on my arse, can I? Even if it is just three days.”

“About that.” Margo tries to put into words her amorphous unease, the odd hunch percolating at the back of her mind ever since Ser Lancelot the Fortuitously Timely’s forlorn gazing. Of course, it could just be his misapplied infatuation with Maile, but... “I have to wonder about de Chevin making his appearance when he did. The timing is... just very convenient, isn’t it?”

Sera’s eyes narrow. “You think they let Knighty go.”

Margo schools her features into a neutral expression. “Something like that.” What was it that Amund said? Mind who does the speaking. Here’s to hoping that this is just unfounded paranoia.

“Not much else we can do tonight either way,” the man called Thornton comments. His voice has a pleasant rasp and a lilting accent Margo can’t quite place. “I know the area well enough up to the pass — whoever leaves Haven on the mountain path will have to head there.” He looks Margo over. “Your lover’s the one who suggested the mountain route, then?”

For lack of a better option, Margo nods.

“We need better maps. The main evacuation won’t set up beacons — not with an army on their heels — but we need to know where we’re leading people. Can you get us that, lass?”

She turns it over in her mind. Solas did tell her to meet him in the Fade and promised to offer guidance. “I can try.”

Sera makes a face. “ ‘Try,’ Spindly? Nah. Not good enough. Baldy’s off with the Herald and outta here — pulling just enough strings to get you back into his bedroll safe and sound. While the rest of us are figuring out how to keep kids and old folk and people from bloody well freezing, or starving, or just plain getting bled like pigs! If you’re not gonna help, then piss off, yeah?”

“Oh, enough with the ‘class traitor’ routine, Sera!” Margo manages to stifle another flare of irritation, but not before the words break free.

Sera frowns. “The what , now?”

Margo sighs. “Remind me to tell you about a fellow called Marx, if we survive this.” She musters a calm she doesn’t feel. Sera’s anger is... understandable. It really is. But Ellandra is right — this is completely unproductive. Best nip it in the bud, if she can. “While you’re pilfering supplies and smuggling people out in secret ahead of the attack, you too are deciding who gets to live and who doesn’t. So that we’re very clear.”

Sera doesn’t bother to hide her disgust. “Think I don’t know that?”

“I’m sure you do.”

The archer gives Margo a long look, and then her shoulders slump a fraction and, for a second, she seems terribly young — still a kid, really — but then she draws herself up, and it’s gone. “Fine. Tomorrow, I’ll fetch ya. Get ‘in touch’ with Baldy and get those maps, or whatever.”

***

She leaves her travel gear, as originally intended, in the hiding spot by the sequoia. Solas’s house stands as vacant and dark as it did when she left it. Margo doesn’t bother undressing. She pulls off the jacket and kicks off her boots, and then she lies down on the bed, indifferent to the creeping chill. There is a lingering scent about the blanket — sweat, wood smoke, and sex. The faint hint of pine needles and ozone mixes with another, vaguely familiar note, which she assumes is her borrowed body’s scent.

She closes her eyes, holding the fragile silence against her fractured thoughts. Morning, as Baba liked to say, is wiser than evening. If only that were true.

She doesn’t remember drifting off.

Her dreams are a jumble of shifting, uncertain terrains. She tries, several times over, to reach for Solas — with no result. An unpleasant sense of a watchful presence settles at the fringes of her awareness, in the dark zones where her dreaming attention doesn’t quite reach, and Margo promptly retreats to the chicken-legged hut. The feeling of being watched vanishes. She tries to summon Solas there as well, but to no avail.

She wakes in the dark to the sound of screaming.

Chapter Text

Choose your poison

Please enjoy the sight of Imshael wearing his Solas suit. My absolute favorite part of this image is this: if you look very closely at the shadowed part of his silhouette, you will be able to tell that there's something... alarming about it (hint: Imshy wears that feathery shoulder pad mage armor in the game)

If you'd like to learn more about @Chelbizarro and her work, check out the Q&A on Tumblr!

Chapter Text

In Margo’s half-woken grogginess, pulling on her boots takes too long — wrong foot, footwraps bunching uncomfortably around her toes. That task finally accomplished, however poorly, Margo stumbles blindly around the cabin trying to locate her jacket and Molly. She trips over a chair, steadies herself against something. The dagger harness slides out of her fingers, but she catches it mid-fall. Somehow, she manages to fasten it on, already halfway to the door.

The night air assaults her nostrils with acrid smoke. For the briefest of moments she glimpses, through eyes still blurred by the Fade’s hold on her mind, the outline of the blood ward — a writhing, restless deeper darkness against the night sky, like a perverse weather dome.

The apothecary is aflame. Margo freezes in mid-stride, as if in the clutches of a nightmare, unable to move, her mind blank with panic. The chantry bells toll in a frantic rhythm.

A dark, limping figure hurries towards her from across the courtyard, and she finds herself gripping Molly’s hilt in a clammy palm, her body stepping into a fighting stance ahead of her conscious orders.

She recognizes de Chevin by the mop of blond hair, matted and in disarray. He wears no helmet, but the rest of his armor seems to bear no trace of recent battle.

“My lady, quickly, Haven is under attack, we mustn’t—”

“You lied,” Margo hisses. “You said we had three days.”

The former chevalier comes to a halt in front of her, lifting his hands in a placating gesture, his expression wary. His breath comes in labored gasps. “I...” He stumbles, casting a worried glance at the burning building. “Evidently, I was misled. There isn’t time—

In the distance, a terrible groaning sound — followed by a hollow, dry crack like a gunshot, or a tree trunk sundered by lightning. More screams on its tail, voices raised over the chaos, dispensing harsh orders which Margo cannot decyipher.

“They split their forces to put us in pincers.” Ser Lancelot the Grievously Misled points a gauntleted hand at the mountains towering over the lake’s eastern tip. “There...”

Margo follows with her gaze. Torches. What must be hundreds of them, mottling the mountainside, winking in the darkness like a swarm of fireflies

Many, but not that many. Not even by medieval standards. Unless a large portion are walking in the dark — or haven’t crested the mountain range yet. “Is that all of them?” she asks.

“No.” He expands the original gesture with another sweep that encompasses the slopes leading to the ruined temple. A swarm of lights spills down towards the river bed that feeds the lake. “It may not be all of their army, but it is more than enough to raze Haven to the ground. The Inquisition won’t hold the bridge for much longer.”

Cruel and petty gods, did Sera get the kids out? She wrenches herself from the grip of numb terror and forces herself to move — though in what direction, she has absolutely no idea. “Where’s Adan? Who set the fire to the apothecary?”

He shakes his head. “I do not know, but we cannot linger here. Commander Rutherford has ordered a full-scale evacuation of all remaining civilians. I am to—”

“Rutherford’s still here?” Margo interrupts. “Who else? How many remain?”

Ser Lancelot the Ill-Informed shakes his head again. “I was tasked with rounding up whoever was left in this quadrant. So far, you are the only one I have located. We must leave at once.”

Margo readjusts her grip on Molly. Which of the two dubiously chivalrous bastards is better? The one who proposed to lobotomize her friend, or this one... Mind who does the speaking. “Where’s Rutherford?”

De Chevin doesn’t get the chance to answer. An odd red glow draws their attention. Figures burst into the courtyard, the crimson glint on their skin too dark and too rich for firelight.

See what ripens , lelkem .

Margo swallows back nausea. They are templars in outline only, if that — what little humanity remains to them has been rearranged to revolting effect. They seem to glow with an internal light, like some demented lava lamp. Behind the four massive, ghoulish shapes in the vanguard Margo spots two hooded and cloaked mages creeping up slowly — their mumbles doubling in uncanny resonance, the sound weaving into tactility over her skin like the touch of cobwebs in the dark.

The former chevalier draws his sword and steps in front of her, harnessing the enemies’ attention to himself. There is a hitching awkwardness to his movements. Six against two. Bad odds, even if she were more than a barely competent fighter. Worse odds still with de Chevin not fully recovered from his injuries.

Margo’s grip on the dagger tightens. Molly? Silence. Buddy, I’m going to need some extra help here . For a few seconds, she doesn’t think it will respond.

Fun? A rush of eagerness in some deep and atavistic part of her. Stab stab? A hopeful interrogative. Then, a little plaintively, it adds, Hungry... Feed a little... first?

The image that blooms in her mind’s eye is unambiguous. Margo swallows. And then you’ll help?

Ohhh ... A satisfied sigh, sensing her acquiescence, she guesses . Yes, yes, Partners ! It twinkles in exuberant anticipation. Oh, yes. Most excellent friends. Oh, how we shall feast!

The templar-shaped horrors in front exchange awful, guttural calls — labeling those noises language would be a vast exaggeration — and charge. Margo clenches her teeth and slices her left thumb across the blade of her dagger, smearing the blood along its edge. The pain pierces through the fog of surreality, and she finds herself slammed into the moment, suddenly all there, acute, precise. Something inside her unfurls — the shadow of another consciousness, like a memory not her own.

Come dance with me, fleshling!

Molly, she decides, is not a Molly at all. The blade’s presence in her mind, now colored by gender, registers as vaguely masculine. But dance she does. Step, spin, parry — she ducks out of the way as a sword comes bearing down on her — a flick of the wrist, and her dagger, like an extension of her own body, sinks into flesh with a grinding crunch, metal shoved through gristle and glass. A strange tingling pleasure courses up her arm from where the blade coats itself with blood and lyrium. She dodges another blow, dancing to the side, letting her inherited instincts — and the thing that inhabits her weapon — do the work, merely directing them in strategy. She wonders, in passing, what cost this unholy union will exact of her.

Later. She will pay for it later. If there is a later.

De Chevin, a few steps ahead of her, works through his attackers with doggedly lethal precision despite his recent wounds. Something condenses, the air thickening with the scent of sweet spice, like tarragon and nutmeg, but laced with the stench of rotting meat. Familiar. One of the mages must be a necromancer.

