Chapter 1: Preface
He had seen all the sights of shining places. He took the name of Pride. He always knew the fall was coming, but the height from which he fell surprised him still.
Solas hit the ground with a crack that silenced the battlefield, and tasted copper.
He lay prone before her, aching from the breath he could not catch while the stone beneath him stained slowly red with blood from wounds he would not heal. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and watched her approach; she was as sure-footed as he had always known her to be. She was shining, too, much brighter than before. It was with a flash of anger and a wrench of guilt that he remembered once again that this light was not entirely her own. Free at last of her vallaslin, she stood ever more the slave. If only she had listened. If only he had spoke the words. Solas realised he should have shouted with all the strength of his being. She’d used to listen to the faintest of his whispers, after all.
But that was before.
Before five years of silence, another five of war. Five more days of chaos while he unraveled the fabric of her world. Five long hours of battle when she finally tracked him down.
Now it all came down to this.
A heavy thud broke the quiet and he saw, briefly, her prosthesis fall to the floor. A work of art created by her and Dagna both, two of the greatest minds he had ever encountered - he, who’d walked the floating avenues of Arlathan with June and Dirthamen. Her technologically arcane wonder formed a gilded shield to defend her when she needed it, a bladed longbow when she did not, and everything else for all the times between. Without study, he could only guess at the mechanisms which controlled it. Solas scanned its surface, etched with runes from an age she had not lived. She had always known much more than she should. It was part of why he loved her. A part of him wished he did not love her still. It would only make the end that much harder for them both.
Inquisitor Lavellan stretched out what was left of her arm and where her hand should have been, light gathered. It pulsed and grew and took the shape of a limb, slender fingers outstretched toward him: a show of skill; an act of mercy; an offering of peace. It was a gesture he hardly deserved, but Solas took her hand regardless and allowed her to help him to his feet. He was a greedy man and did not let go. Her summoned skin was soft as the petals of a flower. It glimmered faintly, incandescent moonlight through a gauze of silk that shimmered still despite its dimming, a lustre not entirely lost. But his heart was always silver, sharp and sure. This glow, though beautiful, was not her own.
Solas smiled sadly at their hands together, fingers laced. He eyed the pearl around her neck and thought of simpler times, of youthful naivety and the bliss of his ignorance. Solas found himself longing to return to the days of his childhood, those softer moments when he believed in... just about everything. “He was ever a mystery to us,” Solas murmured. “His magic was beautiful, always. Inconceivably bright. It is darker now. Starlight still, but it -”
“Lacks the dawn,” Lavellan finished. “I know. June is... less than he was before,” she explained, and gently maneuvered her fingers until they interlocked with his. The urge to take her into his arms pained Solas beyond words. “How could he not be?” Lavellan continued. Her voice broke, a pain not her own that pierced her still. “She was his heart, Solas.” She looked at him then, with those intolerable eyes. There was such a grief in those grey depths that he should surely drown in it and yet, who between them had lost more?
It mattered not. Here they stood regardless, prepared to lose it all at the hands of the other. What a pair they were.
“As you once were mine,” Solas spoke in return, his voice rough with sorrow. He disentangled his fingers only to bring that same hand to her cheek.
She closed her eyes and surprised him by leaning into his touch. It beggared belief that she should even tolerate it, after everything he’d done. By all appearances, she seemed to crave this closeness as much as he. “Why couldn’t that have been enough?” she whispered eventually.
His voice shook when he replied, and Solas was too past caring to hide it. “You were dying, vhenan.”
“Everything dies, Solas.”
“It shouldn’t have to.”
In the silence that followed, Solas thought about all the words he’d never said to her. All the letters he had wrote but never sent, full of words that tried to explain the reason behind all the time he’d wasted with white-lies and half-truths and - in the end... the words never seemed to do him justice. Perhaps they simply never could. Perhaps Lavellan was right all along and he should never have tried to fix the world when it wasn’t broken, not truly, not yet. Perhaps they both could have lived, and loved, until she grew old and grey and their time was up.
Could he have been happy?
Could he have set aside the gnawing of his guilt?
Solas was on the verge of speaking when Lavellan stepped away once, then twice, and now out of his reach. Her brow was knit and tired. She wiped about her lip as blood dripped from her nose.
Solas faltered, concerned. “Even you cannot keep this up forever.”
Lavellan’s eyes flickered away to scan the cage of light she’d sealed them in. As frail as it looked, it seemed impregnable to all outside interference. Around them the battle waged on, its clamour muffled by her spell. His followers, all the elves who remained from the time before along with whomever else he could enlist - the children of the Dales and some human mages alike - fought furiously against the rallied, rag-tag forces of the Inquisitor. Some threw magic at Lavellan’s prison in an effort to free their God-Commander, but it was futile. Lavellan’s cage of beaded light was as indomitable as her will.
His heart’s army was a gloriously discordant assemblage of all the best that Thedas had to offer in its last stand. Those templars and mages who had survived the rending of the veil stood together now, throwing up pyres and purges in protection of their present while the remnants of the Dalish rained down anything and everything they had left upon Solas’ forces. There were human men and women, hardier than he’d given them credit for, swinging steel despite the raw chaos of the fade spilling into their world. Beyond that, however, were Children of the Stone who defied everything Solas thought he knew by flinging deepest blue lightening at their foes, the rumbling thunder of which shook the very foundations of the earth.
Much blood had been spilled. More than he’d ever wished to see again. Solas never thought to see the Seeker fall in battle but when she did, pierced on the end of Abelas’ spear at the onset of the fight, her body drifted upwards and sank into the oceans above. Hours later, those oceans ran red with the blood of comrades and enemies alike. Dorian would have no shortage of corpses to raise today, if he still lived to do so.
“I know I can’t,” Lavellan acknowledged, in whisper that carried over the shimmering quiet and lured Solas away from his musing. “But I won’t have to.”
Over the sound-numbing vacuum of Lavellan’s cage, Solas heard a sharp keening in the distance. He was briefly reminded of Haven the night Corypheus attacked so many years ago, in a snapshot of terror from a life lived in lies.
The sound peirced the silence again, louder this time. As it did so his vision turned dark, as though an impenetrable cloud was passing before the sun. But the bloodied ocean wept above their heads and there was no longer any sun to block - its light was flung in shards all around them when the veil fell.
“All this chaos, all this death... it's like fresh water on the lips of a man lost at sea,” Lavellan whispered, hollow. “Did you ever imagine he could resist? Surrounded by the one thing he needed but irony decreed he could not take.... he was starving for millennia, Solas, and now you have served him all the world as a banquet. He is but compelled to feast.”
Solas matched the incredulity in her eyes with his own but where hers shone with dread, his revealed only a growing denial. He felt an impression of a world grown cold. “You cannot mean...” he began, but she did not hear for the words were drowned by another guttural shriek and utter darkness both.
Lavallan’s stricken voice reached out to him though the blinding black.
“He has come... And he is no longer any friend of ours.”
Chapter 2: Solas - Rendered to Dust
Rendered to Dust.
Solas startled awake as if from a terrible dream.
He looked about to find the cause of his disturbance when something small - and rather hard - landed quite suddenly upon his head. Glancing down, he saw the second of two acorns bounce into his lap. It was with a small measure of amusement that he spied the bushy-tailed perpetrator in the trees above, looking almost comically uncomfortable. Well, he thought with a smile towards the squirrel, that explains the sudden awakening.
Solas stood to his feet and stretched out his long limbs, rolling out some of the tension in his shoulders. The spirits were quivering with anticipation today. Not unlike himself, perhaps. The hour of restoration was fast approaching, and he would need to be seen among the common folk when it arrived. With a sigh, Solas picked up his staff and travel-pack from the frozen ground, adjusted his cloak and set off along the blustery path.
The Frostback Mountains were a cruel and inhospitable place. Despite that fact, the ranges and valleys were home to more people than Solas had originally thought. He’d passed at least a dozen small villages and hamlets along the winding road and heard whispers of more than one reclusive clan of Dalish elves who called the mountains home. Since journeying towards the temple, however, Solas had yet to cross paths with any of those wildlings who called themselves the ‘last of the Elvhen’ - shadows with their painted faces, clinging stubbornly to fragments of stories only half remembered.
It was typical, Solas thought grimly, that the Temple of Sacred Ashes should be located in such an unforgiving place. Andrastianism seemed a very penitent religion, overly-preoccupied with keeping its followers humble and contrite; so naturally, the more grueling a pilgrimage, the better. Still, what a strange place for the Divine to call a conclave. Were it not for the guidance of the denizens of the fade, finding the temple would have been like finding a pebble among a landslide; he half wondered how anyone had found it at all. Solas couldn’t decide whether he thought it was wisdom or folly that informed their Divine’s decision to hold the conclave here. Though he supposed that the fewer templars and mages in attendance, the less blood might be spilled if negotiations became hostile.
It was with some measure of regret that he reminded himself it would not matter in the end. It was likely that very few in attendance would leave the temple with their lives. A necessary sacrifice.
Solas stiffened and looked ahead towards the unfamiliar voice. Three mages approached on the road; two human, one elven. In the lead was a tall, auburn haired male with bright eyes and an easy smile. He seemed blissfully unaware of the tension with which the other two mages behind moved. Their eyes were tight, and constantly scanning their surroundings. On the lookout for templars, Solas imagined.
“Greetings,” Solas replied politely as they came closer.
“I think you may be lost, my friend,” the bright-eyed male announced cheerily. “Either that, or our map would appear to be wrong. The Temple of Sacred Ashes should be less than a day’s walk along this path,” he said, pointing in the direction Solas had come.
“I am not lost, and neither is your map wrong,” Solas answered with a tight smile. “The Temple is indeed along this path, but I am not headed there. Too many templars for my liking,” he added after consideration.
It was only half a lie, but it sold well. His first experience of the Templar knights had not been forgotten.
“Understandable,” the mage replied, appraising him with a speculative gaze. “The roads are dangerous for anyone travelling alone, especially a mage. But the Divine has decreed a peace in the area. If it is an attack you fear, then you are welcome to travel with us, should you like -”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Solas interjected. “I intend to linger nearby and catch news of what transpires, but if the talks take a sour turn -”
“See?” shouted the other human mage suddenly. She was female and seemed a fair few years younger than the carefree man who’d taken to speaking for the group. The elf remained silent. “I’m not the only one who thinks going to this conclave thing is a bad idea! For all we know, it could just be a ploy for rounding up all of us they haven’t slaughtered yet ready for the kill - or worse! We should turn back!”
“Lissa, look, we’ve already discussed this,” the man replied, losing some measure of his earlier joviality. “Showing up to these peace talks and trying to be civil is our best bet at -”
Solas took advantage of the opportunity to discreetly disengage from the conversation and quickly made his way down along the path, away from the Temple and the mages headed there. The elven mage watched him edge away with his strange, bug-like eyes, but said nothing, which Solas was grateful for. He knew of a small hamlet little more than an hour away where he could rest, resupply, and wait for news.
“Look, Threnn can huff and puff all she likes. If she wants the arms and armour any faster, she can bloody well forge ‘em herself!”
“Right, I er, I see,” replied the skittish looking messenger. One of his pointed ears twitched nervously and he watched with apprehension as the blacksmith hammered away against the glowing length of a sword.
“Don’t see why she wants so many,” the blacksmith continued, grumbling more to himself than the messenger. “Ain’t like we’re outfitting an army, now, is it? Besides, thought the conclave already had all the extra security it needed. Did you see those mercenaries passin’ by the other day?” The elf hastened to nod in reply. “Those big, horned ones are practically walking weapons themselves...”
As Solas approached the outskirts of Haven, he was surprised to see the bustle of activity surrounding it. This was not the isolated, ram-shackle gathering of cabins and cottages that he’d seen from the Fade. In comparison to the barren fields and crumbling Chantry building the spirits had revealed to him, Haven was a near-thriving village in its own right. Most notable was the wall and gate – a privilege usually reserved for cities and consequential towns – the outskirts of which were lined with a few tents here and there along with a caravan of supplies. The ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer carried on the sharp breeze, accompanied by his harshly spoken words. Alongside this Solas caught the subtle aroma of charred meats and ale, suggesting a tavern further in.
“I don’t know, this conclave...” Solas overheard the blacksmith continue as he walked on. “Well, it’s an accident waiting to happen, ain’t it?”
“What do you mean, master Harritt?” the elf asked skittishly.
Solas didn’t miss the furtive glance the blacksmith threw his way as he stepped past, nor the way his eyes lingered distrustfully at the staff stowed between his shoulders. “Just saying what everyone else is thinkin’. After Kirkwall, and what happened in the circle towers since - that many mages all gathered in one place? Can’t end well. Just hope the Divine knows what she’s doin’.”
Solas turned away from the bustle surrounding the smithy and walked down towards the lake that lay before the village, not keen to draw further attention to himself. He had been seen, and that was enough. He did not want to linger too long among the phantoms of this world. Soon enough he would regain his Focus, leave this living nightmare, and finally begin to undo the mistakes he had made.
The ancient elf ambled down towards the water’s frozen edge and walked the length of the pier. There he sat and watched as reflections of the clouds above ghosted their way across the black, glossy surface of the lake. Beautiful in its own way, perhaps. But soul-wrenchingly mundane, just like everything else in this fallen world. Immovable and, as such, unable to move him. He had walked pathways forged from moonlight, witnessed flowing lakes of endless melody, held a newborn star.
So much was lost.
Closing his eyes, Solas slipped away into the Dreaming. It was almost effortless now, falling into the Fade at will. Almost. Months prior, the passing had eluded him; the Veil had become a tangible and stubborn boundary. He wished he had known what it would become then... what it would to to the world.
No matter. Now was now the time for regret.
Solas reached outward, and quickly found what he had sought. The Temple of Sacred Ashes shone like a beacon against the shifting backdrop of the fade - a whirling bonfire of hope and fear and faith. Its dark stone walls and pillars loomed into the skies above, much taller than was perhaps likely. Spirits of curiosity and duty flocked towards it, knowing that what occurred here would change the course of history. The result was a cacophony of colour and noise, electric against his skin.
Solas milled among them, searching. Soon, he found a spirit of purpose among their ranks, dogging the steps of one of his agents. The spirit was ancient, almost as old as the elf whom it followed. Deep gold and tremulous, it too mourned the loss of Arlathan and the world before, though it was too young still to remember the Fall itself. It was an unlikely soul, born of the chaos which followed, determined to help set things right. It hardly noticed as Solas approached.
“I greet you, Purpose,” he spoke softly.
“We are devoted, Pride,” it replied in a heavy voice that carried with the deep, resounding clarity of a tolling bell. The sound of his old name stirred up memories long forgotten, thoughts of a much younger man who thought he had the answers for everything. It was not a mistake he was likely to make again. “We know what must be done.”
“My gratitude for your constancy,” Solas said. “Your aid has been invaluable to Seldras. He has endured much.” He looked sadly upon the figure of an old friend as he spoke, effervescent within the reflections of the fade. He moved through the roiling mass of bodies and emotions with a conviction that was palpable.
“As have we all.” Purpose clung steadfast to Seldras’ form, more substantial here than any figure present. Like a shield of quivering light about his steps, Purpose flared each time a Templar came too close, determined to protect him to the end. It was decided. Solas sighed, wishing that it was not.
“Not even I can foretell what the magister will unleash here when he attempts to unlock my orb,” Solas warned. “Seldras has volunteered to recover it, if he can, but knowing that he may not survive the initial surge. The decision is his to make, but I would not see two more souls perish to the consequence of my mistake, if it can be avoided.”
“And I would not see one.” Purpose held a little tighter to Seldras’ form.
“...There will yet be work to do,” Solas pleaded. “This world can ill afford the loss of even one more of your kind. I bid you - flee, while time remains.”
But Solas knew the answer before it came.
“We both know that I cannot.”
Solas left the fade some hours later, wondering how much guilt and grief one could endure before breaking. The burden of this shattered world was his alone to bear - as it should be, for it was no one's doing but his own - but he was just one man. He had no idea how he could ever truly restore it.
He knew only that he must.
“Shhh, shush up, or he’ll hear us!”
“He’ll ‘ear you if you keep goin’ on!”
Solas quirked an eye open to find another pair staring back at him, muddy-green set within a face splashed brown with freckles - a human child. Only several paces away, Solas had caught him in the act of creeping away with his staff in hand. Several feet behind stood another boy, slightly younger, with dirty blonde curls that hung limp about his shoulders and a small dagger gripped between slightly shaking hands.
So misguided. So plain. So frail, to think they had such power over him. Yet, Solas reminded himself, this was not his world, but theirs. One wrong word from their lips could spell disaster for him and his carefully laid plans. Another frustration he must endure.
“Whatever your intent, I would not advise this course of action,” Solas said calmly.
