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NG++

On the day that Haven fell, Josephine had sat at her desk, filing away the correspondence between herself and Marquis DuRellion, and immediately stiffened when the ringing of the watchtower bells reached her from the Chantry corridor. She had expected an attack; everyone still dwelling in the town had, hands always within reach of something sharp or heavy, ever since the red miasma began to mix with the green from the Breach and caused horses to bolt and tempers to rise. It had been forty-four days since the Herald departed for Redcliffe with the Spymaster and his entourage and every messenger Cullen had sent for updates never returned.

A slaughter commenced. A lot had happened since.

Pulling her cloak tighter across her front, she thought about how lucky she was, still alive, dragging Commander Cullen, barely alive, westward, away from the general direction of the Hinterlands. She trekked through the snow drifts between cliffs with numbed toes, following a set of footprints left behind by a stranger with a small flickering flame of hope. She did not know who they belonged to, nor if the man or woman was friendly, but there was hardly any other choice. She did know that the Commander of the fallen Inquisition would quickly perish from his injuries if he did not receive aid.

When the footprints stopped in front of a Fade rift, Josephine Montilyet wondered if long term mountain sickness had induced hallucinations into her once sharp mind. Despite the handicap, past conversations at the War Table surfaced from her memories, where Maxwell had idly brought up the topic of the Fade Walker, affectionately shortening the title to “Walker,” a human with seemly no connections to the outside world who roamed the Fade and chatted with the Herald when he was dreaming. Naturally, the advisors had cautioned against demonic influences but didn’t take further action due to various limitations. But the current risks and benefits were leaning heavily towards a great leap of faith. With shoulders drawn back, she stepped over the threshold ---

And into a green tinted strange land of shacks in various states of degradation with paint curled and peeled by her feet, packed so closely together it was hard to navigate the paths with the Commander still laying on the sled turned stretcher. Above her head a contraption, white-grey with wings, streaked the skies above her. “~cte misericor salvator, amare mortis ne tra-a~” A faceless choir donned in black and white sang at the doors of a Chantry. At the end of a cobble road, there was a Fade rift. She ventured forth.

She was in a dungeon with red bleeding between the cracks in the thinset mortar, cautiously making her way past cells of silent dwarves, elves, qunari, humans, stretching her ears for guards. Past a labyrinth of doors, dodging guards and creatures, a silhouette caught her attention. A lone figure stood in the torchlight by a tapestry of King Maric Theirin with a hand pressed against a closed wooden door, tucking a scroll into her satchel.

A small piece of pottery crunched under Josephine’s boot.

The figure spun around, barely visible in the dim light, saw her, and froze. Josephine froze, searching in vain for a place to hide as the shadows behind her grew into pickaxes and shields. "Who’s there?!"

The figure bolted, all advantages of stealth thrown to the wind. Josephine scrambled in pursuit, dragging the Commander behind her, “Wait! Please!” She couldn’t lose Walker, could not afford to -

When she hesitated before three passageways, a hand reached out and yanked her sharply by the collar to the left and up a set of stairs. For a split second under the torches, Josephine caught a hint of fair features under the hood: a young woman of around Trevelyan’s age. “Where are they?!” The guards cried behind them. “Do not let them escape!” Walker’s fingers curled around her wrist, hot like a brand, pulling forward – and the hunt resumed. Together, they darted past hanging manacles, remnants of a dying kingdom, and more cells of dying prisoners, down a path through countless doors as their pursuers grew larger and larger in number, until orders to surrender transformed into a dull roar. Finally, they reached the exit leading to the battlements where a rift waited for them by a torn flag. A hoard of fear demons nipped at their heels, shredding her sleeves and pulling at her hair. Josephine closed her eyes. And then -

The road under her feet was made of modified, gray stone. Carriages without horses rushed by at astonishing speeds on small yet thick black wheels between monstrous glass edifices, gleaming under the sun. Through a small, cracked open window, a song rose and fell like the sea, “~ nervous but it sure is fun. Come on baby, you drive me crazy. Goodness gracious great balls of fi~” And then -

Verdant green exploded into her vision of foliage and untainted wildlife. They were in the Emerald Graves. Josephine fell to her knees, pressing her chest and struggling to catch her breath through burning lungs. Her respite was short-lived for a shadow fell over her, “Alright.” The same hand that had guided her to safety now grabbed her shoulder and shoved her back against a boulder, “Who the fuck do you think you are barging in and making a mess of things?!”

She prayed that the Herald’s Fade companion was as nice as he claimed. “My name is Josephine Montilyet. Please, Walker, I’ve heard about your mercy. Maxwell Trevelyan vouched for you. I need –”

"Ambassador Josephine Montilyet?” Her reputation had preceded her. “And who… Is that Commander Cullen?” Walker circled around the sled, prodding at Cullen’s fur pauldrons and his lion helmet. “You dragged... Jesus Christ, you’re fucking insane.” She whistled low. “They’ll be watching that rift now. You almost ruined weeks of planning for-”

"Nothing happened!” Josephine protested, “Please, I did the best I could in my circumstances!"

"Gold star for you then. Full marks for determination." Walker turned and crossed her arms, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “So, what part of my mercy do you want?” She jerked her head towards the Commander, “A burial? A cremation? A bone picking ceremony? A Viking funeral?”

“He’s alive.” Josephine said.

Walker blinked. “Are you sure?” She asked dubiously.

NG++

Despite poor first impressions and atrocious bedside manner, Walker has the morality and knowledge of a classic healer and after placing two fingers on Cullen’s neck, declared him, “alive, by some trick of fate.” Then she asked, “What the fuck happened to him? It’s like he went toe to toe with Blendo and lost. Can you grab my bag? See how much rashvine nettle is left; we may need to go foraging.”

Josephine spent the next few days gathering rashvine nettle as well as prophet’s laurel and arbor blessing while Walker grounded the herbs with honey and garlic in a mortar and pestle, stuffing the concoction and boiled dressings into open wounds and sores. With his armor off, Cullen was a veritable painting of black, purple, and blue. “Where did you learn this?” Josephine questioned as she sipped a brew of willow bark and elfroot while enjoying the shade of a large oak tree after spending the better part of the morning coaxing the unconscious man to sip small mouthfuls of various brews.

“I was once a …healer to a population subset who suffer from the effects of an excessive lifestyle. Though lately I worry more about wound packing and broken bones.” Walker prepared a set of needles over the fire, shaking them once the metal turned red. “Trauma and its ilk such as infections once I understood the pharmacology of the assorted herbs. I did two surgeries in Ferelden, an emergency C-section and a ruptured spleen. They were both successful. But I’d rather not repeat those procedures unless in dire need; there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me or the patients to agree to that again.”

“You’re very well informed.” Josephine praised, “Being a personal attendant of the wealthy is an admirable achievement, considering the training and reputation one must build beforehand. I’ve come across the occupation many times on my way from Orlais to Haven and no one is as talented as you.”

Walker beamed in pride. “I devoted myself to my craft here via trial and error.” She preened. “I only recently discovered that arbor blessing acted as a minor antibiotic, a fact that would’ve saved me from multiple headaches earlier in my trips. Rashvine nettle stimulates cell growth when ingested or applied topically. As a result, this,” She pointed at Cullen’s injuries, “is a miracle on speed. Usually I would see this sort of improvement over the course of weeks.”

“Miraculous.” At best, Josephine understood half of what the other woman had said. She edged closer as Walker began sewing his smaller wounds shut, her curved needle taking precise bites under his skin, “You aren’t worried about trapping the contamination in his cuts? I would guess that even herbs and magic together can’t rid a serious case of unbalanced humors.”

A wry smile twisted Walker’s lips as she tugged on the string. “Germ theory is a thing that still needs to be addressed, apparently.” Cullen stirred - he has been stirring for the past few days but has failed to awaken. “But you are right - herbs and magic can't cure abscesses and septic shock – it’s not enough for the worst ailments. Though," she mused, "if I was a mage, my job would be a lot easier right now.”

“You aren’t?”

Walker raised her halberd that had been strapped to her back during their initial escape from Redcliffe castle and waved it at a fist-sized stone. “Wingardium leviosa,” she intoned nonsensically. When nothing happened, she said pointedly, “see?” and returned to her work, muttering medical terminologies under her breath such as ‘atelectasis’ and ‘subcuticular stitches.’

Josephine opened and closed her mouth, not sure how to voice her doubts that anything was supposed to happen or what the point was supposed to be. Lost for words, she instead wrapped herself in her cloak and watched her companion, frowning in consternation. Walker was as short as an elf and equally as lithe, proven to be human solely by her rounded ears. However, she did not look like she belonged in any of the nations of Thedas nor, in the past few days, did she culturally behave according to any set norms: as crass as a sailor, as knowledgeable as a noble, as compassionate as a sister. After turning the enigma over and over in her mind, Josephine finally set her thoughts aside and sighed.

Before boasting of trading fleets groaning with treasures coveted by Rivaini pirates, before rising as a major naval power in Antiva, before their exile from Orlais, House Montilyet was foremost a house of intrepid explorers. Her ancestors were said to have been born with the knowledge of ships, crying the song of waves crashing against cliff sides within their first hour of life. “There is an admiral in each of us that continues to gaze at the horizon, wondering what is beyond the maps,” her father had told her when she was young, bouncing her on his knee while her siblings played their own games around her. “It is why our house sits on the coast facing the sunset.”

Available maps never stretched beyond Thedas. Seheron and Par Vollen at the north, Ferelden at the south, Anderfels at the east, and Amaranthine Sea at the west. In the hours between the last quarter of her flickering candle and her dreams, in the minutes she stretched her neck and flexed her hands after poring over her contacts for the better part of the morning, she had often glanced at her collection of cartography and wondered what lied beyond. Perhaps Walker was the answer.

The ground trembled as a giant lumbered by a few hundred meters from their site, hefting logs thicker than the Iron Bull, but Walker had assured her that they were perfectly harmless unless she ventured too close. Two wrens alighted on a mossy log to examine the nearby crop of royal elfroot. And through the haze of the lazy afternoon, Josephine roused to the words of the other woman fretting. “- hasn’t had any urine production yet. Is this because of the herbs? Rashvine nettle has some anticholinergic effects. No fever. Unlikely that it’s a bad urinary tract infection. Well, at least not yet. Goddamn it. A kingdom for lab equipment or an ultrasound. He probably has a distended bladder or an acute kidney injury by now, or both. Hmmm. I could just measure the output closely - though would this catheter even fit? I guess we can try-”

Josephine tackled Walker, who was holding up a questionable piece of tubing and a jar, to the ground. They grappled in the shrubbery, shouting loud enough to alarm the nearby august rams. “What are you doing?!” Josephine cried, blushing so fierce from her collar to her ears that she was beginning to feel faint. “You cannot be contemplating pushing that up his...”

Walker was holding the tube just out of her reach, shouting at the same time, “Look, I don’t make the rules. Ins and Outs are an integral aspect of modern medicine!” They rolled down a hill, squabbling like children. “I admit I MacGyver-ed the shit out of this thinking chest tube and not Foley catheter but needs must!” Needs must? He was obviously improving. Josephine refused: if she acquiesced to Walker’s mad intentions, and even if Cullen recovered, and even if the Inquisition recovered from the devastating assault and jumped back to its feet, she would have to thereby resign from the organization due to being unable to meet the Commander in the eye without thinking about this one moment ever again.

As if the Maker himself answered her pleas, Cullen loudly groaned from his place on the sled. Both women froze and, after a split second shared look and the silent agreement to never bring this topic up, they both rushed to his side just as he, for the first time in days, opened his eyes and squinted into the sunlight. Walker pressed her knuckles down against the hard bone of his sternum, “Hey, keep your eyes open, Sleeping Beauty. I need to ask you some questions. What is the last thing you remember?”

Cullen winced, “Who… Did I die?” Josephine grabbed his right hand and kissed his wrist where the pulse laid fast but steady, muttering blessings to the Maker and Andraste for two entirely different reasons.

NG++

Certain texts have mentioned the ability for deep mushrooms to induce a healing trance in a patient on the brink of death. Reading about the fungi was one thing but observing the effects first hand was another experience altogether. Walker and Josephine both watched in astonishment as the Commander, after a mere two hours upon awakening, has managed, with help, to maneuver himself to a nearby spring to wash off blood and grime, calling them back once he has dressed himself. By all outward appearances, he took his handicap and the blow to his dignity with grace if not for his ears pinkening at the tips where his hair was curling.

Though the inferior cook of the three, Josephine tasked herself with making the evening meal and the three of them ate in silence, small chunks of nug braised in cinnamon and cardamon, enjoying the little bursts of flavor every time the meat dissolved on their tongues. Cullen alternated between wary glances at his bowl, wary glances at Walker (who was happily engrossed in her own meal which she partook with two sticks), and raised eyebrows at Josephine who was very carefully not returning any of his silent questions. Unfortunately, before either advisor was halfway finished, Walker set her empty bowl down, thanked her for the meal, grabbed her pack, and announced that she was going to go scouting. The two advisors of the Inquisition didn’t attempt to stop her.

“She’s giving us the courtesy of privacy, for what it’s worth. We’ll be anticipating her side of the story when she returns,” Cullen observed as he flexed his arm, grimacing at his lingering soreness which Walker stated may last longer than his initial recovery process. Josephine would’ve recommended him the sled for the remainder of the journey back to whatever shelter Walker had hidden in these parts if not for the look she knew he would give that could wither the freshest of flowers, which goes to show how well she knew him. On the same note, she knew that Walker would make the offer just to see Cullen twitch, which goes to show how much Josephine was beginning to know her. Josephine swallowed heavily as he directed his full scrutiny towards her, bearing down like a predator – they did not call him the Lion of the Inquisition for nothing. “Lady Josephine, tell me. Tell me how we ended up in the Emerald Graves when I distinctly recall falling to a battle axe in Haven. What. Exactly. Happened?”

Haltingly, in starts and stops, Josephine narrated her story since the attack on the Inquisition, faltering at parts that even she could not recall. Cullen rubbed his temples as she described finding his body amongst the newly dead and journeying through the Frostbacks, muttering “Maker’s breath” as she physically crossed into the Fade and into even less ideal situations. She fisted the hems of her doublet and tried not to cry because Cullen’s health in the past few days, even with Walker’s expertise, had been a touch and go for a while, and Josephine was selfish for not wanting to be the only advisor left of the Inquisition because Leliana might truly be dead and Josephine should accept this tragedy as fact though she can’t because -

Cullen hugged back but he didn’t cry. It’s ok. She would cry enough for both of them.

“So, we finally meet Maxwell’s advisor from the Fade. She is smaller than I had imagined.” He muttered pensively, stroking his chin, “What are your opinions of her?”

Josephine judged her associates by their actions and word. Intrigue and secrets belonged in Leliana’s realm of influence. “I like her,” she replied simply. “She is genuine.” She hesitated, “I do not believe she is from Thedas, most likely hailing from another undiscovered continent who got caught in our problems. You must listen to her unique brand of jargon before understanding why I came to that conclusion. The Fade, when I followed her, showed me landscapes and environments that I couldn’t even begin to dream of.”

His brow furrowed at her hypothesis. “How likely is it that she is a demon? Or possessed?”

She hesitated. “It’s possible. However, I don’t believe so.” She hoped not. “She doesn’t make things purposely difficult and I don’t sense bad intentions. She’s amiable enough and lighthearted. It’s most obvious when she sings; her voice is not enchanting like a bard and the lyrics are odd – ahem.” She coughed.

“What? What is it? Of what sort?” Cullen hissed as Walker returned from the underbrush, still out of sight. For the tenth time that day, Josephine fought to control her embarrassment and thanked the Maker for her darker complexion, biting her bottom lip and shaking her head. As Walker grew closer, her words became more pronounced. It was Josephine’s firm opinion that a demonstration would be preferable over her stumbling through her description.

