The first thing Lavellan knew was cold.
He shut his eyes against the bright light that seemed to come from within his own head, pulsing in time with his heartbeat. He groaned and tried to turn away from the bright but there was something wrong. Something terribly wrong.
He went still as he remembered. The ambush in the canyons above Emprise du Lion. The old maps were useless when faced with the towering growths of red lyrium that formed new canyons and choke points in what the map assured him were open forests and fields. He'd followed his usual strategy: spot the ambush, fade into the shadows, creep behind the nearest archer, poison his weapons, and then strike with twin daggers to assassinate the target. The first death was the prearranged signal for Cassandra or Blackwall or Iron Bull to unleash their challenge into the enemy ranks to distract them from the fact that they were already a man down. Then Dorian would split the field with a wall of fire. Or Solas would lay mines of ice. Or Vivienne would light up the field with arching bolts of lightning. They each had their own preferred chaos. Sometimes Cole would join Lavellan in the initial strike, other times Sera or Varric would hide in the back and pick off stragglers and strategists with hails of arrows.
That was not how this ambush went.
The Red Templars had a behemoth this time. Lavellan blamed the red lyrium maze, the canyons and towers formed by unnatural warm crystal that melted the snow around it. He would have sworn that was a wall when he passed it a moment before. But instead the wall moved, was once a man, and now had one gigantic maul where its hand once had been.
That explained the pain in his head and the lights that flashed even behind closed eyes. He must have been hit by the behemoth's opening swing. The last thing he heard was his name shouted in fear somewhere far away.
And now he opened his eyes to peer past the blinding light to take in his situation.
The bars of a cage greeted his gaze. It wasn't a small cage, not one of those dog-sized cages shems sometimes put elves into in order to humiliate them during the long wagon ride to a waiting Tevinter market. This was one of the wagon-sized cages he'd seen before, had picked a few of the locks to let the imprisoned villagers go free.
Unfortunately he would not be picking locks to get out of this one. His hands were bound behind him, his wrists felt like they were clamped in iron. Worse, he felt the stiff leather mitts encasing his hands, leaving his fingers little space to move. Mage-bindings. Even if he had his daggers they'd be useless to him with his hands so encased and locked behind his back. He tried to stand up but couldn't, not with the iron cuffs chained to the bars of the cage.
His wyvern-scale armor was gone as was his wolf-fur cloak, leaving him shivering in the silks he wore under his armor. “Should have let Dagna use the wool,” he muttered aloud.
And then he heard it. The Red Templars were nearby. Watching. Laughing.
They thought they'd won.
But Lavellan was alone. He hoped that meant the others escaped.
Cassandra howled in rage and slammed her fist into the rock wall. The icy chill of the winter's depth dulled the pain even as the others glanced up at her then back to their own musings.
“I should not have left him,” Cassandra said.
“Yeah, we tried,” Sera said defensively.
“The ambush was unanticipated,” Solas said. “The idea that a behemoth of such size could move so quietly is still strange to imagine.”
The three of them poured over the maps of Emprise du Lion loaned to them by the local village. The maps were out of date, they didn't take into account the ice caves or the red lyrium growths. One such growth formed a canyon around what was once a wide and open road, cutting them off from each other when the behemoth struck. Now Inquisitor Lavellan was gone, captured by the Red Templars. They were unlikely to kill the Inquisitor outright, not with Corypheus's obsession. More likely they'd hold the Inquisitor captive before transporting him to Corypheus himself to be, what, killed? Made an example of?
“We must press on,” Cassandra said. She cracked her knuckles, resetting the joints and feeling the pain of the stone's resistance fade. “We have a limited time before the Red Templars decide what to do with their captive.”
Sera giggled and raided the potion supply, stuffing her belt with tonics and grenades. Several grenades buzzed. “I've got arrows,” she offered.
Solas took a deep breath and picked up his staff. “They'll have him in Suledin Keep by now,” he said. “Come, we must extract Blackwall from the Warden ruins. We will need his sword and shield for this.”
“Then let's go.” Cassandra lifted her shield and they headed out.
Lavellan had never wanted to spit out a wad of elfroot before.
“I want him bolstered,” the Red Templar ordered. He must be the local commander given the others jumped to obey him. “If the Master wants to kill the Inquisitor himself I don't want to have to explain why he's already dead.”
The hissing of the crystalline monster beside him almost sounded like words. “And... if the... Massster... wantsss him... untouched?”