“Why? What you gonna do?” spat the first boy, backing off a few more steps until he was level with his friend at the start of the pier. “Can’t burn me to death without your staff, now, can ya?”
“Believe me, I have no wish of harming anybody,” Solas said. “Least of all children such as yourselves.”
“I’m not a child! I’m thirteen years come Spring!” argued the first boy petulantly.
The other said, “I don’t believe you. Me da’s a Templar, and he knows you mages for what you are. You’re all dangerous and you all need watchin’. That’s why he’s at that conclave now, makin’ sure none of you try anythin’ you shouldn’t.” The boy shook his dagger, his young face twisting with an adopted disgust that didn’t belong there. “But you don’t look like the other mages passin’ through. You’re different. A real apostate. More dangerous by far.”
Solas sighed and spared a glance through the trees, towards Haven. There was no one else within the vicinity. He needed to ensure that he was received favourably by its people if the worst should happen and the orb remained outside of his control. As loathe as he was to be spoken down to by these two children and their misplaced aggression, the situation would need to be handled delicately.
“A mage with his staff is surely no more dangerous than a templar with his sword.” Solas remained seated on the ground while he spoke, hands held peacefully and non-threateningly before him. Of course, he could more than handle whatever they tried - staff or no - but he would rather avoid all conflict. Solas meant his earlier words. He had no wish to harm anybody.
“Templars don’t summon demons though!” the blonde haired boy cried.
“Neither do mages,” Solas said placatingly, though it was not altogether true. Mages were just people like any other, and people sometimes made poor choices. Solas knew that better than most. “They are simply easier targets for spirits to use as vessels, through no fault of their own.”
“Same difference!” the Templar’s son spat. “They kill people!”
“As can the blade in your very hands,” Solas reasoned gently. “Magic is magic, just as a blade is a blade. It matters only how they are used. Do not brigands and highwaymen threaten folk on the road? Is it not bandits and pirates who pillage and plunder? All that, with nothing but the wish to do ill and a blade in their hands. Blades not so different from the one you bear now...”
The boy seemed to falter at that. His friend with the freckles spoke up. “Yeah, but the templars protect us with their swords. But what good has magic ever done, eh?”
“Plenty,” Solas replied. “Magic can heal. Magic can protect.”
“Yeah right, pull the other one!” he scoffed.
Just then, there was a bone-shuddering explosion in the distance. It was with a pull of dread that Solas realised it was in the direction of the temple.
So soon? But the talks had yet to begin.
There was a blinding white flash. The ground lurched beneath his feet whilst the sky split open and everything around them took on a peculiar and vivid shade of green. There was no time to process this, however, before Solas felt it rushing towards them: a wall of wind and sheer energy from the fade.
“Don’t move!” Solas bellowed on instinct. He waved an arm and quickly threw up a barrier around the three of them.
Like the Chantry building itself, the surge of magical energy hit them, solid and deafening. His barrier stood, however, an undulating sphere circling them which glowed bright upon impact. Solas fought to keep his feet and maintain the barrier as it dulled the brunt of the shock-wave, though the boys were thrown sharply to the ground regardless. The sound of its impact split their ears as surely as the force of it tore through Solas’ mind. The last time he had felt such raw and unbridled energy was... millennia ago. It was overwhelming, instantaneous, exhilarating.
And gone within the next breath.
“Are you hurt?” he asked the two boys after a moment. Once he was sure it was safe to do so, Solas let his barrier fall.
One - the freckled boy who’d snatched his staff - rolled over groaning, and blood flowed from somewhere within his hairline. The other, the Templar’s son with golden curls, stumbled to his feet and eventually mumbled, “I feel sick.”
“Have you hit your head also?” Solas asked, already tending to the first boy’s head-wound while scanning the sky.
There was a point some way beyond the mountain peaks which writhed and churned and fell upon itself, and from its centre a beam of fade-green light reached towards the ground like lightning. Every now and then, flaming rocks and boulders were cast out from that churning centre and flung towards the peaks below. The longer he looked, the more he thought he could hear the fade itself. Maimed. Screaming.
“No. I just feel... wrong.” The templar’s son shook his head and looked towards the sky, an unknowing horror spreading across his face. “Oh, Maker,” he whispered. “What is that thing? What happened?”
“There appears to have been an explosion,” Solas said. “More than that I do not know.”
“But that’s - arghhh!” The boy threw his arms up as a shower of smaller boulders came hurtling towards them. They crashed into the frozen lake, sending shards of ice and water all around. Through the mist that followed, Solas could see -
“Demons!!” cried the boy.
Not demons, thought Solas. Shades. Lost spirits and remnants of the dead, overwhelmed by a world not their own. Were they what remained of those gathered at the temple? Mindless manifestations of pain and sorrow and hurt, twisted, and quite beyond his ability to help at present. Solas snatched his staff up from the ground and sent a barrage of icy spears towards the approaching shades, stopping them in their tracks. Two got through, however, and he was forced to dodge a swipe from one and cast his barrier anew to negate a blow from the other.
Solas couldn't help but notice that his casting came a little easier, now, than it had in months past. Perhaps it had to do with that churning tear in the sky. If the veil was torn, the potential for spell-casting could increase tenfold, though his gut told him nothing good could come if it remained open for any length of time. It was ragged; a gaping wound through which the fade bled out. Such a contusion in the veil would have untold effects on this world. The twisted spirits pouring out were proof enough of this; their worlds had been held separate for far too long. He would need to find Seldras or recover his orb - and fast - if there were to be any hopes of putting a stop to yet another disaster.
“Stay - stay back, demon!”
Solas turned and saw the little templar boy standing protectively over his still-unconscious friend. The dagger glinted keenly beneath the fade-lit sky, held unshaking in his young hands. But no measure of bravery would save either boy from the shade, who cared for nothing now besides sharing some measure of its own misery by force. The boy struck, and yelled out in shock to find the dagger knocked out of his hand. He clutched at it, bleeding, closed his eyes and screamed, but still did not move. Frozen in fear or... determined to protect his friend, even at his own peril?
With a wave of his staff, Solas encased the shade in ice before its claws made any contact, then turned again to dispatch the remaining two closest to himself: one he impaled upon a jagged wall of ice; the other he froze solid and shattered with a blow from the blunt end of his staff before doing likewise to the shade by the boys.
“You... you saved us,” said the young templar boy, wide-eyed.
“Of course,” Solas replied.
“But - but you’re a mage,” he stuttered.
“I am,” Solas smiled. “And as I said before, magic is magic, just as a blade a blade. It matters only how it is used.” He bent to collect the dagger from the ice and held it out to him. “You acted with both loyalty and courage there, standing before your friend in the face of harm. Nurture these qualities, for in these days I fear they are in sad and short supply.”
He nodded solemnly and took the dagger. “I will. Promise.”
“Good. Now, we must hurry to the village,” he said quickly, picking up the unconscious would-be thief. “I expect there will be others in need of our help.”
Within hours of the blast, the scouts who had been sent out on horseback returned with grave faces and graver news. The temple was a ruin, flattened almost to rubble; the path to it was flooded with crackling energy through which demons had been seen materialising. There was no sign that anyone gathered there had survived at all.
Once the last of the fires had been put out and the wounded reasonably well tended to, Solas melted away from the shaken crowds in Haven and their fervent prayers to a distant Maker. He acquired a horse tethered well out of sight and made haste towards the temple.
It was no surprise to him that there was a violent outpouring of energy. After a millennia of inertia, the orb had surely been aching for release. Though the explosion was larger than he had originally calculated, it had come as no surprise. The main issue was the breach in the veil. That was not supposed to have happened.
Upon nearing the temple, the scout’s frenzied reports of demon-sightings were confirmed. Shades loitered about the roadside and the ruins, along with the occasional apparition of terror or despair. The latter were likely drawn by the echoes of pain and confusion that lingered since the blast. Solas found himself wondering if the people gathered had perished in an instant. Had any lingered in their suffering?
And what of Seldras?
After dispatching of several more shades and demons, Solas set about searching through the debris of the ruins. A quick visit to the fade did not tell him much; the grounds were littered with sparkling fragments and shattered impressions in every hue of agony. Any spirits who had survived appeared to have fled, leaving nothing behind but trauma and disarray. Regrettably, although unsurprisingly, there was no sign of Seldras or the spirit Purpose. Yet more casualties of his inadequacy.
Were there no limits to his mistakes?
Each crack of thunder and whip of fade-green lightning sent Solas further into panic.
Why could he not feel the presence of his orb? After the release, it should have shone for him like a beacon no matter which way he turned. Could it be that all the ambient energy spilling forth from the veil masked its presence? Or could it's absence be simply that... absence.
Cold, sickening dread pooled about the pit of his stomach.
No, it could not have been destroyed. Solas refused to believe that. There was precious little left for him to hold on to in this world of ghosts, but Solas had to hold on to the hope that he could fix this. His orb was the key to restoring what was lost.
What he had destroyed.
He just had to find it.
So then. If the orb was no longer here, then it must be elsewhere. Taken. But by whom? If not even Seldras had survived the rending of this place, then who else possibly could? The Tevinter magister?
Impossible. Even all the Magister knew of magic - which Solas had heard was an alarming amount by today’s standards - would not have made ripples in the courts of Elvhenan!
Hoof-fall and the sound of alarmed voices put Solas on edge again. More soldiers were on the approach.
Solas used the ambient magic in the air to pull the fade about him and step far out of sight. It would not do for him to been seen here. Though he had come a long way since his powerlessness after waking from uthenera, he lacked the strength to complete his mission alone. He could no more afford to make enemies of the human men or their Chantry than he could let his focus remain undiscovered. It would compromise far, far too much.
He crept about the crumbling remains of a wall, stepping carefully over the shattered remains and hollow shells of templar armour and torn cloth, and watched from a safe distance as they fought back some of the shades and twisted spirits that yet lingered.
“Seeker Cassandra wants a full sweep of the area by nightfall,” called the man who led the two-dozen or so foot-soldiers - a Templar by the feel of him, Solas surmised, though he lacked the pageantry to match. His trimmed, golden hair was cast eerily green in the fadelight, and his dark eyes seemed no stranger to horrors such as this. “If any survivors remain then they must be found, and soon. Spread out, watch each other’s backs. Enough people have died here today to last an age and more,” he said somberly.
“Yes, Knight-Captain Cullen, ser!”
Solas retreated further into the shadows of the ruined temple as the templar muttered something about titles, watching, waiting, but ever careful to remain unseen. He pulled the fade about his form and wove a simple enchantment of misdirection to render both himself and his immediate surroundings unremarkable. Any who passed too close would see that there was simply nothing to be found and turn the other way; any besides the templar, perhaps, who Solas watched with caution as he spoke with his associate. She was a woman: spectral, slender, and so congruous to the shadows around her that she seemed to melt in and out of sight before his very eyes. No wonder he had not noticed her sooner.
“This is so much worse than I had imagined.” Her strange, lilting accent ghosted from beneath a hood that held only shadows. “What could possibly have done this?”
“You can’t be serious, Leliana,” the templar said stiffly. “It doesn't take any stretch of the imagination to see what happened here, and who caused it.”
“Don’t start this again. I thought we had moved past this.”
“I had, but evidently not others. This conclave was supposed to be an offering of peace from the Divine. The first step towards negating centuries of unease and hostility. And just look at how they repaid her.” Knight-Captain Cullen spat. “Maker preserve us. I just knew something like this would happen. I didn’t want to believe it, and I’ve never hoped more to be wrong, but I just knew.”
Another crack of vivid green lightening pierced the woman’s response. “There isn’t a shred of evidence suggesting the mages are responsible for this, Cullen, and -”
“I know magic when I feel it, Leliana. Look at what the explosion did to the temple - to the sky! It reeks of magic gone awry...” He spread his arms wide with earnest. “Picture the number of innocents who died here. The Chantry sisters, my brothers who remained in the order -”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Cullen, the mages are among those who perished also,” she said sharply, “and not one who journeyed here is left standing either -”
“None that we can see -”
“Enough! I do not believe the mages were responsible,” the hooded woman scolded. Her soft voice suddenly held all the sting of a whip. The templar seemed cowed. “Divine Justinia is the only person in the whole of Thedas to offer them peace, a voice, the chance for freedom - what could the mages possibly have gained by causing such destruction? They are human too, Cullen, and they fear the world every bit as much as it fears them... Perhaps even more so. They did not ask for their lot in life but are imprisoned for it all the same.”
Surprising, Solas thought, that a human woman should speak so vehemently in the defense of mages. Most were shunned, now - outcast for the very talent that ensured a person moved with power and influence in the circles of Elvhenan. Even among the misguided Dalish, where only a mage could rise to the position of Keeper, the numbers of mages to a clan were carefully limited. It was a sad and sorry state of affairs, and a testament to how far this world had fallen.
“Perhaps I spoke out of turn,” Cullen replied eventually. “But the fact remains, this was no ordinary explosion. The Temple of Sacred Ashes has endured the ages. But to reduce it to nothing but rubble and dust, to tear a hole in the sky that spits out demons... this is magic, Leliana. I feel it in my bones. Whether it was intentional it not, magic caused this. You cannot deny that.”
Solas watched the templar speak, his voice heavy, as though the weight of all the dead were on his shoulders. It was a weight Solas knew well.
“A mage is responsible,” the templar continued. “We both know it. And there will be hell to pay when the rest of Thedas hears.”
The woman grew quiet after that.
“Cullen,” she resumed eventually, “tell me honestly. Do you really think that anybody could have survived... this?”
It was a few moments more before he answered. “Honestly... No.”
“...So I must accept it, then. That Divine Justinia -” her voice broke.
“We cannot give up hope,” he interjected quickly, sensing distress beneath the hood. “However unlikely it seems, we must hold fast to hope. Just in case. It is all we have.”
“Must we?” she whispered. “What good has hope done for these people? For Justinia? For any -”
Suddenly, there was another crack of fadelight - the largest yet by far - and the pair were startled out of their despair. Solas felt it deep within his chest, humming and churning, like a hunger he had only just recognised was there, pulling him towards -
Recklessly quick, he pulled at the fade once more and bolted in that direction.
The voices of several fearful foot-soldiers grew louder as Solas approached and saw the scene of the commotion. There in the distance, bright green and ethereal. A widening tear in the fabric of reality; splitting, shimmering, revealing -
“It can’t be!”
“Maker’s balls, it’s Andraste!”
Chapter 3: Solas - Sky-Tearing Peaks
Solas found them pointing in awe at a tear in the Veil, hovering some ten feet or so in the air. He’d arrived just in time to see the opening flare and pulse when a dark figure was flung suddenly out. Fearing another demon attack, the soldiers retreated several paces and withdrew their swords only to realise some moments later that the figure in question lay prone on the floor, deathly still, in the same heap that it had landed in.
Above them the tear flickered, then faded from view with a hiss.
“Soldiers, report!” Solas heard the Templar captain call as he, and Leliana with her hood of shadows, approached.
“The, the air broke open, ser, right ‘ere! And then she fell out of it, and landed right there, ser! And before it closed again, behind her -”
“- We saw Andraste!”
“You saw Andraste? Impossible,” began Leliana skeptically. She cast a look over her shoulder as she stooped towards the fallen figure. “Andraste sits with the Maker.”
“We saw her, alright,” the second of the soldiers said fervently. “Shining bright against all this black and ruin, she was! She -”
He was interrupted quite suddenly when the woman on the floor began to twitch and scream, writhing violently as green Fade-light began to erupt from her hand. The essence of magic it bore was palpable - Solas felt it from here, each wave bracing him like the crashing of ocean waves. Breathless, he watched as Leliana recoiled in an instant, whipping out a blade as though from thin air. Above her, the wound in the Veil lurched and tore itself wider once again.
“Stand back!” Cullen cried, ushering the others behind him.
Solas watched from the distance as the light in her hand began to pulsate in time with the hole in the sky. Every twist and pull tore through her arm, a duet of coursing magic and agony. He was half surprised it hadn’t reduced the girl to dust, like everything else here. She somehow withstood every surge of power. Solas felt each rise and fall in the back of his mind like a second heartbeat. Fluttering. Fluid. Frustratingly familiar.
It was then that Solas knew. She had touched his orb. The magic flowing through her belonged to him.
“Cullen, if this girl was at the conclave - you don’t suppose...?” Leliana began hesitantly.
“This magic is like nothing I have felt before,” he replied, “but it is immensely powerful. Volatile. She could be the one who caused all this.”
“Precisely. Regardless, she seems to be the only survivor,” she said, after a thought.
“Indeed. Cassandra will want to see this. We should take her back with us,” Cullen agreed, shielding his eyes against the flare of her magic.
“Obviously. But how...”
Cullen stepped forward. “Don’t worry about that. Just give me some room.”