“~to a suggestive movie. There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s ho-rizontally~” Poor first impressions indeed. The dewdrops on the grass suddenly seemed infinitely more interesting than anything at or above eye level. The two advisors took great care not meeting each others' embarrassed gaze. Walker then fell silent for the rest of her approach and peaked from the behind a tree a minute later with an armful of royal elfroot. “Hey, I have more... Oh nice. Are you guys done eating?” Her question was met with awkward silence - derived from a combination of exhaustion, suspicion, and heightened senses of danger. She must not be aware how far her voice carries. (Her subconscious yet impeccable sense of bad timing would be a theme for the rest of their stay together.) She sat down and clapped her hands together. “Err, alright. Before we move any further - proper introductions first. You can call me Walker.”

Cullen cleared his throat, recovering admirably from his momentary loss of composure. “Well, you may already know: I am Commander Cullen Rutherford of the Inquisition. Lady Josephine told me of your invaluable assistance in keeping me alive. Thank you, with all deepest sincerity.”

Cultural differences - Josephine reminded herself when Walker accepted the gratitude with mild befuddlement and floundered in the face of an ex-templar’s odd version of courtly love. “You have my thanks as well. We would not be here if you had not offered assistance.” She then less than smoothly segued, “You’ve implied earlier that there was information you felt needed mentioning before we departed, if we are to do so---"

Walker blinked once and tilted her head to the side, lips quirked as if sharing a private joke with an unseen fourth party. “Right. I did. You two should know this before you agree to come along for the ride.” Her eyes flickered between the two advisors, gauging their readiness, and then she slowly exhaled, “The beginning. We’ll start from Origins.” The latter word inexplicably referred to something else beyond its mere definition. “I want you to imagine that you are a human or elf or dwarf, noble or poor or mage. Whatever you are, you become the Warden.”

NG++

She weaved a tale of three parts, her explanation more fantastical than Josephine’s wildest theories. There is a Maker and the Maker’s reason why is entertainment. Warden to Hero of Ferelden; Hawke to Champion of Kirkwall; Herald to Inquisitor. As for current events, she offered two companions: a mage from Tevinter or a dead spirit boy. Then, she followed one potential storyline to its culmination, “- of possibilities. Here, the Herald chooses the mages and becomes victim to Magister Alexius’ time magic. He’ll reappear during Harvestmere 9:42 Dragon, a year to the day after his initial disappearance.”

“Maxwell didn’t die?” Josephine asked, a small flame of hope blooming in her heart.

“No. He might when he pops back out with no idea what he is dealing with.” Walker huffed, running an agitated hand through her hair, “I thought protagonists were supposed to be more… heroic and inspiring, I think? He’s a bit of a dandy.”

Josephine winced, recalling the many faux-pas he had made while conversing with the nobles loitering around Haven before she could drag him into etiquette lessons which he had never encountered during his stay at the Ostwick Circle. His family did not train him as heir and had the explosion at the Conclave never occurred, he wouldn’t have needed such education. His upbringing or lack of it however did not detract from his abundant charisma which attracted wet behind the ear recruits of any species or gender. It was an odd combination. “He fights well,” she weakly protested, for his behavior reflected upon her own competency, “and he is improving.”

Her rejoinder was met with a flat look. “Uh huh,” Walker said mildly, revealing her own familiarity with the man. “At least he has Dorian with him. I must admit - if the game hadn’t flat out told me that he could succeed, I wouldn’t have believed that there was even a chance. Even now, I’m not a hundred percent sure – which is why I am here planning on returning to Redcliffe instead of following the masses to Rivain.”

“What happens next?” Cullen asked.

“The Herald,” Walker shook her head, “Maxwell Trevelyan,” she corrected, “defeats the Magister with his companions. He and Dorian reverse time to undo everything that has happened in the past year. All of this,” she motioned at the violet and green skies above the canopy, “is fixed. The protagonist saves the day... year. Voila. Depending on his decision, the Inquisition will obtain either allied or conscripted mages.”

Life and all its intricacies could hardly transfer the same amount of sweat and tears into story. Varric’s narrative of Hawke had been polished and buffed to a shine before being written into a book to be devoured by Cassandra and his other fans. Walker glared at Cullen, silently challenging him to start accusing her of illegal magics. Josephine chose her next words carefully, “You have to forgive me for doubting your claims. You seem like a reasonable woman and please, try to understand our perspective. It’s more likely that you are, at best, a Seer from a continent outside of Thedas or, at worst, a demon watching the world from the Fade. Is there anything else you can offer as proof?”

Walker hummed, tapping her bottom lip with an index finger, “Ok.” She spoke of a future, “The House of Repose is killing all of your attempts to reinstate your family as a trading power in Orlais because of a century old contract taken out by the Du Paraquettes. You’ll succeed once you bring the Du Paraquettes back into the gentry.” Then, she spoke of a past, “Cullen survived the fall of the Ferelden Circle by being trapped in a magical Faraday cage and upon being rescued, begged the Warden to kill everyone in the Harrowing Chamber, not just the blood mages and the abominations, which gets awkward as fuck if the Warden is of mage origin.”

Cullen was developing a tick at the corner of his jaw but held his tongue. Josephine wondered whether his anger was due to the offense of having his memories bare or being viewed as nothing more than a character, losing sentience and choice with the title. Perhaps both. (No one is just a creation of a puppeteer. We are all children of the Maker, guided by his light and wisdom. Fate is not set in stone. We experience, adapt, feel and think and love and hate.) “How much do you believe in the future that your game has predetermined?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” She idly ran her fingers over the grass, plucking at the stems. “The answer is – not much at all. ...You see: ten years ago, give or take, I hiked up to the Temple of Andraste… the Conclave before it was renovated, to search of the Sacred Ashes, thinking that its miraculous power might take me back home. Instead, I found Leliana, your Leliana, dying at the cave entrance with a dramatic smear of blood trailing behind her.” Josephine’s hand covered her mouth in shock. Bringing up the adventures of the Hero of Ferelden around Leliana elicited a stare that was more Nightingale than Chantry Lay Sister. No one at Haven was brave enough to properly ask her the events that led her and an elder Ferelden circle mage to leave the party two thirds of the way through the Fifth Blight. “What was supposed to happen was revival from sure death with the ashes, thus beginning her journey as Left Hand of the Divine. But how? It doesn’t make sense. The Ashes were tainted by the Warden.”

“Tainted?!” Cullen exclaimed.

“If you taint the ashes, Father Kolgrim will teach the Reaver specialization.” Walker wiggled her fingers and then paused, “Who was the Warden anyways? I’ve asked around but no one had a clue.”

The story of the Hero of Ferelden blurred after the Warden had restored Grey Warden presence at Amaranthine and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. First person accounts argued over background, gender, species, and whether the Warden had a mabari and/or golem. Cullen might know but his reaction when questioned about that year of his life was barely warmer than Leliana’s. “Why did that happen?” Josephine wrung her hands, “If it was for power, the Warden had enough political clout at the time to be declared ruler of Ferelden. The Warden didn’t need to commit those atrocities.”

“Why be a king when you can be a dragon?” Walker laughed humorlessly, “Where was I… Ah yes. I left her be, assumed that she would bounce back on her own without issue, spent a few days exploring the tunnels, waiting for the stupid miracle to come. …And then I realized that I was the miracle.” Her grin did not abate as she leaned forward, “In the end, I treated her injuries, gave her some of my blood, O negative, and dropped her off at the doorsteps of the nearest chantry. And that is why I do not trust the arrival of this predetermined outcome.” Fate is not set in stone. Walker believed the adage too – that recognition brought to Josephine’s nerves both relief and trepidation. “Maxwell Trevelyan isn’t perfect – far from anyone's ideal Atlas. He doubts the most while dreaming. I sympathize: the fate of the world is a heavy burden on anyone’s shoulders. Though he’s growing into the role, his martyr complex worries me. He makes mistakes; he is fallible. I can’t afford that.”

After taking several minutes to digest the sudden influx of knowledge, Cullen noted in measured tones. “Official sightings of you in the Fade from people like Hawke and the Herald predated the end of the Fifth Blight. I don’t know what you precisely are, but you are no mage – this I am certain of. How did you enter the Fade without the aid of the Breach or other rifts?”

Walker flinched as if the mere memory caused pain. “It wasn’t intentional. I made an error while chasing a new lead to my world after leaving the Frostbacks. Somewhere on the Western Approach, there are remains of an elven ruin. I got too close to an eluvian and was trapped, wandering the Fade wasteland looking for mages who could bring me back - obviously all refused - or would indulge in my need for social contact. I do not think I aged during that ordeal. It was only recently that the Keeper of Clan Lavellan found me while fleeing from the Elder God’s demon army. She woke me up and restored my health. Now I am here, with you two, for the next ten months.” The fractured glint in her eyes did not invite either of them to ask her for further details; they kept silent. She smiled crookedly as if she did not suffer for a decade. “If there are no other objections, then you are free to assist me in my quest. Up to you. If yes, we’re going to know each other very well.”

Chapter Text

NG++

Josephine was no stranger to trauma, having felt its thorns squeezing her lungs during her first rush experiencing life and death as a Bard. “You need not to worry about me,” she had told Cullen during their initial introductions where he voiced concerns regarding the differences in mental and emotional faculties between civilians and fighters, “I understand and respect your position.” That conversation dimmed at the edges with age, nestled in another lifetime.

Night was the cacophony of sound in her mind mingled with the whistling from the lone crack in the window frame. She spent eight nights laying supine, sheets kicked to the foot, staring at the fissures in the ceiling thinking please, Maker, I humbly ask for dreams without blood or swords. By morning, her pillow would have dried. On the tenth night, she stopped trying and before the embers from the hearth died down, she lit a red candle and crept downstairs, fingers skimming the bannisters and collecting dust. Villa Maurel had long been abandoned by its owners and switched hands many times among the Freemen of Dales before they too fled north. Daylight revealed the lack of maintenance, cobwebs in the corners, and cracks in the foundations. The darkness made the mansion livable.

Walker was making cookies and savory pastries in the kitchen, licking melted brown sugar from her fingers. “Can’t sleep?” She asked with a knowing glance, “Here. Help me cream the butter.” Josephine’s assistance in the kitchen continued for another four nights, doing domestic chores and following recipes that she hasn’t attempted since she left her family in Antiva. Cakes piled with cream and drizzled with syrup or liquor or melted chocolate accented with bloomed coffee were centerpieces of the family's dining room. Cooks used to smack young, greedy fingers off the counter tops that reached for plates of raw dough - frightening them with the dangers of uncooked eggs. Her mother often hid eclairs in her pockets, fit to burst with vanilla cream, black speckled with bean paste of pods picked from their greenhouse. Laurien took after her and had the most awful sweet tooth – he even loved the simple Ferelden cookies which consisted of butter, sugar, and flour. …Had…  "Always add one more egg than what the book calls for," Walker had instructed in a low tone as if imparting the deepest secrets of the world, matching the serenity of the twilight hour, "Replace the water with milk. Use butter instead of oil and double the amount. Desserts should be comforting, made by those who aren't afraid to grow large in girth - life should have ample amount of sweetness, no?”

Josephine stared down at her small plate of wafers and wondered if she was eating memories or escaping the present.

And then, in the lulls between shaking ground from giant footsteps, Walker sang under her breath, “~blackbird singing in the death of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly~”

“She does not sleep and I don’t think it is out of choice,” Josephine told Cullen at his bedside the next morning, after Walker finished her health exam of the man, declaring that he can start light cardio and weight bearing. “It’s not from nightmares. She said that she could sleep in her own world. Do you think it’s the Fade?”

“She did sleep for many years in the elven mirror.” Cullen pointed out as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and attempted to stand without aid. She rushed to help but his knees did not collapse beneath him as he made his way to the small, dusted window.

“We have to keep her grounded.” Josephine decided, steepling her fingers, “There are times in the morning when she looks at me…” She trailed off. “We can’t leave her alone. I fear the long nights for they are growing longer…” This is what she did not say: In that other timeline where Trevelyan successfully reverses events back to before Haven fell to the demon army, would she ever wake up from her prison? It’s possible now, isn’t it? We know her plight – we can help her. We can help her now.

Cullen hooked his hands behind his back, deep in contemplation. “If well controlled, fear is a motivation. Take care not to let it consume you,” he warned with a hand on the doorknob, “As for Walker…” his mouth pressed in that manner that she was beginning to learn was resolve and fear.

(Josephine feared many things. Her hands shaking under the weight of a cup of piping hot, white tea at midnight. Sounds of Cullen retching with the arrival of a crepuscular rays after a particularly bad nightmare. Walker abandoning her half sliced aubergine in lieu of staring at the kitchen cleaver with wavering consideration. She did not respond when the advisors intervened in those moments to pry her fingers off the handle but instead would stare at them with vacant eyes as if she did not recognize them or with faint curiosity that one adopted when observing ants. Years of training as a diplomat for various businesses has given Josephine the skill to recognize depersonalization and derealization in another being but not how to approach them)

“Fear is the mind-killer.” Walker had intoned with faux-gravity, as if reciting wisdom from memory, “Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me…” She had paused and tapped her chin. “I forget the rest.”

NG++

Cullen, the good man, once tried to engage Walker with a Ferelden board game on a brisk afternoon. From behind the curtain of an open window, Josephine covertly watched his overtures for friendship spectacularly backfire, catching the pair in the midst of conversation. “- get it to settle.” He was muttering as he pushed the final piece to its proper square, thus finishing his turn.

“It’s not from your recent injuries. It’s from your other problem. I take it you’re anticipating the effects soon?” Walker inquired as she drummed her fingers against the back of her chair.

He did not understand initially what she spoke of, but then comprehension caused him to freeze. “Yes. How did you…” He pinched the skin between his brow, suddenly aging five years. “Of course. I had forgotten that everything that I thought personal was revealed to you like an open book.”

“Just me.” She inclined her head, “For now. Until it worsens and becomes obvious.”

He toyed with a piece, twirling it on its edge. “Did I ever, in that better time you talked about-”

Josephine frowned in confusion, unable to follow the vague topic at hand. Walker and Cullen, unlike Walker and Josephine, have long reached that stage where they could communicate with half spoken ideas – words riddled with meaning and references, hinting at a greater story. “You persevered. You lived,” Walker answered when he failed to finish his question.

“I lived?” He asked doubtfully.

“It’s cocaine, not heroin. You didn’t die, you just wish you did.” He was staring down at his hand, examining it in the sunlight, then he tucked it under the table away out of sight. She sharply rapped at the wood with his knuckles for his attention. “Hey. Eyes up here; look at me.” He scowled. “It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s doable – it’s doable without pain and agony.”

“I’ve heard stories of other templars who have met unfortunate ends, silent to the end.”

“I’ve kept you alive till now. Have some faith in me.”

“As if it was some penance.” He continued as if she had not spoken. “Suffering in itself isn’t suffering if one deserves the pain. You, a stranger of all people who know my past rather intimately,” with those words, she crossed her arms and scowled back, “you should know why I should not accept your help.”

“The Hippocratic Oath does not-.”

“The Templar Order has committed horrors upon horrors that cannot be absolved,” he hissed, leaning forward. “How much detail are you aware of? I wonder what you’ve seen. Before the Harrowing, we are always reminded to keep a hand over the sword until the mage returns from the Fade. Or the alternative rite of Tranquility where you become so docile you don’t complain about whatever is done to you. Did you know?” They locked into a battle of wills for one silent minute, “I see… You know enough. You know what I’ve done for ten long years, if not longer.”