There . Margo directs her body — and the dagger formerly known as Molly — at the hooded figure.

Oh, yes! Let us taste that one! Gleeful and covetous.

Too far. She can hear his spell cresting to the cusp of materialization, like the dull, mounting roar of a jet before it comes airborne. The air crackles with a gathering charge.

Throw me! Wheeeee!

She does.

Molly — which she decides will henceforth be known as Mordred — flies, and flies true. The mage crumples, the rounded pommel of the dagger protruding from his socket like a grotesque googly eye. The tension in the air snaps back and dissipates. The dead necromancer’s counterpart stumbles, his casting interrupted, and Margo rushes forward before he can recover, dodging one of the lyrium-riddled monstrosities — large and strong, but clumsy with its mineralized bulk. She skids to the fallen mage, her momentum carrying her over the corpse, but not before yanking the dagger from the dead man’s skull. She turns around in time to see the other mage fall, an arrow embedded in his chest — and then she is slammed to the ground from behind, a crushing weight on her back. A reek — decaying flesh, rosewater, burning plastic, something else she can’t begin to identify — smothers her before her face is shoved hard into the snow, metal-covered digits tightening around her neck, something grinding into her spine — a knee, she guesses. Her dagger hand is pinned at her side. She tries to scream for de Chevin but gets a mouthful of snow for her effort. The pain in her back almost undoes her.

Slice... up up up . She isn’t at all sure whose voice offers this wise council — hers, or her dagger’s — but, with a monumental effort, she manages to angle her pinned wrist up. Something strains and crunches, a flash of pain quickly dulled by a sudden and utterly perverse wave of pleasure as the dagger digs into its target and extracts its crimson tithe. An enraged snarl above her, and the pressure on her back eases for a second, long enough for her to wriggle from under her assailant and roll to the side. She tries for a groin kick, but it is met with a rather unsatisfying metallic toink .

Her attacker, as it turns out, is weaponless — which explains its rather hands-on approach to her elimination — and bleeding profusely, though from where, she can’t tell in the unsteady light of the burning apothecary. It should be dead, based on the sheer amount of blood slicking its armor, but it apparently failed to get that memo. Against the flames, its face is dark and featureless save for the red glow of its eyes — utterly and completely devoid of any reason or humanity. Whatever personhood it had has been devoured by the lyrium. The mutant scrambles to her, trying to pin her with its weight again, its hands groping for her neck. Margo jams her finger into one of the glowing sockets with a muffled cry, half rage and half terror — at least the eyes present a visible target — and it howls before redoubling its effort to crush her windpipe, undaunted by the sudden absence of depth perception. Behind its head, the fire flares. With an awful wrenching sound, the apothecary’s roof caves in, sending a thick pillar of sparks into the inky sky.

A whistling swoosh, a wet, meaty thwack, and in the next instant the mutant’s head is gone altogether. A dull thud a second later announces its landing in the snow. Margo shrieks as the spray of blood hits her face and then promptly shuts her lips tight — eyes as well. The dead weight of the now headless lyrium monstrosity crashes on top of her.

She is extracted from her predicament by Ser Lancelot the Timely. Margo sways, whimpering at the lingering ache in her back, neck, and wrist. De Chevin steadies her with a hand at her elbow. Her arm pulses with the unpleasant aftershocks of whatever the dagger harvested from its victim, the pleasure dulled to an itchy throb.

“Done,” de Chevin pants. “Best be safe... Keep your eyes closed.” Something bracingly cold passes over her face — a snowball, if she were to hypothesize — and Margo decides that the erstwhile chevalier is cleaning the lyrium-laced blood from her in the world’s oddest rendition of a mama bear with her errant and grubby cub. “There.” She opens her eyes. He passes her an uncorked restorative, and Margo gulps down the reassuringly bitter draught. The pain and oncoming shock retreat.

The courtyard is still. She resheathes Mordred ( My name is yours to give, my fleshling friend ). It withdraws with a contented purr, both from her hand and from her mind, leaving in its wake a feeling of disturbing repletion. She meets de Chevin’s rather intense glower. He clutches her shoulders and gives her an abrupt shake. “ Now will you come with me? Or do you wish to wait for this army to arrive?”

As if in emphasis of this reasonable demand, a shadow — improbable in its enormity — glides over them, all the more impossible for how silent it is, stealthy as an owl. Margo feels its passage with some sense other than her eyes or ears, but the wind from its wings is material enough, blowing her hair back from her face. She cranes her neck to see, but whatever soared above them melts into the darkness of a starless sky.

“What was that?” she squeaks, her voice pathetically small in her own ears.

“Not finding out, yeah?”

Margo turns to the sound. Sera lands softly in the snow — apparently, the archer was using the rooftops to get around. It certainly explains the provenance of the arrow that killed mage number two. “‘Cuz in case you didn’t notice, we’re all arse-deep in it. Must’ve lost the friggin’ bridge. These ones ran ahead, ‘cuz bloodthirsty pissbags. Rest of the blighted pillocks aren’t far behind, either.”

“Who’s left? Who hasn’t had a chance to evacuate?” Margo gulps. “Sera, the kids, did you—

Sera’s face softens a fraction. “Got the kids, yeah, ‘bout an hour ago. Had...” The archer’s eyes flicker to de Chevin, her eyebrows drawing together. “A feeling. Thornton lead them out, quiet-like. All the fancy folk should be gone by now, ‘cept for Cullen. Saw him earlier, playing with his trebuchets.” She fidgets. “Still lots of people left. D’you get anything from Baldy yet?”

Margo shakes her head. “I can’t reach him.”

Sera spits out a curse. “Well, keep trying ‘til you do. We’ll hold at the pass, if Elder Wank doesn’t go poking after us.” She turns to Lancelot the Puzzled. “Your intel was rubbish, Knighty. That’s never three days, now, is it?”

De Chevin has the decency to look contrite. “I had wondered why they left me for dead without administering... a coup de grâce.”

Margo frowns. What would this enemy army gain from leaving a misinformed messenger to forewarn their query of an attack, however inaccurately? Confusion? Last-minute scrambling? Division among the ranks?

She doesn’t get the chance to finish her thought. An eerie keening at some frequency just at the edge of hearing washes over her and calls forth a sudden crippling wave of terror. Hairs at the back of her neck try to rise, and the flesh on her forearms breaks out in goosebumps. Margo jerks back. It’s all she can do to stop her knees from buckling. Judging by the expressions on her companions’ faces, she isn’t the only one affected by the sound. Sera claps her hands over her ears, accidentally whacking herself in the head with her bow — she follows that up with some truly colorful invectives. De Chevin grimaces, his hand reaching for his sword. Above them, the shadow passes again, and then it circles back, the smell of charred leather and putrefaction blasting beneath its unimaginable wingspan. It hovers in the pillar of smoke from the apothecary with a bassy whoosh, whoosh, whoosh .

De Chevin’s face falls. “Dragon,” he states with horrible calm.

“Oh shite, it’s — fuck!” Sera presses herself against the nearby wall. De Chevin reacts next, slamming Margo into the planks and shielding her with his body — and effectively blocking her view, a fact for which Margo is not inclined to feel any gratitude whatsoever. She tries to push him off, but Ser Lancelot the Immovable Object might as well be a tombstone for all the give he has.

In the next instant, another nearly ultrasonic screech — Margo cringes — a sound like giant bellows sucking in air, and then... she braces herself for the pain that will obliterate her, a half-articulated prayer that it might go quickly, and...

Nothing. Or, no. Not nothing. The roar of an open furnace, and then a blast of wet heat and the hiss of vapor.

“Move over, I can’t see.” Margo tries to wiggle from behind Ser Lancelot the Human Barricade. Above, she glimpses the glimmer of a scaled, segmented underbelly, a shade paler than the rest of the creature to which it belongs. She stares in mute fascination as the dragon’s ribcage — so dragons really do exist, the winged bastards — expands with an oddly mechanical clicking sound, and then...

A blast of magenta fire erupts from its throat, illuminating the beast’s obscenely vast form. The ball of flame rushes in the direction of the chantry in a roiling inferno and... dissipates over the presently invisible but still unmistakably present cupola of the blood ward.

The dragon screeches another shriek — annoyed, by the sound of it. Then, with a powerful flap of its wings, it catches the updraft of heated air from the burning apothecary — and Solas’s cabin, too, now that the fire has jumped houses, Margo notes with a strange, dull constriction of her heart — and ascends in a wide, graceful spiral.

“Is... this customary of dragon fire?” De Chevin inquires in an oddly flat tone.

“If you want to know why it’s that color, my guess...” Would be lithium chloride. “... Is as good as yours.” I’m so happy, ‘cuz today I’ve found my friends . Margo chokes down the awful sound rising at the back of her throat — a half bark and half sob that in another, better life would never pass for laughter. “If you’re asking why it didn’t hit anything...”

“That.”

The net will hold.

So that’s what it was for.

“Haven has a magical ward over it,” she confides. There. What is Torquemada going to do if she spills the beans now? Breathe fire at her? Been there, done that.

“Kind of friggin’ magic stops dragon fire?” Sera spits out, unsettled and angry.

The kind that took a metric ton of dragon blood, wiping out a village of cultists, and some creative application of an important religious figure’s cremated remains, apparently.

Ok, National Hero, what were you really up to?

Margo says nothing. Another group — this one, without the sick shimmer of red lyrium — rushes into the courtyard, their tabards bearing the mark of the All- Seeing Octopus. Even without the insignia, she’d recognize them as the Inquisition’s people, based on the Tweedle looming in the rearguard. The other Tweedle is missing. They are led by the woman templar who sparred with Evie to such humiliating effect — what feels like a century ago, now. Ser Lysette, Margo recalls.

“You!” the templar yells. “What are you still doing here? Quickly, before it returns! Or before you all burn!”

They join the other group, Lysette already pivoting them back towards the chantry.

“Alchemist, where is Master Adan?” the templar throws over her shoulder.