Leliana and the other soldiers obliged. Just as Cullen raised his sword, tip down, Solas realised what it was that the templar was about to do.
In a swing of song and silver, the Templar captain buried his sword into the rubble and released what Solas had come to realise was a new and abhorrent form of magic itself - the repelling and negation of Fade energy. Banishment. Cleansing. A holy smite.
The smite rolled off the templar in waves as soon as the sword’s tip hit the ground. Swift and unforgiving. Solas remembered well the sensation of a smite from his first encounter with the Templars many months ago. Such was the extent of this templar’s might that Solas could feel the effects of it even from this distance, a fire behind the eyes that left one’s strength in ashes. Solas shuddered as the smite’s ripples passed over him, skimming some of the strength he had managed to accrue.
The unconscious woman, on the other hand, was thrown back with such violence that she stopped only when her writhing form hit the crumbling remains of one of the temple’s interior walls. Her screaming ceased. Her body went limp. The light erupting from her hand dimmed, then disappeared altogether.
“Let us make haste back to Haven,” the templar murmured eventually, once he seemed certain another smite would not be necessary. He still did not sheathe his sword, however. It was the sign of an experienced soldier, always expecting the unexpected. “Gather the men and ready the horse,” he called.
“At once, ser!” came the reply of many.
Solas deliberated at the edge of the shadows as the soldiers set about their orders. If he was to salvage anything from this situation, it had to be the woman. With the mark of his magic upon her hand, she was his only lead to finding and reclaiming the orb. If the worst had happened, and the orb was lost... Solas would simply have to make do with reclaiming the magic she had somehow stolen from it instead.
He only hoped it would it be enough to begin making amends.
Though the smite had not hit him in its fullest extent at this distance, Solas felt weary. Still, with all the ambient energy in the air - not to mention the tear in the Veil growing ever wider - he felt the odds might yet be in his favour. What were a handful of soldiers against his wealth of experience at wielding the very cascade of magic they stood beneath?
He would need to dispatch of the Templar first, that much was certain. His ability to negate magic was too much of a threat, especially as so frustratingly little of Solas’ true power had returned. That being done, Solas decided that the cloaked and hooded female must come next. There was a subtle note of deference in the templar’s tone and actions towards her that told Solas a wise man would do well not to underestimate her.
If he moved now and was quick enough, there was every chance Solas could deal with them, grab the girl who fell from the fade, and be out of sight before the other soldiers could even guess at what happened. Then it would be a simple matter of reclaiming the magic from her hand and taking measures to reverse the cataclysm in the sky.
But still, he deliberated.
What if it all went wrong? What if he could not extract the mark and claim back its power for himself? Or worse - what if he could, only to find that the breach was beyond his power to contain, and he left the land in ashes once again?
He could not bear the thought.
Two soldiers came into the clearing bearing additional mounts for their leaders, and shortly after, two more followed. Soon, the small recovery force had entirely reconvened. Solas watched as the survivor was flung pitifully across the templar’s horse, like a sack of grain before him on the saddle, as though his proximity alone would be enough to keep the chaos of her magic subdued. Perhaps it was.
It was not long until they had ridden away from the temple ruins and out of sight, leaving Solas quite alone with his despair beneath the breach.
“Halt! St-stop right there! And keep your hands where I can see them!”
Solas stopped in his tracks and began to raise his arms placatingly. It had been a full day since the explosion at the conclave - though it seemed this time had served only to heighten the panic, not calm it. “Please listen,” he began, “I mean no threat. I -”
“I said stop moving! Keep your hands behind your head, and d-don’t even think about reaching for your st-staff!” the panicked soldier yelled, drawing his sword with a shaking hand.
Solas exhaled. “Would you prefer my hands behind my head or where you can see them?” he asked stiffly. “I fail to see how they can be both.”
“Just - just there is fine,” he stammered, gesturing towards where Solas’ hands currently hovered at a non-committal point vaguely around the waist. “What business do you have here?”
Solas attempted to sound as unassuming as possible in his reply. “I had hoped to speak with your superiors here. As you can no doubt see, I am a mage, and have come to offer whatever assistance I can in dealing with the hole in the sky.”
“Oh yeah? How do I know it w-wasn’t you what caused it, and you haven’t j-just come here to f-finish the job?” he accused frantically.
“Believe me, I understand your distrust,” Solas said patiently, and tried to hold the man’s gaze. “I know that much has happened between the circle mages and the common folk, but I promise you, I mean no harm. I simply wish to help.”
“Well, w-we don’t -”
“At ease, soldier,” a voice called. Solas placed the lilting accent and knew it to be the woman from the temple before he’d even turned to see her. There Leliana stood mere feet away, a distance from which Solas saw she looked disarmingly young beneath the hood, though no less sharp than he had imagined. She turned to him with cool eyes that held little but suspicion at worst, disregard at best.
“You may have noticed that we have our hands quite full in dealing with this catastrophe,” she said shortly. “Unless you have some information about what happened at the temple, you will have to take your questions elsewhere.”
“Information is precisely what I have come to offer, as well as my aid.”
“Your aid?” she asked, appraising him. Solas thought he caught a hint of black humour beneath her skepticism. “What aid could you possibly hope to offer?”
“I have spent many years studying the Fade and the Veil which separates it from our world. The hole in the sky is, in fact, a tear in this Veil - a breach between our worlds which grows wider with each passing hour. If it is not dealt with, I fear it will consume everything,” Solas said plainly.
The woman folded her arms, impatience brewing beneath her hood. “I thought you had come to offer aid, not doomsday tidings.”
Solas stopped the wry smile before it could fully form across his lips. “My apologies. I meant only to share my knowledge of the situation. And, knowledge is the aid I offer. I believe I may know of a way to reverse the damage done to our sky, and seal the breach.”
Leliana paused, allowing the gravity of his words to sink in. However, that was the limit of her reaction. She was clearly versed in the art of keeping her emotions and intent hidden. “Very well, you have my attention,” she said eventually, stepping around him and towards the chantry door. “I will have to ask that you surrender your staff, however. These are troubled times, you understand.”
“Of course,” Solas replied. He had expected no less, after all. It was an inconvenience, nothing more. Careful not to make any movement which may seem threatening or sudden, Solas handed his staff to the soldier at the door and followed Leliana inside.
She led him through the dour interior of the chantry hall and past several stone pillars until they reached a small alcove, quite sheltered from view. A simple, wooden writing desk and a small oil lamp abided there, as well as a worn and faded rug. She gestured to the only chair, which Solas politely refused, before leaning nonchalantly against it herself.
“Make no mistake, if this is a waste of my time...” Leliana began, allowing the threat to hang in the open air.
Solas replied with an equally grave tone. “Believe me, if the breach continues to grow at the rate it has thus far, then there is no time to waste.”
She nodded in approval. “Go on then. I am listening. Tell me what you know.”
“The Veil, as I have said, acts as the barrier between our world and the Fade. Behind it swells the very essence of magic, as well as all manner of spirits. But the Veil is not a concrete thing held at some distance, rather it is found in and around all things. Fluid. Shifting. Stronger in some places than in others.” Solas caught himself, suddenly becoming aware that his tone had taken on that of a teacher instructing a pupil. “I apologise. You did not invite me in for a lecture on the properties of the Veil.”
“But, you were invited to share your knowledge, no?” she said coolly. “Continue.”
“Very well. At times, spirits press against the fabric of the Veil, driven by their curiosity of our strange world. When this happens, natural tears sometimes occur and these spirits push though, often in bloody places that have known much fear, or the pain of death, for those emotions reflect strongly in the Fade.”
“I have seen such, I think,” Leliana interjected thoughtfully, gazing for a moment at a point in the distance. “During the Blight. And at the circle tower in Ferelden. But in neither of those places did I witness anything like this hole in the sky.”
“Of course. Such tears are small, often incomprehensible to the eye. And easily mended with the right spells, or with the simple passing of time.” Solas pondered a moment. “Imagine a castle wall through which a keen-eyed scout could bypass by way of a few loose stones or a conveniently placed branch. Simply manicure the offending tree or renew the stonework, and the flaw is mended.”
“But this hole in the sky...”
“Now picture that same wall, blasted through with cannon fire... besieged by an army.”
“The more soldiers push through, the worse that breach becomes,” Leliana continued gravely.
It was a moment before she spoke again. “What can possibly be done about such a thing?”
Solas thought a while and chose his next few words carefully. If he revealed too much, this woman may begin to suspect his motives and cast him away. Too little, and he risked losing what little trust he had managed to gain. It was paramount that he received access to the survivor of the conclave. One way or another she was the key to sealing the breach, he was sure of it.
“I have heard rumours that a survivor was found yesterday,” he began slowly. “A survivor of the explosion at the conclave.”
Leliana looked at him sharply. “What of them?”
“They say that a young woman was carried into town at sundown. That magic spilled from her hand - green, just like the hole in the sky. They say she is being kept here. That she is responsible for what happened.”
“A funny thing with rumours,” Leliana evaded. “They so rarely tell what is true.”
“But if they are true...” Solas hedged. “Has a survivor been found?”
“And if there had been?” asked Leliana, shifting, though whether this meant Solas had gained ground, or lost it, he could not tell.
“If such rumours hold true, then I would theorise that the magic she bears is indeed linked to the breach in the Veil. Though whether it is cause or effect, I could not say without examination,” Solas began, trying to sound more thoughtful and less certain of his words than he truly was. Best to appear as a well-intentioned scholar than one who knows too much. “I would imagine that the magic she holds grows more volatile with each passing hour, in tandem with the hole in the sky. I doubt whether anyone could withstand such power for long, even the most talented mage.”
Solas began to pace a little, allowing her time to consider his words. He glanced out of the nearby window just in time to see the breach belch out yet more rubble and lightning.
“I believe there is not much time left before it consumes her, and the breach, in turn, devours everything that remains in this valley and beyond.”
Leliana stared at him for a long while before speaking again. “I suppose you have a name?”
Not quite the response he had expected. “My name is Solas.”
“And you are from...”
Ah, so there it was. It did not escape him that she neglected to provide a name of her own in return for his. A power play, to show how the scales were balanced. The interrogation had begun.
“Originally? A village of little consequence, far to the north and from any of the King’s roads, as I remember,” Solas replied. He injected the appropriate amount of disregard towards his humble origins into his voice. Enough to appear convincing. “It has been many years since I left. I doubt you would find it on any map.”
There was another pause.
“You seem to know a great deal about the Fade.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “It is fascinating. I have spent much of my life studying its mysteries.”
“How so?” Leliana probed. “Clearly you are not Dalish, yet neither do you possess the manner of a circle mage.”
“I am neither,” Solas smiled. “I have practised my magic alone, peacefully, for many years. I likewise study alone, travelling to a great many places, wandering the Fade and learning what I can. I have witnessed many wonders in my time.”
“As well many demons, I would wager,” she said flatly.
“Remarkably few, in fact. I have found they seldom present much threat if one knows how to tread carefully.” Solas delivered the lines artfully, as one who was as confident in the truth of his words as the rising and setting of the sun. But there was humility and sincerity in his tone, not arrogance. All the same, Leliana appraised him with a thinly-veiled caution; she would trust him no further than she could throw him. Still, they both knew she did not have the luxury of choice.
“I take it you wish to see the survivor, then,” she relented, eventually. “Examine her magic for yourself.”
“Very much so,” was his eager reply. “If I am right about the magic in her hand being linked to the Veil, it may be possible to use it to stop the breach from growing, or else close it entirely. I believe it is the key we need to stop this cataclysm before it is too late.”
For a moment, the mask slipped. Solas saw that Leliana had the face of one who had lost too much to dare to hope. It was a face he knew well. “Let us hope you are right,” she said slowly. “Follow me.”
Solas echoed her steps through the Chantry proper. He caught loose threads of conversation here and there; scouting reports, supply audits and half-wept segments of their Chant of Light - a poem, as he understood, devoted to the message of their silent Maker. What a curious thing the human faith was. Leliana hissed a few orders to subordinates along the way. Short things, concise. But enough for Solas to understand that the Templar he saw yesterday was out in the field defending the village from the increasing demon attacks while a third associate was en-route to Haven from elsewhere.
“We have had to detain the survivor down here as much for her safety as for the local populace,” Leliana explained as they descended a staircase beneath swinging lanterns that stank strongly of animal fats. Solas never could abide being underground; it was stifling, oppressive, not where he belonged. “The people are fearful and seek vengeance for the Divine. And the magic the survivor carries is prone to... violent outbursts.”
“So she is your prisoner,” Solas concluded, eying the heavy, iron-wrought bars as they neared the end of the corridor. Flickers of green shone though the barred door, but the pulse of magic he felt at the back of his mind was weak. Worryingly so.
“Semantics,” Leiliana brushed off. “I have taken measures to limit the threat the magic she bears presents, nothing more.”
Solas pursed his lips to avoid conflict: a sentiment which was lost the moment those heavy doors swung open to reveal the sight behind them.
There the prisoner was in the centre of the room, shackled, hanging freely some inches off the ground. The heavy, iron manacles about her wrists had done their measure of damage; trails of drying blood ran down her arms from open wounds beneath them. Her head lolled forward, hanging limply beneath a mane of thick, dark cords and tangled, blood-matted braids beneath which he made out the tips of pointed ears. Her chest seldom moved for breath. Her left arm glimmered from fingertip to elbow with his magic, but only faintly. If not for the weak thrum of it at the back of his mind, Solas would have thought her dead.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he gasped, striding forwards.
“As was said, I have had to take measures to limit her threat. I will not apologise for protecting the people of Haven.”
As Leliana glanced around the room, Solas noticed the others. Templars - four of them - all stood warily at attention. He found himself wondering how many of their smites the prisoner had endured in the last day alone for bearing the mark of his magic upon her hand. His anger rose.
“No one deserves this.”
“This magic is unknown to us. It is regrettable, but I will not underestimate it. Enough have lost their lives to this already.” Leliana’s tone was short. Clipped. Solas could tell she would discuss this no further. “Now, you wished to examine her, did you not?”
That anyone could treat another living being with such disregard... it was a callousness and lack of compassion that reminded Solas of Elvhenan at its worst, where such things were committed for sport or amusement. Though these people had fear as their motivator, it made them little better in his eyes.
“I must request you let her down at once,” he said quietly.
“The girl is but moments from death. I fear if we lose her, we lose the mark - and with it, all hopes of sealing the breach.”
“She is a threat -”
“Look at her. In this state, she threatens nothing. Again, I must request you let her down and allow me to heal her before examining the magic, or else all hope we may have shall perish along with her.” When she seemed to hesitate, Solas pressed on and was unable to completely eradicate the disdain from his tone. “Have faith in your templars. I am certain they will quash anything out of the ordinary.”
Leliana narrowed her eyes at him, but after a moment’s consideration she stepped back and smiled serenely. “Very well. Down she will come. But I shall double the guard, just to be safe.”
And so it was that Solas approached the lone survivor beneath the watchful eyes of eight templar soldiers. The tension was palpable, both theirs and his own. Solas stood before the prisoner as the chains were released and she fell face first into his arms. A quick series of spells to close the worst of her wounds, though they were far from the worst of her problems.
The mark on her hand was thrumming. Feverish. Feeding. Alive in its own way.
Solas reached for the prisoner’s left hand but withdrew quickly when the magic lashed out at him with a crack that lit up the stone walls around him.
“Wait! Just... Hold for a moment, please,” Solas hurried, reacting to the worried clinks of templar plate mail around him. “Do not fear.” He looked to Leliana who, after a moment, nodded for him to continue.
Approaching more carefully, Solas drew several wards the air to counter the feedback from the mark. Once its flares had calmed again, he took up her hand and looked to her palm, which was calloused just below the fingers as if from many years spent gripping a bow. No mage at all then, as her lack of aura would seem to confirm, making her survival thus far even more impressive, but ultimately of no consequence. She need survive no longer than it would take for him to claim her magic – his magic.
Solas exhaled and looked deep into the mark.
It was akin to staring down into the depths of a well and hearing an ocean held within; vast, proud, and furious with the indignity of its containment. No sooner would Solas reach into to than it lashed out again with all the bite of a desert cobra. Thankfully for his skill in warding against the outbursts, the flay went largely unnoticed by his audience.
“Well?” came the impatient sound of Leliana’s voice. “What can you see?”
Solas was hesitant in his reply. “It... is difficult to say,” he eventually settled with. “I feel within it a clear link to the Fade. That it is connected to the breach in the sky is obvious. It’s malleability, however, is not so easily ascertained.”
“Meaning what, exactly?” Leiliana probed, but the question went unanswered.