An expression of frustration spasmed across her features. “Fine. Are you done yet? Here.” Walker then leaned back and reached for her satchel. From it, she drew a bottle made of opaque, black glass and placed it on the table, perfect distance from both parties. “It’s not in its usual decanter, but I’m sure you know what’s inside. Go on.”

He inspected the new object with narrowed eyes and then faltered. “You have a supply here.”

“Just this one,” she corrected, lips curling into a mocking smile. “To save for a rainy day. Or, I guess, in this case, to make a point.”

He finally lost his precarious hold on his temper; with his grip on the table edge splintering the wood grain, he snarled. “Do you want me to take this or not?!”

“It’s up to you.” She raised her chin and refused to outwardly break though her body language, crossed arms and back pressed against her chair, revealed her apprehension. “It’s not mine anymore.”

“What, exactly, is your point?”

She took a deep breath. “You accepted Cassandra’s offer as Commander of the Inquisition’s forces. You didn’t have to. You could’ve stayed in Kirkwall for your penance. You could’ve quit and begged on the streets for your penance, like Samson.” She frowned in thought. “You could’ve done a lot of other things like Samson, actually.” She shook her head, “You are more than your past. You think that too.”

He gritted his teeth and, without breaking eye contact, took the bottle in hand and dashed it upon the stone veranda, out of sight, scattering black shards in all direction. “You win. Alright? You must be simply pleased now, I’m sure.” Then, after centering himself with clenched fists, as if finally noticing the way she held herself against him, he deflated, “Just leave me be.” And as he pushed his chair back and retreated to his quarters, Josephine ducked to the far counter of the kitchen to remain hidden.

The pair didn’t speak until a week later when Walker, with the attitude of an aggrieved healer, hunted him down and wrestled him into compliance with his health potion regimen. He had a few choice adjectives for the situation he found himself in that caused Josephine’s ears to burn but eventually acquiesced. “He used to be a beautiful cinnamon roll too good for this world, too pure.” Walker complained to her as they both watched him sleep after hauling him back to his bed from where he had collapsed. “From stuttering at female mages to this stubborn mess. Well, at least he’s on the upswing, right?”

Josephine refused to comment.

NG++

The long stretches of monotony at their abode were broken periodically by visits from refugee parties desperate for a place to rest and recuperate, carrying stuffed packs made of blankets fraying at the edges. They occupied the spare guest rooms, grateful for warm beds and bellies, paying back with supplies and news gathered from the ravaged landscape. “Sister Nightingale’s ravens are willing to carry messages – though more are intercepted by the Elder One every day. We still have a few. The latest posts mentioned this place in the Emerald Graves courtesy of the Inquisition where one can rest before continuing to the Anders. Here. Thank the Maker we were not wrong.”

Josephine had been working extra diligently to sooth general concerns, guiding the lost with acquired maps and her knowledge of the nearby geographical areas. Their visitors needed merely a goal, a direction, and someone of authority to confidently state that it was possible to escape the taint. Like migrating herds of august rams with the coming winter, they did not stay long. She occasionally had to rescue Walker from their more curious guests. “I’ve never seen you among the Inquisition. Your countenance is quite unique, Serah. Were you recruited from beyond the known seas?” A masked Orlesian said with her fan open right below her eyes, circling Walker like a predator, a finger trailing along her brow and down to her cheek. “A true shame that an organization with such potential was reduced to hiding in yet unclaimed territory, squatting in the mansion of a dead noble. The Inquisition is toothless; you should flee like the rest of us of sound minds.”

Even facing the end of the world, the Game continued in daily life. There was a joke how if one was to cram Orlesian prisoners into a box and throw the box in the sea, they would more likely die from assassination attempts and/or poison than drowning. Walker had acknowledged the insult with a tilt of the head and replied, “Not true. We are still armed. Our three remaining weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency, - and an almost fanatical devotion to the --- Jesus fuck-” Josephine had dragged her away, hastily citing the need to scout for more embrium. “Let me have my fun, Montilyet.”

“She does not even know what you are referencing,” Josephine countered.

NG++

With more residents came more chores to be done. Cullen had recovered enough to start reconditioning his body and started contributing with general house maintenance and gathering firewood, carrying water, and digging trenches while their guests milled about on the front lawn. Josephine took on the role of general warden and matron of the estate, organizing supplies, stores, cooking, greetings, information, conversation, and the like. Between her Fade travels to collect provisions from abandoned towns, Walker became graceless in the face of strangers and her moods swung with greater frequency from one end to another, shifting from humor to somber and back again at a drop of a hat. The press of newly arrived Orlesians did not improve her disposition and Josephine had to field more than one disaster when Walker decided that her songs that scandalized the adults and delighted the children was the solution to her need for isolation.

Morrigan, Arcane Advisor to Empress Celene, was a person of great interest prior to recent events. Letter after letter from the diplomatic advisor of the Inquisition had been sent with courting words, an invitation to join and assist or, at the very least, begin a tentative correspondence. The woman had never replied and eventually, she was pushed to the back of Josephine’s mind in lieu of other, more pressing problems. Her unexpected arrival with a small group of survivors therefore filled Josephine with conflicting feelings.

“I was curious to see how the last bastion of the Inquisition fared.” She had said instead of a proper greeting. “Leliana has chosen wisely.”

“If I had known you held such fond memories of her, I would’ve asked her to reach out to you instead.”

As they approached the crowd surrounding the fire pit and the cauldron of hunter's stew, leftover nug sausages, potatoes and other root vegetables, sage and thyme, with a side of cured bronto shoulder, Morrigan ushered her son towards the other kids who were receiving powdered nutritional supplements from Walker, each waiting obediently in a line. “It was not the right time yet.” Perhaps Morrigan would tell the story of the famous and infamous Hero of Ferelden that Walker hinted at, elaborate on the crimes committed that Leliana refused to tell and the tragedies faced that made Cullen fall silent. “But these past events have shown me that there is not a right time for many things. Leliana cared for you. Therefore, I feel obligated to tell you that the right time to leave would be now.”

Maybe Morrigan also dreamed of Leliana screaming as a Tevinter took samples of her skin, hissing and cursing at her interrogators. “I cannot.”

The children ran past their position with a garland of rashvine clutched in their tiny hands, laughing and yelling, a small oasis of happiness that at once soured Josephine’s mood once she caught word of what was being sung. “~Moca Chocalata lata on her black satin sheets. She said, ‘Voulez vous coucher avec moi, avec moi’~”

… Walker.

Visitors have complained about her… influence. But unless they were willing to turn down a competent medical exam and have their illnesses and injuries healed, there was really no way of escaping her inane tunes. For not the first time, Josephine wondered the degree of hedonism that existed in Walker’s old world. Morrigan eyed her son among his new friends, “Did she tell you to stay?” She didn’t need an answer nor did she receive one. “Why?”

“She has a plan that requires the Inquisition to lay low and to strike when the time is right.”

Morrigan pursed her lips, “It can only be a mad one I assume.”

“It’s plausible,” Josephine insisted, “It’s the only one we have.”

“I never said it was impossible. I do not even know the details.” Morrigan refuted. “We all used to see her in the Fade. Mages. She was hardly ever close enough to see or hear, vanishing and appearing without warning, walking among demons as if she did not see them. Occasional conversationalist to the those blessed by luck and surprisingly filled with wisdom and advice. Oh, do not look so surprised. She was not Walker for walking through rifts but as one who walks the Fade. Personally, I thought ‘Wanderer’ was a better moniker. But she disappeared from our dreams, I would say, some weeks ago.”

“She woke up.” Walker left behind a Fade that shifts with the wild habitats and populated cities of her world. In her place, Josephine had experienced stories in moving pictures, stared out of windows from impossible heights towards the hanging bright lights that hid the night stars, squeezed against strangers in underground transportation, sat in carriages without horses that drove twice, thrice as fast. Did the other mages see them too? Josephine didn’t know how to ask.

In her traveling garb of what could barely pass as a top, Morrigan was more Kocari Wilds than Orlesian Court, more leathers and feathers than silk and velvet. “Indeed?” She placed a finger on her lips, “Then, I wish you the best, Lady Ambassador. My group will continue our way north, but we will send the ravens east to others. You have set up the only safe passage out of these lands. But I would warn you: word of this place is spreading. First comes the survivors, then their hunters.” Morrigan kissed both her cheeks, an Orlesian gesture, and then returned to her party.

NG++

“If what she says is true, then we’ll start training tomorrow,” Cullen decided that evening when the three of them gathered at the table for the evening meal: breads stuffed with wilted mustard, parboiled golden potatoes and chives, thigh cuts from a nug spit roast saved from the previous evening with fruit chutney, washed down with port wine from a half opened bottle richly dark and dry as the Hissing Wastes. “We should’ve done this earlier but between Josephine’s projects and my recovery, there simply hadn’t been time.” He shook his head grimly, “No matter. Josephine, we’ll need to check the weaponry for a set of daggers. I’m not sure how much you remember but it’s better than nothing. As for you…” He stared at Walker critically, eyeing lean muscle mass and slight frame. “The halberd will do.”

A piece of meat dropped from Walker’s chopsticks onto the butter dish, “Hold up. I told you I have no experience whatsoever. My world does not fight like this. All I know is how to run away.”

“Excellent,” he nodded decisively, “We won’t have to correct any bad habits.” Walker began to sputter incoherently as Josephine resigned herself to a few days of sore muscles and joints in the early mornings. “The training will be arduous due to our time constraints, I’ll have to cover formations, stances, as well as strategies, but I have high hopes for the both of you.” Then, he smiled. It was a smile Josephine would recall two weeks later as he flipped Walker over his shoulder while she let loose a string of invectives directed at his birth and ancestry.

NG++

Cole is.

Cullen and Josephine stared at the being while Walker made the introductions. “This is Cole.” She clapped his back and cringed when he stumbled forward, “Oh hell, my bad.”

Cole is famine in a young man’s body, barely out of the cusp of boyhood, colored white from the lack of sun. Cole is bruises from large templar gauntlets sporting rusted iron and dirt and blood beneath blunted fingernails, eyes hiding beneath the shadow of a large brim hat, quivering with anxiety. He looked up at Cullen and said, “Envy has left Therinfal Redoubt for there is no envy in his heart, just resolve. With the young Knight-Captain gone, there were no new orders, and we floundered. But the Elder God offered the red and there will be a red storm. I miss your paper cranes.”

“I see what you meant by cryptic,” Josephine settled on while Cullen stiffened.

“You’ll understand when its directed at you. It’s better with him who does not make sense than I who does, if you had to pick your poison. So it goes.” Walker said, running a hand through her hair, “Why are you here?” She asked Cole, “Are you joining us?”

“Maker help me if there’s two of you,” Cullen sighed. “I’ll go mad.”

Walker rolled her eyes heavenward, “Love you too.”

“He will still be him.” Cole murmured. “He was always him, the steadfast and the safe. Desire makes furrows, but the river stays and water flows.” He pressed a thumb against the point of his knives, Dalish make, but didn’t draw blood. “I came to know. There is no role here for me. You do good things, all of you, but mostly you, especially you. This was made because you wanted to, without need.” This he directed at Josephine.

She cleared her throat in lieu of replying.

“There are no strings to pluck to any nearby Nightingale but still you make music. People hear and people talk and people come and people listen. I cannot comfort, just take the pain away and take away those to give pain. I cannot be here but I wanted to feel.”

“Thank you. You are allowed to be curious,” Josephine placed a hand on his hand.

“You created something from nothing.” Cole reverently squeezed her hand.

Josephine turned her head to break eye contact, but her face still heated from the compliments and attention. In doing so, she caught sight of Walker staring at her as if it was the first time they met. “There is little in the way of action I could accomplish, but I was never the one to sit back. I couldn’t just stay here, knowing that people need our help.” She didn’t know what she was explaining or why she was trying. If anything, her words seemed to make Walker more bewildered.

“You are,” she said haltingly, “a good person. More so than I could-” Then her fluster overcame awe and, with red cheeks and neck, she excused herself and disappeared. Another one of her fits - Josephine hoped that she would be back before they set up camp.

Cullen’s eyes flickered between Walker and Josephine in speculation before he addressed Cole, “Do you have anything to say about Walker?”

Cole fiddled with his hat, “Thoughts pass twice as fast but so much softer. This was supposed to be fun. I only ever known it to be fun. But people are dying and people are dead and I have nothing and I just want to go back. Let me go back. I have a life. Let me out. There is nothing for me here. This isn’t real. They aren’t real. They are real. It is worse if they are real. It is worse if this is fixed and everyone will forget and I will forget and no one will know that I’m still here. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to sleep. Help me.” Josephine wrapped her arms around him and held him until he began to hum Antivan lullabies.

“You are a good person,” Cullen declared in the silence that spanned after Cole disappeared into the glen. “I am not saying that to just – you effortlessly talk and connect with people like our often striking guests and like her,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “There is a quality inherent in you that doesn’t exist in us, an innate desire to treat others with dignity.” Josephine wrung her hands and edged closer to the fire, pondering her companions’ capacity to empathize. Walker’s black humor never reached her eyes. Cullen was a passionate man who was afraid to feel and want and crave. Desire was probably the worse demon for him to contend with when Kinloch Hold fell to blood mages.

“Walker goes to you for problems that I can’t help her with.” She refuted.

He chuckled ruefully, “Two broken people bonding about how pathetic we are. There isn’t a lot of talking between us when we’re together.” Josephine blinked. “Not like that,” he said defensively, rolling his shoulders back, “I drink her tinctures. We watch the fireflies until she’s sure I won’t convulse.”

“Your health? But you haven’t relapsed in your physical activity. Is the problem recent?” There was a probing thought that wiggled in the corners of her memories, usually dormant but capable of feeding on latent and bored musings that cropped up in the past weeks and months. Josephine thought about illnesses and physicality of ex-templars, the training and specific combination of ingredients that makes them powerful and a force to be reckoned with. The thought turned into a reminder and bloomed like a blood lotus tasting its first full moon, tilting its head towards the howls of black wolves. She bit on her bottom lip, suddenly recalling the dramatic conversation between her two friends - about penance and suffering and how Cullen wouldn't die but he would wish he did. “No," she concluded, "It’s more insidious.” Wordlessly, he extended a gloved hand and they both watched the tremors crawl up to his shoulder. “Lyrium,” she whispered in epiphany, “You haven’t had any since Haven. All this time?” His fingers curled into a fist; he drew back and stared at his palm.

“We didn’t want you to worry. I’ve purged out most of the effects.” He then concentrated and gritted his teeth. She gasped as pillar of light manifested above the fire, characteristic of Wrath of Heaven.

There was a book in the library of Villa Maurel bookmarked to a well-worn page detailing the symptoms of lyrium hunger. “-fatigue, headaches, forgetfulness, an unquenchable thirst, and cold hands. Over time, templars grow disoriented, incapable of distinguishing memory from present, or dream from waking. Prolonged imbibing often starts with loss of memory – small at first, a misplaced item or words to a song – but more fades away over time.”

“I was told that lyrium needed to be given daily to all templars. Have they been knowingly overdosing everyone? Did the Chantry lie?” She demanded. Cullen shrugged. “Was Maxwell right? The cause of the mage-templar war was… he mentioned that his acquaintances in the Ostwick circle were desperate for freedom and would do anything for that gift. Anything. How are you feeling right now? The book mentioned… did you…? And the templars suffered for what? Why?”