Margo’s heart sinks. “He’s not with the rest of the evacuees? The apothecary was burning when I came out...” She glances at the blazing ruin behind her, the heat from the flames like a slap on her cheek.

“Not with my group. Maker willing, he went with Threnn’s contingent.” Lysette casts a grim glance at Margo’s face and shakes her head. “That blaze is not survivable. If he was in there, he’s gone. We need to move.”

Once the templar turns around, Sera’s hand curls around Margo’s upper arm in not too gentle a squeeze. “You going with them? I’m not dragging your gear if you leave it.”

Margo shakes her head. “I want to find Adan, if I can, and—

“Gonna gather more people and sneak above. Won’t all fit in the tunnels — not all at once, anyway. The ones left behind or just dragging their friggin’ feet until it doesn’t matter, someone’s gotta get those.” The archer presses something cold and smooth into Margo’s hand. “Mountain pass, yeah? Get Adan, get out, get stupid Elfy to give his stupid maps... directions.... Bleargh. Also, you owe me supper. And ale. Lots. So don’t friggin’ die.” And before Margo can so much as cry out, the rogue is gone, swallowed by the darkness between the buildings.

She looks at the object clutched in her palm. A bottle of shadow powder.

De Chevin tugs her after the rest of the troops. Margo follows on rubbery legs until, somehow, she finds herself in front of the chantry. It’s crowded. People everywhere, their faces pale and deadened with fear, blur in the torchlight.

“Quickly, inside! Follow—

“Agent? Agent!” Margo pivots. The young woman — a redhead with delicate features, only vaguely familiar until Margo’s memory snaps into place with recognition — catches her sleeve. “Diana! I’m Diana. We met in Redcliffe. Agent, we can’t find Enchanter Minaeve. I thought maybe... Because she and Master Adan...”

Oh fuck . “I don’t think they were in the apothecary.”

Diana’s face contorts with the pain of a final hope, dashed. “Minaeve mentioned they were going to finish up in the other house — the one where the old alchemist lived — but they should have been back by now...”

“Inside! Now!” Lysette bellows. The crowd jostles Diana out of Margo’s reach. What on earth would they be doing in Taigen’s hut? Banging? Trying to get more books out?

Idiots.

She elbows her way against the current, struggling to escape the press of bodies.

“Where are you going?” de Chevin cries out in alarm. “My lady—

“If you’re going to follow me around, then help me find Adan,” she bites out.

She doesn’t wait for his protest. Once she is free of the crowd, she takes off at a dead run, de Chevin a few paces behind her. They pass a knot of soldiers hoofing it in the opposite direction. Margo ignores their calls.

Behind them, that wretched keening again and the bone-wrenching terror in its wake, muted by distance. Something about the particular frequency of the sound, perhaps. She turns abruptly — the flying bastard hovers over the temple. It makes to land, but its talons brush against the invisible barrier, and it retracts its claws, balling them up under its belly in a comically pigeon-like clutch. It opens its maw. Below, shrieks of utterly abject horror.

Please hold . Please don’t break .

The tongue of carmine fire spreads across the invisible dome but does not reach the ground, save for a few tendrils leaking into the perforation Evie left in her wake. They flicker over the temple’s roof but mercifully do not ignite it. The screams below dwindle.

“Haven is holy ground!” someone yells, with a note of hysteria. “No evil shall touch it! The Maker fights at our side!”

Margo turns her back on the chantry, her peripheral vision snagging on the dim silhouette of one of the trebuchets. As if in confirmation of the heartening declaration regarding the Maker’s partiality, the war machine spasms and propels some large, whistling projectile in a soaring parabola. Margo finds herself tracing its trajectory with her gaze until it disappears from view.

It hits the glacier a good deal above the row of torches in a gargantuan burst of pulverized ice. At first, nothing seems to happen. And then a deep, low whump gathers like an acoustic thundercloud, cresting into a rumbling oceanic roar. The avalanche descends with murderous swiftness. In its path, row after row of torches — along with whatever lives carried them — is snuffed out in seconds like a child smudging out a drawing with a finger. Margo gasps for air, abruptly in short supply.

Behind them, the crowd explodes in exultation. Prayers and curses in equal mixture soar to the deafened heavens.

“It will slow them down,” Ser Lancelot the Fount of Optimism comments at her side. “It won’t stop them entirely. Not as it might normal troops.”

“Then we had better see if we can get Adan and Minaeve and get out.”  

Before Cullen simply buries us all, she doesn’t add.

Chapter Text

After the chaos of the chantry courtyard, the preternatural stillness of the secluded path to Taigen’s hut feels oppressive. An odd burnt smell drifts on the wind. Margo keeps running despite the mounting dread that they won’t find anyone — anyone alive, anyway. When the cabin comes into view, its windows dark and its door yawning on a rectangle of inky blackness, Margo finds her legs turning leaden with the sudden, hollow certainty that they are too late.

The quiet is broken by a branch snapping somewhere in the blue-black shadows between the arrow-straight pines to the right, and Margo’s peripheral vision catches a smudge of red — a dull crimson glimmer. She pivots on instinct, unsheathing Mordred. De Chevin comes up to stand beside her, his sword raised in anticipation. They wait. Their breath hangs in clouds of milky vapor.

The red templar stumbles out from the shelter of the treeline, takes one more shambling step forward, and collapses into the snow. He lies there, unmoving. Even in his utter stillness, the lyrium in his blood outlines his body in eerily muted burgundy — as if instead of reflecting light from its allotted wavelength the substance has simply leached all other hues from the spectrum, leaving nothing but itself.

“What killed him?” Margo winces at the way her words cut through the icy silence.

De Chevin stalks to the fallen mutant and, without checking for vital signs, drives his sword through its back with one quick, economical strike. He yanks the blade out, one boot braced against the former templar’s cuirass, and then he kicks the body into a supine position with a labored grunt. He peers into the fallen creature’s face. “Fire.”

Margo turns away, her gaze sweeping over the snow. “There’s more of them...” Now that she knows what to look for, the dark shapes littering the clearing snap into focus. All but two of them bear no trace of lyrium — mages, then.

“There was a battle.” Ser Lancelot the Obvious drifts back to her side, resting a cautioning hand on her forearm.

“I can see that.” She manages to keep the irritation out of her voice but steps out of his grasp.

“My lady, perhaps it would be best if you stayed here.” Ser Lancelot the Overbearing’s tone drips with a quiet solicitude Margo can’t talk herself out of resenting. “I will—”

“No.” Her voice rings alien to her ears. The cloud cover has parted. Some of the elfroot plants she dug out all those weeks ago have sprouted new shoots, young leaves glinting silver in the starlight. “We go together.”

“As you would have it, my lady. But let us first assure ourselves that all the ones here are dead.”

Margo forces her jaw to unclench. “Let’s also make sure we don’t accidentally finish off our own people.” She counts seven bodies. Most of them are burned beyond recognition, the reek of charred flesh knotting her stomach into a miserable, nauseated ball. Her breath hitches as she approaches the corpses.

The two templars are easy to identify — fire melted them down to bizarre crystalline structures, a melding of lyrium and sinew and bone, the sickeningly delicate filigree of an entirely inhuman armature beneath the absent dermis. Vaguely, she wonders about the difference between the grotesquely deformed ones and these more humanoid shapes. The others are a different story. Armor and skin have flaked away. She crouches by one of the blackened husks — a small one, comparatively speaking — and, clenching her teeth against an overpowering wave of dread, she reaches for the thing that glints around the carbonized neck. The stench of cooked meat twists her stomach in another cramp, and Margo recoils, landing on her ass in the snow. She recognizes the amulet in her hand instantly and drops it with a curse. Another inheritance from Maile — her predecessor’s lover wore one just like it.

“Check for the amulets.”

De Chevin nods.

All five unidentified corpses bear pendants with the sigil, and Margo exhales in exhausted relief. “I don’t think any of these are ours.”

“Let us proceed, then.”

***

The air in the cabin is stale and thick with a sharp, vaguely familiar smell that stirs some old memory at the back of Margo’s mind. Something about tarring Baba's roof when she was a kid.

“Clear,” De Chevin notes from the doorway to the side room.

Margo fishes out her fire crystal and tries to kindle the oil rags in the rusty iron sconce mounted into the wall by the entrance. They ignite on the second try. She turns around to survey the interior, blinking the flame’s green afterimage from her retinas. The house has been stripped to its architectural basics, and Margo’s eyes fasten on the dark glossy stains marring the floorboards. “What is that stench,” she mumbles under her breath, because focusing on the smell distracts her from thinking about what the liquid on the floor might be. De Chevin crouches and dips a gloved index finger into one of the puddles before bringing the hand to his nose. He rubs his finger and thumb together and looks up, frowning.

“Blood?” Margo congratulates herself on her steady voice.

He shakes his head. “Pitch.”

Something inside her unclenches. She looks at the floorboards with new eyes, letting the pattern solidify into a different image. There, by the wall, four thin ring-shaped stains mostly absorbed into the wood. “Let’s see if we can find where those barrels went.”

De Chevin takes one look at her expression and wisely doesn’t protest.

They find the trail behind the cabin. Two parallel lines run down the slope towards the lakebed, framing two sets of footprints — one larger, with a longer stride; one shorter and narrower, indented with rounded heels. The sledge groove on the left is smeared with greasy grey. Margo and Ser Lancelot the Not Very Stealthy try to keep to the trees as they make their way down the slope, leaving the exposed trail to their right but within view. They come to a halt at the top of the embankment that leads to the frozen water below.

“Maker’s breath! Why are they here?” Ser Lancelot the Flummoxed gapes at two robed figures at the edge of the glittering icy expanse.

Margo has no doubt that her grin comes across as utterly demented. “With those two? My guess is that they’re planning to set the lake on fire.”

Adan spots them first. He pivots sharply, his hand reaching towards his belt, but he never completes the movement. At his side, Minaeve lifts her staff, the gathering tendrils of a fire spell painting her fingers red against the pale wood before the magic fizzles out. “Adan, what is—”

Maker’s blighted bollocks, lass! What are you doing here? Come down, come down, don’t just stand there for anyone with a bow to see.”