It was an arduous task, probing around the undulating volatility of the mark’s magic and treading its dangerous shoreline - a task made no easier by the heat of the templars’ gazes on his back. Still, the magic of the mark was his and his alone. It should have recognised him. It should have rejoiced in him. It should have leapt to his beck and call. But Solas found no such acknowledgement. What he found instead was a wild thing. It whorled and writhed, clashing and converging upon itself over and over, a cacophony of chaos that sought only to consume and consume and consume -
Consume her... and all the world would follow.
Well... better to tear the magic from her now while he had the chance, Solas thought, and offer a more merciful end than the one she could expect from these agents of the Chantry. Through her life might end, it was a necessary cost; Solas felt certain he should regain his strength in reclaiming this mark for himself. Then it would be a simple matter of orchestrating his way out of the Chantry building and towards the epicentre of the breach.
Face set in a grim line, Solas set about the task of reaching down into the very essence of the girl, drawing in the wild surges of his misplaced magics. It was a heady feeling, this proximity to a wellspring of power. It ebbed and flowed like a river within her, creating little eddies where the tendrils of his reaching touched. Eventually, and with much effort, Solas made headway enough to latch on to the mark’s chaotic constellation through its host’s frail body.
First, he gave an experimental pull to test the waters. There was some resistance from the mark’s energy; it startled what was left of the survivor’s strength into a reactive tremble. She moaned weakly. The templars shifted nervously in his peripheral, but did nothing. Solas paced himself and pulled anew, tugging harder at the mark. This time the girl began to struggle, incoherently mumbling through each shudder on the cold ground. Gradually, the mark’s resistance began to fail.
“Ar ame ir abelas...” Solas whispered, more to himself than anyone else. He strengthened the wards, steeled himself and gave the mark one final wrench.
The girl’s resulting scream tore through him, but it was not the sound which moved Solas to stop. He froze as she came out of herself and grasped the arm that held her with a wild strength, fingertips digging through his bindings. Her wild hair swung back to reveal to him - framed between faded, intricate twists of vallaslin - a pair of grey eyes that stared, unseeing, through him. His grip on her loosened.
“Ha-halani - telsylmanan!” she gasped through ragged breaths. Her head began to flick back and forth between the words, though what she saw around her, he could not say.
“What is happening?” Leliana snapped. Behind, Solas heard the metallic ring of eight swords leaving eight sheathes. “What is she saying?”
Fenedhis. He was not fast enough. Already Solas’ hesitance at her touch had caused the mark’s power to seep through some of his warding. The stone walls were once again cast in an eerie green light that grew with each passing second. Could he regain control and extract the magic within her before the templars cast their smites?
“You will tell me what she says,” Leliana threatened when he did not reply. “Does she speak of the Most Holy? Of the Temple?”
“Manan’emathal...” the girl continued between frantic, shallow breaths. “Sa-sathan - ar himanemah!”
“She speaks of drowning,” Solas offered quickly. With the threat of swords at his back, the unexpected fluency with which she spoke escaped his notice. “Elanas harth’em? Can you hear me?” Solas repeated in common, more for the benefit of his audience than anything else.
He brought a palm up to still her frantically turning head and regretted it instantly. No sooner had his skin made contact with hers than she turned her eyes directly to his. Her writhing body became motionless despite the continued flaring of the mark; the translucent grey of her eyes grew clear; her already pained expression changed into something more despairing. Her voice, when she spoke, took on a completely different tenor.
“Ir abelas, Solas, tela’myan,” she whispered. “Jubanafelasir sule banal... Y ma ryas’rosa.”
Solas felt the world grow cold around him.
The girl’s eyes, devoid of all colour, goaded him with a reflection of his own horrified face. Solas stared, stone-still with shock, until they eventually rolled back into her head and she fell back to the ground once again.
Halani, telsylmanan. - Help me, I can’t breathe.
Manan’emathal. - There’s water everywhere. (Ematha - to surround, to embrace)
Sathan, ar himanemah! - Please, I’m going to drown!
Elanas harth’em? - Can you hear me?
Ir abelas, Solas, tela’myan - I’m sorry, Solas, I cannot follow.
Jubanafelasir sule banal... Y ma ryas’rosa - We will wither into nothing. But you must endure. (Rosa - to stand, to last, to rise, to endure, to survive)
[All attempts at transcribing elvhen are courtesy of fenxshiral's lexicon.]
Rent Asunder, Spilling Light.
Consciousness came softly at first, with the impression of wings before a viridescent dawn. All around was tender, undulating light. An emerald sun beneath ocean waves upon the creation of a new day.
Paralysed by its beauty, I could not help but stop and admire as it inched its way slowly northwards, terminating each lesser star with its growing radiance. Of course, I did not mind watching this beautiful dawn, and I reached up as though to feel it with my fingertips. To hold its heat in my palm. It was lovely. Except that, it seemed to me to be growing brighter more quickly than it should. Sharper than it had any right to be. Its brilliance bore down, blinding, burning, obliterating all else – even myself – until there was nothing, nothing, nothing. Nothing but white and green and silence and screams.
Consciousness hit me like a battering ram.
A flash of green pierced my vision. Pierced me. I struggled, grunting against the pounding in my skull and realised I was… bound? Behind me, a metallic ring: swords, by the sound, leaving their scabbards.
I searched the darkness, swallowing against the lump of panic forming in my throat. From where I knelt at the centre of a dimly-lit stone room, a pair of heavy manacles about my wrists kept me tethered to the ground. Four soldiers – templars – stood guard above me, swords at the ready.
There was another flash of green, another flare of pain; I gasped against it, my breath coming in short, shallow bursts.
What was happening to me?
Why was I chained here?
And where was –
Just then, the door before me burst open – the harsh thud of it bounced off the stone walls, reverberated through my head, made me wince.
Two people entered.
The first was a tall and severe-looking woman, battle-scarred, with a hand upon the hilt of her sword; at a gesture from her, the templars on guard sheathed their own. I narrowed my eyes at the regalia on her chest-plate. Not quite the symbol of the Chantry… this sunburst held an eye within, just like the one my mother saw in her vision… but it was off. It lacked the sword to pierce it. This one was a pot about to boil over; her armour trembled with a fury only barely suppressed while she circled around like a predator.
Following was, apparently, her antithesis. Slim and silent where the former’s presence itself seemed to shout, she was clothed in cloak and shadow with a silver crest bearing the same regalia. Her chain-mail clinked with every step but her face was serene, revealing nothing.
“Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now,” the armoured one threatened from over my shoulder, hot breath at my ear. I flinched away. She continued to prowl. “The temple is destroyed. Everyone who attended is dead.” Her hard, dark eyes bore into mine. “Except for you.”
What did she mean, everyone was dead?
“Explain this,” the woman with her hard eyes demanded. She brandished my own hand at me and as if on cue it blazed again, a burst of both light and pain.
“I -I can’t!” I gasped, finally catching my breath after the sting of – of whatever it was that was burning through my palm. It looked like magic, but it was unlike any magic I’d ever seen anyone wield before and felt like a hot poker searing through my palm.
“What do you mean you can’t?” she spat, throwing my bound wrist to the floor.
“I just can’t! I don’t know what that is, or how it got th-”
“You’re lying!” she growled, hands suddenly at my throat before I could protest further. I struggled and choked, frantically gasping for breath this crazy woman would not allow. Black spots began to flurry up in the corners of my vision until –
“Enough!” came another voice from out of the gathering dark. “We need her, Cassandra.”
After a moment, the vice-like grip was gone and I fell forward, greedily gulping at the stale air. I looked up to see the one called Cassandra still glaring darkly at me from behind her companion. Her twitching fingers moved to worry the hilt of her sword again. Probably picturing all the places she’d like to bury it. Like my face.
Dislike flared through me, hot and bright, and for a moment I pictured her trying. Cassandra, in her anger, had revealed more to me than was perhaps wise. Despite her plate-mail, there was a lightness to her step suggesting she was used to heavier burdens – a shield, perhaps, which she clearly lacked at present. I’d seen how dependent warriors could become on the safety of their shields, how sloppy their form became without one. The scar on her face told me she’d survived her share of fights without. No particularly high accolade considering I’d survived all of mine without. Cassandra favoured her right leg, too. A subtle preference in weight shift and stance, but it was there. Something else I could use to my advantage in a fight.
But of course, bound as I was, every advantage was hers. I could do nothing.
I turned away.
The other woman looked to me now. Her pale eyes belied the calm of her face. Clearly, she harboured no less accusation in her stare than her partner did. Did they really think I was responsible for what they’d said? For destroying the Conclave?
Destroying how, exactly?
“I don’t understand…” I breathed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Do you remember what happened?” she asked flatly. “How this began? The conclave? The explosion? Anything at all?”
My mind raced to keep up with her words, then froze at the implication of them.
The conclave. The peace talks. The whole reason I was here.
Echoing through my head was an impression of my mother’s dream – a shining throne atop a mountain of corpses beneath a blood-red sky – and the words she spoke before we left:
‘The Divine shall orchestrate her talks, but they will not end in peace. There will be chaos and much bloodshed in a great and terrible event. It will tear open the land and cause the sky to weep beyond all consolation. No one will survive the coming fire.’
I looked to the windows instinctively but, of course, there were none to be found in my cell. Nothing to offer me any hint of the destruction she spoke of.
Mahanon and I had left our clan in the Vinmarks a little over three months ago to make the journey south. Our purpose: a task to which I had not yet agreed. It would ensure the cataclysm of our mother’s dream would never come to pass, but… I had my doubts. According to her, the price of peace was the Divine herself: her blood spilled, and her life ended. By my hands.
My brother had thought her insane and I admit, I did not think too much better. I had no idea what she thought killing the Divine might accomplish, besides further bloodshed, but… Mother’s visions were beyond my understanding. She had never yet led us astray. So, I left, and Mahanon insisted that he follow, over-protective as always. Due to the mage-templar conflicts, it had not been without peril but with Mahanon’s skill as First and mine with the bow, we made the crossing easily enough.
Until we didn’t.
One wrong word to the wrong templar on the path up the mountain and my brother found himself with a fight on his hands, the hot-headed fool. After a desperate scrap, I’d eventually worked my hunting knife between the division in the templar’s helmet, dragged it through to his throat, and rushed to Mahanon’s side where he lay bleeding from a blade through the thigh. He did not have our mother’s gift for healing magics, but the wound would not be fatal. I stemmed the bleeding, stitched him up and did what I could with the herbs I could find. Elfroot was not sparse in these parts either. A blessing.
Eventually, and despite his protests, I left Mahanon at our camp in the valley and made my way south alone to the temple. I would do nothing but watch; information was paramount. Only then would I decide what to do.
I remembered slipping in early one morning with a gathering of mages. I kept to the shadows or high to the rafters, out of sight. Everyone there was so… sad. And angry. Everyone but the Divine herself.
For three days I trailed the Divine from the dark corners of her temple; she was as tense as any mage or templar there gathered, of course. I saw it written in the lines of her face, the weight of everything she stood to lose. But old and frail as she appeared, there was a strength and a conviction about her that reminded me of my mother – and a goodness that was tangible. It was in every letter of her correspondence, every hushed word and kind gesture to those gathered, every insult weathered with patience and a smile. If anyone might be able to turn the war around and engender peace once more, it was her. If not her, then who?
The world would profit nothing from her loss. I could not kill her. I would not.
So I left. I gathered my belongings, retraced my steps through the sprawling depths of the temple, crossed a series of chambers and heard -
What did I hear?
I squeezed my eyes tight and tried to remember, but… nothing. Just the impression of sound, the curiosity it triggered, then nothing.
Nothing until the memory of fleeing beneath a green sunrise, and –
“I… remember running,” I said slowly. “Things were chasing me and then a – a woman?” I questioned as the emerald sun of my memory twisted into something else.
“A woman?” the slender one echoed.
I could see the shape of her. Blinding. Bright. “She reached out to me, but then…” I stopped and frowned, unsure of everything again.
That didn’t make any sense.
People didn’t glow.
Cassandra, apparently growing impatient with my lack of answers, decided to take control again. “Go to the forward camp, Leliana. I will take her to the rift.”
My head flicked back up at that. The rift?
Cassandra approached me as her associate walked away and, for a moment, I thought she meant to strangle me again. Instead, she pulled out a key and unfastened the irons at my wrists. I held back a sigh of relief.
“What did happen?” I asked her, gingerly rubbing the tenderised flesh those manacles left behind.
“It… will be easier to show you,” Cassandra said eventually, binding my hands again, but this time with rope. I wished she wouldn’t. They smarted enough already.
When she was done, she pulled me to my feet. From the flickering torch-light, it was hard to tell if the fury in her eyes had lessened any. It seemed unlikely, though.
It was a long walk away from my confinement towards daylight, past weeping Chantry sisters and elf-servants who visibly recoiled from my presence. Some few approached with more violent intentions – certain of my guilt, I guessed. They spat, yelled curses and accusations; the templar guards who followed us kept them back. All the while my mind was a whir, thoughts flitting around what I remembered of the temple.
“Back there,” I began, “you said everyone who attended the conclave was dead.”
Cassandra’s reply came quietly. “I did.”
“But I survived. That would suggest there are others. Hidden, maybe, or further down -”
“There is no one,” Cassandra said sharply. “We have searched and searched, and found no one but you.”
“But there has to be -”
“There isn’t.” She didn’t bother to mask the hopelessness of her tone. “It has been days since the sky was torn open and all hopes for a future at peace destroyed. There is no one else. It’s impossible.” She threw me a sideways look. “We have one survivor – one suspect – and countless dead.”
Their faces flew before me as she spoke, impressions of people without names, currents of people passing through corridors that I did not have eyes for while they were still around to be seen. A pair of bright eyes here, a rounded ear wreathed with rings of gold, sunshine hair atop freckles over there, a slightly overlarge nose centred on a face that seemed far too young for the cares it carried. Countless lives and lights, gone. And Mahanon somewhere out there in the valley, he’d be sick with worry… if he still lived at all.
Careful not to fall out of step behind her, I tested the strength of Cassandra’s bindings and found they were not wanting. She knew her knots. Still, I scanned the halls and corridors regardless, looking out for anything that might help me escape. Because I had to escape. I had to go out into the valley and search for Mahanon. He was out there somewhere. He had to be.
We came to a set of very large, wooden doors. Cassandra pushed them open and I stepped out behind her into the sharp, cold air. After the darkness of my prison, the light was dazzling. Then, all thoughts of escape were forced from my head when I looked up and saw the sky, witnessed the enormity of what had happened.
“We call it the Breach,” I heard Cassandra say.
I stared past her, numb, while in the distance the sky devoured itself. Ashen clouds churned around a central point through which it seemed the Void and all its wreck and ruin spilled out. Flaming boulders, emerald fire; in the back of my head, an impression of fear and grief. Blood and bile and silenced screams.
“It is a massive rift into the world of demons that grows larger with each passing hour. It’s not the only such rift. Just the largest,” Cassandra continued. Then she speared me with a look. “All were caused by the explosion at the conclave.”
Eventually, I found my voice again. “An explosion can do that?”
“This one did.” Cassandra’s voice was grim. “Unless we act, the Breach may grow until it swallows the world.”
Suddenly, there was a deafening crack from that whirling maelstrom she called the Breach, and I felt the ground lurch beneath my feet. Pain lanced through my arm, shattering, as though every bone had become dust. The ground rose up to meet me. Distantly, I head the sound of my own scream.
Then, just as quickly, it was over. I knelt on the frozen ground, panting for breath. My hands swam before my view, left palm flickering again.
So, this was it then. The terrible event. The cataclysm of my mother’s dream.
Suddenly, I saw with new eyes the bleak future of which she dreamt. Blood-red skies above a landscape of bone and ash. Scattered fragments and hollow remains of all that used to be. Meanwhile, a world fresh and whole and at peace reflected in the flat of a blade. A blade that could have saved everyone.
A blade I’d refused to take.
Cassandra was at my side again. Her words seemed to tumble out in something that almost resembled worry. “Each time the Breach expands, your mark spreads. And it is killing you. It may be the key to stopping this, but there isn’t much time.”
My left palm swam beneath my view, still crackling with that strange green light, and I kneaded it with my thumb. Though the pain had gone, I could feel it still. Like an itch I couldn’t scratch.
“You say it may be the key,” I repeated slowly. “To doing what?”
“Closing the Breach.” I met her gaze and felt something akin to hope flutter around inside. “Whether that’s possible is something we’ll discover shortly. It is our only choice, however. And yours.”
I let my gaze drift away from her towards the sky. It was impossible to believe that anything could mend a wound of such enormity, let alone the searing crackle of light in my palm that I had no idea what it was, where it came from or what use it might be. But still, Cassandra seemed determined to hope it could be of use. A hope that began to flicker inside me, too.
This was all my fault. But if this crackling energy in my hand could also begin to put things right again, how could I possibly refuse?