“Why what?” He replied tonelessly. “Why did a fifth of all Ferelden circle mages attempt suicide before age thirty? Why is the number doubled that in Kirkwall? A tenth of them were successful. Did you know that?” Josephine covered her mouth in horror. “Of those, half threw themselves off the tallest window of the Gallows, a third drowned, and the remaining were documented as accidents. The tranquil-”

“Stop. Stop.” She wiped her eyes and failed to stop the onslaught of tears. Leliana had been the one of the three advisors who advocated for mage rights though unlike the mage who blew up the Kirkwall Chantry, instead of partaking in the writing of manifestos and organizing the mage underground, she had, over the course of years, softened the late Divine Justinia to her cause. The Divine’s death following the mage-templar war had set back progress but had the Inquisition thrived, maybe – “An overhaul of the Circle of Magi would be possible though depending on how we recruit the mages in the original timeline, we could replace that organization with another one made from scratch. If the new Divine is amendable. If Leliana could and I could frame the idea as a novel method made fashionable… Leliana…”

The horizon where snow met sky blurred and she grew unspeakably irritated at how often she had been crying of late. Lightning darted under her skin, mimicking restless energy, but she was so tired. “I’ll go check on our traps,” Cullen murmured and, with a shift of armor, he left her at the campsite to ruminate on her internal conflict. Eventually, she descended into a fitful sleep on her bedroll and dreamed.

Moving bodies, barely clothed and sweating, pressed against her on all sides. The venue was dark but punctuated by brief flashes of multi-colored lights from the ceiling. The people didn’t seem to move but between one instant and another, they raised their arms, beckoned towards her, pulled her in. “~Boom, boom. What’cha gonna do when the club goes lo-o-o-o-o-co. So put your hands up high, gonna blow your~” Someone tossed a cup of iced water over her head, providing relief from the heat that emanated from close contact and movement and her beating heart.

She slowly came to at the sounds of soft voices conversing behind her and the rhythmic sounds of knifework of Cullen gutting, what she suspected, to be their dinner. “- harried off and left.”

“Sorry about that and thanks for covering,” Walker whispered in a muffled voice, “But at that moment, I just fucking couldn’t. She’s too much for me. I don’t know about this realm but people like her, pure as the driven snow, barely exist in mine. You’ve heard her talk – she’s always been at the intersection of ethics and empathy – the position gives her hope. She still believes that conflict could be achieved without betrayal or blackmail or violence.”

“Once you’ve worked with her long enough, you’ll learn that there are few things she cannot accomplish once she sets her mind to it.”

“I know,” she said meaningfully. What she didn’t say was I know your personalities, your goals, your dreams, your past, you accomplishments, your failures, what makes you talk, what makes you happy, what makes you sad. “I hope the thought occurs to her after this mess. Maybe she’ll advocate for separation of church and state, write treatises to establish a new social contract between mages and the rest of the world or whatever are the invisible laws of the nation. Implementation is not an issue here. She has created a sanctuary from the limited resources we have.”

“She’ll do this too,” he insisted. Something heavy, warm, and pleasant settled in her lower stomach at the measure of faith they have in her. “Because she wants to. It’s who she is.” The sound of a crackling fire was accompanied by that of meat cooking in a pan and of boiling water. “Listen,” he started, “I’ve given the decision between Therinfal Redoubt and Redcliffe some thought. With the time constraints and the resources we had at the time, it would’ve been possible to save both groups: mages and templars. As a result, both the Venatori and the Red templars would be severely weakened. Afterwards, we can find your eluvian and have the elven mage, Solas, revive you.”

“It’s a bold vision and it might happen - if you remember.” Her voice turned hard at the latter phrase, “Which you won’t.”

“Walker… Walker. Look.” He gave a harsh sigh. “Andraste, give me patience. I promise you: we will find and talk with Maxwell. We will make the time. Please. Don’t lose hope.”

“Thanks.” She could not bring herself hope. “Even if not and it doesn’t work out, it’s fine.” It’s not fine. “I’ve come to accept it,” she lied badly, “Sort of.” She cleared her throat but her breath still hitched as she spoke, “I’m glad I got to know you two regardless.”

NG++

Ferelden was of old land and young history, governed by Alamarri clans turning to civilization, a mere babe in comparison to the empire bordering the north side. Ferelden was harsh winters and mild summers and the denizens tend to duck into taverns or chantries when the midday heat waves hit the country. However, in the temperate climate of Emerald Graves with no standing structure save for Villa Maurel and lots of work to be done, there wasn’t any way to escape the humidity. Maybe long term close quarters have placed Walker and Josephine in Cullen’s mental category labeled those whom I am wholly comfortable with seeing my scars.

Because he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

The problem wasn’t the scars. He had scars – old like the white stretch across his right shoulder and new like the pink and inflamed claw marks on his arms from the pack of fear demons that had accosted them recently by the main river.

Josephine pulled at the bandages covering her fingers and distantly recalled Walker stabbing a demon that had flanked Josephine through the leg before being violently backhanded by another that Fade Stepped to her blind spot. Thanks to Cullen’s training, she had at least landed on her feet but not before sporting a mosaic of bruises on one side of her face. “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected,” She had said in a sage-like voice after they regained their bearings before spitting out a mouthful of blood. Cullen had inspected her face and made a noise of frustration – their odds of survival were still too close to death. The incident had only increased their training regimen.

The problem wasn’t the scars. It was the sinew of muscles pushing and pulling across his back as he raised the axe and brought it down in rhythmic swings against wood. It was the sunlight on taut skin and beads of sweat glistening down his side, his arms, and his temple, down his jawline, down his neck, disappearing into the shallows of his collar bone.

“Why are you out here?” She jumped at the voice in her ear and the hand on her shoulder. Walker adjusted her bag consisting of supplies scavenged from empty towns in and around Orlais and Ferelden with an unimpressed, flat look, “You look like you are about to pass out – find some shade, at least.”

Josephine blurted the first thing on her mind. “You’re very cold.”

“The Fade is always a bit chilly but I prefer it over the perpetual feeling of stepping out of a shower. I would invite you to come along if not for, you know, demons that come for you and not for me.” She tapped her cheek where mottled green still lingered by her jawline. “Unless I attack first, of course. Details.” She scanned the landscape, searching for signs of demonic unrest in the undergrowth, and then she did a double take, “Is that Cullen?”

Josephine closed her eyes.

“And here I was complaining about the weather.” Walker’s eyebrows continued to climb, her expression changed from incredulous to glee to admiring to hilarity, “Oh. My. Fucking. God.”

“You’ve seen him in various states of undress as his healer,” Josephine felt the need to point out. More than once, behind closed doors, Walker had loudly ordered him to strip down to his smalls and to put the goddamn drape on if he was to continue the act of the blushing virginal maiden and their physician-patient relationship had remained no more than clinically professional.

“Only in that setting,” She absentmindedly corrected, “and not framed as nicely with such good lighting.” In the distance, he stacked logs onto his shoulder and turned. “Oh shit,” she stiffened, “I think he saw us. We… Josephine, let go.” Josephine’s grip on Walker’s arm did not relent: to turn away was to show weakness. She didn’t trust her legs to move and she was not allowing her friend to leave her alone with him.

Cullen squinted at the pair with a hand shielding his gaze from the sun. He waved.

After a brief pause, both women in unintended synchrony halfheartedly raised their hands and returned the greeting. “Unbelievable. Did this happen at Haven? Is he, like, aware of all that?” Walker muttered sotto voce, waving a hand to encompass his general form that was quickly approaching them.

The answers were yes and maybe respectively. “Leliana had been planning, with his consent of course, on presenting him as a front for some of her contacts who appreciate the physical aesthetics.” She fell silent as he came within hearing range.

With his previous handicaps removed, wounds long healed and symptoms of lyrium withdrawal long absent, Cullen Rutherford was the picture of health and, to the bewilderment of his companions, embodying the ideal of Ferelden good looks with a boyish smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “There you two are. I was planning on building a sled of sorts to remove some boulders by the quarry and the cave. Would you like me to place these in the shed or in the courtyard?”

Seconds ticked by in silence. His brow furrowed in confusion. Words died at the tip of Josephine’s tongue and even if she could speak, she wouldn’t know what to say for her mind has stopped working. Walker was evidently struggling too, “Yes?” She tried in a pitch higher than her usual tenor.

And then, to Josephine’s horror, realization dawned on his features and his eyes glinted whiskey amber in the ambient light with humor and mischief. The smirk that stretched the scar bisecting his lip did nothing for the fog settling in her head and, in fact, made it worse. He dipped his head and Josephine with great difficulty matched his gaze because according to Leliana, to turn away was to show weakness. After giving a considering glance Walker who was not faring much better, he said in a timbre lower than necessary, “Alright, I see then. I’ll head to the house and set up a space, by your leave.”

From behind her frozen countenance, Josephine mentally swore at his retreating back. He knew. Next to her, Walker blinked twice, slowly emerging from her daze. “Unbelievable,” she repeated as she pressed fingers against her temple as if nursing a headache, “Fuck,” she added with feeling. There was a brief moment of panic from her as she realized that she had to drop off her found treasures at Villa Maurel where Cullen was… doing something with the lumber (neither of them could recall what he had just said) and Josephine had to reiterate that Cullen was still the same Cullen they’ve known and love, yelling over Walker who was bandying around phrases like “Casanova in a Judith McNaught novel” and “shove a stick up your fucking ass, Greg Ellis.”

Thankfully, before their idiotic argument could descend into further levels of absurdities, a haggard group of Ferelden refugees peered over the hills and formally requested for aid and sanctuary. Though absurdly grateful for the newcomers, Josephine couldn’t help the involuntary noise of loss that escaped her when Cullen placed his shirt back on. She cringed under Walker’s judgmental glance but felt vindicated when Walker later blushed with his attentions and proceeded to look furious for blushing.

NG++

The topic of romance was ultimately inevitable to avoid during the relaxed hours of the night, especially after generous use of the wine cellar and recent events notably what would be hence forth named “the Cullen incident, not that one, the other one with the axe and the wood, sans clothing.” The party also suffered the arrival of a particularly amorous entourage of Orlesians where an elderly woman attempted to proposition to Josephine by making a tasteless joke about Antivan whorehouses and a group of admirers followed Cullen around his usual haunts until the beleaguered man had started to develop a twitch under his right eye by the sun touched the horizon. Thankfully, their visitors left that same day.

Orlais was a particularly amorous nation consisting of people who wielded beauty, wits, charm, and sexual infatuation as a tool to manipulate their peers and to ascend the social hierarchy. Weaving such emotions into the Game is dangerous and often mentors warn their proteges the risks of bleeding affections and accidental love. Leliana was a good example, having fallen hard with the Warden and unable to muster enough willpower to truly order an expedition to hunt her ex-lover down for the betrayal of tainting the Sacred Ashes and then murdering her in cold blood. The subgenre is a popular plot line of Orlesian novellas.

“If the Warden was a female, Leliana’s pick up line was a compliment about her hair,” Walker recalled, sprawled in her chair, head cocked to the side, revealing a pale column of throat. Both women were sharing a bottle of Vint-9 Rowan’s Rose for the evening and Walker had started humming on her second glass. Every sip invited rose petal tones darkened with notes of catsbane added to provide an extra thick level in the scent and texture; the label claimed to whisper sweet nothings to its favored drinkers. Cullen sat with them, slowly nursing his mug of black tea enhanced by a slice of lemon while reading Aveline, Knight of Orlais by Lord Francois Maigny. Her affectation was an accurate mirror of the spymaster’s cadence and coy, “Maker… look at me, stumbling over my words like an ill-educated peasant girl. Some bard I am…” They both started giggling.

“Ah,” Josephine effused, hands to her cheeks, “Grandloves in such a harrowed time.”

“Leliana and Alistair tended to fall in love without you noticing. Morrigan and Zevran required more,” she waved a hand, “intentional pursuit.”

Josephine lifted her head. “There are options?” Walker straightened and gave a slow wink before descending into another fit of mirth. Josephine gasped in delight, “You must tell me everything!”

“Is this appropriate?” Cullen questioned to no one in particular with no small amount of dread.

“Oh hush,” Josephine topped off Walker’s glass once more, “I know you are curious too. It’s rare to receive the gift of knowledge surrounding the what ifs and what could have beens.”

“~Will happen, happening, happened. Will happen, happening, happened…~” Walker sang, voice breaking intermittently on the high notes.

“The world has not been kind to us,” Josephine murmured, “It’ll be nice to hear about something lighthearted for a change.” Cullen slowly closed his book, resigned to having lost the argument. She brightened, “Varric once said that stories bring other ideas and emotions to people who may have never experienced them. Oh, don’t tell anyone, but Seeker Cassandra reads Swords and Shields purely for the relationship. She recited her favorite parts out loud to me after the initial visit to Val Royeaux.”

“Some people argued that the romance plotline is the most important part of the game. There’s an appeal to mindless bodice rippers – it’s so visceral and heavy – Hawke and his or her options... I wish Hawke could’ve seduced Varric, but Varric was genre savvy and protected by protagonist armor and all the conflicts like romance and betrayal and death ricocheted off of him like blazes.” Walker descended into an ever-deeper mire of unique vernacular, “I think Bioware went a little nuts on Inquisition though. You had your pick from a wide pool: the Inner Circle, the Advisors, and others, sort of.”

The room plunged into silence – or maybe the roaring in Josephine’s ears from the rushing blood drowned out all other ambient sounds. She found it a bit difficult to breath, warring with both factions of herself: wanting to know and not wanting to know. This was about her, wasn’t it? And for Cullen, it was about him. And though the three of them have gone over Walker’s story with a fine-toothed comb and reiterated the fact that there is no tragedy of fate and no such thing as inevitable prophecies… What ifs and what could have beens. “Josephine or I?” Cullen asked in a strangled voice.

Walker was oblivious to the change in the general mood. “With Josephine, it’s very White Knight with a gift of the family crest and a duel against a rival suitor. With you, it’s not chaste like a scented handkerchief, it was more Sex on a Desk-” A heart beat later, her eyes widened in panic, belatedly realizing what she had just implied, “and a thing about a coin. I mean, oh shit. Wait.” She rapidly backtracked as Cullen looked like he was wishing for the ground to swallow him whole. “I mean. It’s not going to happen? Trevelyan is male. You don’t go for guys, no matter what the mods try.”

It’s hard to imagine any of the Inquisition members finding someone to settle down with and that precious little piece of happiness. Josephine felt an ache in her chest – Anticipation? Longing? The consensus in Haven had been that the advisors were married to their work and eschewed such attachments due to various reasons such as being naïve to the idea of love, templar chastity vows, or a broken heart. She imagined herself with Maxwell, sharing a tender moment by the fireplace, and, curiously, that weighted emotion lifted. So, who…?

“Ellana Lavellan, my Dalish Inquisitor, flirted with Scout Harding at every new location.” Walker attempted to revive the conversation and change the subject. “The couple was super cute. Harding is adventure and exploration and stability. It’s not a pairing that most people went for though. Everyone loves Solas – the forbidden depths of a mild-mannered, scholarly, elven apostate are attractive, I guess.”

“The elven god whom you’ve claimed started this whole mess?” Cullen inquired with no small amount of distaste, reconciling the idea of the Dread Wolf as a potential romantic partner. Murderous rage flashed across his eyes for one split second before reverting to his resigned state.

“Fen’Harel,” Walker reflected as she continued to study the ceiling, “Fenrir, son of Loki, the Trickster – in my world. Solas means pride and Hell is paved with good intentions. Most of the lore is still incomplete but there are theories. I wonder what will happen in the next installment…” She exhaled – mournful and exhausted.

Josephine could not imagine how she would act in front of the elf if she kept her memories of the Emerald Graves. Grief? Contempt? Accusation? Fear? Hatred? She knew people who had died on that day and others who had died in the aftermath. Everyone did and each dealt with their own grief in separate ways. The explosion at the Conclave was nothing short of a tragedy, worsening the precarious state of affairs in Thedas. Had the Inquisition not been assembled, the future of civilization itself may have been placed in jeopardy. Could she even dare to stare at the man in the eyes? Could she keep her professionalism as an Ambassador and not spit vitriol in his direction?

Why would anybody ever consider sharing their life with him?