Margo skids down the steep slope, de Chevin a few paces behind her. Her feet hit the ice, and she stabilizes herself on the slippery surface, taking a few ginger steps towards the alchemist. Minaeve, face pale and streaked with soot, fixes de Chevin with a stony glare.

“Who’s this, then?” Adan inquires, pointing his beard in the direction of Ser Lancelot the Unintroduced.

“This must be the chevalier who brought us the news of the attack. Michel de Chevin, is it?”

Ser Lancelot the Misidentified stiffens. “I no longer bear that title.”

Minaeve readjusts the grip on her staff. “It is unfortunate, messere, that your estimation of this army’s speed was inaccurate.”

“I regret that my warning was not as effective as—”

“Might want to leave the regrets for later. What in the Void brought you out here, fledgling? You should’ve evacuated with the rest.” Adan jerks his head towards Haven. “How are we holding up?”

Margo shakes her head. “They’re still trying to get people out. There hasn’t been a full-scale assault yet, but we met some particularly eager ones...”

Adan nods. “As did we. Can’t say I wanted that mess, but it gave us something to test the new pitch formula on.” He cuts a glance at Minaeve, whose lips press into a very tight smile indeed. “Happy to report it works as intended. What else?”

“The apothecary burned down, though I don’t know what started the fire.” Margo draws a breath. “You saw the dragon, right? It’s... encountered some difficulties. For now.”

Adan and Minaeve exchange a look.

“I told you—”

“Not now, enchanter.”

Margo shakes her head. “Adan, what are you two doing here? Diana said you were supposed to be back.”

The Terrible Two trade another meaningful glance. Minaeve smoothes out her robes. Adan rubs the back of his skull, his palm scraping against the short salt-and-pepper stubble. “The two of us have... ahem... been working on this... Well, as I said, we’ve been developing this new formula for pitch grenades, and Enchanter Minaeve had some fire essence lying around, so she had this fantastic idea—”

“Adan, not now.” Minaeve motions with her staff towards the cabin hidden behind the trees. “We’ve been stockpiling pitch for some weeks, storing it here in case... Well, I’m sure you understand the necessity of keeping flammable materials away from civilian infrastructure.”

Margo nods. Sure, that’s all you were doing. “Looks like you’ve decided to transport the flammable material somewhere else.”

Adan makes a face. “Yes, well, once it was clear that we all got caught with our breeches around our ankles...”

Minaeve clears her throat and gives Adan a very pointed look. The alchemist throws up his hands in capitulation. “The bridge. With enough firepower, we can take it down. It won’t stop them for long, but it’ll buy us time, and with the recent thaw, if they’re forced to take their train over the lake...” His lips stretch in a vicious rictus. "They'll go under."

Margo nods. "So what's the plan?"

Ser Lancelot the Unenthusiastic glares at Adan, then shifts his doleful expression to Margo. “This is madness, my lady. At best, it will put us in the path of this Elder One’s vanguard. And at worst—”

“How might we be of assistance, Master Adan?” Margo cuts in with saccharine sweetness.

***

By the time they’re halfway across the lakebed, it occurs to Margo that they are on what is effectively a suicide mission. Somehow, this realization is less shattering than she would have expected. She isn’t entirely sure when the idea set root that she won’t make it out of this alive — perhaps when the dragon showed up, or perhaps earlier, during the slog back from her rendezvous with Sera and the Jennies. Or perhaps when Amund cast the bones and queried his goddess on her behalf.

The four of them push the heavy sleigh bearing its lethal load along the edge of the frozen lakebed, clinging to the deeper darkness beneath the embankment. They move fast, and Margo finds herself enveloped in a shimmering sense of wonder. The pristine crispness of the wind around her — a pure snowiness, piercingly sweet, like the breath of some mythical frost god at her nape. The marvel of Minaeve’s spell that increases the traction of their shoes, but leaves the possibility of gliding forward, as if on skates — a childish enchantment, the elven mage demurred with a small, apologetic smile and a glance at Adan, who met the self-dismissal with glinting eyes and a gruff, “Well, it’s brilliant, innit?” Above them, the night has darkened with the thick cloud cover of yet another snowstorm, and the mountains around tower, primal and forebodingly majestic. Even the light of the innumerable torches that trickle towards the bottleneck of the bridge looks abstractly beautiful.

No one stops them. To their left, the dragon soars and screeches over Haven, circling the village in a widening orbit. An orange flare — followed by distant screams — snags Margo’s attention. One of the trebuchets goes up in flames, a pillar of fire against the night sky like a colossal effigy. Adan curses, but they don’t slow down.

They come to a halt some fifty yards from the austere masonry of the bridge’s support arches, the stone glazed with massive icicles like the columns of some fairytale ice castle. The lake’s steep flank offers a modicum of shelter, but from there the bank tapers off to a gentle incline, a stretch of beach undoubtedly lovely in the warmer season but perilous now that it offers no cover. Straight ahead of them, the umbilicus of the bridge is crawling with enemy troops — shadow puppets against the glare of the fires, stark and precise.

“Why aren’t they charging?” Margo whispers. Adan shakes his head, his hand resting on the rough canvas that covers the pots of explosive. “They’ve got the bridge. Cullen’s trebuchets — what’s left of them — won’t reach this way.”

“They are assembling their forces for one decisive assault,” de Chevin supplies quietly. “They had expected their dragon to crush Haven’s defenses during the initial attack, I'd wager. Barring that... they must adapt their strategy.” In the darkness, Margo can’t make out his expression — the former chevalier’s face is bathed in blue shadows. “If I were to guess, the dragon will set the siege machinery aflame, and once there is no risk of another avalanche, they will march.”

“How are we going to get this sleigh over there without getting spotted?” Margo looks from Adan to Minaeve to de Chevin. They got this far — presumably someone has a plan?

“Fledgling...” The alchemist’s habitual gruffness does little to mask the brief hitch in his voice. “If we cut them off here, they’ll be forced to trek across the lake — if they’re stupid — or go all the way around it. Or try to scale the banks upstream. Or devise a makeshift bridge where the gorge narrows, but that’s at least half an hour up the riverbed on foot.”

“We will take it from here.” Minaeve’s hand curls around Adan’s forearm, giving it a short squeeze. “We... There was a prototype we were developing, for quicker transport across the lake... Well, no matter. Adan and I will need to stay in case it does not work as intended, but there is no reason for the two of you...”

Adan sighs. “Right. This was our idea, lass. We knew what we were getting ourselves into. If you two trek back the way we came, you should be able to make it to Haven. Follow Rutherford’s evacuation plan from there.” He hesitates. “You already bought us time by helping us get out here.”

“Minaeve, can you use your magic to make the sleigh move?” If Dorian was able to levitate a giant ball of water, clearly some kind of telekinesis exists.

The elven woman shakes her head once. “I was never a very talented mage. That sort of power is—”

“Bollocks.” Adan squints into the darkness. “There’s no more time to waste. Turn back, lass. We’ve never had a chance to test this, and I’m not about to drag you into—”

“Tough nug nuggets, Master Adan." Margo manages to dissuade her stomach from doing a backflip. "I’m not leaving. What’s this prototype you were talking about?”

Adan and Minaeve exchange another look, and the alchemist draws himself up. “It’s what you might call a snow ship.”

“An ice runner,” Minaeve amends with a delicate sniff.

***

The square sail is rudimentary. The canvas Margo originally mistook for a simple tarp bunches up at the base of the makeshift mast that Adan, with de Chevin’s assistance, flipped above the sleigh.

“We only have one shot at this.” The alchemist motions to the bridge. “That column in the center. Repairs were scheduled after that particularly bad freeze last month cracked the mortar, but Cullen’s idiots only put in wood reinforcements, and shoddy ones at that.”

The wind buffets Margo’s hood, slipping beneath the leather and making the tips of her ears ache. “Do you have a contingency plan in place, in case this doesn’t work?”

Adan doesn’t reply, and Margo turns to the mage. Minaeve’s expression — what she can see of it — is glum, but resolute. “Yes. We push the sleigh into place.”

***

The sail billows, then inflates into a smooth, almost graceful arc, the gale stretching the canvas into a taut curve. The wind is just right. For a moment, when the sleigh takes off — a push as they run on the ice, the traction still there on the soles of her boots, though weakening enough to make her footing wobbly — Margo finds herself awash in eerie exhilaration. The “ice runner” picks up speed, and at Adan’s command they let it go. Something flares in her peripheral vision — another trebuchet — but all of Margo’s attention is on their Flying Dutchman. It glides forward, faster and faster, straight as an arrow, bearing down on the central column. Margo almost whoops when the sleigh crashes into the pillar of stone, just a tad to the right of its intended trajectory, but close enough.

It might have worked. For a brief moment, Margo can almost taste the alternative — on a different branch of the horrid Tree, the trail of pitch left by the carefully perforated pot would have ignited in one continuous line, all the way to the column. The pots would have burst with a roar. The bridge would have crumbled right then, a colossus on feet of clay. For the briefest of instants, she sees the little flame from Minaeve’s staff running along the darkened snow, chasing after its origin in a comet tail of fire, and reaching its target.

"Shit." Adan's curse snaps her out of the wishful reverie as the flaming trail peters out midway. On the bridge, shouting. Dark figures leaning over the edge and pointing, first at the contraption resting against the column below, then at the abbreviated line of fire that very inconveniently leads right back to their less-than-optimal hiding spot.

"Quickly, aim your spells at—"

"I don't have the firepower," Minaeve interrupts Ser Lancelot the Agitated with a shake of her head. "The earlier battle depleted most of my reserves. I have one lyrium draught — enough to sustain me in close combat, but nothing at range."