There was another snap of lightning from the Breach, but this time I was more prepared for the thunder-shock of pain it brought. I clenched my hand into a fist and weathered through each pulse, committing it to memory. If not for the pain it would be the most curious sensation, somehow both push and pull.
Still waiting for a reply, Cassandra eyed both me and my hand warily. Her own hand, I noticed, had moved back to worry at the hilt of her sword.
“… I understand.”
“I’ll come with you, and do what I can to help,” I assured her. “Whatever it takes.”
Cassandra eyed me strangely, seeming torn somewhere between disbelief and… respect? As though I either did not know my decision might cost me my life, or didn’t care. The moment faded, and so did her expression. She nodded once, then squared her shoulders and turned to lead the way.
Still bound, I stood and followed.
“There - watch out!” Cassandra shouted.
I looked to where Cassandra pointed and saw yet another pair of demons lurking above the frozen waters. Long armed, hunched and bizarrely helmeted. Like darkness made real, their shadows billowed up a cloud around them with every movement, filtering like ash through the cold air.
“If we flank them,” she continued, “we may gain the advantage.”
“I’m on it.” I found a better vantage point and nocked an arrow through fingers numb with cold. “Cassandra, wait for my… signal.”
Cassandra didn’t hear, of course. She was already halfway down the embankment with her shield up and sword ready, charging towards the demons with a battle-cry that left them oblivious to my presence. It was hard to say whether she was fearless, or foolish. Regardless, I was left, once again, to wait for an opening in which to shoot the demons without taking one of her eyes out in the process.
It was painfully clear to me now, the further into the mountains we travelled, why Cassandra was convinced there were no other survivors but me. The paths were flooded with demons. Dark and clawed, or else transient, skeletal wisps capable of flinging some sort of spell that left one’s strength in tatters. They were everywhere. And I was fast running out of arrows. There were corpses enough for an age, but almost none were worth looting.
“Let’s keep moving,” Cassandra called after the two shadow-like demons were dealt with. She didn’t even bother to sheathe her sword this time. A trail of blood dripped from somewhere in her hairline, but she hardly seemed to care. Not that there was time to do anything about it, anyway.
We pressed on, following the river west. I tried to keep a look out for Cassandra, I honestly did. But despite all my efforts, my eyes continually drifted away, desperately scanning the ruined horizon for any sign of Mahanon or our camp. But every pillar of smoke we approached was just another ruined carriage, every misshapen lump in the distance a hollowed-out suit of armour, pile of robes, or dead-eyed horse. Every flutter of hope scattered into the wind. My heart thudded a little harder in my throat.
I tried to keep my face straight but had to blink away tears nonetheless. What if he was gone? It would be my fault. He was injured, and I’d just left him there to -
“Look out,” Cassandra suddenly cried. “Above!”
Cassandra’s warning came scarcely soon enough. I jumped away from the flaming boulder that came hurtling towards me and only narrowly avoided being crushed. It shattered the ice beneath my feet with a tremendous crack and I felt myself drop. Water, ice-cold, clawed against my ankles, my legs, my waist, sharp and grasping until –
“No!” came Cassandra’s booming voice from somewhere behind me. She gripped me beneath the elbow and pulled me away to firmer ground. “You’re not getting out of this that easily.”
I rolled onto my feet, already shivering from the cold. “Believe me, I wasn’t trying to.” I looked ahead in time to witness yet another explosion. My hand began to simmer.
“There! They’re falling from the Breach,” I cried out to her, pointing to where several more demons fell from the sky.
“I can see that,” Cassandra replied tersely. She adjusted her shield, eyeing the diaphanous forms of those strange, green wisps behind the clawed, bulkier, shadow-like demons. “Stand ready, and try to watch your step,” she added.
Was that a smirk?
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” I said.
I reached back for another arrow and took aim while Cassandra charged ahead into harm’s way once more.
Watching her face down the trio of demonic shadow creatures, somehow blocking or redirecting each of their strikes while still managing to deflect every ball of emerald fire the green wisps launched at her, it was hard not to admire her. She’d obviously seen her share of conflict and knew the battlefield well. How to give and take ground. How to shape things for her advantage.
Sensing the moment approaching, I let my arrow lose. My timing was flawless, as always. Cassandra pivoted to the side, veering to the left just in time for my arrow to catch the shade through its evanescent head. From the other side of its dissipating shadow fell a human skull with an arrow through the eye-socket – the demon’s core. It seemed as though each of these demons had something physical that tethered them to our reality. Fitting, that each object we’d cut from them so far had been a skull, I thought. I turned and did the same to a green wisp that chose the wrong moment to peer out from behind a tree, this arrow lodged firmly through one temple and out the other side.
My eyes snapped towards the sound and I grew cold with the sight of Cassandra, one leg knee deep through the ice. She held up her shield to block the claws of the demon beside her, and the ice gave another audible crack on impact. She froze and the demon sensed its opportunity, this time tearing through her upper arm, mail and flesh and all.
“Hold on, Cassandra!” I yelled, leaping forwards. I shot an arrow towards the demon beside her as it paused to look towards me, this time shattering the skull within.
Cassandra’s blood was bright against the ice.
“Let go your shield,” I said quickly. “Sword, too,” I added, throwing each one with all the strength I had towards the river bank. They were heavier than I’d thought. “Okay now, on three. One, two -”
I pulled her up much as she had done for me, dragging her back up through the ice – only perhaps less effectively so owing to all her extra weight of her metal.
On the riverbank – sweet, solid ground – Cassandra collapsed backwards onto the snow for a moment, catching her breath.
“It occurs to me,” she began quietly after a moment, “that I do not know your name.”
“You did not ask,” I shrugged.
I used some scraps torn from her sash, after much insisting, to bandage the wound on her arm. Tattered cloth and chewed leaves of elfroot and dock-reed from the riverbank was the best care that I could offer her at present. I had no idea if wounds from demon claws would bestow any adverse effects.
“Well, I am asking now,” she grunted.
“Ithari,” I said, wrapping the length of sash sufficiently tight. “My name is Ithari.”
“Ithari,” she repeated. With her accent, it sounded strange. A name, but not my own. There was a hint of awkwardness about her as she nodded. “And I -”
“And you are all done,” I said, tying the knot.
“Of course. Thank-you,” she said, adjusting her shield. She eyed the skyline. “There is still a way to go until we reach the temple. Stay alert.”
“Always am,” I smiled, turning towards the Breach.
“Oh, and try to watch your step,” I added over my shoulder, and was forced to stifle a laugh at the unimpressed sound she made at my back.
Hi everyone - sorry this one was a little late in coming. Christmas craziness and all. Hope you're having a lovely holiday season. I'm interested to know your thoughts / impressions on the story so far, so feel free to drop a comment or whatever. Feedback makes my day. :)
Happy New Year's Eve Eve from me!
ps. #THEDREADWOLFRISES #OMGGG #THEEGGISBACK
To Shape Heaven Itself.
“Andraste’s ass, it’s like a whorehouse for the damned up here - they just won’t stop coming!”
“That is the very nature of these rifts, Master Tethras. Spirits will continue to spill forth and twist into these abominable creatures, and I fear there will be little respite for us until we find a way to seal the break in the veil or else fall to the hoard.”
“Well ain’t that just splendid news. You’re all sunshine, you know that, Chuckles?”
And despite himself, Solas did chuckle. “Would you prefer for me to lie to you about the situation, as I might a child?” he asked, encasing a row of approaching shades in ice with a twist of his staff. With a counter-spin and flick, they shattered.
“I’d prefer for you to wave your arms around and close this thing, if it’s not too much trouble,” Varric retorted hotly. The dwarf emerged from their ramshackle cover – the western wall of the recently collapsed watchtower – and fired off three bolts in rapid succession. He nailed the three wraiths who loitered further back, finally ending their barrage of weakening spells.
His companion sighed but relief was short lived, Solas lamented, as the rift gave yet another flicker and twist.
“Oh, for the love of – not again!”
When Solas left Haven that morning, the last thing he’d expected was to face off against a hoard of demons in the company of a dwarf, much less enjoy the company of a dwarf. But Solas had found once before that the end of the world often caused one to make strange choices or find comfort in that which was, ordinarily, least comforting.
After the shock of what he’d seen and heard in that jailor’s cell, Solas could hardly excuse himself quickly enough. A few healing wards and an incantation to temporarily stabilise the magic within the survivor’s palm was the best he could do given his resulting state of mind.
‘Jubanafelasir sule banal... Y ma ryas’rosa.’
We will wither into nothing… but you must endure.
Solas remembered these words from millennia ago. Words spoken through another pair of lips as he stared despairingly into another pair of eyes. Around them, the world crashed and burned.
His choice. His fault alone.
Solas’ actions had returned to haunt him in a hundred different ways and more, but this… How had this girl – this plain, unremarkable, insignificant elven girl – come to know the words that would shake him to his very core?
She had called him by his name.
But how? She was no-one. She was nothing.
And yet… and yet Solas couldn’t help but feel he recognised her. Had seen her somewhere before. Did he know the look in her eyes? Or was it just the words she spoke… words that were impossible for her to have known. Solas had endured the loss of his empire, watched the fall of a dozen more, and yet the hearing of these words – here, now – made him want to turn and flee and forgo any small, bitter hope of trying to restore anything ever again.
Because he had endured. He had endured everything only to come through the other side to a much darker world than he had bargained for. Worse still, his people had lost everything they were, everything they could be. Their strength – their very essence – stolen from them and exchanged for the chains from which he had sought for so long ago to free them.
Solas brought wreck and ruin to everything he touched.
A few mumbled excuses, a humble request to study the nearest rift in order to better understand the damage done and the measures that might be taken to repair the sky, and Solas left the Chantry without a backwards glance. He spared only a few moments to gather his belongings and refill his water skin at the tavern.
Then a voice called to him through the chaos of his thoughts.
“Hey – hey! Slow down there a moment, my bald, elven friend.”
Solas looked around, saw nothing. Then he looked down and saw a dwarf: stocky, red-headed, not particularly well-attired given the weather and current circumstances but certainly well-armed. “Excuse me?”
“It’s my pleasure to inform you that you, my friend, have fallen into some very good luck. Varric Tethras, at your service,” he said, with an open palm and an air that suggested the name was worth more recognition than it was currently receiving.
“Solas,” Solas replied shortly, accepting the hand that was offered. “Ordinarily, I would offer my assistance,” he began, spying the three foot-soldiers who lingered behind him, “but I am afraid that -”
“No need, no need,” the dwarf named Varric said, waving his words away. “You see, we actually come to offer you our assistance.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Solas said, a little more brusquely than he had intended. He had no desire to be delayed any further. Every second was of dire importance. Whatever this was, it was a hindrance at best and, at worst… a problem he could ill-afford. “I’m in no need of -”
“Actually, it will be necessary. You see, travelling to those crazy rift-things alone is really not in your best interests.”
“Again, thank you for the concern,” Solas said, “but I feel more than adequately equipped to deal with the entities these rifts emit. In fact, I am quite -”
“Persistent, aren’t we?” laughed the dwarf named Varric Tethras. Solas felt his eyebrow twitch. He thought Solas was the persistent one?
“Alright, let me put it this way,” Varric continued with a grin. He reached up to pat Solas on the shoulder, “allowing you to travel to the rifts alone is really not in my best interests. The Seeker insists,” he finished through a toothy grin, jerking his chin towards the Chantry building.
Solas lifted his eyes to the Chantry steps and there he saw Leliana speaking with a woman he had not yet seen. She was tall, broad shouldered and heavily armoured. Her short crop of hair made a sharp frame around a set of cheekbones that were sharper still. The Seeker, presumably. Solas knew little of their Order, save that they were the forerunners of the Chantry as it stood today. It remained a reclusive but powerful organisation, fearfully respected across all Thedas for their secrecy, skill and tendency to suspect the worst. Even as Leliana spoke to her, the Seeker’s dark eyes narrowed their distrust of Solas across the frozen path: two coals devoid of ember or warmth.
“Trust me,” Varric nudged, taking Solas’ silence for reckless thought. “It’s not worth the hassle to argue. Learned that one the hard way,” he ended with a mutter.
Solas narrowed his eyes. So, he was to be watched, then. He sighed, once again cursing the loss of his orb and his power. Trying to keep every toe in line with these humans was exhausting but he couldn’t afford to make enemies, now more than ever. As much as it vexed him to admit it… Solas needed their help as much as they needed his.
“Very well,” Solas said. He put on his best approximation of a smile and turned back to the dwarf. “It appears I have fallen into some luck.”
“That you have, my friend,” Varric replied, seeming relieved. He waved the loitering soldiers forward. “That you have.”
“I take it you have some experience in fighting abominations such as the ones we will surely encounter at the rifts, then?” Solas asked as they made towards the gate, adopting Chantry rhetoric to put his company at ease.
Varric laughed. “Some experience?” he repeated, sounding mildly offended. “Oh, the stories I could tell you, my friend. They’d make your hair curl.”
Solas raised an eyebrow. “Well, that would be a most impressive feat indeed.”
Behind them, a soldier snorted.
“Damnit!” Varric cried, as the last of their support fell – literally – off the cliff face and into the frozen river below. The poor fellow had attempted to dodge away from a wraith’s weakening spell but misjudged his step. “There are too many – we have to fall back!”
“No, we cannot,” Solas replied. He willed an icy wind to blow about them and it sent several shades toppling over the cliffside after their misfortunate friend. “There may not be another opportunity to get this close again!”
And it was true. They’d fought hard. They’d gained ground. To fall back now would mean they’d done it all in vain. Solas knew he could work something out if only he could stop fighting long enough to try. If the rift would just settle for a few seconds. If the spirits would just stop pouring through for a few moments. If Solas could just get a few feet closer.
If, if, if.
“We’ve been up to our necks in demons for hours, Solas,” Varric argued. “I’m tired – Bianca’s tired! If we don’t go now, we never will!”
Solas bristled. “And if we go now, then everyone else will fall to these demons in the days to come. If that is what you wish, then go. I will not stop you.”
“That’s low,” Varric scoffed. And Solas had to admit, it was. It wasn’t Varric’s fault that the sky had torn open. He hadn’t given an immensely powerful artifact over to a power-crazed magister. It wasn’t his responsibility to clear up the mess. It was Solas’ and Solas’ alone. “I take it you’ve never heard of the saying ‘live today, fight tomorrow’?”
For what it was worth, he had. But Solas was not certain they had the luxury of tomorrow.
Before he could quip back, the rift above them began to twist with an increasing intensity. It pulsed and pounded like the drums of war and set Solas’ teeth on edge. He was suddenly reminded of ocean waves furiously battering the shore. Then the ground around them started to bubble and quake, tiny rifts opening anew and spurting out fade-energy like geysers. The world around them was beginning to tear apart from the seams.
Shadows rose from all around them as shade after shade materialised into the barren air. They clawed their way into being from between the crumbled stonework, turning snowfall to to ash with every hiss from their ghastly, twisted mouths. Green mist blurred the edges of his vision further out: a perimeter of wraiths. For the first time Solas saw precisely what the Chantry called them… abominations. For how could hope exist in the face of such a thing?
“What was that you said about living to fight another day?” Solas breathed.
“Wha - now? You’re picking now, of all times, to try and grow a sense of humour?” Varric yelled incredulously. “Chuckles, could you just - just shut up and wave that staff about, please!”
And wave his staff about Solas did, casting like he hadn’t cast in an age. He sent icy spears flying and built walls to protect their flank. He summoned frozen winds to buffet the swarm and sent their shadows spiraling off the cliffside. He whispered incantations to enchant Varric’s bolts mid-flight, encasing each foe they struck in ice. But it was no use. With the rift suddenly working itself into a frenzy, there were simply too many of them to stand against.
He was just one man.
Without his bidding, Solas felt his feet take one step back. And then another.
Was it all for nothing? Years of planning swept away in an instant, exchanged for nothing but loss and bloodshed once again and - once again, cruel irony – not his own blood but that of countless others with whom the fault did not lie.
The universe was a malicious tormentor. It had Solas bent at the knee, forcing his eyes open to witness the festering fruit of his own folly.
Solas had only sought to save his People. To shape their world anew for the betterment of all. It was an ideal with which he’d cloaked himself, but which now began to unravel beneath the rains of his despair. Yet again he’d sacrificed the all the world upon the alter of his foolish, prideful notions. Would he never learn?
“Argh, you bastard!”
Another step back.
Varric at the mercy of not one but four shades, soon to be another casualty of his insufficiency. Solas willed a volley of ice towards them nonetheless, encasing the immediate threat in ice. A bolt from Varric’s beloved crossbow scattered their frozen shards to the wind, but they were quickly replaced by the approaching hoard.