NG++

Cullen pressed a hand against his breast and broke the silence. “I don’t like this,” he declared with gritted teeth. Both women turned to him, each with different degrees of understanding. Helpless anger, righteous fury. The heaviness of his tone implied a greater picture than the topic at hand. Adrift and guided by one fraying strand of fate – reacting instead of planning. His hands clenched and unclenched, a common mental exercise in warriors to center one’s self before battle. “The waiting, the futility, knowing that I will eventually forget everything here. This is our duty to the world. Yet, I hate it all.” Though no one replied to his declaration, general morose understanding was agreed upon by all three occupants of Villa Maurel.

But there was nothing else to do but persevere.

NG++

An elven woman dressed in the garb of a circle mage struggled against her bindings made of red lyrium. She bit on her lower lip hard enough to draw blood when the crystals slowly began to emerge from her back. She hung there, nails scraping lightly against the prison bars behind her. The scene changed. A screech echoed off the stones of Therinfal Redoubt and from behind a pillar, a long limb extended into view, flesh colored, blanched white. What emerged into the clearing was not any demon she had ever seen before – hands as feet, four arms extending from the torso, a wide gaping mouth without much else, crawling on all fours, knees bending in a direction impossible for any person. The thing turned its head towards her and though it had no eyes, it saw her.

“Josephine!” Something gripped her shoulders and violently shook her, “Josephine! Wake up!”

Walker leaned over her, hair brushing against her nightgown, barely visible in the dark room. Josephine placed a hand over her own beating heart and tried to catch her breath. She craned her neck and saw Cullen in the doorway with a candle half gone. “Just a nightmare.” She gasped, curling on her side, “No need to fret. I’ve had them before.”

Walker exchanged a glance with Cullen and then turned back to her. “Well,” she said measurably, “this is the first time we’ve heard you scream.”

The man dragged a hand over his face, “No point trying to go back to sleep now. We still have some tea from our last group of visitors in the dining room.”

Stacks of maps depicting rifts in various countries, a spilled inkwell over a piece of stained vellum, and a notebook consisting of lists of where all the rifts connect to were all pushed to the side and stools were brought in. A mug of vandal aria and ginger was pushed into her hands. Blood pulsed in her ears as she awkwardly described the monster she had seen, conveying the horror with a badly rendered drawing and gesticulating so wildly that she almost knocked various paraphernalia.

“That’s the envy demon who was masquerading as the Lord Seeker,” Walker confirmed, drumming her fingers on the wood. “And Grand Enchanter Fiona. Are you sure they’re dreams? They’re definitely visions.”

Cullen paced the other side, “Why not both?” He reasoned, turning towards the window, staring out at the empty grounds populated by only the light of fireflies. “The Fade is known to show current events.”

Walker shook her head, “But the scenes aren’t current. I saw the Grand Enchanter in Redcliffe and for certain, she has progressed beyond lyrium shrubbery and into lyrium forest – Josephine saw the past. Also, if we’re establishing that these aren’t the regular run of the mill nightmares but Fade dreams, the question is raised: why is she in the Fade? I thought only mages dream of the Fade.”

“You are right.” Cullen answered as Josephine willed small sparks to erupt from her fingertips, unsure exactly what muscle she should be flexing. Nothing came from her efforts. “Perhaps with the chaos surrounding the rifts and the Breach and who knows what else our enemies are doing playing with such magics, we should’ve expected changes such as these. I would guess that an overabundance of power from the Fade has bled into this world and searched for potential wielders, latching onto any available person. If there are no mages available, the power turned to non-mages.”

Walker wrinkled her nose, “That sort of makes sense – me being me, you as a templar, only Josephine here is the normal one.” She drew idle circles on the parchment as she turned back around to address Josephine once more. “What else have you seen?”

She shuddered, “Leliana. I don’t know how much is true.” Her companions winced. “Demons, Red Templars, Venatori mages. And,” she closely examined Walker for a reaction, “Odder things of late. I’m fairly certain they’re from your world.”

Walker blinked once before her face transformed into a slate of blankness. “My world?”

“A white dreadnaught that held thousands of passengers.” She began to list and attempted to sketch on loose parchment, “Sleek glass towers held by metal lining each side of a road where large and small box like carriages that run without horses. A hallway of manmade screens with individuals at each screen manipulating the flat panels. There is many more.”

Walker leaned across the table and examined her drawings, fingers brushing against the wet ink, “A cruise liner, most likely the one I was on last summer heading to the Alaskan fjords. Chicago – that’s the Sears tower off to the side. My university library and study hall. This is my world. These are my memories.” Her voice grew cold as she slowly stood, “Why are you dreaming of my memories?”

Josephine was confused. “The first time we met, you took me through the Fade and we ran down a boulevard with an open field on one side and an iron wrought fence on the other protecting a row of houses.” Walker would not look at her in the eye. “Did you not see? There was a separate road for someone on foot compared to the ones reserved for the carriages. It was yellow with drawings of flowers on the sides but the rain had washed away most of the art.”

“Vehicles,” Walker corrected, “Cars. It’s the neighborhood where I lived before I woke up here.”

“If you didn’t see that, then what did you see?”

She gave a full body twitch, “Spiders in a veritable waste land – like in game.” She glared, the force of her fury drew Josephine back in alarm, having never seen her truly angry. “Why can you see my life when I can’t?” Behind her, Cullen placed a hand on her shoulder as both anchor and warning, but the gesture did nothing to soothe her agitation. “Maybe it’s better that I didn’t see? Why did the Fade refuse to show me? Why was I denied?” She wavered. “It’s my memories. I can barely remember my own memories. It’s not fair. I thought at least…” Her expression crumbled. She ducked under Cullen’s arm and excused herself from the dining room. A few seconds later, they heard the telltale sound of the front door opening and closing.

“Maker’s breath. I had not expected that,” Cullen muttered, draining the last of his cup. “…Are you going to follow her?”

“I should go.” Josephine stammered, “I need to… I’ll go now.”

“I’ll be here.”

She found Walker huddled by a great tree that bordered the clearing where they had nursed Cullen back to health, staring listlessly at the night sky and its stars. There were no clouds. There were two giants in the distance wading through a low sea of fireflies. She made no indications of having noticed her presence. Undeterred, Josephine sat down beside her, tucking her knees underneath, and leaned against the other woman’s side. Instead of talking, she allowed the silence to infuse what stood between them and hoped that it was enough.

Walker started to cry.

Chapter Text

NG++

The blue prints to Redcliffe castle hung from bare stucco walls like tapestries with annotations in Cullen’s precise handwriting and Walker’s less elegant scrawl. From left to right, they mapped out floors from the dungeons which held the jail cells up to the main floor which held the throne room. Josephine entered the drawing room, having just escorted another set of guests to a dirt trail that eventually meandered between the Exalted Plains and Emprise du Lion to the Waking Sea and a seaport, and found Walker and Cullen standing side by side, debating over where to infiltrate the fortifications. Cullen’s voice had reached her the moment she opened the front door and stepped over the threshold, “- risk if we stay too long circling the perimeter. While we have the guard rotation of the battlements, we don’t have the patrols of the surrounding paths.”

“There is nothing of note on the west side. I’ve checked,” Walker disagreed. But when he drew a line from the Waking Sea down to Lake Calenhad, her eyes widened. She peered closer as if the action would give her more insight and answers and finally commented, “You’re mad.”

“I know it’s possible.” He pointed at River Dane, “You mentioned the presence of a rift at the east shore”

“There is.” She perused her papers, grumbling as a couple fluttered to the floor, “We’ll be anticipating a couple days march in the Fade though. The corresponding rift isn’t anywhere close by. The non-Euclidean geometry may cause your brains to dribble out of your ears… I’m joking, sort of. There’ll be demons but no Venatori or Red templars.” She hesitated, chewing on her bottom lip with worry, “The only reason why I know of this rift is because I entered it from this side from Ferelden and spoke to a spirit of wisdom who warned me of nearby demons more powerful and intelligent of the likes that I’ve never seen before. I had recognized the distant landmarks during my brief conversation.”

He grimaced, mouth pulled taut at the corners, stretching his scar, “And how likely is it that this demon would be pursuing us?”

“According to Wisdom – very likely. But, Wisdom also said that it would not sense us until we are in the final mountain pass so theoretically, if we don’t delay at the final stretch, we would be fine.” She nudged his boot with her own, “I don’t know what we would be expecting there. I also don’t appreciate being vulnerable while floating in the middle of Lake Calenhad.”

“Assuming swift death if those demon do catch us, I still like our chances in the Fade more than wandering around the Redcliffe arling. The numbers you have of hostiles by the castle are,” Pensive, Cullen ran a hand through his hair, a habit he had subconsciously picked up from Walker, “not ideal. They know to anticipate us. The demon on the other hand would maybe be more attentive towards this realm rather than the Fade – demons usually are.”

“An open lake, Cullen,” Walker reiterated.

“The shore would have too many points of ambush.” He allowed, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. “However, if we stick to the center and move under the fog at dawn, we’ll be out of sight. Stray spells and arrows would not be able to reach us.” He finally caught sight of her. “Josephine,” he greeted. Walker glanced over a shoulder and beckoned. “We would appreciate a set of fresh eyes.”

Upon closer inspection, Josephine noticed the dark circles under tired eyes that blinked just slightly too slow, the shifting of weight from foot to foot to keep awake; Walker yawned behind her arm. Neither of them was in any shape to start preparations. “When will we be departing?”

“Four days hence.” Cullen answered, “There is still much to be done.” Josephine put her foot down. His lack of protest when ushered to his chambers spoke more of his exhaustion than whatever he was willing to admit. Josephine closed the door behind him and hefted her other dead weight into a more comfortable position. Walker buried her face into the crook of Josephine’s neck and refused to move. Though she could not sleep, she often pretended she did.

The four days passed without much fanfare. They reviewed their inventory thrice and fretted about potential enemies of the Fade. “The only way to truly fall under their radar,” Walker conversed with Cullen in low tones as she collected the porcelain dishes and cups for their final meal, “is to stop thinking, stop feeling, stop being.” She tilted her head, “Tranquil. They’ll be aiming for our squishiest spots.” She tucked a free strand of hair behind her ear, “and gunning for Josephine. Of us, she’s the one who dreams, the somniari without the magic.”

Josephine’s hands began to shake as she pinched the light out of the candles.

Demons tempt. She never considered what visions could tempt her. Perhaps the cascading waterfalls at the shoreline of the Waking Sea, the open waters glistening with the rays of dawn, ships on the horizon signaling the return of her brother and his crew.

Her companions safe and hale by her side.

They closed the doors to Villa Maurel and lingered at the cobblestone path, unsure how to say goodbye to a gracious property. Walker suggested to set the place on fire with distilled spirits. Cullen, instead of using the moral argument, catered to her more pragmatic sensibilities and stated that the estate has built in fire-proof resistance and that the total process would take too long.

Once more, Josephine felt that familiar power of dreams and temptation dance lightly over her skin, infusing her vision with green, stronger at her periphery than center. She hadn’t been physically in the Fade since that day many months ago, but the domain seemed to remember her dreams and greeted her like an old friend, curling magic around her limbs like a cat before scattering to the four corners, giving away to illusion that one could smell, hear, and feel. Cullen sharply inhaled; so, he saw it too.

His eyes lingered over the colorful hot air balloons lazily rising from the countryside and the figures, small as ants, crowding around each apparatus that were in the process of being inflated. He made an inquiring noise, clearly imagining scenarios where such equipment can be used to achieve terrain advantage. Josephine tugged him along as the scenery shifted to the aisle of a bullet train, landscapes whipping by in the windows, beside sleeping passengers and mothers holding down unruly children. Ahead of them, Walker kept her pace, halberd in a ready sure grip, weaving between servers. What did she see? Servers? Spiders? They cut into a grocery store with fresh produce: rose red apples stacked in a perfect pyramid, freshly cut herbs, meat cuts laid over ice, fish deboned and packaged in transparent wrappings. Strangers without faces meandered about, picking their wares with delicate fingers.

“~Past and present, eighteen fifty-five - nineteen oh-one~” The voice without a source crooned with unidentified instruments, “~watch them build up a material tower think it’s not going to stay anyway think it’s overrated~” In Thedas, bards used music to enchant their audience, coaxing secrets from those with lowered inhibitions and the chantry used music to encourage their parishioners to enter a meditative state while praying. In Walker’s realm, music wasn’t a weapon or a luxury item, so casual and intertwined with daily life that it was hard to distinguish here when one song ended and another began. Did each song add meaning to the setting? Was each song picked with agonizing precision based upon lyrics, major or minor keys, and tonal changes meant to entice? No said the children who naively sang provocative languages while playing games on the streets. Yes said the campers gathered around a fire pit with their single instrument, celebrating nature and the cosmos.

“Do you hear that?” Cullen asked.

“Hear what?” Walker replied.

He shook his head, “No matter.” They continued onward. They settled on a street corner with flimsy barriers separating the construction of an underground tunnel from the rest of the world.

This society was not just musical, it was movement and action and all the verbs associated with the concept, it was a world filled with contraptions and machineries and inventions. Pedestrians walked, strolled, skipped, ran, hurried, either around or through the three of them, heedless of their presence. Josephine inspected their handheld devices that they clutched to like precious jewelry, listening to them, talking to them, reading from them… She had never seen one up close and wondered the full potential of each handheld and how it ran and what powered it.

“You’re asking the wrong person, I’m afraid,” Walker said apologetically as her vision trailed down a line of windows from the clouds. “I’m not familiar with the intricacies of the smartphone. The technology won’t exist for at least a millennium and a half for Thedas. Most likely your sort of modernization will deviate from our path – so moot point,” she rubbed her arms as Josephine fed more wood into the fire, “seeing how there are those extra variables present in your people and not mine: elves, qunari, dwarves, lyrium, mages, Fade, darkspawn, and dragons to name a few. It’ll be an interesting future. To be honest, I’m a bit jealous.”

Cullen glanced up from where he was painstakingly wiping demon ichor from his blade, a buildup from a day’s work of slaying despair and fearlings that crawled between cracks and holes on the road. “Jealous?” He repeated incredulously. “How could you be jealous? Your world is larger than life and needs no magic to function. There’s no red lyrium, Blight, abominations, or demons. The price cannot be comparable to any benefits wrought.” He fell silent, attention determinedly placed back onto his two-handed sword, polishing with renewed vigor. Cullen is a type of man who would never forget his past and never truly place what he had faced behind him, defined by calamities, gathering them close to his chest until they mixed with his identity. Leliana had postulated that his ability to seek new meanings and goals was the only thing preventing him from becoming a Red Templar. Cullen as a Red Templar would be a force of reckoning upon Thedas.

Flying embers casted moving shadows behind their travelling gear – despair and fearlings; fearlings and despair. If there are powerful and intelligent demons lurking past the mirage, they haven’t approach yet. There are plenty of opportunities, Josephine mused as the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, plenty of days ahead to plan an ambush.

“We also have terrible wars and massacres and tragedies. Is magic supposed to exist?” Walker contemplated with a wistful tone, “My realm has stories that can’t possibly exist. Tall tales and folklore of dwarves, elves, dragons, magic – of heroes and heroines who overcome internal and external obstacles to save their villages or kingdoms or the world – of miracles that can’t be explained by science.” She poked at the bright ashes with a stick, watching it pop and crack. “There are nations separated by great oceans and mountains who share similar basic outlines of dragons and spirits. Monstrous lizards usually capable of flight. Drifting shades of those who died. But how? Why is fantasy such a long-lived genre? Why do we still speak of myths and legends? We know for a fact that they never existed.”

(A week into their first meeting, Walker had gotten deep into her cups after exploring the wine cellar and cheerfully informed Josephine and Cullen that they are either a wave or a particle. “Schrodinger’s cat,” she had insisted, “If I close my eyes, you aren’t there. It’s a quantum superposition of two states.”)