It is probably too much to hope that the bastards on the bridge will just, oh, throw a fire spell at the pots to see what happens? At least, they seem puzzled, though it doesn't last. The dark shapes making their way down the steep incline are probably intent of investigating the self-driving sleigh — either that, or they're about to follow the flaming trail to its source.

Shit. Think.

Margo reaches into her pocket, her fingers closing around the vial of shadow powder. She pulls it out and takes a breath. Was there ever anything quite so vapid as demonstrative heroics? This is stupid. She forces the air out through her teeth, her lungs burning with the cold.

She was never meant to survive this long, anyway — not in the grand scheme of things, not considering the odds. It’s not even her body. She stole it, really. An entirely unearned lease on another’s life.

She was meant to die in that damn alley.

"I'll light the pots.” The words are out before she can think better of it. “Can you three create a distraction?”

“Look, fledgling...”

Adan trails off. In the thick silence, all Margo can hear is the roaring of her own heartbeat in her ears. “I’m the only one who has a shot at sneaking up on them undetected.”

“My lady, no—”

Ser Lancelot the Vested in Her Survival doesn’t get the chance to finish. Minaeve rests a hand on Margo’s shoulder. “We’ll draw them away. Do what you can, agent. Do not wait for us — make your way across the lake. The ice should hold you.”

The scramble to the pots is a blur Margo barely registers. Afterwards, she will only remember pieces. The crunch of snow and the deep, almost melodic groaning of the ice sheet underfoot. The oddly warm jagged texture of the fire crystal in her palms. The oily smell of pitch. A giant ball of flame erupting ahead of her, roiling on itself and so dark in the center it seems almost black. And the outline of the bridge, folding in half like a castle of cards.

Something hits her, hard, right between the shoulderblades, and she goes sprawling forward, the wind knocked out of her. He head meets the ice. The last thing Margo registers is the dragon. It lands on the other side of the broken bridge in a thunderous rumble of crumbling stone, flapping its wings as it fights for balance. Atop its spine, some awful, grossly distorted being leaches all colors from the spectrum, shimmering with the infection of red lyrium.

And then the world goes dark.

Chapter Text

Somewhere, light years away, the body Margo occupies is being dragged. Scritch scritch scritch. The sensation slips away. She struggles for purchase, but it is no use. There is nothing to anchor her perception in the vastness of wherever this is. She tries, without success, to reach for the chicken-legged hut on the edge of the ancient river, but the landscape floats out of focus, as remote as a star — she is so high above it, on such a wide orbit, that she can finally see her sanctuary for what it truly is: a minuscule island in the roiling mists of a dark, unfathomable ocean, alien and indifferent. A half-formed thought — because thoughts in this disembodied state feel separate from her own self, a distant and unimportant chatter — fleets across the horizon of what remains of her attention. It contains within itself the kernel of an intent not of her own making. It urges her to return into this body, borrowed though it is, on the other side of eternity. But the why of it seems rather poorly argued, and the injunction bears little urgency.

She drifts. Somewhere impossibly far, she catches a whiff of oily smoke.

On the horizon that isn’t one, the Tree extends, a canopy of endless possibilities, winding and twining and writhing into an encapsulation as self-sufficient as an egg. She is not sure which aspects of the universe it is responsible for — perhaps the Tree is not unique but merely one among an infinite array, a forest that extends into infinity, vast beyond her mind’s capacity to fathom, and one that she cannot see for... well. The Tree. Here, in the space between, where there is no darkness nor light nor thought, she is almost outside of the demands of that axis mundi and not yet pulled by any other.

It would be easy. To allow herself to drift apart, to atomize, to leave the coil behind and let the gentle current carry her away like dandelion fluff. Adrift, she could sprout somewhere else. Far away, on soils untainted by the red shimmer that courses through the dendritic structures of that remote armature. A modest weed.

More dragging. Shuff shuff. It seems utterly unimportant.

On the other side of some improbable membrane, her body — she can feel how thin her tether to it has grown, nothing but a frayed filament to a container that fits her askew on the best of days — is being hoisted up unceremoniously as a sack of grain and then draped across something vaguely rounded and creaky. It comes into motion, but the nature of the movement eludes her. There are no real sensations accompanying these spatial manipulations. No cold. No pain. No fear at what is being done to her. The fate of her shell seems, at most, abstractly unfortunate.

Time passes somewhere else, but here, it is undifferentiated, eternity packed into a moment. From a distance that feels unbridgeable, the tickling of a familiar intent. Terribly old, and like all old things terribly stubborn in its immutability. “Wake up, fenor. You must return. Northwest. Go northwest. Please .” There's an urgency to that last plea that strikes Margo as incongruously amusing — something about expecting ancient entities to be immune to the draw of desire or attachment, and yet... Perhaps it is just a matter of habit.

Regardless, it is enough to give her the initial push, to alter her momentum. With a terrible effort of will, she redirects her movement, not away from but towards the infected structure. This Bardo business is highly overrated anyway. The devil you know, and all that... Though that thought too quickly crumbles and disperses. Whatever insight into the nature of things her disassociated state offered, it has slipped away.

Margo isn’t sure how long it takes her to regain the capacity to feel time. She forces herself to pay heed to the echoes that reach her through the thick murky layer of what she assumes must be the Veil — that's the only logical explanation, really, that she somehow got herself stuck behind it, with only a meager connection to her enfleshed avatar. Is this what Solas meant when he mentioned that spirits "press against the Veil”? Is this muffled indifference and insidious slipperiness of focus what Thedosian spirits normally experience in their interaction with the physical world? Or is this more akin to what happens when a soul is torn away from the body and drifts to its next destination? (Wherever her spirit is going, Margo would bet all of her meager monetary Thedas-side gains that she is not headed to the Maker’s side or towards his proverbial seat, whatever the Chantry's opinion of the matter might be).

She senses another summons, a plaintive alliteration full of urgency and sorrow and an awful and unwelcome understanding of all those darker parts she keeps under the rug. The boy who is no boy at all. He beckons back with rhyme but supplies no reason. Tracking that other side of things is exhausting, and Margo finds her grip weakening. The mere thought of reincorporating feels exhausting.

“Now is not the time for self-indulgent wallowing, little thistle. There is work to be done.” The voice, sharp and steely and utterly implacable, snaps Margo into awareness like a slap. It shoves her back towards her body, anchoring her with merciless efficiency, like something held in place with safety pins. A profoundly uncomfortable turn of events: the skull-splitting headache and mild nausea suggest that her fleshy self is suffering from a concussion.

But the Tree recedes and dissipates like a bad dream, so there is that.

It takes Margo a few tries to determine where she is — and which way she is facing. At least she is no longer being dragged. Something is propping her up in vertically where she sits. Cold, hard metal presses against her right arm, and she is held in place, her back leaning against some kind of bracket. It takes her entirely too long to decide that she is not in fact being cradled by a robot.

Icy specks hit her face, and the reality of Thedas finally reasserts itself. Dragons. Lyrium monsters. Snowstorms. Adan and Minaeve. Exploding pots. It does invite the question of how exactly she managed to escape the aftermath of the bridge. And who was that lyrium-riddled scarecrow riding the dragon? And, last but not least, where the hell is she being taken — and by whom?

Here’s hoping that the Terrible Two made it out alive.

Margo decides to keep up the dead possum charade until she can work out the answer to at least one of these questions. She inhales quietly. Leather, armor oil, the sharp smell of old sweat, and something sweet, a little dusty, and rather bizarrely delicate — the scent there one moment and gone the next. She forces her features to remain placid against the instinct to frown. Who among her local contacts might be wearing a violet-based perfume?

The lateral rocking and displeased snorts suggest that they are riding a horse. And that they are going at a light trot — briskly, to be sure, but they are not fleeing frantically at a dead gallop. A suspiciously leisurely retreat.

She hazards a quick peek between her lashes. The armor, at least, is recognizable — the Orlesian insignia is worn and dented, but the embossed plate wasn’t exactly aiming for subtlety. The brief sense of relief — minimally, it’s not one of the mineralized horrors — is quickly smothered in a wave of alarm, and then sudden, suffocating panic. She chances another brief glance. Right, that's what she thought. The moon. It's not supposed to be on that side. Not if they’re trying to follow the rest of the Inquisition’s people into the mountains.

It’s happened to her once before, in her old life. The mounting horror that the car is headed in the wrong direction. It was her first month in her new country, her English still better written than spoken. Her overly correct syntax as damning as her heavy accent.

It had turned out benign in the end. A rather silly linguistic misunderstanding, but the dread had been real enough.

She never hitchhiked after that.

The creeping panic is the same. Except, this time, she is trying to focus through the additional handicap of what is likely a concussion.

The arms around her tighten as the rider reins the horse to a halt. The animal snorts as they shuffle in place, the creak of snow beneath their mount's hoofs deafening in the icy silence. The wind picks up in a whistling howl. No other sound reaches her ears that might explain why Ser Lancelot the Directionally Challenged decided to stop.

They stand like that for a few long moments, Margo still doing her best to feign indisposed. The former chevallier locks his left arm around her middle and brings his right hand to the hilt of his sword. Margo allows her own hand to flop to her side as limply as she can fake it, letting her fingers brush against Mordred’s harness. She stifles a relieved sigh. The blade is still in its sheath.

Awake? Awake at last! The dagger’s exuberance curdles into accusation. Sleepy fleshling, leaves Mordred all alone... Before Margo can take her hand off the hilt, the tone changes, something sly to the non-voice. Most excellent fleshling worried, yes? Shiny knight took... wrong turn? Turned around? Mordred offers a solution. Simple — stab stab, spill entrails, scry for better path! Helpful Mordred, yes?

Before Margo gets a chance to convey to the dagger that “stab stab” requires a whole lot more coordination than her contused body is currently capable of, a familiar voice rings out over the wind. “You seem lost, lowlander.” Amund’s tone is affable — though Margo has spent enough time with the augur to recognize the buried warning. “There is nothing down the path you chose but taint and death.”

“Why are you here, Avvar?”

“Looking for a friend.”