Varric scrambled away. Swore when his back met a wall. Met Solas’ eyes when he realised there was nowhere else to turn.
Solas looked away and built a wall of ice to ward off the shades approaching him, too. In the back of his head, the rift pounded ever faster. Fluttering. Familiar. A heartbeat that wasn’t his own hammering away beneath the skin.
There was nothing else to do. With the energy spilling from the rift, he could fade-step out into the lower valley in seconds. Hide far away. Buy some time. Come up with another plan. A better plan, one that would work.
It had to work.
Solas pulled the fade around him, and –
“There, beneath the watchtower! Quickly!”
It couldn’t be. Reinforcements?
Solas stared and beyond the demons he saw the Seeker bounding up the hill towards them. Her armour glinted emerald beneath the fade-light, shining a beacon that drew the demons towards her. Hope scuppered away as quickly as it had flared. No matter what her battle prowess might be, she was as vastly outnumbered as he and the dwarf were just moments ago.
The Seeker gripped her longsword and carved the first shade’s head in two; the second she gave a mighty kick in the chest and sent it backwards into the rest, though they soon recovered and bore down as one against her. She rose her shield, but Solas knew she would fall.
And he – coward that he was – did nothing but watch.
That was, until the Seeker ducked and her foes fell from a hail of arrows shot from behind. Then a second person jumped into the fray. She was lithe and thin where the Seeker was not, vaulting up and over the Seeker with her bow in hand, weightless as a bird. June’s vallaslin wove intricate tendrils around her face like pale filigree, delicate against the wild swing of her braids in flight.
The prisoner from the cells. The survivor of the Breach.
If the Seeker was a rock against which the ocean thrashed, then this elven girl with her bow was the wind; moving always, above it all.
“Yeah that’s right! Let’s dance, you sons of bitches!” Varric ran into the fray once again, his spirits renewed.
Somehow, the sight and sound kicked Solas back into action, too. He dispensed of his protective wall and summoned winter’s chill with greater urgency. One shade he froze on the spot to be decapitated by the seeker, another he himself carved straight in two upon a jagged wall of ice. Varric and the prisoner worked together to pick off the stragglers at the edges of the pack. Though they were outnumbered, their little party of four, the advantage gradually became theirs.
And then it was lost as, with a cry of pain, the world was suddenly submerged in a haze of green – the hissing of shades punctuated by pained cries.
“The survivor!” Solas cried, trying to block the claws of the shades nearest him with the shaft of his staff. “She is in need of aid!”
Varric turned and shot a trio of bolts towards the shades converging upon the elven girl as she knelt on the ground, writhing while her hand spilled light. But it was not enough. Too many were drawn to the flood of her power and pain.
Drawing from some wellspring of strength – or desperation – from within, the girl rolled over at the sound of Varric’s warning. She only narrowly avoided the first onslaught of claws; the second she flipped backwards and staggered away from. Still, the demons had her against a wall. With her quiver devoid of arrows, she had only her bow – now nothing more a piece of timber – with which to defend herself. But defend herself she did, holding the bow before her with both hands like a shield, though the action clearly caused her great pain. The entirety of her left arm was wreathed in green light; at the back of his mind, Solas felt each beat as it blazed. The nearest demon went for her head. The bow took the blow and snapped in half.
“Fenhedis!” she cried, discarding the broken halves of the bow and dashing out of harm’s way as best she could. But her movements were sluggish and blackened claws tore at her shoulder; blood trailed the snow as she rolled away. Solas twisted his staff and willed a glacial snare to manifest before the girl, but the greatest of the approaching shades avoided it and knocked her – mid-flight – back onto the ground. Her head snapped back to meet the ice. She lay there, dazed, staring groggily at the sky and the shadows that stalked towards her.
Solas rushed forwards, urging the fade to carry him closer. She could not be lost. That mark was all they had. He had felt the strength of its binding to her and he could not be certain its power would persist if she were to perish. She must be saved.
But the fade would not yield to him.
“No!” he cried.
The survivor threw her hands up, a feeble, knee-jerk defense, and just as Solas had given into despair something incredible happened. Fade-green light ballooned outwards, enveloping the survivor and the shades around her. There was a dazzling flash, a hissing sound. When it faded, the shades were gone. Ash and half-severed fragments, all that remained of the demons and their black forms, littered the frozen ground.
It could not be.
The survivor stood, her face torn between pain and disbelief as she stared at her hand. Then a new, half-crazed light entered her dark eyes. “Cassandra!” she cried, turning towards the Seeker who was surrounded herself. The light crackling about her palm flared to blinding once again. “Cassandra, get out of the way!”
Seeker Cassandra turned, then scowled. Summoning some reserve of strength, she swung her shield and began to barge a path through the shades encircling her. Cassandra dove to the ground and the survivor threw her left hand forward, launching a beam of that same, bright green energy towards the throng. When it diminished, the demons caught in its wake were gone.
Solas closed the gap between them in an instant.
“Quickly,” he hurried, “before more come through!” He grabbed her wrist and, far from the magical feedback he had been expecting, another kind of energy flared within and stole the mountain air from his lungs.
The sound and shape of her, in its entirety, ran through him. It was pounding. Palpable. A heartbeat that was not the pulsing of the rift nor the hammering heat of his own, but hers. Fluttering, frantic, and familiar in ways that he could not explain. Solas met her eyes. How utterly unwelcome. Was this some sot of strange effect from the mark?
But it was a question better saved for another time, he decided, as he poured a little of his own will back through the mark and thrust her hand towards the rift. The cascade of energy from it penetrated them both, a deluge of magical resonance and light that carried him away in its harmony. Every inch of him sang back against this flood of possibility in which it seemed once more that Solas could shape heaven and shake the very foundations of their earth for the better. Anything was possible. Anything.
Then the rift was sealed, and not even an echo of that sensation remained.
The survivor snatched her hand away and staggered back, grasping at her wrist in the space his fingers left behind. “What did you do?” she gasped – in common, Solas noted, not elven. Her eyes were wide, her pulse still drumming a staccato in his mind. She was tense.
As was he.
Solas waited through seconds of dread for some sort of recognition to dawn in the too-round grey of her eyes, something to explain the madness of her words in the jailor’s cell. But seconds passed and it did not come. In the cold light of day, Solas found relief in the fact that she did not know him after all.
Varric and the Seeker, Cassandra, began to approach, and Solas stepped back into the comfort of his façade.
“What did I do?” he asked with a small smile and gestured around them. “I did nothing. The credit is yours.”
She followed his eyeline only briefly before turning back to him. Then her gaze drifted south, towards her hand. “I take it you mean this?” she sighed. Sadness. What a strange reaction. Even the simple memory of the magic that mark contained was invigorating. It was a heady feeling. She should be senseless-drunk on its power.
“Whatever magic opened the Breach in the sky also placed that mark upon your hand,” Solas explained, trying to tread the dangerous line of being precise enough to be knowledgeable yet vague enough to remain free of suspicion. “I theorised that the mark might be able to close the rifts that have opened in the Breach’s wake… and it seems I was correct.”
The survivor opened her mouth, but Cassandra was quicker. “Meaning it could also close the Breach itself.”
“Possibly,” Solas granted with a nod. He turned back to the survivor. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.” And how that irked him endlessly.
The survivor’s reaction was strange. Not pride or triumph at the thought she might be the one to save them all but fear and... something else.
“Good to know,” Varric interposed, shouldering Bianca with a careless shrug, almost as though he hasn’t been dancing with death for the past few hours. “Here I thought we’d be ass-deep in demons forever.” He held out a hand. “Varric Tethras: Rogue, storyteller and occasionally unwanted tag-along,” he finished with a wink at the Seeker. From the look Cassandra gave him, Solas surmised there was a little more history between the two than the dwarf had originally divulged.
The survivor took his hand and shook, but her eyes lingered elsewhere. “Are you with the Chantry…?” she asked slowly.
Solas chortled. What a ridiculous notion. “Is that a serious question?”
“Technically,” Varric explained slowly, “I’m a prisoner just like you –”
“I brought you here,” the Seeker corrected irritably, “to tell your story to the Divine. Clearly that is no longer necessary.”
“Yet here I am. Lucky for you… considering current events,” he sniped in reply.
It seemed the survivor could no longer reign in her curiosity. “That’s a nice crossbow you have there,” she blurted before the pair could continue.
“Ah, isn’t she,” Varric indulged. He turned slightly on the spot to better show-off his beloved and gave it an affectionate pat. “Bianca and I have been through a lot together.”
“Wait, you named your crossbow Bianca?”
“Of course. And she’ll be great company down in the valley –”
“Absolutely not!” Cassandra barked, cutting him short. He rolled his eyes. “Your help is appreciated, Varric, but –”
Solas turned away. Oh, that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of children such as these. He turned his attention to the survivor who was watching them, face split somewhere between amusement and confusion.
“My name is Solas, if there are to be introductions,” he said pleasantly.
“Ithari,” she replied, inclining her head towards him.
Solas grimaced. Ah yes, how cruel were the stars of his fate. Ithari; one who sees all. He found himself hoping that the recent Dalish tradition of naming children late into their years did not reach her clan. Solas could ill-afford to be beholden to one who was too perceptive for his own good. Yet, even as he loitered in his response, he found that the survivor – Ithari – had already begun to look at him strangely, as though trying to place something she couldn’t quite put a finger on.
“I am pleased to see you still live,” he hastened, noting the silence as it stretched.
Varric, ever on cue, decided to butt in with a witty-remark of his own. “Translation: I kept that thing from killing you while you slept,” he said, with a gesture at the mark on her hand.
She glanced at it but for a moment before turning those intolerable eyes back to him: grey, and too much like mirrors. They reflected nothing but his own inadequacy back at him. “You must know a great deal about it,” she said.
“Solas is an apostate,” Seeker Cassandra explained to her. The Seeker made no effort to remove the trace of acid from her words. “He is well versed in matters such as this.”
Oh, if she knew how well, Solas thought grimly. “Technically, all mages are now apostates, Cassandra.”
He turned back to Ithari, who watched him keenly. “My travels have allowed me to learn much of the fade – far beyond the experience of any circle mage. I came to offer whatever help I can give with the Breach.” Solas did not have to struggle to impart sincerity or desperation into his next words. “If is it not closed, we are all doomed – regardless of origin.”
“Well, hopefully I can be of some help, too,” she said with a smile, though he could tell it was not sincere. He wondered if any of his forced smiles looked as wooden as hers as she gingerly waved her marked hand about. “And thank you, for…”
“You can thank me,” Solas returned grimly, “if we manage to close the Breach without killing you.”
“The beast is down!” Cassandra cried.
“Do it now!” Solas urged. “Use the mark!”
He leant heavily against his staff and watched fearfully as the survivor staggered forwards, ever closer to the rift beneath the Breach. Ithari dragged one leg, a limp from where the pride demon had snatched and launched her against the ruins of a wall. She bled freely from the waist, a puncture wound from one of the many bones they fought upon. Her hand wept light – energy that was neither the Fade’s nor her own but a convergence of the two. Agony with every hobbled step and, despite it all, she stood tall beneath the light.
Solas felt it all.
Solas felt it all because he felt her, a damnable consequence of her contact with his orb. And still, no sign of it anywhere.
Ithari thrust the mark upwards, and it reached up to meet the rift as it had each time before. But Solas felt the tear fight against her, resisting, twisting, pulling away. He clenched, knuckles tight and white against his staff, willing her to have the strength to stand for one second more, two seconds more. To do what he could not. To shape heaven as he had tried. To succeed where he had failed.
And she tried.
And she tried.
And a surge of fade-green energy careered skywards.
And a thunderous wind knocked those assembled off their feet.
And the survivor lay motionless beneath the no longer churning Breach.
And she had not failed.
In the days that followed, Solas kept a careful eye on his mark upon the elven girl.
The unwillingly-appointed village alchemist was a brisk and offish man, and this was good. There was little need for idle talk. A few exaggerated lines about the strangeness of her mark of magic, or observations about its ebb and flow and wild, thrumming surges and Adan was more than pleased to keep his distance whenever Solas came knocking. There was no shortage of time for Solas to study the mark and try to unravel its binding to her.
On the first day, Ithari was as still as death. If not the for over-fast rhythm of her heart in his head – unwelcome, uninvited thing – this would have worried Solas. His primary concern was the mark. With the Breach no longer expanding, it was not the violent, unstable entity it had been in the jailor’s cell. However, to his frustration Solas found that he could still come no closer towards severing it from her without risking her life.
On the second day, her vitals began to calm. Adan grew slightly less concerned that she would spontaneously implode inside the cabin and create a smaller breach anew. She did, however, begin to thrash about and mutter strange things. Too many eyes. The Grey. And always, always, an imminent fear of drowning.
Meanwhile, outside the cabin, the mob which cried for revenge just a few days hence slowly transformed into something much worse: a following.
Admiring; inspired; devout.
Whispers of the girl who was touched by Andraste. Who was sent by the Maker. Who had risked death to save them from the end of the world.
On the third day, Solas watched as she emerged from her cabin to an assemblage of village-folk and Chantry sisters, eager for a glimpse of the Herald their blessed Andraste had sent. From the look upon her painted, bewildered face, she would have taken flight and fled for the hills, if she could. But this bird had no wings. She could not escape from the jaws of their adoration.
Over the heads of the crowd, Solas watched from a dark place as Ithari carried his mark of power up the Chantry steps, ever further from his reach. The heavy, wooden doors creaked shut, and the crowd began to hum and buzz, and Solas rued the hour he sat in that jailor’s cell with her life in his hands – and the opportunity to seize back his mark – and he, fool that he was, neglected to take it.
Thanks to everyone so far who is reading along or left Kudos. I hope you enjoy the next chapter.
~ Indie <3
Chapter 6: Itharia - Lamentations of the Living
Lamentations of the Living.
I awoke that morning the same as I had every other morning since the Breach – choking, with a pillow that was cold and damp and tears in my eyes that I could not explain. Though I was now no longer startled by the inexplicable cold sweats, tight chest and gasping breaths that ushered in a new day, it was a pattern that was quickly growing as tiresome as it was exhausting.
Bad dreams. Nightmares. That’s what my brother would have said.
He used to tell me about them when we were small, on those nights he’d been shaken awake and away from the warmth of our tent and its furs. Many-legged things which crept and crawled about, scuttling through his fears, dangling them about on strings like puppets. Our aravel awash with flames. The cold press of a templar sword against his cheek. A father I’d never met lying cold and pale on the forest floor one moonless night. Or swinging from a tree the next.
But it wasn’t all bad.
He used to tell me about his dreams, too. The better ones. Ones with fun and flying and a fullness of colour that just wasn’t there when he woke up again. Fireflies that sang beneath the last light of day; mirror-topped lakes that shone for miles; rainbow paths that led to temples floating in the stars.
I used to envy Mahanon his dreaming, his seeing through shut-eyes. Through all the hours of sleep, I saw nothing but a stifling blackness until dawn. Years of watching him and wishing for dreams and magic of my own and now, apparently, the Creators had seen fit to answer with this. An unknown mark on my hand to steal my freedom away and cut short the lives of thousands. A tide of emotion at the point of waking but memories of hours of nothing but blackness still.
Irritably, I tossed the rough bed linens away and wiped at my face with a groan.
A glance out of the window told me it was not long since first-light. Cassandra was as predictable as she was diligent. She would be at the training grounds before the sun fully rose, and she would expect me to join her.
Hopefully, she would not find my absence too disappointing.
Mother was always the wise one.
I’d had my books. My ravenous memory. A way of knowing things I knew I shouldn’t without the words to explain how. Like the frail way life wove itself through the body of a thing. I knew exactly where to shoot it, clean and true, should I want its life to end. I also knew where to shoot it if I didn’t. Sometimes, that was more useful.
I’d known from childhood all the different ways to use every inch of a kill, tendons and bone and all. How to inscribe daggers that would never dull or a shield that could turn away flame. How to speak with all the intricacies of our language. Intricacies lost, apparently, to all the other elves and clans but me.
I knew other things, too. Things that were all the more infuriating to know because they were things I just could not do, no matter how hard I tried. Like how to draw fire from stone or pull fresh water from the air. How to bottle the warmth of the sun or write with starlight. And I knew it could be done. I knew.
I just didn’t know how.
I might have known all these things, but mother… she was wise. She knew that true knowledge didn’t come from knowing alone.
There was a time for all things, she taught me. A time to plant and a time to reap. A time to leave or stay. To listen, or to be heard. To fight, or to flee. To laugh, and to grieve.
Mother, in her wisdom, could always tell one from the other.
Mahanon never could. He was the master of ill-timings.
But he was brave.