“You want what you cannot have.” Cullen concluded.

(“Your parents and siblings will be fine. Breath for me, deep, slow,” She coached, soothing the sharp edges of Josephine’s fear. “You will restore your family’s landed trader status in Orlais. You will rebuild the Montilyet’s trading fleet.” Her fingers pressed tenderly against trembling hands; her words were carefully selected. Montilyets were trained in the art of going to war with words. Wealth and Renown – her touch whispered.

“I do not want that,” she muttered as Walker pushed her hair back from her brow, shivering from night sweats and chills. Those ambitions were a part of her but now… she can barely think through her fear – sleep did not come easy. Her metaphorical being frayed at the edges like old rugs from her family home’s parlor. Her priorities have shifted and she could barely recognize who she was before the fall of Haven. A part of her wondered if this Josephine would bleed through timelines once Maxwell saves the world to old Josephine - suddenly inexplicably indulging in Cullen’s invitation to chess and his awkward attempts to bond outside of their professional mien and suddenly feeling a loss.

Though Walker did not reply; her confusion was evident in the manner she paused in carding her fingers through Josephine’s hair. “You should go to sleep,” she urged as the candle dwindled to the wick.

She dreamt of Walker donned in fine silks, her family specialty, featuring rich embroidery in a brocade style, and Antivan leathers. Walker toyed with a ruby hairpiece as she recounted stories of her old world without expected bitterness and a touch of humor in the curl of her lips, enjoying a platter of petit fours and macarons. Josephine would’ve offered her gold necklace if she wore it every day. She was safe in the Inquisition. She was with Josephine.

She was happy.)

“Story of my life.” Walker agreed.

NG++

As their expedition progressed, the demons grew noticeably stronger. From Despair on invisible wings and Fearlings crawling along to Rage with their magma wake and Terror sinking and leaping from the ground. The majority of ambushes were dealt by Cullen but the other two held their own and, thank the Maker, none suffered enough damage to remain incapacitated for long. There were no creatures dogging their footsteps but their whispers were close enough to be tangible, promising death, grazing their skin like fingernails from a lover. The air settled like a miasma, effectively killing most feeble attempts at light hearted conversation. Less eluvians dotted the landscape where before, just few days prior, one could expect them at every niche and alleyway between high rises.

There’s a trick to see beyond the illusion. One had to stare unfocused without observing, unblinking until tears gather but did not fall – only then would the scenery occasionally blur and the Black City would peak from behind the clouds.

On the morning the party reached the final mountain pass, spiders began to manifest from shadows just out of sight, boundless in their numbers, their writhing bodies resembling rivers. They did not attack, they just were. No one was willing to upset the swarms, fearing hair trigger defenses that would result in them suffocating on furred, spindly legs. They were not spiders all the time. Sometimes they were vermin, demons, bones, and disembodied hands. “Are they part of the greater demon?” Cullen asked as he crushed one that ventured too close with the heel of his boot.

“It might be the Nightmare, the one I mentioned that mimicked the Calling,” Walker postulated with ill ease as they came to a fork in the road. The diverging roads were identical in every way: narrow, bordered by vertical stone, poor lighting where it bent in the undergrowth. The one difference is that the left road was decorated by hanging cobwebs. “I vote we go right. Any objections?”

Josephine shrugged. Cullen shook his head, “the farther away from the Nightmare, the better.”

Archways gave into ceilings, darkness continued, reducing visibility to a few meters, lit only by the ambient green bleeding from the walls. The heart of the mountain was a series of tunnels, interspersed with alcoves of varying sizes. Some were empty, others contained abandoned mage staves and shards of mirror. At the sharp corners of the passages, Walker stopped in her tracks and tilted her head as if she was a mabari pinning down a difficult scent. “Be on your guard. I don’t like whatever lies ahead,” she announced.

“If there is danger, let me take point,” Cullen suggested. “You can guard the rear.”

“I don’t trust myself to watch anybody’s backsides,” Walker argued.

Eventually, they reached a vestibule ensconced in marble with golden inlaid fleur-de-lis resembling that of the Winter Palace at Halamshiral. On each side were steel doors with depictions of the Original Sin in bas-relief, of mortals kneeling before winged Old Gods, opened to reveal brick walls. Windows depicted landscape paintings and would not open. Everything here was a falsehood. The silhouette of a male human puttered on the far end of the corridor, pacing back and forth with an armful of red lyrium. He noticed the party as they ventured closer, straightening his furs and armors and smoothing his hair down with a hand.

“I’m flattered,” he greeted, “to think someone as famous as you in these parts have come to visit little old me.” He opened his arms as if inviting an embrace, “I am ashamed to say I can’t show you my full glory. That brute shattered my mirrors and took my Keystone.”

“Who is he?” Josephine whispered in Walker’s ear.

“Not a fucking clue,” she whispered back, nonplussed.

Insult flickered across his face, gone in the next second. "Forgive me." He bowed low. “Call me, Imshael.”

“Oh,” recognition warred with horror, “Oh shit.”

Imshael was pleased with her response, his eyes pinned to Walker’s who froze under his scrutiny. “I used to deserve that fear but how times have changed. The hierarchy of vices have shuffled since.”

“He’s one of The Forbidden Ones allied with Corypheus,” Walker explained under her breath, “He’s a desire demon who was partly responsible for the mess in Orlais.”

“I prefer choice spirit,” He amended, “that title brings about a more pleasant ring to mortal ears.”

“We need to kill him,” Walker continued as if he hadn’t spoken.

Imshael drew back in alarm, reaching for his mage staff, “I prefer negotiation.”

“We do not negotiate with demons.” Cullen growled.

“Not with you.” Imshael scoffed in derision, “You do not need a delicate touch, starving templar. I have no interest in you and your baseness. I want the one who would dance with skilled fingers and music.” He drew closer, shadows growing against pillars, revealing a tail at the base of his spine. Walker readied the halberd in her hand with grim apprehension. “None of the usual riches, power, or virgins for you, my dear. You are far away from home in time and place.”

The Fade blurred again and the armor on the human mage transformed into pearls and silver chains that adorned his neck and curved horns. Dual canines peaked from beneath purple lips and his smile stretched impossibly grotesque. Walker took an involuntary step back; Cullen charged forward, anger honed into the first strike of his sword. Instead of taking the blow, Imshael split into two and did not spill blood, instead crumbling into fine ash that shimmered with illusory magic.

“Did you ever wonder why the clues guided you to the eluvian at the Forbidden Oasis? What sort of power or being would be capable of opening dimensions into other layers of reality?” Imshael asked in a conversational manner that echoed off walls, rendering it impossible to pinpoint his location, “A god. Or, if you are desperate, a spirit older than the darkspawn and Tevinter Imperium.” Mahogany curtains emerged from the arch ends. Craigs turned into shaded lamps. A stone bench morphed into a plush couch, well-worn at the arm rests. There settled a golden-yellow, long-haired breed of dog, it’s head contently laying against the bare feet of a young woman.

Walker.

She was dressed in a simple, thin, white undershirt and shorts, sipping from a cup of steaming tea. A thin blanket was draped over her lap, propping up a contraption (a laptop – Josephine would later recall). “I can take you back to the day before you arrived – make it so that your life will continue without Thedas. The price for the journey, I assure you, is not high,” Imshael cajoled, manifesting behind the group.

“~Time to say go~odbye. Paesi~I che non ho mai veduto e vissuto con te~” Simple melodies mixed with the sounds of a summer storm emanating from an open window. Her dog whined and nudged against her hand. “~Adesso si li vivro con te parti~ro~”

“We’ll need to find the corporeal form. Walker, try not to… Walker?” Cullen paused and searched the corners with an expression of growing frantic alarm. The Walker that had spent nearly a year with him in the Emerald Graves and managed his lyrium withdrawal, the Walker who made delicious pastries and believed that pointing the sharp end of a stick at an enemy was the height of tactical fighting, the Walker who was a friend - had, between one moment and the other, disappeared. “Walker!”

The False-Walker, the Walker of the Before, the Walker who did not know Cullen or Josephine, interacted with the screen with deft movements indicating practiced ease. She chatted happily with an unseen friend with words drowned out by singing while idly scratching her dog’s long ears. “She can’t hear you,” Imshael tsked. “That is her home. It’s a nice home, is it not?”

“Is she…” Cullen’s expression shuttered, bottled rage transformed into purpose. “You will die here.”

Josephine gritted her teeth as the scents of fresh grass and sunflower tea bloomed ever stronger.  “~Will happen, happening, happened. Will happen, happening, happened. And there we are, again and again~” The illusion bent and warped the furniture, pulsing to an unknown beat. Her fingers passed cleanly through a chair as she staggered like a drunk beggar, searching for… searching for…

“~take the world back from the heart-attacked one maniac at a time we will take it back… You know time crawls on when you’re waiting for the song to start so dance along to the beat of your~”

The condemning fire of Cullen’s Holy Smite engulfed Ismael as six talons resembling that of insects erupted from his back. “Even if she could hear, she wouldn’t want to listen to you. She’ll fall eventually,” the demon hissed, “and I promise you, Templar, you will be next.”

Cullen laughed, “I’ve encountered enough demons to know when one is lying between their teeth.” He parried a strike and twisted away from a swipe of claws covered in fire.

“We are at a standstill,” Imshael snarled, adopting the aspect of a Rage demon, “and we will fight until you tire. I have unlimited patience at my disposal.”

Josephine stood at the foot of the couch and fingered her daggers, observing the lack of darkness in Walker’s (not her Walker) countenance. The illusion stretched, arching her back, revealing an invitingly long column of pale neck. Their eyes inadvertently met. They are not the same. This is not Walker. Still, this will hurt me. Josephine let out a slow breath and focused on her trembling hands. “~following the pack all swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied ‘round their throats – to keep their little heads from falling in the snow and I turned ‘round and t̡̕h͈̱̍ȩ͓̬͖̓̎̈̓r̢̲͗̚ḛ͉̝͋̅͌ ȳ͓̥̺͛̌o̚͢u͚̒ g̖̟̹̽͋o̼̊~”

“Lies again,” Cullen announced with a mocking smile. The desire demon roared, releasing a mana wave that rippled the air, forcing the man to dig his heel to stand his ground.

“~no time for sleep. I lie; I p͈͈͙̓́̇r̟̳̆̾͘͟et͔͙̟͔̔̎̓͠e̬͡n̳̬̞͆̔͂d til I'm a̖͋͢l̹̻̾́̚ͅm͉͡ö̟̥̱̓̿s̙͚͉̖͒̂͘͘t̩̖̹͌̀͠ c̘̤̟̑̋͌e̹̼͚̒̀͝r̨̨͖̻̭̍̀̄̚͘t̛̮̰̯̑͡ą̡̞̲̒̇͡͡ị̣̑̕͢͡ň͔… It’s a beautiful world~”

Josephine struck. Red began to seep from the fade touched stormheart, spurting as the skin began to split. It’s working – she thought through her pounding headache as the music began to stutter.

“~are y̬̭o̝͔̳̔̂̂̎̌̈̔u̅̾̐ͯ ̑̏ň̤̜̗͕͚̳ͮ͒ͅo̩ͣͦ̉w͐̽?͙͕̜ͭ̈́͋ͬ A̬̓̾ͯn̝̮̭̆ö̦̰̗̳͖́t͈͍̻͕̤͊h̳͓̟̒ͣ̒ͅēͯ̑r̟̞̹̰̫ͯ̍̋͐ ͂ͪ̓͛d͔̞̦̲̓ṛ͒e͆́̓̔̅͐̌a̙̯͇̞̺̤m͔̬͓̖ͩ̃̾̍. T̢̛̮̺̫̥̮̝͂̈́̇̽͠͡ḧ̠́ĕ̡ ̬̇m̢̥̏͑o̠͊̃͟n̖͖̅͝ṡ͙̝̮̈́̓t͇̱̰̙̘̑͋̿́ē͓͚͠r̯͊s̨̥͕̋̚̕ ̨͙͒̋r̢͈̟͓̍̅̉͋̒͟u̯̰̦͎̽̈́̉͘n̖̙͎̊̏̚n̞̩̝̺͌͛́͠͠i̜͕̭̕͡ņ͈͚̼̇̎g̮̗̺̬̔̋̊̌ ͎̽w̻͎͙͖͐͑̓̐il̰͝d͎̠̲̬̱̐̂͂̉̄ ̧͝in̨̧̥͌̎̑s̻̩͈͇̈́̌̑̃i̠̫̲̣͙͆̄̈͞͞dẹ̥̤̩͛̅̆ of me~”

Imshael screamed. Fires and frost flew past, inches from Josephine’s unprotected side; her peripheral vision whitened with Cullen’s second Holy Smite. The illusion snapped like a taut rope. Upholstery reverted to stone. Where there had been nothing, there was a person just out of arm’s reach, stirring from a deep sleep. Josephine hurried to Walker’s side as she struggled to sit up, “You’re okay,” she muttered into her hair, clutching tightly, as Cullen finished the fight behind her, “You’re okay.”

“~silence t̡̬͙̞̱͌̚̚͡͠a͔̕kê͓̦̪̝͐̅̀s̮̋͛͢ you t̛̜͔͓̆̋h͉͓̎̈́͜͝ẽ̠̪̬̂͐n͇͔͛͠ I hope it̛̜ tạ̙̣̊̈́͗̿͘͜ͅk̛͉̪͇̰̖̿̐̚̚ĕ͙̻͈̅̍̈ͅs͓̔ m̏͜ē̦ͅ ẗ̻̖͕̓̌ȏ̮ơ̲͇̘̲̽̐̀~”

Walker bent over and retched, blood and spittle leaking behind her hand, down her chin. She curled inward, knees to chest, hacking and coughing. And then…

“~Ņ̛̳̮̎̆o̘̪͉̅͐̈̃͜͝ͅw Ĭ̞͉̈ ő̺̝̩̍͝n̪̰̘̯̏͌̍͐ļ̪̺̓̕͠y̢̒ w̯͙̅͋ả̭ṇ̛̻̠̬͗̈́̓͐͜t̯͆ y̧̨̹̽̉̍͆͢ͅõ̡̮̣̩̍̄̅u̫̦͂͠ ģ̨͙͈͊͂̅͡o̺͔̪̎̐̍͡ͅn̞̘̏͑̍͟e̋͟~”

Imshael’s screams lasted long after he was slain, leaving behind the Fade in its pure form of dead trees and floating boulders and the constant scratching against rock behind her from…

“I just spotted the Aspect of the Nightmare retreating behind us. We have to leave now,” Cullen’s voice held the somber authority of a commander facing a retreat. “We’ve incurred the attentions of the Nightmare.” He bent down and slipped an arm under Walker’s, hefting her up to her feet. Josephine held her other side, pouring regeneration potions down her throat. Walker moaned in pain, slowly regaining her bearings. “I’m sorry. We don’t have much time.”

They half-ran half-limped through the remainder of the tunnels, groping the walls in an effort to stand upright. “Somniari,” the fearlings rasped with a longing like a man in the desert. “We want the Dreamer.” Cullen stiffened; Josephine stole a glance behind and saw nothing.

A faint wind blew over their heads – they were close. Without talking, they all increased their pace – the noises of strained breathing were finally broken by Walker’s wet coughs. No blood - thank the Maker. “That,” she enunciated slowly, “was bad.”

Cullen made a sound that situated perfectly in between a laugh and a cry. “Less talking more moving,” He urged them onward, wiping blood from his eyes, wincing from the multitude of unseen injuries scattered about his person. As impressive as it was slaying a member of The Forbidden Ones, even with healing potions, he was not in any way, shape, or form, ready for another round of fighting. They were sitting ducks for the new enemy once out in the open.