Ser Lancelot the Confrontational shifts behind her. Margo hears his lungs rise with an intake of breath. “I have no quarrel with you, so I suggest you let us pass. My companion needs a healer.”

“A bit of a detour if it is indeed a healer you seek." A pregnant pause. "As to your companion, you went a long way to guard a woman you barely know. I wonder how much further you might go on that journey of yours."

"Would you rather I had left her to the Elder One and his abominations?" Hot outrage creeps into de Chevin's voice, but he keeps himself in check otherwise. "We were grossly outnumbered. In the confusion, I saw an opportunity to escape and to save a life — and I took it."

"If that was indeed your goal, then I suppose you have my thanks." Amund's chuckle has a bitter edge. "I don't relish the idea of remaining a skuldari with no chance of settling the debt. Come along, then. There is strength in numbers.”

At her back, de Chevin stills, as if to ready himself for an attack. “I only see one of you. What numbers do you speak of?”

Margo tries to think through her options. Revealing that she is awake and more or less functional would likely get her out of Ser Lancelot the Wandering's project of damsel-rescuing faster, but it won’t help explain his unorthodox choice of escape route. Because she is pretty sure that they were facing southeast, not northwest — not away from this Elder One's troops and deeper into the Frostbacks towards the rendezvous point of wherever this proverbial mountain pass might be, in any case.

On the other hand, maintaining the dead possum charade might force de Chevin to reveal his hand — if there is anything to reveal, of course.

In the end, she simply doesn’t have the nerves for a long con. The almost physical need to put some distance between herself and Ser Lancelot the Proprietarily Grabby overrides any strategic ambition, and Margo exploits the erstwhile knight's brief distraction and loosened hold around her waist to slide off the horse, aiming herself into a nearby snowbank to soften the fall. De Chevin barks a startled curse, but Margo is already on her feet, dusting off the snow. She tries to steady herself through the sudden bout of dizziness. When Amund steps up to her and rests a heavy hand on her shoulder, Margo exhales in relief — and not just because he stops her from toppling over.

“Easy, little spider. Let me take a look.”

Margo complies, under de Chevin’s caustic gaze. “Do you know this man, my lady?”

She’d bet good money that “man” was substituted for “savage” at the very last moment.

She nods, allowing the Avvar to prod at her head and neck. His fingers brush against a tender spot at the side of her skull, and she yelps in protest. Amund’s face, creased with worry, relaxes a fraction once he palpates around the goose egg. “The gods must favor you, weaver. This could have been much worse.” He reaches into his furs and extracts a vial of restorative. “Drink.” His attention turns to de Chevin. "I would hear your explanation of what happened in the village, lowlander, but let us rejoin the others first." Beneath the mask, his expression is difficult to read, but the vertical lines that brackets the Avvar's mouth make Margo conclude that Amund is either issuing yet another threat thinly disguised as an invitation or indulging in some truly subtle form of irony. Or, likely, both.

"Amund, are you with Sera's people?" With any luck, the archer managed to round up some of the stragglers and got out safely.

"Aye, what's left of them. And I suggest we catch up, before your elven friend decides to put an arrow through my eye for taking too long to fetch you." He gives Margo an inscrutable look. "Your gear is in the encampment. And I believe you owe the thief skuld ." Amund’s eyes dart to de Chevin, and he jerks his head to the side in an oddly resigned headshake. "The gods do enjoy their tangled knots. Come, now. Both of you."

~~~

Amund insists on bringing up the rear, his dry, "Follow the trail in the snow, lowlander," at de Chevin's initial protest confirming Margo's suspicion that the Avvar has decided that having Ser Lancelot the Inexplicably Taciturn at the back of their procession is not the wisest tactical decision. Then again, the overly large wolf-headed hammer rather adds persuasiveness where mere words do not. Her own suspicions about de Chevin’s mental state churn uneasily, and she keeps trying to stare holes in his cloak, though the worn canvas offers no added insights.

They trek into the woods, then uphill along a narrow gorge with craggy, leafless trees clinging to the rocky cliffs on either side. It offers them shelter from the wind — and from any aggressively minded archers, though she supposes it wouldn't keep them safe from an aerial attack. She has absolutely no idea where they are relative to Haven — or any other geographic marker she is familiar with. Ahead of her, the horse, a broad-boned, squat, and shaggy creature, trudges along after de Chevin. The damnable beast decides to drop a collection of steaming balls of shit in a particularly dark part of the ravine. It does so without breaking stride, and Margo does her best to sidestep the manure despite not actually seeing it below her feet. The air is bright and cold, thin with the elevation, and she keeps trying to balance the warmth of her scarf over her nose against the needs of her lungs. A rather unwinnable battle.

"How many people are with Sera?" she asks, to break the unpleasant silence.

"A few," Amund offers cryptically, and he fails to elaborate.

"Is everyone all right?" Margo presses. "All things considered, I mean."

"Some are."

Margo buries her nose in her scarf after stuffing her hands deeper into her pockets. "Did... Have you heard anything from Adan and Minaeve, by any chance?"

Another pause. Ahead of her, de Chevin turns his head slightly.

"Aye. Gar found them in the early hours of the morning."

Margo swallows around the sudden hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Are they... Did they make it?"

"They are alive." The Avvar’s tone is uncomfortably gentle.

"Wait..." Something doesn't add up. "You said 'last night.' How long has it been since the attack on Haven?" How long was she out of commission, exactly? It didn't feel that long.

"About a day." Amund raises his voice over the noise of their ascent — presumably so that his words can reach de Chevin's ears. "Tracking you down was no easy task. Your rescuer chose a curious route."

"How did you find us?"

Behind her, the Avvar chuckles. "I have my ways, weaver. Now save your breath — we have an ascent to finish. The blizzard moved on ahead. If this Elder One intends to give chase, he will do so soon. Best we catch up to what's left of this Inquisition of yours, while we still have the chance."

~~~

Based on the position of the moon — and based on the frozen state of her toes — Margo estimates that it takes them several hours to reach the upper part of the mountain. The path levels out, but it is no stark improvement. The rocky ledge they follow is a mess of ice and crumbled rock, and the horse snorts and shies away from the steep drop to their right. Margo feels a keen sense of solidarity with their equine companion's less than enthusiastic progress. She has never been comfortable with heights, and the memories of plummeting down from the ramparts in the Hinterlands crowd in her mind, unbidden. The drifting snow at their feet creates the illusion of additional movement, as if the mountain itself were floating off into the darkness, like a gargantuan ship on an invisible ocean. They walk single file, and she keeps one hand on the wall to her left, clinging to the rock against the fear that the wind might pick her up and blow her off the ledge.

Once they round the weather-worn cliffs at the summit, the path widens, sloping down into a snow-swept cirque. A moon — a pallid blue giant in the wintry sky — spills its light into the bowl-shaped valley below. Margo stares dejectedly at the jagged mountain line on the other side — now those peaks look like they mean business. This shit was just the foothills.

"Hold," Amund cautions, and Margo huffs a grateful sigh at the temporary breather, but the relief of catching her breath is short-lived. The cold creeps under her clothes, a painful numbness nipping at her fingers and toes. Her head still swims with the aftermath of the blow, its effects lingering despite the restorative. Either that, or it’s some kind of newly rediscovered altitude sickness. The combined sleepiness and nausea are not a good sign, one way or another.

"Why are we stopping?" Ser Lancelot the Laconic has not uttered more than two words since Amund caught up with them. He sounds strained and irritable. Not a great aficionado of mountaineering, apparently.

"Look down, lowlander. There, just behind The Anvil."

"And which, pray tell, is ‘The Anvil’?"

Margo perks up. "There, I see it!" The column of smoke is difficult to spot at first — oily black against the dark grey of the snow on the other side of the bowl, where the slanted moonlight doesn't reach. The rocky pyramidal formation that juts out from the middle of the cirque below them obscures the source of the smoke from view. "On the right side of the flat top, just below us. Amund, that's too dark and heavy for campfires. What is this?"

Next to de Chevin, the horse neighs and shakes its mane. The former knight rests his palm against the side of the mount's neck, making some noncommittal soothing noise. "A smoke signal, perhaps?"

Margo swallows. "Sera's group?"

"No.” The Avvar's words scramble on the wind, and he raises his voice. “The thief's people should be north of here. There is a gorge there that offers shelter. Either this is the group that left Haven through the tunnels beneath the mountain, or it is your Prophet's contingent."

Evie! Evie and the others. The realization that she never actually expected to see any of them again steals her breath, but Margo kicks the sudden vertigo under the rug. The elation is promptly replaced by sudden dread. "Shouldn't they be further along? What are they doing here?"

"The snowstorm slowed them or turned them around. Best we go see what's—"

The rest of Amund’s words are drowned out.

At this distance, the dragon's screech carries none of its lethal terror, but amplified by the bowl-shaped valley it gathers ghostly echoes in some perverse rendition of stereophony. A blast of carmine fire backlights the butte — it really is shaped like an anvil, Margo reflects with the eerie detachment of someone whose capacity to panic has been worn thin from overuse.

Think, damn it. If this is Evie’s contingent — and why else would the dragon be all the way out here — then perhaps the three of them can tip the scales of the kid’s hex in the right direction. They might not make a difference in terms of the battle itself, but minimally they could alter the probability.

Margo lets her fingers curl around Mordred’s hilt. “We... If this is Evie and her group, there might be a way we can help them.”

Stab stab, Mordred supplies enthusiastically.

“No!” The sudden treble of fear in de Chevin’s voice gives way to exhausted acceptance, as if he is rehashing a purely pro forma argument. “We... What difference could we possibly make?”

Fuck it. Might as well force his hand a bit. Margo turns to Ser Lancelot the Likely Beleaguered. He averts his eyes, but she waits him out, and under her insistent glare, the former knight finally relents and meets her gaze. His face twists with the hidden strain of some hopeless battle before he manages to wrestle the pieces back together.