When we were six and our mother left to pray, Mahanon stood before our tent in the moonless night. Before two-dozen torches intent on my harm. Between the elders of our clan who held them - all anger and fear in the wake of the Keeper’s death - and myself.
With a look, he doused the flames. With a shout, he sent them away. Then he returned to me in the dark with a promise he would never let anyone hurt me. And I, with the kind of clarity only fear brought, knew his words to be true.
Mahanon burned bright. He was fierce, all fire and fight. And now…
Now, as I pushed my way past frozen pines, I had to accept that he was no longer anything at all.
Now, as I found solitude beyond the frozen lake, it was time for me to grieve.
And no amount of knowing could save me from the hurt.
“Nuva Falon’din ghi’l nar shossan, Mahanon, i ladar nar sal.” *
Elfroot and thistlefern. Blackstem and spindleweed. All aflame in the bowl.
Mahanon deserved better.
Prophet’s laurel, perhaps, for his bravery and loyalty. Embrium for the warmth and joy he brought. Or maybe blood lotus for the way he used to drive me mad, I thought wryly. Something brighter - and better - than these weeds that were so much less that what I ought to offer but the best that I could gather in this frozen, barren place so far from home.
Slowly, the wind caught the embers and the smoke and carried them away. A dozen tiny sparks and ghost-grey tendrils danced on unseen currents, and I imagined the words of my prayer joining them, floating away. I hoped they’d find him. I hoped they’d bring him peace.
I hoped they were quick… his last moments. That he didn’t despair. That he didn’t suffer.
But, like all prayers, there was never any way of knowing if they were heard.
All Dalish felt the distance of the Gods, our silent Creators. Long since locked away, if one believed the stories. But mother taught our stories as truth and believed with all her heart that the Creators moved with power still, in their own way.
There was Mythal the just, who protected us in times of trouble. Elgar’nan, whose fury would avenge our losses. Andruil, the patron of hunters and Ghilan’nain, the mother of Halla. Sylaise of hearth and home and her beloved June, patron of the craft and our way of life. There was Dirthamen, keeper of secrets and his brother Falon’Din who kept the dead. It was to him I owed my prayer today.
Then there was the wolf, Fen’Harel. Last and most feared of the pantheon. The only one to walk amongst both our Creators and the Forgotten Ones without fear of either. Legend said he tricked each one and sealed them all away, severing the People from their reach, forever. He was the trickster God to whom we all owed our fall from grace, if one believed the stories.
But belief was a fickle thing.
By the time I was discovered, as I knew I inevitably would be – Leliana’s eyes were everywhere after all – it was almost high-noon.
“Ah. There you are.”
I’d thought it would’ve been Cassandra.
Why couldn’t it have been Cassandra?
Though the sun was high and its light strong, it brought no warmth here. I hadn’t noticed the chill in my bones nor chatter in my teeth until I tried to speak. “Let me g-guess. Cassandra s-sent you.”
A disgruntled look replaced the budding concern on Solas’ pale features. “No one sent me,” he said. “I came myself.”
“Lucky.” I rolled my eyes. These days, it was a wonder that I was even trusted to dress myself.
A few moments passed in which there was nothing but the wind and the weak crackle of kindling and herbs aflame in the bowl. Beneath it, a newly planted oak was cradled carelessly by the frozen ground.
Solas sniffed. “If I didn’t know any better,” he began, his pale eyes roaming over the embers in the bowl, “I’d say you were attempting a burial. But it appears one element in particular is missing.”
Yes, I thought bitterly, please do point out the lack of my brother’s body.
“Your observational skills are r-remarkable. Outweighed only b-by your s-sensitivity, in fact,” I stuttered, tucking my arms a little tighter around myself. Once again I found myself longing for my fur cloak – lost the day left Mahanon for the temple, only to lose him too. Like Mahanon, it had it brought warmth and comfort in times of need through many years; those things were in short supply here.
“My apologies. I thought only to – “
“What do you want, Solas?” I snapped, rising to my feet. Warmth came with a sudden flare of anger. I was still smarting over our argument yesterday. “Did you think a walk beyond the treeline too much for an ill-informed Dalish child such as myself to handle? That I might somehow mistake the action of putting one foot in front of the other and end up beneath the lake?”
“Don’t be absurd,” he bristled, looking away.
“Why not? My upbringing allows for little else, it seems.”
“It is you who say it, not I.” Hands clasped loosely behind the back with nothing but a calm disregard in his voice. Infuriating. It baffled me, how I’d thought to approach this man as friend. It took a lot to get under my skin. And he’d said a lot.
“…Why are you here?”
“You were seen stealing away with the dawn,” Solas explained. “Many hours have passed since then. I was concerned.”
“Please,” I scoffed. “I hadn’t realised you cared.”
An eyebrow twitched. “About you? I do not,” he replied coolly. “My only concern is for the mark.”
Mine twitched in return. “Of course.”
“Its safety is paramount,” he went on. “Though the Breach is calmed, it is not yet sealed. There are new rifts opening all around the valley and beyond. Our work is far from done.” He speared me with his stare, cold and empty as the sky above. “So long as you bear the burden of that mark, all who live depend on you.”
“I hadn’t forgotten,” I said resentfully. “Cassandra speaks of nothing else. If not that then it’s the war, or the Chantry, or the Divine – but I don’t have the answers, Solas. I don’t even know what this is!” I yelled, brandishing my hand in the air.
Just like that, the floodgates were open and I couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out. “All I ever hear about is the Breach and the rifts and demons and their blighted Andraste who now, apparently, I’m supposed to speak for! Herald this and Herald that and – you know, I don’t think I’ve even heard my own name in weeks! I am more than just this mark, Solas, but I have lost so much to it and I just - I just want to -”
But whatever I’d wanted to say next was stolen from my lungs when the mark seemed to explode in my palm. Bright green light suddenly spilled into the trees around me and I could hardly see for the pain.
There was a blur of movement in my periphery as Solas rushed forwards and made to reach for my hand.
“No,” I protested, pulling away.
“No - let go of me!” I staggered to a halt just out of his reach, grasping myself at the wrist. The mark flared brighter and he stepped away. “Like you say, the burden is mine. I have to bear it,” I affirmed through teeth grit with pain. Inch by inch, I wrestled the unknown magic in the mark back under control. Soon it was little more than a simmer beneath the skin. Easily ignored.
I looked up to find Solas watching me, wearing an expression I could not explain. He opened his mouth to speak, but I waved his words away.
“Just… please. Leave me alone,” I whispered, and turned to trace our steps in the snow back to Haven.
Then froze at the sound of my name on the wind.
When I looked around again, Solas was stood above my offering bowl gazing passively at its contents. “Were they loved, your lost one?” he asked eventually.
The unexpected question hit me like a blow to the stomach.
Past tense. Passed. Gone. Out in the open and out loud and out of reach.
“Dearly,” I said. It was a wonder my voice didn’t break with the weight of the word.
Slowly, Solas knelt down and opened his pack. He leafed through a variety of bindings, books and leather pouches until he found what he was looking for. A flicker of orange and deepest purple. Embrium petals and lotus heads. They fell into the bowl, caught flame. A fragrance on the frigid air. Floral. Heady. Sparks that swirled anew.
In silence, he made an offering. In silence, I watched. Whether it was cruelty or kindness that had moved him, I couldn’t tell. But he, even in indifference, had offered what I, in love, could not.
And it hurt.
That night, Cassandra called us all together.
Our fledgling Inquisition was on the verge of being overturned by what remained of the Chantry and their protests; dangerous, for an institution that had yet to make its mark.
The blame, of course, was mine.
The name of Herald of Andraste that I’d had thrust upon me was blasphemy and insult of the highest degree and even though the people of Haven no longer thought me responsible for the Divine’s death, the Chantry most certainly did. The Inquisition had been declared heretical and traitorous; nothing less than my head on the block would be deemed acceptable in their eyes.
Yet, hope remained in the voice of a certain Revered Mother who tended the refugees stranded in the Hinterlands. She had written to say she would lend us her voice, which held weight still, and her aid if we could extend an arm to help quell the tide of conflict in that area.
It was an offer we could ill-afford to refuse, even with the risk of it being a trap.
Leliana seemed to think the Revered Mother’s offer genuine, however, and had decided that we should leave by week’s end.
Green hills and endless skies and wide-open plains that stretched on for miles and miles.
Cassandra saw a battleground rife with the litter of conflict. Solas saw a ravaged place scattered with the hopeless and refugees. Varric just thought it smelled like dog. But me… for the first time in weeks I felt freedom. Unfettered. Unrestrained.
Of course, we saw our share of the mage-templar war and its battles and did what we could to resolve them on our own terms. Solas was right in his initial judgement; they chose a poor location to work out their differences. There was evidence of blood spilled needlessly everywhere we looked. Over every hill we found another burned-out cottage; in every valley, broken wagons and the bodies of refugees who couldn’t quite flee far enough.
There was little cause for cheer in our journey through the Hinterlands, but still… something in me rejoiced. As though I’d almost forgotten what it was like to fill my lungs. Out here in the wilds, I was happier than I’d felt in weeks.
Beneath the setting sun, we stopped to set up camp at Cassandra’s urging near the mountain lake that overlooked the King’s Road. Tomorrow, the plan was to follow it west and resume our search for the rebel Templar’s principal encampment.
“You know, Seeker,” Varric began once we had settled around the campfire, “for someone with your tact and charisma, you’ve assembled a pretty good little Inquisition. Assuming that you didn’t drag everyone here by force, of course, like myself and Little Bird over there.”
“How kind of you,” Cassandra replied stiffly, honing the edge of her sword with a whetstone.
I liked Varric the most out of our travelling companions but rolled my eyes at the sound of his nickname for me. I was much taller than him. “I wasn’t exactly dragged here, Varric.”
He grinned. “You unequivocally were. On the back of a horse, if memory serves.” Then he laughed, a low belly rumble, and turned back to Cassandra. “I mean, you never know, you could have kidnapped Ruffles the same way and she’d be too polite to say anything.”
Cassandra wasn’t taking the bait tonight. I returned to the hare I was skinning for our supper.
“Leliana recruited Josephine,” I heard her say to him a few moments later as she set aside her sword. “They’re… friends.”
“So, there’s a rational explanation after all,” Varric concluded dryly. “Pity… I was beginning to think you had layers.”
“Varric, try to behave,” I said quickly just as Cassandra started to scowl rather darkly.
“I will if she does,” Varric smirked as Solas emerged from the tent he’d claimed. Then he groaned. “Ugh. You’re not still playing with that thing, are you?”
Solas lifted a clump of stone into the firelight – I recognised it as one of the shards we’d found by the fragment within. It was an odd thing. It did more than just reflect the light of the fire. It seemed to catch it somehow and hold the amber glow within.
“It is curious,” Solas said by way of answer. “Whatever this is, it is old. Much older, certainly, than the skull which illuminated it. Fresh bone and ancient stone. But what is the connection?”
“I don’t care what the connection is, as long at it stays far away from me,” Varric asserted with a dramatic shiver. He reached out and clutched Bianca to his chest, perhaps unconsciously. “That thing is creepy.”
“You fear a thing because it is old?” Solas scoffed. He spared a moment to wave his free hand around, searching for an argument. “Would you likewise say that your… your grandfather is as creepy?”
“Never met him,” Varric replied with a careless shrug. “But he lived and died in Orzammar. So, probably.”
Solas made an exasperated noise in reply and a laugh hitched in my throat at the sound. He caught my eye in response. I hastened to look away.
Things had been perfectly… civil between us since that day he found me outside Haven. Almost pleasant, in fact, though we had spoken remarkably little. Solas had been overly-helpful during our journey to and through the Hinterlands, offering his assistance in hunting down the apostate caches for the refugees or maintaining a near constant magical barrier around me during battle. Part of me thought he was trying hard to seek ways to mend relations between us.
The other part thought he was just trying to get closer to the mark again. Like that strange shard, the mark was a magical enigma. But I refused to be an object of study.
“I confess, Solas,” Cassandra began, and not a moment too soon. In my periphery, I was sure I’d just seen him stand and resolve to approach me. “I’m surprised you decided to remain with us.”
“Why?” he queried politely, moving instead to warm his hands over the fire. “The Breach remains a threat to us all.”
“Just the same, I’d wondered if you might leave now that we have a plan to seal it.”
“Ah, I see,” Solas smiled grimly. “Because I am an apostate. I might flee before the Inquisition throw me in chains? - ”
“Wouldn’t put it past her,” Varric muttered.
“ - I take my commitments seriously, Seeker,” Solas affirmed, ignoring Varric’s comments. “Come what may, I shall see this through.”
Cassandra sighed. “As you wish. Though I cannot guarantee what will happen in the days to come.”
“Chains, probably,” murmured Varric with a dark chuckle.
I found myself rubbing involuntarily at the scars on my wrists. From experience, I knew Cassandra and her associates in the Inquisition’s leadership were not above chains.
Though I’d decided to remain in Haven and lend my aid to Cassandra and her Inquisition, I was fully aware that I walked a razor’s edge of freedom. On one side, death by the Chantry for the Divine’s murder. On the other, a lifetime of fleeing from the Inquisition or waiting for the magic in the mark to kill me. Varric had admitted his surprise that I’d decided to join the… what was it he’d called them? The armies of the faithful. But, honestly, there was never any other choice for me to make.
Realising I’d been staring at a skinless, portioned hare for some time now, I got to my feet and took it to the river to wash. When I returned to the fire, I found Solas had laid aside the peculiar shard in favour of chopping some wild roots and tubers.
“You have been quiet, today,” he said over the firelight.
I shrugged. “I haven’t thought of much worth sharing.”
“Oh really?” Varric interjected before Solas could reply. “Now I don’t believe that for a second. You Dalish elves are full of stories and, really, they’re the only things worth telling.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Little Bird, you know I mean no offence,” he assured me, holding both palms up. “I’ve a lot of respect for story-telling. Being a story-teller myself, I mean. And the Dalish know their stories. Our Daisy was full of them. But then again, she was full of a lot of things,” he finished, somewhat fondly.
“Daisy?” I asked. “Not another one of your crossbows, surely?”
“Another crossbow?” Varric looked scandalised. “Bianca, don’t listen to this woman and her poisonous words. You know you’re the only one for me,” he crooned ridiculously. For a moment, it looked as though even Cassandra was at risk of cracking a smile.
“Daisy ran with us all back in Kirkwall,” Varric explained. He lay his crossbow against the nearest tent-pole and settled near the fire. “You know, back before the troubles with the Qunari began… when the mage-templar war was just a dark twinkle in the eye.”
“And I’m assuming she was Dalish?”
“Oh, she was very Dalish. Not at all like you.”
“Not at all like –” I blinked. “I’m sorry. What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, look at you! All laced and booted and at ease with the human folk. It ain’t normal,” he laughed gesturing to Cassandra, whose almost-smile was gone. She shot him an accusatory glare. “Even your accent is distinctly Free Marches.”
“Well, I was raised and roamed there.”
“So was our Daisy. But I’d be a liar if I said her R’s weren’t so full, they spilled over into the letters either side.”
I rolled my eyes. “There’s more to being Dalish than an accent, Varric. The clans are bound by what we’ve lost. Our history, our culture…” I said. Then I paused, remembering how the last conversation I’d had about my culture ended, and laid the subject aside.
I glanced at the skyline, grabbed my bow and said, “It’s getting dark, and we’ve yet to narrow down where that templar encampment is. I’ll take first watch.”
“…Was it something I said?” came the sound of Varric’s distant voice. The rumble of Solas’ reply shortly followed, but I was already too far to make out the words.
I wandered downstream to where the treeline met the cliffs and stopped near the point where a sheer drop edged off into a slope. Here, I could see the plains clearly and make out the shadowy husks of houses that sullied the landscape like a scar. There were the ruins of a fort down there, too, right in the distance. Cassandra suspected either faction might have chosen to hole up in there, but decided we’d fought enough for one day. A raid with so small a number this late into the evening would not be wise.
The King’s Road was my horizon. Any group of renegade templars or mages who might mistake the smoke from our campfire as an easy target would have to first cross within my line of sight.
Settling down by the roots of a tree, I laid my bow to the side and took to scrutinizing the mark on my hand again – a habit I had developed recently, whenever an opportunity to be alone presented itself. Sometimes, its sudden swells and surges of magic were overwhelming, and I would be left with no other choice than to grit my teeth and call on Solas for help. But I was becoming increasingly able to quell each little rebellion of power myself.
Looking into the mark was like treading a mysterious shoreline; the waters were dark and deep and unknown. They hungered, always. I had the impression of an ocean, seeking to consume whatever it could, brightening whenever I stepped near. Frightening. But with time, I felt like I might be able to understand, if not unravel, its mysteries.
Behind me, the stream burbled a soft lullaby. Darkness grew, until nothing but the light in my hand remained.