Lavellan had a bad feeling about this. He knew the stories of how shems tortured elves for sport and amusement until they escaped with nothing to hide the shame of their cruel use. He wasn't naive enough to believe he'd be spared that fate simply because he was male. Still, he refused to simply lay down and accept it. He was no 'good little knife-ear'. He swallowed the elfroot leaves, their cooling strength making him shiver. “Do your worst,” he dared. “Corypheus will have to take the anchor from my cold dead hand and he knows it.”
The Red Templar leaned down, baring yellow teeth that gleamed red from the man's own internal glow. “You put on a brave face, elf,” he sneered. “You know not what you invite.”
Lavellan stared back into the man's red eyes, that disdainful stare he'd learned from Vivienne and Dorian. It was the one that made Cole stop speaking to him for a week and cowed Emperor Gaspard into succumbing to blackmail. “I have a pretty good idea,” he said.
It did not have the intended effect. Instead the Red Templar grinned with delight. “Yes,” he mused. “I think you're bolstered enough. You'll survive. You'll survive a long time, I think.” He stood up and called for the others to hold the Inquisitor still and to bring the draught.
It took a moment for Lavellan to realize what this draught might be. He struggled against his captors but with hands bound behind him, the anchor quiet and useless without a rift to command, with the augmented strength of the Red Templars...
They held him on his knees in the snow, his chest thrust out, his arms held tight behind him. Rough crystal-studded hands held his head still as the Red Templar brought a glass vial of something that glowed ominously red.
“No,” Lavellan whispered. “No, nonononono...”
Hands forced his jaws open.
“Oh yes, Inquisitor,” the Red Templar said. “Believe me when I say there is far worse ahead of you than simple death.”
Lavellan believed him. And then the the vial opened and the nightmare began.
“This isn't working,” Blackwall shouted.
“And that is my fault?!” Cassandra demanded. “I don't see you wading into an ambush!”
“And yet you've both come to rely on the Inquisitor to do just that,” Solas mused, a little too loud to be polite.
“Shut up!” Both warriors forgot their argument for the moment as they shouted at Solas. Then they turned on each other again.
“I thought it went pretty good, yeah?” Sera said, quieter so as to stay out of the argument.
“We have taken the Red Templar's lyrium production from them,” Solas agreed. “Corypheus will find it difficult to control his Red Templars without their supply of red lyrium. But we have not discovered the Inquisitor among the prisoners and we are running low on supplies. I fear we need rest before assaulting Suledin Keep. Yet I also fear what will happen to the Inquisitor if we delay.”
“Then we stop delayin',” Sera said.
“Easier said than done,” Solas said, glancing back at the two warriors.
“Hey, I know. I'll head back real fast and raid the potion stores. By the time I'm back those two will shut up, yeah?”
Solas looked surprised as Sera's offer.
“Don't look so weirded out. I want him back too.” And then she was gone, slipped into shadow like the Inquisitor was wont to do.
Blackwall finally held a hand up to pause Cassandra's rant. “Wait, where'd Sera go?” he asked.
“She's returned to the tower camp for supplies,” Solas said as though it were the most natural event in Thedas. “I expect she'll be back soon and then we can continue. Unless you feel we have more important matters to attend to than rescuing our Inquisitor.”
Cassandra and Blackwall both looked suitably cowed.
“Very well,” Solas said. He hoped Sera would be back soon. He had the sinking feeling that the Inquisitor was running out of time.
Lavellan struggled against the hands but he couldn't move. Hands over his mouth, closing off his nose, there was nothing he could do about the hot liquid in his mouth. It burned like hot tea, stabbed like a thousand tiny thistle-needles...
...tasted like delicate candied rose petals.
It was wrong, all wrong, it shouldn't be like this. He leveled his hateful glare at the Red Templar leader who watched with unabashed glee. Red eyes bored into his as Lavellan's world swam, grew dark around the edges, as the subtle sweetness filled his mind and stole from him his resolve. He wouldn't swallow, he wouldn't, he'd drown first...
A hand at his throat caressed gently, a hot touch softer than any lover. And then...
The sweetness descended, the heat spreading down his throat to his chest and belly. The world came back into focus as the hands let go and he took a deep gasp of air. All the hands let go and he collapsed in the snow, coughing and gasping. He tried to heave, tried to get rid of it, but nothing happened. Instead hands looped under his shoulders and pulled him back up to kneeling.