“Michel.” The gentleness of her tone is as deliberate as the decision to use his first name. De Chevin stills, every bit the cornered animal. “How much control do you have left?”

His brows knit on a frown. “My la-”

“Relative to Imshael, that is.”

For a few seconds, he remains utterly frozen in place before sucking in a harsh breath. “I...” He lets his arms drop to the sides, and Margo is horrified to see sudden tears well up and spill down his cheeks. He doesn’t seem to notice. “The demon leaves a stain, don’t you find? I... can never seem to get it off, you know. It just lingers . Like an aging courtesan’s overstrong perfume...” Ser Lancelot the Self-Loathing and Possibly Demented barks a horrid little laugh. “But you see it, yes? How could you not?” His voice, thick with shame, wavers before he regroups with a palpable effort of will. “His deals have some room for improvisation, I find, but it would seem that it is never enough. I did what I could to thwart him, though I suppose that is cold comfort.” The strange glint in his eyes dulls, and de Chevin seems to deflate, the agitation that gripped him releasing him a fraction. “Know this, my lady — the demon wants you near the Herald , though to what end, I cannot tell. I had hoped that by taking you far away...” He shakes his head. “He cannot puppeteer me directly, thank the Maker, and I am not privy to his plans. I do not know what awaits us.”

“It’s plain enough what awaits us,” Amund grumbles. He seems utterly unsurprised by any of these unpleasant revelations. His face is tilted to the sky, his dark eyes narrowed in some arcane, incomprehensible calculation. “This is not just your wishmonger’s doing, lowlander. We are, every last one of us, play pieces in the gods’ great game. The Lady’s signs are clear enough. This road ends here.” The Avvar’s hand comes to rest on Margo’s shoulder, giving it a brief squeeze. He keeps his gaze trained on the column of smoke ahead of them. “For what it is worth, little spider, I hope it is not yet your turn to leave the web. Come. Let us not waste any more time.”

Chapter Text

Their descent is more chaotic tumble than controlled run. The snow is deep and powdery, rising in fluffy swirls that glitter in the moonlight as Margo and her companions spill down the slope. She would kill for skis. Or, hell, a sled.

They do not bother with trying to be discreet.

De Chevin left the horse behind in the interest of saving time, but of the three of them, he is by far the slowest. He falls back, sinking ineffectually into the drifts.

By the time they finally near the butte, the eerie quiet is far more worrisome than the dragon’s earlier racket. Amund motions them to a stop, then he gestures upward, where the gently sloping base of the Anvil ascends towards the sheer cliffs that form the butte’s tabletop summit. “Up,” he mouths and sets off without looking back. Margo follows in the Avvar’s footsteps, making good use of the path he plows through the snow, mercifully shallower here on the lee side.

They round the cliff, Margo’s heart hammering in her throat. A small overhang shelters them, offering a clear view of the flat field of trampled snow a dozen yards below. Amund, usually unflappable, breathes a quiet but no less heartfelt curse — Margo cannot understand the words, but the explosive consonant clusters convey the general sentiment well enough.

At first, her brain balks, refusing to process the scene, quickly classifying it into the realm of abstract art. Senseless smears of black and gray criss-cross the snow’s blueish canvas — Jackson Pollock meets crop circles. Dark shapes litter the ground like toy soldiers knocked pell-mell by a child,  scattered in the giddy exuberance of make-believe carnage. Margo doesn’t allow herself to look too closely for fear of recognizing friends.

In the center of the circular pattern of smears and melted, mottled snow, a single figure stands — tiny in her oversized winter cloak and as perfectly poised as one of those bride-shaped wedding cake toppers Margo has only ever seen in not particularly endearing Hollywood romantic comedies. And in front of the lone girl, the sárkány, as Baba would have called it in a tale told by stovelight — the bridge between the worlds. The dragon. The English word, lacking the emotional weight of Margo’s native language, feels insufficient on her tongue, as flat and flavorless as chalk. The moonlight is kind to the beast, smoothing away its fraying edges to arabesques of blackened silver.

If the creature that stands at the dragon’s side used to be human, those days are long behind it. It moves forward with sickening grace, as if it’s doing gravity a personal favor. It stretches — and stretches and stretches — to its full distorted height, like something on stilts. It is thin beyond survivability, and its protruding mineral outcrops glint with a granite sheen and glow with bloody radiance.

They watch each other in total silence, the girl and the monster, in some faceoff that ignites in Margo an intense, soul-sucking sense of déja vu — a picture out of time, some cosmic pattern stuck on repeat through endless permutations, always different and always recognizable.

When the creature speaks, its voice has something of the dragon it rides — an acoustic wave that carries too far, with terror on its wings. “Pretender.” It takes a step forward. “You survive at the expense of those who follow you no more. This stalemate ends now.”

Oh unmerciful deity. Are they all dead? Is this what happens when Evie runs out of allies for the hex to draw on? Margo blinks hard, trying to wake herself up from this nightmare. The scene fails to change. She forces herself to look at the scattered shapes with a feeling like freefall.

Wait... Is she imagining things? Eyes playing tricks? No — there. Movement. Weak and slow, but movement nonetheless. At least from a few of the figures. Her held breath rushes out with a hiss.

“Whatever you are, I am not afraid!” Evie’s voice bears none of its usual childish sweetness. It is sharp and clear as a diamond.

The creature chuckles, rattling the rusty chain that hangs from its elongated waist like some overdramatic punk metal adornment. (Just a few safety pins in strategic places, and he’d be good to go.) “Words mortals often hurl at darkness.” Its tone becomes insinuating. “Once they were mine. They are always lies.” It takes another step. “Do not be fooled. The pitiful excuse for a priesthood you call the Chantry shrinks from what you are in the same pathetic terror you reserve for me. Tell me, child. How many more shall die before those very words are flung at you ?”

Oh. Oh shit. The scarecrow must know. However he learned it, he must have figured out that attacking Evie directly is the best strategy. Evie might very well be effectively unkillable, but she isn’t invulnerable . He can still use the hex to his advantage: if Evie’s own death is impossible, then he can leverage the deaths of others. It’s not that hard to be a hero — to throw yourself into the fray without a care for your own survival. So much more difficult to be the one always left standing.

Margo’s eyes blur with the cold wind, but she is pretty sure Evie cringes before the kid draws herself up again. “I know what I am.” She pauses, drawing on some hidden reserve to collect herself. “A friend once told me that if I’m going to be a monster, at least I get to pick what kind. Your words don’t hurt me. You’ll get nothing out of me.”

The overgrown scarecrow cocks his head to the side. “Perhaps not. The anchor is permanent indeed. You have spoilt it with your stumbling.” Another gliding step. “Your bravado means nothing. All terror you have known is meaningless mewling, for you cannot comprehend what it means to behold the utter absence of one’s God. Pray that you remain ignorant, child. For it is a most deafening silence.”

“Maybe He just didn’t want to talk to you anymore.”

Margo swallows back the wave of sticky panic. Oh, Evie, kiddo. It’s there, so very briefly, a little waver behind the defiant jape. That half-forgotten conversation with Torqeumada floats back up, and Evie’s wistful remark rings out in Margo’s ears, a perfect memory. I wish He’d still talk to me too.

Unholy hell. Evie’s “Others .” And the mysterious one around whose name or identity she could not speak. The one who came for the last time, to say goodbye. Surely, she couldn’t have meant...

The monster laughs, the sound low and perversely melodic, full of a terrible understanding with the cutting edge of pity. “Speak you of that thing you mortals call the Maker, mageling? Did you, perchance, fancy yourself this upstart god’s anointed witness? How shallow is your sense of history.” He takes one more step towards Evie, and then he stops. He lifts a taloned hand, but the gesture doesn’t seem to hold a threat — instead his claws cradle a sphere, bringing it level with Evie’s face. “There is no Maker, child. Know me. Behold the will that is Corypheus. I once breached the Fade in the name of another to serve the Old Gods of the Empire in person. I sought the light, as I was promised, but only darkness met me. Only chaos and corruption. Dead whispers . I have seen the throne of the Gods, and it was empty.”

“And you killed the Divine just so that, what? You could check again to see if someone came back?” Evie shakes her head. “You can’t tear the sky open just because you’re lonely .”

That seems to give Ball and Chain pause. “What is this Divine to me? A simpering old woman, a hollow symbol, but one for whom I had devised a use far above her station to ensure we would no longer beg at the feet of the invisible... had you not meddled. Think you I have forgotten, child? You stole the power of a ritual years in the planning. The gall.

“What is the meaning of this endless prattling? Why is he not attacking her?” De Chevin, who has finally caught up and crouches at Margo’s side, glowers at the scene below.

“The Darkspawn caster won’t risk catching the sharp tip of the god-touched prophet’s luck. Not yet, in any case. And so, he talks.” Amund’s voice is oddly pensive. “He shows more cunning than I would have expected of something so shunned. No gods will have him. He does not wish to slay the bluostar , lowlander . If he did, things would be simpler.”

“What are you saying, Avvar? That this is all in the hope of redeeming himself in the eyes of some forgotten Tevinter god?”

Amund grunts impatiently. “Have you not been listening? A god who simply is would suffice him.”

Ser Lancelot the About to Request Clarifications opens his mouth, but the words die on his lips. Red tendrils burst forth from the sphere in the lyrium-fruiting beanstalk’s hand and twine around his emaciated wrist. One of the crimson tentacles extends towards Evie. The kid holds her ground, despite the instinctive flinch. The carmine light snakes around her, probing, tasting, and then, as suddenly as it appeared, it retracts.

“Heed me, mageling, for it is more than you have earned. This broken anchor you flail at rifts is all you know. It is not all you are . I see you, child.” For a short moment, beneath his arrogant tone, a note of something else. Something awfully close to hope. “Your Chantry loathes and fears you. Your followers lie shattered. Like the one before you, you could bind them to serve you in undeath, should you so choose — and still you hesitate even in the face of that which opposes you.” He leans down, towering over Evie’s small frame. “You toy with forces beyond your ken with no more sense than a mindless thrall. Your god remains as silent as my own. Death will not have you, and yet you ask not why .”