While the desire demon had aimed his energies at Walker, the Nightmare’s fixation was focused onto Josephine, growing increasingly palpable as the party advanced, like an assortment of sharp objects raking against her very soul. I would rather die than be taken. I would rather die than be used. I would also prefer not to die at all. She murmured prayers to the Maker for safety, for an escape, for a future – she prayed for a lot of things in those remaining minutes before they emerged to the other side. The light momentarily blinded her; her ears picked up a cacophony of inhuman howls.

I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Fade for there is no darkness, nor death either, in the Maker’s Light and nothing that He has wrought shall be lost.

And as her vision adjusted, an oddity waited for them a few meters away, out of place in the Fade. Josephine’s mouth fell open. She inconspicuously pinched herself, but the mirage remained in place. She had prayed for a miracle. Somniari – the demons had labeled her. A miracle was delivered.

“What am I hallucinating? Is that… a Mako?” Walker asked faintly, stumbling towards the carriage… infantry fighting vehicle – a voice corrected in Josephine’s mind. Walker peered over the door, “Holy fuck. It's a real M35 Mako. Keys in the ignition… fuel… mass accelerator cannon... yeah. How the hell…” She turned and stared at Josephine with furrowed brows, then at Cullen who was nonplussed at their sudden turn of fortune, then at the wide road before them that cut the stretch of valley into two, then at the fade rift sitting on the horizon, their destination, barely discernible among the sierra, then finally upward, craning her neck back towards the mountain summit where the Nightmare watched with covetous eyes.

“There you are, Dreamer. Come. Let us burn the eternal fire with fresh herbs.” The silhouette of a monster of many eyes and limbs beckoned as an army of shades and wraiths descended to their position. “The sleep will be painless.”

“Right.” Walker coughed into one hand and yanked Josephine away with the other, “I fear no evil. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Everybody in.” She slid into a leather seat, braced her hands against the wheel, and surveyed the arrangement of buttons and levers. “Strap your seat belts,” she turned the key, listening to the car purring under her feet. She pulled another lever and the vehicle jolted forward, “this is going to be an ugly ride, especially once the Nightmare realizes how fast this thing can go.”

“What,” Cullen questioned haltingly, “is a seatbelt?”

Walker stared back incredulously before remembering her audience. She glanced back up at the ever-growing demon army and shook her head. “Fuck it,” she decided, “No seatbelts. We die like men,” which only served to alarm her companions further.

Then, without warning, before Cullen can protest and demand an explanation, she stepped on the right pedal. The Nightmare screamed in incoherent rage.

And the chase began.

NG++

As the vehicle disintegrated around them in leather and metal parts, Josephine brought her knees to her chest and swallowed thickly as her stomach disagreed with the sensation of flying at break neck speeds out of the Fade. The Nightmare’s howls reverberated and shrank a split second later, distant and high pitched. She landed onto a warm body and breathed fast and deep, -it’s quiet-, absorbing the noises of shore waters licking the sand and the chirping of insect nightlife for scant seconds before another person slammed into her and the three of them tumbled into an ungainly heap of uncoordinated limbs.

She blinked out spots of color from her vision as the person beneath her wheezed, “Jesus Christ. Why are you two so heavy?” Her bruised muscles protested as Walker attempted to jostle the others off her to eventually squirm free, reaching for her bag and examining what remained of their supplies.

The spring night was bitter crisp but no one dared to light a fire, instead making do with sips of healing potions and cold resistance potions. “Nothing else followed us out of the rift,” Josephine stated with a questioning lilt after they gathered themselves and shook off the residual green from the Fade. Walker and Cullen tensed at the question and casted furtive glances at the rift levitating benignly in the thickets, as if superstitiously waiting for the world to gleefully prove otherwise.

“In the game,” Walker speculated, drawing circles in the sand, “when you return from the Fade into Adamant, the Nightmare and the other demons don’t follow you. It might have to do with Faith and whoever you leave behind buying time to escape.” She spread her arms out, “We’re all here though.”

“The spirit of Wisdom was the only ally in the area.” Cullen ventured, stroking his chin. “She may have provided the distraction without us knowing.”

“It’s been a year,” Walker sneezed, “and we didn’t see her or the spirit of the Divine. I...” She slumped and wiped her nose, “I have no clue.” Suddenly distressed with the realization that her omniscient knowledge has finally reached their limit, she asked, “Do you think she’s dead?” and didn’t receive an answer. “She was smart and powerful and funny. She might have been Solas’.” She sniffled and fell silent. The party continued to rest, waiting for the elixirs to take effect on their battered frames, for cuts to close and bruises to purple.

Finally, after basking for hours in the moonlight of the waning gibbous, they gathered their belongings and rounded the east side of Lake Calenhad until they reached a seldomly used pier and a rowboat that defied time and magic to stay afloat. Josephine wrinkled her nose at the pitiful sight, “This piece of driftwood will sink at the slightest provocation,” she declared.

“Careful, Josephine,” Cullen drily parried as Walker stepped gingerly onto the groaning wood, arms dancing about to keep her balance, “Your Antivan sensibilities are showing.” He gave an exaggerated bow of Ferelden style as she carefully made her way to Walker’s side, “After you.”

She skimmed her fingers over the water surface, marveling at the stillness of the surface that rippled with the slightest touch. Her childhood was filled with adventure by the open sea but never a calm body of water – and those rhythmic gentle breaks against the sand were to her the most disconcerting, not the groves of red lyrium crystals as tall as men by the shoreline, not the sporadic calls of animal and demon and other unknown entities from the surrounding forest, not the massive Breach that has grown twice its size over the past year and spitting out green lightning from its mouth. Montilyets are of the rough seas and full sails. We go to war with words and ships. Then she reflected upon her worry for her family – Yvette would love the romanticism of this story with its tragedy juxtaposed with adventure, so long if she was safe in her own studio painting scenes. I hope she is…

Fine? Alive and still fighting? Granted the mercy of a swift and painless death?

Cullen pushed against the docks with an oar. Their vessel protested initially at his urge to the center of the lake, keeping a vigilant watch on anything that shifted in the darkness. His eyes reflected the glow of the red lyrium and his profile gave Josephine an idea of the monster he could’ve became if he had followed the other red templars. “Everyone alright?” He asked.

Josephine scoffed: it would be obvious that she was lying if she gave the affirmative. Her trembling plagued her at greater frequencies in her hands when she fought for control over the finest tasks, but she had no enduring injuries to note. She resisted the compulsion to sit on her hands, a habit she thought had been broken in late childhood. Her hands. They held knives that had been wiped clean of blood and ichor; they used to hold quills and tablets that balanced a red candle for the night.

Walker was sprawled across the boat, curling around Josephine, a source of warmth against the chill. She was pinching the bridge of her nose, head lolled back to stem her nose bleed that started when they limped out of the fight with the desire demon. In the few minutes before Cullen had initiated conversation, she had grown subdued, her gaze distant while descending into a semi-fugue state.

We were losing her. Josephine felt a burst of gratitude at the man.

“Mother of all headaches,” Walker replied, shaking out of her reverie.

He nodded, “The tainted lyrium sings to you too.” Walker lifted a hand and made the approximation of a nod with her wrist. He cautioned as he pulled, “In greater quantities, they can enthrall an unaware observer. The process could take anywhere between a few minutes to a few months.”

“A well of optimism, you are,” she said without heat. “You should look for more valid coping techniques. I can hear you worrying from here. Use one of the mature defense mechanisms, like humor.”

Josephine had been resting her elbows on the edge, peering at the distant blighted glow.  She turned back and studied the woman who was doing a remarkable impression of a kicked dog and limpet. “Like you.” Walker hummed. “Except you’re angry.” Walker stopped humming.

“I’ll get over it.”

“You don’t just ‘get over it’.” Cullen argued, “You need someone to talk to about this. Your method is already not working.” He leaned forward and adopted a calmer, former tone, “I appreciate your help distracting Imshael, so I won’t disparage your choices, but you must take care of yourself in the aftermath.” Josephine didn’t know which side to take. A part of her wanted to wait a day before confronting Walker with whatever had happened in the Fade – but they didn’t have a day. Crepuscular rays peeked beyond the tree line and into the clouds, giving them a characteristic purple lining. The dawn will come whether or not the world is falling apart at its seams. They had perhaps hours. “Neither of you are one of my soldiers but you might as well be. I’ve seen too many good people keep their silence and I admit to having indulged myself. But the world has too many precipices.” His grip tightened on his oars, “There are risks involved courting with danger and its foolish to believe that anyone comes out of them unscathed.”

“I already acknowledged what I faced,” Walker said testily. “Step one is complete.”

“It is hard for you. You are brave. You overcame Imshael’s depravities. It changed you.” He cleared his throat, “Another deed I will thank you for among the many others you have done. You did no wrong.”

“A temptation is still a temptation,” she refuted, “Desire easily found mine. Did you notice?”

“Maker’s breath, Walker. You are allowed to want,” he insisted, “We are not tranquil.”

“And I wanted to follow,” her hands fisted at her side, “Played like a goddamn fiddle by the Pied Piper of Hamlin.” She flinched when Josephine squeezed her shoulder but relaxed in the next second.

“You were taken,” He corrected.

“I knew I had those glaring weaknesses, wanting to go home and knowing that I could never go home, - and all the mental reinforcements I placed on them did fuck all when it mattered.”

Cullen’s voice remained steady like all those times he pulled his new recruits aside after their first battles to talk or in the ensuing days following the Conclave explosion, “The end matters to me: that you’re here and still able to curse a blue streak and that you didn’t leave.” She stared at him with conflicting expressions of the wounded and the embarrassed. After a few tense moments, she turned her gaze back towards the moon. “Walker, please.”

Her tone lost its acerbity and she ceded the fight. “I don’t feel so good.” She murmured plaintively, like a child asking for comfort from a parental figure. “It’s either that or I don’t feel anything.”

“It’s guilt.” He stated simply.

Her hilarity belonged to those who are worn and frayed at the edges. She shook under Josephine’s touch with mirth. “You would know.”

“You saw what you desired but did not act. It’s guilt though nothing has manifested. It is succumbing though you did not succumb.” He said, pushing the oars back and dipping them back into the waters. “Surrendering though you did not surrender. Losing a battle of wills though you did not act.” He had suffered in the same way. “I understand.” What would Imshael have shown Cullen if he had taken point when they entered the mountain in the Fade? He was offered a wane smile and a statement that rang true in the air.

“You understand.” Walker parroted.

And you never got what you wanted.

 

Chapter Text

NG++

In my last real dream before I woke up with next to nothing on Thedas, I was a table cloth at a three-star Michelin restaurant where Giuseppe sat with his date, a large well-groomed poodle sporting a bowtie, and they shared an angel hair pasta dish between them and enjoyed the scent of lavender candles. At this point, I should probably explain that Giuseppe is my golden retriever. Anyways, what I’m getting at is that during my time in the Fade, I had attached myself to Maxwell not because of his last name which I actually didn’t figure out until after he escorted Mother Giselle to Haven but because he reminded me of my dog.

He must never know this.

Maxwell Trevelyan was a privileged man and never wanted for anything, even as the lone mage in a noble, god-fearing family. Our initial introductions were nothing short of disastrous with the high-pitched screams of terror and fireballs.

A lot has happened since.

It was almost offensive how well-groomed and healthy Maxwell and Dorian looked in comparison to everyone else. Varric, Solas, and Cassandra all suffered from a full year of close exposure to red lyrium: red eyes, fluctuating cadence, acute stress. Leliana aged fifty years - no joke, like a skeleton dipped in wax and filled to the brim with righteous vengeance. When she wasn’t turning spellbinders into pincushions, the majority of her fury was directed at Maxwell, as if his vitality was directly insulting every affliction she had been subjected to. Maxwell, thank god, had learned tact between the last time I spoke to him in the Fade and now, and met her hostility with empathy and patience.

“Walker? Walker. It is you. It has been a while, hasn’t it?” he pulled me aside, the usual quirk in his mouth that made it seem like he was sharing a private joke with the world. “So, I’m assuming that our illustrious Commander and Ambassador to the Inquisition had released you from your prison?”

“Not quite,” Josephine demurred behind me, “Clan Lavellan found her. We still have no clues to her location other than the rough territory in and around the Western Approach. We do, however, know it is possible to free her,” she leaned her head against my shoulder, “When you return to the past, if you can set up an operation for her retrieval…” She frowned, “broach this in a manner that frames her as a useful member of the Inquisition and one of us advisors will pick up from there.”

“Don’t lose sight of what’s important,” I warned, fully aware that I was not priority in this quest or the game - but it didn't stop me from wanting to be saved, eventually. At worst, my plight was a hindrance, a distraction. I really wish… I hope so much that it would hurt if nothing comes to fruition. Then, I paused, “Just… don’t give up. Please.”

Maxwell gave a crooked smile and drew me close, lifting me until my toes left the floor, “Of course I will find you. You've been a steadfast pillar in my life and I can't possibly repay everything you've done to help me in your capacity. Of course, I will do right by you. Walker, you must know, to me you are...” He pulled back and scrutinized my face (exhausted) and my clothing (stained and torn). “Tired. Scarred. I wish you weren’t here," he mourned, drawing a finger down my brow, "Anyplace would be safer than Redcliffe… though the Cullen has hinted at what you faced in the Fade prior to this mess. Huh. I see now why Varric calls him Curly.” He hummed and turned his head, “Speaking of the Commander, it seems like your presence is required. Best go to see him before he draws that sword.”

I struggled to pin down what had changed with Maxwell as he guided me to the door bracketed by lit torches. Confidence gave him intent and a path to his goals; he stood taller, spoke in a tone that demanded respect, constantly aware of the going ons around him. His focus was a heady and flattering drug. Naturally, I wasn’t expecting him to have a full emotional breakdown like before, alternating between arrogance and upset every time I tried to broach the topic of responsibility and instill some modicum of confidence. He wasn’t seeking validation from me with every step he took for the Inquisition. There was something in his stance and the way he walked – like that of a leader. Realization reached me like a warm flame in my chest; I was pleased. He’s ready for the mantle of Inquisitor. Excellent work. Good coaching. I congratulated myself.

Cullen stood by as Leliana perused the maps of the castle that we had brought with us. He gave us a curt nod as we approached, stiffer than any other greeting I had ever seen from him. Stress and anticipation – I would hazard a guess – we are nearing the climax of this quest line. I gave him a friendly shoulder nudge. “We’ll depart within half an hour,” Maxwell informed him, pushing me forward, “I’ll need to check on Solas again. Out of my three companions, he is the most affected and has been switching between Elvish and Trade with alarming frequency.”

The abject guilt of a six-eyed wolf. If I can make it out of this without exchanging a word with him... I made a face as Maxwell strolled (Sauntered? Strutted?) away, out of earshot, and rubbed my arms, suddenly wrong footed by the subtle changes in companion dynamics, so subtle that I couldn't begin to verbalize how 'off' I feel - perhaps it was just the way of things and I was playing catch up. Cullen shot me a quizzical look. “It’s just a bit cold,” I explained and laughed nervously, “and I, uh, momentarily forgot that Freemarchers are more tactile than Orlesians.” Half-lie plus half-lie equaled full truth.

He tilted his head and drily mused, “Are they now?” I glanced behind me: Josephine was debriefing Cassandra, who was having her wounds treated, on the status of the greater world. (I wondered briefly if I should offer my services – but decided against approaching a long-term prisoner with curved needles and pickups.) Cassandra, absolute tank that she was, had taken the brunt of the attacks in the skirmish that the advisors and I had walked into – once again, proving that my paranoia was valid. The Inquisition team might’ve survived in game but here, in this underhell version, they would’ve been curb stomped and subsequently pulverized. “Walker, back here.”