The Red Templar smiled at him. “That wasn't so bad, was it?” he asked with mocking concern.
“I'll kill you for this,” Lavellan promised.
“Probably,” the Red Templar agreed. “Many of us here would welcome the chance to be free of the pain. And your friends are already within the Keep's walls. But you... You belong to Corypheus now. Bound to the red lyrium until it consumes you.”
Lavellan tried to lunge forward. Hands or no he would make this templar pay for this violation. Anger burned within him, or was it anger? The hands holding him back didn't seem quite so warm anymore.
The Red Templar laughed. “Take the Inquisitor to his cage,” he ordered. “Bind him properly. Let the Inquisition find what we've done here.”
Lavellan screamed in fury, the sound stifled as one of the hands returned to his mouth. Then he was lifted into the air, carried off like a captive maiden to her unsavory fate.
Solas led the way, following the screams he'd heard not long before. The resistance met in Suledin was deceptively sparse, as though the Red Templars knew they were coming and had pulled back to protect something in the middle. Solas feared that something might be the Inquisitor, or what was left of their Inquisitor. The end of those screams did not fill him with confidence.
Sera carried Lavellan's gear, the wyvern-scale armor taken off of a burned body left in a cage, a human body upon examination. The wolf-fur cloak folded in a chest around a trapped flask of fire. The daggers used as off-hand weapons by those Red Templars who still had hands enough to wield them.
Cassandra and Blackwall took fore- and rearguard, eyes scanning the snowbanks, the fallen trees, the pillars of red lyrium crystal for possible ambush.
It was Cassandra who saw the cage first. “There!” she called, pointing with her sword.
The figure in the cage moved, lifting his head and trying to turn towards them.
The cage was small, little bigger than a mabari's crate. The figure within had to sit hunched forward, unable to stretch his legs or sit up, unable to turn around to face his rescuers. The iron bands on his wrists held his hands behind his back and locked those wrists to the side of the cage. Leather mitts covered his hands, balling his fingers into useless fists. The mask over his face fit tightly, strapped around his head to hold the gag in place. But there was no mistaking that posture, those scars, the white silk clothing, the faint green glow that threatened to burn through the mitt covering his left hand.
“I'm on it,” Sera said, slipping into shadows to approach the cage.
Blackwall and Solas scanned the area yet there was no ambush, no Red Templars waiting nearby to attack as they sprung the baited trap. The Inquisitor was simply... left alone? It didn't add up.
Cassandra couldn't hide her growing unease as she approached the cage. Lavellan was bound as the worst maleficarum, hands bound and useless, eyes covered, mouth gagged, caged like an animal for sale. “We'll have you out of there in a moment, Inquisitor,” she said, proud at how little her voice wavered.
Lavellan's masked face turned toward her and he made a noise. It could have been a 'hurry up' or even just an 'I'm here'. It didn't matter to her. He was alive. He looked undamaged. He was safe now.
Sera unlatched the iron bands from the cage wall and got to work on the lock. “We'll have you out of there in a jif,” she promised. “We will, right? We're still safe?”
“Nobody's coming,” Blackwall said, shield and sword still raised just in case. “I don't like this. It's too quiet.”
“There is something else wrong here,” Solas agreed.
Sera opened the cage and Cassandra reached in to pull Lavellan to freedom. She reached up and unhooked the simple latch holding the mask over Lavellan's face. She gasped.
“Hands,” Lavellan rasped. “I need my hands. Have to get rid of it.”
Sera unlocked the iron bands and pulled the leather mitts off. “You're free,” she announced.
Lavellan pulled away from them all and stuffed his fingers down his throat.
“Wait, what's going on?” Sera asked. “They poison you? You seem fine.” Cassandra put her hand on Sera's shoulder as she tried to go to him. “He seems fine!” Sera said again, only going quiet when she saw the dawning horror on Cassandra's face.
Lavellan wiped his mouth, the clear bile before him containing little more than the remains of chewed elfroot. “I was hoping it would be red,” he admitted. If it was red that meant he could get rid of it. But now...
Solas approached, his feet barely pressing into the snow. “I have your cloak,” he offered.
Lavellan shook his head as he stood up. The silks he wore should have offered little protection from the oppressive cold but he didn't shiver. “I don't need it,” he said with a strange finality. “Not anymore.”