It takes everything Margo has not to howl. No no no, kiddo, don’t listen to the fucker — he’s not doing you any favors. But it is too late. Even from their makeshift hiding spot, the subtle shift in Evie’s body language is unmistakable. That last bit got to her.

“What do you want from me?”

“I thought I knew my purpose. I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own, to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world. For a thousand years, I was confused. No more. Tell me, child, for I would know it now. Speak you not through silence? Harness you not power through the words of another?” He leans down, their faces inches apart. “Carry you not that which had been lost?”

The girl and the monster stare at each other in deafening silence. And then, suddenly, the misshapen mage bows his head — an unmistakable, completely incongruous display of reverence. “No mortal of this blighted time could hone your talents nor shape your magic. There is no place for you in this world, for you are meant for more than it can offer. Together we can bring certainty where there is none. Through you, the Gods might yet speak.”

Before Margo has the chance to state the obvious — that they need to nip this in the bud before Thedosian Slenderman makes any more forays into his obscene propositioning — one of the prone figures at the circle’s diameter stirs and rises to its feet. The movement is slow and labored — it lifts up on one knee, a sword used as a makeshift crutch. In the moonlight, the lone warrior’s outline against the snow is featureless, yet immediately recognizable: Cassandra.

“Evelyn!” The seeker’s voice is hoarse and edged with pain. “Do not listen to this... thing . It lies. We...” She sways and leans heavily on her shield for balance, or perhaps just added fortitude — though she seems barely able to prop it up against the snowy ground, let alone lift it. “You are the Herald of Andraste. I will follow you, wherever you take us. To the Maker’s side, if that is what is required. I do not believe this maddened creature can do you harm unless you allow it. Use that.”

The dragon whips its head around and roars. Cassandra stumbles back under the acoustic onslaught, but then she anchors herself in a fighting stance. She raises her sword, her arm shaking with the effort. The beast shuffles in place — in the crimson glow igniting in its gullet, the webbing of its wings looks distinctly moth-eaten.

“Evie!” Margo bellows to her own utter shock. “Evie, the sárk- — the dragon’s not alive, kiddo! Flip him! Flip him over!” She has no idea if she’s making any sense, but words are failing her. There’s no guarantee that Evie’s odd necromancy can even do such a thing, but what was it that Ball and Chain said? That she can control dead things? And then that case with Envy, and Margo’s own brush with decorporealization at the accursed show trial.

Here’s to hoping that Evie can also flip Ball and Chain, while she’s at it. Surely, that thing is not alive in any conventional sense of the term either.

Crimson lightning shoots out from Elder Wanker’s taloned excuse for a hand. It hits the rock face above their heads — he must be casting by sound rather than sight. Shards of rock pummel them, one sharp fragment grazing Margo’s leg, and she cries out in pain. Amund swears again and steps in front of her, giant hammer in his hands. He handles it with as much ease as a baseball bat. De Chevin springs to his feet and, with a tense, “We must assist!” barrels down the slope towards the standoff. Amund curses again. More figures stir below. Something had knocked them all out collectively — perhaps one of the demented beanstalk’s spells, or perhaps Evie’s hex redistributing risk to her advantage — but without killing everyone outright.

Evie stiffens. “I...” She raises both hands in front of her, hesitantly at first, then with more conviction, her fingers curling in some arcane, instinctive sign, something between a curse and a benediction. Her voice, when she finds it again, drops an octave. “ There I saw the Black City, towers all stain’d...

Beanstalk takes a step backward. The dragon screeches — in surprise rather than fury, by the sound of it. Margo holds back a jubilant hoot — as much in exhilaration that her ridiculous idea might work as for the fact that she feels no telltale pull. She’s outside of Evie’s vortex of “flipping.” Thank the Maker or whomever for that. A familiar shape at the edge of the circle draws her eyes with the glow of a barrier spell, and she files another thankful prayer with the powers that be. Solas is not dead. Some part of her had been certain that he would be. The second-hand heartache of unacknowledged loss hits her like a ton of bricks.

Gates once bright golden forever shut...”

The dragon lashes out with its tail, sweeping snow and rocks and catching a few of the fallen, sending them flying like rag dolls, but then it shudders, its grotesque, gargantuan frame overtaken by an eerie, almost mechanical tremor.

Ball and Chain seems to have recovered from his earlier shock at this unexpected turn of events, because this time he trains his fire on Evie. He seems reluctant and triumphant all at once, as if eager to prove some arcane theological point.

There is nothing subtle about the luck suck. Margo can almost see it, the leaching. So very similar to the blood ward over Haven, though with a different polarity, for lack of a better word — the same pattern of dark and prehensile cilia at the outer edges of her perception, extending into the very fabric of time, of chance, of life itself, drawing, pulling, rippling and ripping and stretching and encapsulating back again. An egg. A tree. A thing with no name, beyond language. It has no regard for any law or rule or concept. It is pure glitch. The universe’s cheat code.

Solas sways. He musters enough power to gather lightning, but it hits nothing consequential. And then he crumples, his barrier spell dulling to a wan silver. Cassandra falls to her knees. She screams, pain held in every syllable. “Do it, Herald! You can end this now! Do it!

“Stay here, spinna . Do not come closer.” Amund takes off at a run, much faster than his massive form would incline one to presuppose.

More figures get to their feet. Margo recognizes Ser Deirdre, and there, Ser Subira at her side. They trade a glance, seeking each other out before everything else. A few feet away, another templar — Ser Barris, perhaps. A few more Margo doesn’t recognize outright. And there, behind a large boulder, Dorian. She could weep for joy — they are all slow, and swaying, and disoriented — and clearly damaged in some way. But they live. They live, and everything else is fixable.

Heav'n filled with silence, then did I know all, ” Evie shouts, with breathtaking, bottomless sorrow. Even the demented magister draws back a fraction. He doesn’t seem to be affected by whatever Evie is doing — not directly, anyway. But the dragon certainly is. Kid 1, dragon 0.

“End the bastard, Evie! You can do it!”

Elder Wanker floats up like an asshole with a jetpack, and the orb in his hand emits a blinding beam of crimson light. Absurdly, it reminds Margo of playing with her cat, making her chase an uncatchable red dot all around her tiny studio. It fails to hit Evie — going wildly afield, it strikes one of the stumbling figures at the edges of the circle, burning it to a husk in less than a second. Margo gasps, torn between the need to run forward and the understanding that she can’t, she absolutely can’t.

“Desist, child. Wish you to see more of your allies fall? You are meant for greater things than this pretense at pointless heroism. We are not enemies. I see your purpose now.”

Evie, raked with strained sobs, clenches her hands into fists. “ And cross'd my heart with unbearable shame!” The dragon screeches in pain and terror, pawing at the ground and releasing chaotic fire, too poorly aimed to hit anything. Amund dodges the errant blast with almost bored ease, and he stalks up towards the beast’s rear leg, trying to stay well away from the lashing tail and snapping jaws. Margo has the distinct feeling that the overgrown lizard is being held together by Elder Wanker’s sheer willpower. Her gaze, frantic, sweeps across the battlefield. She spots Ser Lancelot the Perennially Misdirected. The former knight is not rushing to attack. Instead, he is taking slow, bizarrely deliberate steps towards where Solas lies.

He looks... like a thrift store suit three sizes too small for its wearer.

Oh no. 

It all happens too fast. Ser Lancelot the No Longer In Charge stops by the unresponsive shape crumpled in the snow and raises his sword, giving it a curious little shrug, as if it’s the last thing he expected to be wielding but he’ll make do in a pinch. And then he turns and looks directly at Margo.

“Well, poppet?” The voice, edged with malice and humor in equal measure, carries well, perfectly inserted into the silence between two moments. “Won’t you join us?” He raises his other hand, and shakes it from side to side. The vial between his fingers glints red. Who knew a flask of elfroot extract would hold such terror? Even at this distance, his leer is blinding. “What do you call it? Oh yes. Incentive.

He flips the sword with an unnecessary flourish and drives it down.

It’s pure instinct. Margo realizes what she’s doing only when Evie’s tear-streaked face snaps in her direction. Too close, just a few yards away. The kid’s eyes go wide as saucers. Another bolt of crimson lightning flies wild.

The pull , the flipping, hits Margo like a semi. Blood bursts from her nose, her ears filling with a static roar. It feels like she is running in water. Her bones burn with an agony she has no words for. She takes a few more steps, momentum carrying her forward, and then her body simply gives out. Behind the gossamer-thin membrane, other spirits press, enraged, sorrowful, joyous, all of them hungry , all the shades of every possible emotion — and some that have no name in any language she knows.

They beckon her to join, to trade, to be|with .

To return to her own.

Her kind.

Kindred.

Lethallan.

For We Are Many .

“Damn it, weaver, get back !”

Fear. Sorrow. Care. Duty. Love, maybe. Something like it, anyway.

“It’s ok, you’re almost there ! Do it, kiddo, ’s ok.” Margo’s voice is nothing. A whisper. Barely. The world spins off its axis.

More red lightning, deflected. At the periphery of Margo’s fading vision, Cassandra’s sword is cut off at the hilt as if by a laser. A few inches lower and it would have been the seeker’s hand.

“She too will die, mageling. Everything you love will die.”

This close, the Chernobyl Beanstalk is truly colossal. What the fuck do they feed these things?

“I care not for them, child. You may spare them if you wish. Join me . Join me and become what you were meant to be.”

No. No no no. Cassandra screams something, but the words are meaningless sound patterns. All speech loses sense. Gibberish.

The last thing Margo sees is Evie. Tiny resolute Evie, with a face full of love and despair and wrath.

The young woman’s final glance is for the seeker. She mouths something. Inaudible.

The monster extends its hand, the one not holding the sphere.

And the girl takes it.

Wind hits Margo’s face, rich with the stench of carrion and sulfur.

And then the pull is gone.