I spun around, sheepish at my abysmally short attention span, and accidentally met Leliana’s eye; I vocalized a wordless sound resembling a cornered animal. With that tick in her eyebrow, there’s no doubt that she remembered me back from Origins. As I hastily placed Cullen between myself and her, she buffed her nails against her chainmail, “No need for introductions. I know you and you know me.” She greeted.

I nodded, “I’m glad to see you’ve done well.” You’re not bleeding out on a mountainside, at least. Though any postulates on what constitutes a fate worse than death – you’ve probably met that too.

“And you’ve done worse.” I flinched. “Trapped in the Fade and only able to walk between worlds after you were initially freed by the Dalish. Only by then, neither world was worth living in.” Then she scoffed in derision, “It is a mere observation, Commander, you can stop glaring. I’m not going to hurt her.” She extended a hand, I warily shook it. Normal hand – no claws, no assassin’s hidden blade, no death. “I’m still, after all these years, still in your debt.”

“That’s good to know,” I said faintly, torn between admiration and fear.

“We must make haste,” she declared, “I feel uneasy the longer we dawdle in this chamber. The spellbinders discussed a weapon they have up their sleeve that makes me believe that they have the control of an Archdemon and all the armies that entails. None of us want a dragon swooping down on our heads when we confront Alexius.”

Yes… Swooping is bad. Cullen gave a muffled sigh. “Did I say that out loud?” I asked. Leliana shot me a flat look which I would later count as a win – as that expression was the only thing she managed to emote thus far that didn’t hold the undertone of I will kill you with both hands tied behind my back.

Leliana’s frightening presence was replaced by Josephine’s calm demeanor. The two women exchanged heartfelt words under their breath before the spymaster left to rejoin Maxwell’s side where he was still with Solas. Varric stood nearby, shooting odd glances in our direction. Correction: odd glances at me. Josephine straightened as she grasped my hands and addressed Cullen and I, “This is it.”

I ducked my head and shifted my weight from one foot to the other, stuffing my hands into my pockets. “Yeah,” I acknowledged, uncomfortable with her statement. This is the end. For me, at least. Until I’m found. It’ll be quick though: the ten years trapped in the Fade was like a never-ending monotonous dream-like state where I drifted and lost time. Up until the last year, I hardly met any demon that took notice and spirits had given me a wide berth, turning away when I tried to make overtures of friendship. Mages came and went. I can barely remember individuals besides the obvious few and instead had mentally grouped them all in my mind as nervous wrecks and hot messes and exactly as what the franchise game trilogy depicted. I must have been saying some very pithy comments during our small talks because over the ten years of my imprisonment, I was increasingly recognized and sought after for my wisdom. (The thought of becoming the unofficial, reluctant and untrained psychiatrist to a population of people who can summon fire and ice, demons and zombies, gives me ulcers.)

I am not looking forward to returning to that chapter of my life. Though, can I miss my time in the Emerald Graves if it technically didn’t happen?

“Are you ready?” I smiled, resigned, and knew that my smile did not reflect assurance. “I suppose I am.” What else was I supposed to say? After a beat, Josephine wrapped her arms around me and whispered to me in Antivan to sooth my nerves. For all I know, she could be reciting me the five edicts associated the art of dueling between Chevaliers, but I couldn’t care less. Then, she handed me off to Cullen to re-wrap the grip of my halberd. If Josephine’s hugs were warm summer days with iced coffee and candies, Cullen’s hugs were fireplaces and blankets on cold winter nights. I am not ready for this.

And I never will be - but when has life ever waited patiently for its people?

Cullen’s grueling, sweat inducing, bruise forming, year-long boot camp taught me to duck, parry, and fight dirty, guaranteeing survival within the first two minutes of close combat. Beyond that, my skills are nonexistent compared to the others in our party who probably came out of the womb clutching their weapon of choice. But I wasn’t here to be a hero. My unofficial role here was to witness Maxwell’s return to his timeline, the better timeline, the normal timeline where lesser shades don’t blindside you from behind tapestries and where mages aren’t sacrificing themselves to the Elder One like it’s going out of style.

Maxwell fell into the position of leader with ease as another wave of Venatori spellbinders and marksman unleashed ice and arrows toward our position, snapping out orders to flank and return fire. I retreated to Josephine’s side and checked my palms – no blisters - but my hands kept slipping against the leather from the blood and viscera dripping from the blade from terror demons two corridors ago. I wiped them against my tunic and watched as Maxwell pressed a ball of lightning into an enemy’s face. He would be well suited for the Knight-Enchanter specialty with his preference for close combat.

And we kept moving – no time to rest, no time to waste. Leliana conversed in low, urgent tones to Maxwell right behind Cassandra who had taken point, shield forward facing. Fatigue had long set into my bones, but my legs move on their own accord, feet eating the stone beneath. As we sprint, I counted my breaths and descended into a Zen state of mind: I am at peace. As we near the end of In Hushed Whispers, I accept the stark reality that I will die in this ugly castle and most likely will fade out of existence in the better timeline.

Please let the Inquisition find me.

If Josephine could read my mind, she would’ve slapped me over the head and lectured me about the detrimental effects of negative thinking before fretting the lack of comfort foods she could stuff into my mouth. I will miss the deserts and ice wines of Villa Maurel. I hope to have them again – maybe… Maybe the Inquisition will find me. Maybe they won’t. Death is like sleep without waking – and I have slept for the past ten years. It will be no different this time.

I imagined a guillotine crashing down and silencing my racing thoughts and redirected them to the threat at hand.

We moved, we rushed, we battled, and we killed. Magister Alexius’s defeat tasted like stale copper and heralded the next cut scene. I stretched my head back as the screech of a monstrous beast causes the chandeliers of the throne room to shudder. “That would be Corypheus’s red lyrium dragon,” I stated with a rueful smile as the party tensed as one and turned my attention to Dorian, “Hurry now. This is where we buy you time.” He nodded and pulled Maxwell to the platform before he could protest loudly, his knuckles white from how tightly he was holding Alexius’ pendant. Maxwell’s expression transitioned from mulish to grim as the army on the other side of the double doors began to knock. Leliana muttered prayers and drew her bow back as Varric and Cassandra approached the other wall. I glanced back over my shoulder, one last time, and chewed on my lower lip in worry: Maxwell will fix this – Dorian will take him back – he will – he must.

“I’ll draw their ire,” Cullen stated as he brushed past, “You will take them down like we practiced.”

His sword was made from the Silverite ore that I had found in the Arbor Wilds. I dimly recalled him shaping the blade to his specifications late in the night. When the two-handed weapon balanced on the ground upright, the hilt easily extended beyond my shoulder. “Alright,” I replied, recalling stances and positions that were so thoroughly ingrained into my psyche that scenarios such as this would've featured prominently in my dreams if I was capable of sleep.

“Josephine will be with the Spymaster so you will need to take care of your left side.” On the other side of the entrance way, Josephine had her daggers poised in reverse grip and looking just as terrified as I was. I swallowed heavily and wished for a glass of water. I’m not ready for this – yet here I am. I nodded as Cullen kept staring down at me with an unreadable expression. I didn’t know what he was searching for and was, frankly, too scared to ask. I did not know what to say in this situation and bit my tongue. Any last words before the gallows? Something earnest and meaningful? Something to help us accept the meaning of life and our role in the world's end? Finally, he sighed as the roars from the demon army grew nigh unbearable, “Maker be with you.”

You're a good guy, Cullen. Don't let anyone tell you different. “Yeah,” I replied faintly past the noise as I braced myself and took a deep breath, “You too.”

Cullen’s rally focus manifested as rushing blood in my ears.

This is where we buy you time.

The doors opened. My body moved. I lost track of time and my kill count: Despair, Rage, Hunger, Pride… His strategy worked until it didn't.

Eventually, there must be an end. I was slowing, and our infinite number of enemies knew it. From the advancing mass, a shade lunged forward and reached for my leg. I sidestepped past its reach but stumbled as a terror demon struck my side – crawling up, holding me down despite my attempts to push free from its punishing grasp. A fear demon’s long claw pierced my abdomen with a sickening sound, protruding out the other end of my torso. I coughed as a transient flash of pain came and went, muddled by the rush of adrenaline, my feet hanging in the air struggling to find purchase. I stabbed downward at its shoulder but couldn’t stop a pair of monstrous spiders from approaching, raising their front legs, and baring their fangs-

My vision blackened.

Someone was screaming my name.

And then…

NG++

Someone was screaming my name.

I had been drifting through a veritable waste land, humming off key to the Queen of the Night aria two octaves below what Mozart had intended, worrying the scars on my hand. The white lines had been appearing and disappearing like they had whims of their own. How did I get these scars? My stomach hurts too. When did I last eat? Would this person have food to spare?

I straightened, searching for the source of the call, and frowned – for there was no one there.

Yet someone was still screaming my name.

Was it another mage with an existential crisis on how he or she could serve the Maker and not betray fellow mages? Was it Maxwell who had been questioning his decision to seek the mages instead of the templars… was preparing to leave… had already done so… I rubbed my temples, feeling a headache forming as two pieces of conflicting knowledge warred in my mind – he was back. Back from where---

Someone was screaming my name.

Someone was screaming my name.

Someone was screaming my name.

My eyes snapped open and I promptly squeezed them shut, smacking my face trying to shield my vision from the blinding light and groaned, “Fu-u-uck.”

“To think I was fretting that your mental recovery from the Fade would be agonizingly slow.”

“Have a heart,” I curled away from the voice, grimacing at the blank wall as every pain receptor, not just on my face, began to argue with one another over who should receive my attention. I was a single bruise; I was weariness manifest. After blinking dots away from my periphery, regaining what little bearings I had, I shuffled around and squinted at the wooden ceiling angling into walls decorated with portraits of unknown men and women of importance. I was in a bed with clean linens. “What---"

“What is the last thing you remember?” My bedside visitor asked me.

I squinted at him. I know that voice. I know that face. “Why is your hair straight?” Cullen looked decidedly unimpressed as I voiced the first complete thought that came to mind. “Sorry,” I coughed, “sorry. I, uh, remember? What do I remember? I remember” being impaled. “Everything?” Redcliffe Castle, the Nightmare, the Desire Demon, Villa Maurel, stepping through the rifts, Keeper Lavellan’s worried face as her hands glowed green... I pulled myself to a sitting position; the room spun – “What happened?” I demanded as Cullen pushed me back down onto the pillows, “How much time did I lose? How did you find me and,” I paused, clarity expanding like the floodlights of a rapidly approaching truck at twilight. “What do you remember? Does Josephine remember too? Or did Maxwell…”

“Here,” he pressed a cup to my mouth. I drank and sputtered at the bitterness. Deep mushroom laced with a sedative, this world's equivalent of Xanax: I glared at him as he tilted my head back. “While the potion’s effects take hold, I want you to breath.”

I fisted my hands again st the covers, thick and warm and tried not to vomit over the embroidery. I breathed. I'm not sure how long I laid there and it was possible that I fell asleep again without noticing. I haven't properly slept in a while. From one blink to the next, the general malaise that had burrowed beneath my skin lifted, replaced by a bone deep soreness as though I had ran a marathon without preparation. I slowly sat back up and silently cataloged every muscle that cried in pain - but I did not get dizzy. I was dressed in… an odd tan colored shirt and pants combo of surprisingly soft material. There was a makeshift desk set up at the bedside, creaking from the weight of multiple tomes, vellum parchments, reports of troop movements, letters from nobles, candles, quills, inkwells – a little bit of Josephine, a little bit of Cullen. I slowly shifted, hanging my feet over the edge of the bed. “So?” I demanded.

He rubbed the back of his neck with a gloved hand – a nervous gesture – it is why he loses to Josephine all the time during our weekly games of Wicked Grace. “According to the elven mage, your presence here altered the basic character of the Fade.” He handed me a pair of boots. “And to answer your question – everyone in Thedas touched by the Breach remembers that year.”

I fumbled at the laces, cursing my lack of dexterity. “Solas? You... You know his god status?”

Many things frustrate Cullen, many things make him angry, but few things bring out that fury that cause his eyes to grow dark. “Yes, him,” he snarled. Then he schooled his features to disciplined calm which was even more terrifying. “Just Josephine and I,” he continued in a tone as if commenting on the mild weather outside the windows, plucking the boots out of my hands and bending down to put them on himself. “We agreed not to notify anyone else. We cannot trust the Spymaster to be blinded by grief. Maxwell’s acting abilities still leave much to be desired. Our leverage of future events disappears the moment Solas,” he spat out the word, “learns of our knowledge.”

“Oh,” I raised a foot and wiggled my toes, marveling at the inner lined fur and its warmth. “That’s nice. Thanks.” I tested my weight on one leg, he grabbed my arm and eased me into a standing position - slowly… Slowly… His words finally processed in my mind. “Everyone remembers? Then,” I chewed my lower lip, reeling from the information, “this changes the plotline. I want to see. I need to." I glanced up and smiled hopefully, "Cullen. Please?”

“If you are well enough to walk, you are well enough to meet with the Herald and his confidants,” he replied in measured tones. “Not my decision,” he added when I whined in protest. “But Josephine will be there," he consoled, and I brightened.

Josephine was standing by the parapets when she spotted us, transforming as she approached into a whirlwind of yellows and purples, silk and velvet. My heart danced as she engulfed me; I laughed as she squeezed tight around my waist. “Thank the Maker,” she exclaimed, kissing both of my cheeks, then my forehead, “we demanded to search as soon as the implications had set in. You should have seen how fast our people ran out of Haven to procure the necessary supplies. It took us a week to find you - an assortment of banners from multiple houses of nobility who recalled our sanctuary in the Emerald Graves. You spent another two unconscious in a healing trance.” She paused, smoothing a finger over my brow, “We took turns watching you – the Commander and I – but we didn’t stop the dual plan.”

“Dual… plan?”

“It’s what we’ve been calling Cullen’s proposition to reach out to both mages and templars,” she clarified. “We were as successful as you stated we could be. Ser Delrin Barris and the other uncorrupted templars have taken shelter at Haven - thanks to you. Don’t look at me like that. You’ve planted the idea – they know your involvement and will wish to thank you.” She giggled as she tugged me along, fingers curling around my wrists, the world framed by her breaths in the chilled air.

“It was close, but we found your spirit boy. He guided us to the Envy demon and promptly joined the Inquisition.” Cullen grimaced, “that had been an eventful few days.”

“As for what is next," Josephine pondered, "Empress Celene’s agents contacted us regarding the trap set in Halamshiral. Ambassador Briala’s elves have been offering enticing proposals for an alliance. Nothing from Grand Duke Gaspard and nothing from the Wardens. As for everything else,” Solas, Samson, the Fall of Haven, all those other loose ends, “we are still deciding. Come. The mages, the templars, the chantry members, the nobles, everyone - all wish to meet you."

“There is a lot left to accomplish.” I observed as we reached the steps. Varric stopped his conversation with a Chantry sister to offer a sharp glance in our direction. Sera peaked out the door of the tavern to stare. Dorian and Solas observed from a distance from the north side. Iron Bull and Krem stood on the outskirts of the surrounding crowd. Blackwall lingered by the merchant's wares, Cassandra at the training grounds with her sword. Vivienne and Leliana must have already disappeared into the building. Cole was no where to be seen. Other denizens of Haven murmured among themselves, drowned out by the sounds of livery from the Singing Maiden, Chantry’s sermons, the smithy, and the arguments in and around Quartermaster Threnn.

“But we are better now,” Josephine said breezily, opening the doors to the Chantry, and ushering us in, “Because you are here.”

I felt a familiar heaviness form at my throat and surreptitiously wiped the wetness from my eyes.

I am here.

I ducked my head and sniffed. They did me the favor of pretending not to notice. “Thank you.”