Solas nodded and drew the wolf-fur cloak over his own shoulders. The wolf's head fell over his own like a hood. “I understand.”
Lavellan took a deep breath and turned blight-red eyes on his companions. “I'm okay,” he said. “Really.”
“See? He's fine,” Sera said stubbornly, as though trying to convince herself. She held out his armor and weapons.
“I'm fine,” Lavellan agreed. He took his stuff and began putting on his armor. “We should keep going. The Red Templars have pulled back to the inner courtyard. They have a demon there that could ruin everything if we don't strike now.”
Cassandra stood straight and nodded. “Yes, Inquisitor,” she said before pulling Blackwall aside.
“I'm not waiting here,” Blackwall said firmly.
Cassandra glanced at the others, at Lavellan suiting up for battle, at Solas watching him from beneath the wolf's fur, at Sera pretending nothing was wrong. “I need someone to return to the forward camp,” she said. “Get a raven to Skyhold. The Inquisitor was dosed with red lyrium.”
That silenced Blackwall's protests. “How can you be sure?” he asked.
“His eyes are red and he's warm to the touch. There's a hum beneath his skin. It's unnerving. He was dosed. If anyone knows what to do they'll be at Skyhold. You're best suited to make it out of here should you meet resistance. Go.”
Blackwall nodded. “Alright,” he agreed. He lifted his shield and sword. “I'll meet you all back at camp,” he called. And then he left.
“Wait, why's he going alone?” Sera demanded.
“Because we're continuing on,” Lavellan said as he buckled the last strap. “I made a promise and I intend to keep it.”
“Promise?” Sera asked.
“There's a Red Templar I promised to kill,” Lavellan said with a wry smile. “You don't want me to disappoint him, do you?”
Sera laughed. “Let's go then.”
The behemoth fell to its knees, or what passed for knees anymore. Dozens of arrow shafts stuck out from the cracks in its crystalline flesh. Patches of frost and spidery stress-cracks marked where Solas' magic attempted to freeze the monster in its rampage. But it was a dagger's tiny blade that felled it, glowing runes giving the silverite the power it needed to pierce red lyrium as hard as any gem.
Lavellan flicked red shards from his blades and sheathed them. That felt good. He resolutely ignored how the monster's hissing voice sounded grateful as it fell. He knew the others didn't hear it. They wouldn't know what he meant if he said anything.
But the others heard this. He turned toward the slow clap of a single applauding figure, the sound only just poisoned by the rustle of armor and the chime of crystal.
Lavellan growled. He knew this Red Templar.
“Good,” the Red Templar praised. He stood flanked by two horrors, monsters who almost looked like deformed men were it not for the nodules of red lyrium growing from their shoulders. They even still had hands, though they preferred their own crystal claws to any forged weapon. “I had hoped to see you again, Inquisitor. Tell me, how do you feel?”
“I will kill you,” Lavellan said.
“Glorious, isn't it?” the Red Templar continued. “It's wonderful at first. The strength, the power, it was everything we ever wanted. But it doesn't stop. It never stops. It will consume you, Inquisitor, as it has us all.”
“Enough of this,” Sera said, raising her bow. She aimed and fired, embedding the arrow in the Red Templar's shoulder.
The horrors howled and moved to attack. Yet they were stopped with a gesture, the Red Templar seemingly unconcerned with the arrow in his flesh. He looked at it, at the bright yellow fletching that bounced as he moved, and grinned a rictus grin. He raised his hands, claws glowing red with unnerving power. “Taste your own strength, Inquisitor,” he crowed.
A moment of confusion was all Lavellan got before the burning began. It felt like fire within him, bringing him to his knees as he screamed in agony. He barely noticed his friends leaping to action, Solas trying to disrupt the templar's connection, Sera's bowstring singing as she fired, Cassandra screaming in rage and charging with sword and shield raised.
The slam of shield on armor disrupted the templar's concentration and the pain stopped, changed, flooded through Lavellan with a warmth, a song, a promise. He raised his head to see the templar grab Cassandra's sword in his bare claw, wresting the blade from her grip heedless of the damage to his own flesh.
This ended now.
Lavellan pulled his daggers from their sheaths and growled. The growl shifted, twisting to a shriek of challenge as he charged forward, leaping onto the back of the Red Templar. He stabbed again and again, ignoring the horrors as they tried to pull him off. Ignoring the flash of magic around him as Solas took control of the battlefield.
Ignoring the feeling of a gentle hand trying to pull him off his prey.
But he couldn't ignore the voice.
“Are you quite finished?”
Lavellan looked up, daggers in his hands at the new voice. It was a man, a human mage. He was no Red Templar, he was no templar of any type. He looked almost normal. Unassuming. Wrong.
Cassandra pointed her sword at this newcomer. “Explain yourself, mage,” she commanded.
The man smiled. “You may call me Imshael,” he said. He glanced around, his eyes lingering on the Red Templar corpses. “I see you've been busy.”
“Be careful,” Solas said. “This is no man. He's a demon.”
“I am--” Imshael cut off his own rant with a deep breath and a glare at Solas. “I am a spirit of Choice,” he said. “Desire is common but so few choose to act.” At this he turned to Lavellan, a slow grin spreading across his face. “Like you, Inquisitor. I know what you desire.”
Lavellan flicked the red droplets, the redder crystals from his daggers, and realized he was crouched over the Red Templar's body like an animal defending his kill. He stood up and tried to ignore the wrongness of it.
“Power, riches, virgins, those are common desires,” Imshael explained. “Yours is much more recent. I can give you back yourself.”
“Piss off, he's fine!” Sera shouted.
“You know she's in denial,” Imshael said, slinking closer. “The others think they realize what's happened. But you... You feel it, don't you? It's warm and sweet now, like the rose tea your hahren brews during festivals. It won't stay sweet for long. The shards growing under your skin, the red crystal nodules, lyrium filling your lungs with every gasping breath as your joints freeze and your mind succumbs to the song you already hear. You know what happens next. You know what happens last. Simply being near you will twist them all to madness. I can stop it.”
Lavellan only then realized he had his daggers raised as if to strike. His eyes went wide and he let the blades fall.
“You'll listen,” Imshael said, stating the obvious. He was close enough to touch, one soft hand gently stroking above Lavellan's cheek. Not quite touching, an invitation for Lavellan to accept the touch. He did, pressing into the offered hand, nuzzling it. He didn't want to think about the purring sound he made, it wasn't right.
“It's a start," Imshael murmured, leaning closer, close enough to embrace. "My offer is simple. I take the red lyrium out of you and then I leave. You don't hunt me, you don't find me. Eventually, some years from now, I may come to ask you one favor in return. But then, I might not. I might forget.”
Lavellan glanced past Imshael to his companions. He didn't even have to ask for their opinions, they were already being shouted at him.
“It's a demon!” Sera shouted. “Let's kill it.”
“Choice spirit!” Imshael snarled in protest.
“We will find a way to cure you,” Cassandra promised. It was an empty promise given to the ground as she refused to look at Lavellan.
“It is your choice,” Solas said.
Lavellan looked at each of them in turn and made his choice.
Inquisitor Lavellan looked out over the balcony to the forests of Emprise du Lion below. Suledin Keep belonged to the Inquisition now despite the towering pillars of blighted red lyrium still poisoning the land around it.
Cassandra walked up behind him, her shield strapped to her back. It was unnecessary now, here in their own keep. “We have disrupted Corypheus's red lyrium supply,” she said. “His Red Templars will ration what supply they have left until a new 'mine' can be set up for them. We have limited time in which to strike.”
Lavellan didn't say anything. Yet she knew he was listening to her.
“The Inquisition has tracked Corypheus's interests to the Arbor Wilds,” Cassandra continued. “There is an old elven ruin there. We can have the army ready to march as soon as we return to Skyhold. We'll leave when you're ready.”
Lavellan's attention turned back to the forest below. Red lyrium grew from the bodies of people, sometimes while those people still lived. The Red Templars were living proof. The multitude of pillars, the maze of crystals, the veritable forest of spires below spoke volumes of the Red Templar's cruelty and of the depopulated village on the river below.
Cassandra took a deep breath. “For what it's worth, Inquisitor, I respect your choice,” she said. “I do not know if I could have had the strength to make the choice you did.”
Finally Lavellan turned from the scene below to face her. His blight-red eyes shone with red lyrium's taint. “You underestimate yourself,” he said.
Cassandra winced at the strange reverberating quality his voice had now. She'd never get used to it. And despite all her hopes she knew he'd never be free of it again.
Lavellan watched as she fled then turned back to the red lyrium forest below.
He could hear its song.