Then that, too, faded to black.
But slowly, light began to filter outwards. It was soft, at first. Colourless moonbeams upon colourless tiles. And then it grew, in intensity and hue. Indigo and viridian, undulating all around like sunlight below the sea. Dapples and drifts; a dissident view of a chamber vast and tall. Marble columns, ghost white, reached high while mosaics glittered: a sparkling trim around walls and beneath my feet. The frescoes they framed beheld stories I had told but never heard.
Above my head, a dome of intricately painted glass held back an ocean.
The fear was instant.
This chamber held only drowning and death.
As soon as that realisation hit, I heard the first of the cracks. Somehow both deep and sharp, the sound of it thundered in my bones. I had to get out.
Heart racing, I scanned the hall, but there was nothing. Only painted walls with their silent stories and mirror after mirror reflecting my own bewildered face back at me. Every mirror but one. At the furthest end, a golden frame encircled a strange, rippling, liquid-like smoke and, before it, stood a man.
But he did not.
I ran, bare feet slapping against the tiles.
“Please, don’t leave me!”
But he did. And without a glance he stepped through the mirror.
“No no no - No!”
My hands smacked against the solid surface of it, silvery and cold. A taunting view of my own eyes, wide with terror.
The next crack came with a trickle of water, icy over the fingers of my reflection.
The last was a crash as the glass dome collapsed.
I found myself thrust forward into the dark and the dirt gasping for breath, nails clenched into mud just inches from the edge of the cliff. Awake. Alive. Alone.
…A dream? I wondered.
Shaking, I staggered to my feet tried to get my bearings. It was quiet, as night usually is. The inky sky was clear and speckled with stars. Behind me, the stream gurgled on and a cool breeze reminded me that my cheeks were wet. I sighed and wiped them dry.
And then, in the darkness of the night, came another crack. Branches snapping in the shadows; a sound I knew. Loud, somewhere to the left of me.
Shit. I should have been keeping watch.
Another. Closer, this time.
I darted forward and grabbed my bow.
Nuva Falon’din ghi’l nar shossan, Mahanon, i ladar nar sal. - May Falon’din guide your feet, Mahanon, and calm your soul.
[All attempts at transcribing elvhen are courtesy of fenxshiral's lexicon.]
Ambush and Cruel Arts.
Silence as I nocked an arrow, placed my back against the bark behind me. Was that footfall to the left, cloaks whispering over foliage, or just the wind? A fennec in the undergrowth, digging for rodents, or something else entirely less benign?
“There you are…” I breathed, turning to take aim into the darkness as I heard another rustle. I drew back, held breath and –
Shot into the canopy above as a hand fell upon my shoulder.
“Fenedhis!” I hissed, spinning around only to see Solas looking down at me, his pale skin aglow in the moonlight. His bewildered expression as he raised his staff to block my elbow might have been amusing if not for the racing of my heart. Relief quickly turned to impatience. “What are you doing, creeping around behind me like that?” I accused, shouldering my bow. “I could have taken your eye out!”
I saw a rare amusement on his features as he chuckled. “An achievement indeed, considering you were aiming over there.”
“My apologies. It was not my intention to startle you,” he amended with some sincerity.
I rolled out some of the tension in my shoulders as the alarm from my dream began to ebb away in his presence. My dream. It felt strange to think the words out loud. If that’s what dreaming feels like, then I’ve no interest any longer. The way every crack of splintered glass reverberated in my bones; terror as a cascade of water approached… I’ll never complain about another night of silence and black again.
“Then what was your intention?” I asked.
Solas scanned the darkness. “I thought I felt a… disturbance, as I slept.” Then his gaze flicked to my left hand. “I thought perhaps –”
“Look out!” I gasped, pulling Solas to the ground just as an arrow whistled past overhead. A twang as another lodged in the tree above us.
I knew it. I knew there was something out there.
“Templars!” Solas warned, just as a cry from the darkness declared: ‘Kill the apostate - and any who stand in our way!’
I rolled to my feet, readied my bow and took cover behind a tree while Solas conjured up a series of ice-mines between us and them. Then I felt his barrier fall over me and shuddered, wondering if I would ever get used to the sensation. My brother’s barrier was akin to the glow of a campfire, warm from within; Solas’ was vastly different, the touch of winter over my skin… fingertips that trailed down the spine.
“Over there,” he gestured, summoning a pale blue flame to hover overhead and illuminate our surroundings. I saw the outlines of two armoured figures stalking their way forward. Behind, at least three archers held back to provide cover.
“Shit,” I whispered, pulling back my head just as an incoming arrow splintered the wood only inches away. It seemed they were working in tandem to pin us down. When the opportunity presented itself, I peered around and loosed two arrows of my own – both of which glanced off the templars’ shields. It wasn’t long before I was forced to take cover again as an arrow grazed my shoulder. Fucking archers. I made a mental note to work on inscribing some explosive arrows as soon as we returned to Haven.
Solas formed a barricade of ice to shield himself from further projectiles. Glacial javelins materialised before him and he launched them forward with a flick of his staff, but only one managed to bypass the advancing templars’ aura of nullification and impale an archer behind. Few things took Solas by surprise, but that did. “Run to camp and wake the others,” he ordered grimly over an uncomfortably wet, dying scream.
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Go now. The mark is too precious to risk.”
“Damn the mark!” I yelled, taking cover from another arrow. “Solas, I’m not leaving you to take on this many on your own.”
My next arrow was true to its mark, piercing the throat of the second archer. But the templars were gaining ground and had already begun to use their talents on Solas’ magical snares. One trap he imploded at will before they could unravel it, but it did little against the strength of their steel. Solas took several steps back and fortified his frozen barricade as the armoured templars pushed forwards, hidden almost entirely by their damned shields.
“Lay aside your stubbornness and go!” Solas scolded, lancing me with his cold stare. “I can hold them back, but not for long. These templars are more skilled than others we’ve faced. We will need Cassandra to provide an ope –”
The next words were stolen from his lips as one templar lifted his sword and performed one of their magic-banishing rituals. “No!” I cried, but of course, my words had no power. Solas’ wall of ice shattered. He was thrown back into the gathering darkness as the ball of cold flame above us flickered away.
“Solas!” I hissed, but there was no reply. I scanned the darkness but saw no movement. “Shit…”
“Let’s see you cast your blighted spells now, mage!” jeered one of the templars.
“Come on out, you little knife-ear,” the other beckoned. His laugh sickened me. “We promise we’ll play nice.”
Without distance, light and the element of surprise, I knew there was no way I could put up a fight against two templars and their damned armour. But I couldn’t just leave Solas at their mercy, even if it was to get the others. For all I knew, he’d be dead before we arrived. And there was still at least one other archer to contend with.
I grit my teeth, shouldered my bow and unsheathed the dagger at my back. Keeping low to the ground, I made my way towards where I’d last seen the archer, willing my eyes to adjust to the moonlight sooner rather than later. I prayed to Andruil she would quiet my steps, more out of desperation than actual belief. The Gods had done nothing for us in centuries; I had little hope they would do anything now. But still, it never harmed to try, just in case…
“Fuck – where’d he go?”
“I swear I saw him fall right here!”
I froze, listening. Had Solas endured the smite and escaped?
Mere inches away, the last archer emerged from the darkness and made towards his comrades. He couldn’t see me from my position in the shadows of the undergrowth. I tensed, waiting for the moment he would step within reach, then stepped behind and slid my dagger across his throat.
“No, wait, here he is – the bastard’s here! Must’ve rolled down the verge…”
No. They’d found Solas after all. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Stealth be damned, I stood, ran, nocked an arrow, took aim and released – but all too soon I realised it for the trap it was. No Solas at all, just a templar who knew I’d take the bait.
“Found you,” the templar taunted as my arrow plinked uselessly off his shield. He lunged forwards. Only barely was I able to leap back and dodge the swing of his sword.
“Tell me, elf – are you harbouring any more apostates out here?”
“Oh, can’t you tell? I’ve got three hidden in this boot alone,” I spat. I kicked up the dirt below us into his face, but of course none got past his helmet. With no time nor space to draw my bow, I threw it on the ground and ditched it in favour of my dagger again.
Every moment not spent on dodging his attacks I used to search for an opening in his armour: at the back of his knees, the pit of his arm, at the neck. But dark as it was, it was no good. I could see nothing. Like the templar Mahanon and I fought in the mountains, the only opening I could bet on was the slit in his visor.
“You can’t dance all night, girl,” he growled, starting to lose patience with me.
The templar swung wide and I jumped, using the tree behind to vault over him. Though near-impenetrable, his armour was a weight I did not have to carry. Quicker than he could spin to face me I hit the ground, turned, latched on to his back and drove my dagger into his eye. “I won’t have to,” I snarled in reply, twisting my blade.
He screamed and thrashed, but before I could pull the dagger out something else very large, and very solid, knocked me straight to the ground.
Head spinning, I looked up to see the second templar looming over me. His rage was palpable.
“You’ll regret that,” he vowed.
I rolled over and staggered to my feet, only to hit the ground once again as he kicked me in the back. I heaved and spluttered. Blood on the ground. Then a scream tore though my throat as his foot, all encased in steel, came down upon my ankle.
“By the time I’m done with you, you’ll be begging for death,” he growled.
The ground moved beneath me as he took a fist of my hair and dragged me along with it. I struggled, writhing in his grasp like a wild thing. But my ankle flared with every movement and his grip was just too strong. I reached back and grabbed for an arrow in my quiver. Three remained. I tried to drive one into his hand. No use, of course. I discovered the only purpose it served was to piss him off further as he dropped me to the ground and kicked me square in the chest. Pain bloomed.
I rolled to a stop near the stream. Cool water ran over my fingers as they closed around a rock in the riverbed. Pride dictated I at least try, but the more rational part of me questioned whether I had the strength to do anything worthwhile with it.
The templar rolled me over with the toe of his boot, dragged me into the air by the collar. The rock only made the slightest dent when I brought it crashing into his helmet, but it made the most satisfying sound. I took comfort in that, at least, as it rang clean through the air; a small, vindictive harmony to his bellow of rage.
Then my vision blurred as he plunged me into the waters below.
Through no other urge than the impulse to survive, I clawed at his fingers, his arms, anything in reach. I kicked out and writhed though each thrash of my ankle brought on another white-hot flare of pain. And as I was held there, struggling, I began to wonder if this is how I would die. Drowned in a bare handful of water, only yards away from my allies as they slept.
The last of the air left my lungs. I felt the waters rush in to take their place. My dream just minutes ago became a reality as slowly, slowly, I started to drown. Darkness fell, along with a sudden, heavy weight upon my chest. But then it lifted, and so was I – yanked gasping and spluttering out of the water.
Confusion as the cold air embraced me. Breath that wouldn’t come.
“Fenedhis – syla! Breathe, damn it!”
And breathe I did as the river-water was somehow pulled up and out of my lungs. Great, big, rasping breaths. I don’t remember breathing being so painful before.
“Ithari,” Solas repeated. “Can you hear me?”
“The te – the templar!” I choked roughly. “He –”
“Is no longer my concern,” he said. “Please, try to remain still. You are hurt.”
“But he – ah!” I winced, clutching my ribs.
“Yes, I suspect a break,” Solas said calmly. “And unless I am mistaken, it is not the only one.”
Just then, I heard a commotion approaching. Clinks of metal and the thump of hurried footfall. “Solas? Herald? What is going on, we heard – Maker! What has happened?”
I turned to see Cassandra emerging from the shadows, sword drawn and a torch in hand. Varric was not far behind.
“Templars,” Solas spat before I could reply. He gestured to the corpse beside us which, I saw now, was encased in a thin veil of ice and impaled straight from behind with the bladed end of Solas’ staff. Blood pooled about his body, spurting with each convulsion, mingling with the stream. Solas himself looked grave and pale, the white of his skin a contrast to the dark blood running from his temple. He lay a shaking hand on my shoulder in a silent request that I lie back down as he spoke. “More skilled than any we have faced thus far.”
Cassandra stooped down to look at the body with disgust clear on her features. “I don’t know him. But this is the heraldry of a Knight-Captain.”
“That would explain their skills, then,” Solas said with some bitterness.
“Of those? Two. And three bowmen,” he counted off with a gesture downstream.
“I take it this is the last of them, then?” Varric asked, prodding the frozen templar with his boot. Then he grunted at our nodded reply. “Well, can’t hurt to be sure. I’ll run a perimeter,” he said, readying Bianca and heading off into the darkness.
“Seeker,” Solas urged, “we must get the Herald back to camp. She is hurt and my magic is spent. I can do nothing to help her here.”
“Understood. Here, rest your weight on me,” she said, adjusting my arm over her shoulders. I tried to keep my complaints to a minimum as we hobbled back upstream to camp.
“I confess, I am surprised – though relieved – that you were able to face off against such odds,” Cassandra said as she settled me down near the embers of our campfire. Solas limped into the potions tent, clinking bottles and vials around in his search. “A pair of renegade Knight-Captains with ranged reinforcements… no easy foe to overcome.”
“They weren’t,” I grimaced, then shuddered at the memory of water in my lungs. “For a moment there, I thought…”
“Then why face them alone?” she asked. “You were on watch; you must have seen them approach. Why not rouse us for aid?”
I stalled, shame scorching me on the inside while I searched for an appropriate reply.
Because I fell asleep and didn’t see them coming. Because I’m an idiot and didn’t heed Solas’ advice to come fetch you when I had the chance. Because I’m too stubborn for my own or anyone else’s good.
“Because it was an ambush, Seeker,” Solas explained as he emerged, arms laden with bottles, cloth, and herbs. “I had come to relieve the Herald of her watch when they struck. Curiously, they neglected to offer us the courtesy of retreat.”
“I see,” Cassandra said. Then she rose to her feet. “Well, given circumstances, I shall also relieve you of your watch, Solas. Try to get some rest.”
Solas was silent as he worked over me, his mouth a thin line as he mixed poultices and wrapped bandages tight against my ankle and chest. He downed a Lyrium potion – enough for him to set the herbs to work on my more superficial scrapes – but explained he would not be able to mend bone until morning.
“Thank you,” I said quietly as he helped walk me over to my tent.
“For?” he queried.
“For not throwing me under the wagon with Cassandra,” I said, instead of the words I was really thinking. Like, for not being dead. For saving my life. For some reason, those words didn’t come as easily. “It’s my fault. When you said I should go, and I didn’t, and then you –”
Solas’ answer came softly. “For all we know, it would have made little difference. Worse, perhaps. I might have ended up smote regardless and you with an arrow in your back as you ran.”
That reminded me.
“How did you endure the smite?” I asked. “I’ve seen what it can do to a mage. My brother was hit, about a year back. Before he became First.” I swallowed. It was painful to talk about him. “He was out for nearly a week.”
Solas’ eyes were tight. “Your brother who…” he trailed off. I nodded, thinking of our exchange over the frozen lake. “Perhaps the templar he faced was simply stronger than these,” he shrugged evasively. “But now, we rest. Tomorrow will bring grim work for us both,” he said with a gesture to my ankle.
I repressed a shudder as my ankle throbbed forebodingly, but laid my head down and, thankfully, enjoyed a night of dark and dreamless sleep.
As promised, the mending of my bones was grim work indeed.
Varric tried to distract me with tall tales of his adventures with the Champion of Kirkwall, but in the end all he provided was a low background rumble to accompany my grunts and groans of pain. The ankle, especially, hurt like a bitch.
Solas requested we spend another day at camp for his work to settle, and to regain our strength, to which the others agreed. It was a long and boring day with little to do.
The morning I spent lounging uselessly by the fire and prodding at the mark. I found that, with silence and enough focus, I could force the mark to glow as though it were a torch. Solas’ eyes lit up eagerly at my discovery, but for the most part he managed to restrain himself from taking my hand in his and prodding at the mark himself.
The afternoon was spent fletching new arrows, restringing my bow and sharpening my dagger. My supply of arrowheads was running low; I made a mental note to gather any I found in the field from here on.
By evening, I was bored, frustrated, had lost three rounds of Diamondback against Varric and was feeling up to a spar with Cassandra instead.
“I am not particularly inclined to break your other ankle,” was her curt reply.
“But if we are to deal with the rebel templars then I need to learn how to overcome armoured and shielded enemies!” I insisted.
“You can overcome them, with appropriate distance and the right opening,” she said over her book, with the air of one explaining things to a child. “I have seen you do so many times in the last week alone.”
“Yes, but I won’t always have that luxury, Cassandra. I need to be able to fight up close, too.”
Varric sat with Bianca on his knee, mid-polish, turning his head from side to side as he watched our exchange with a slowly widening grin.
“Herald,” Cassandra said, pinching the bridge of her nose as she snapped her leather-bound book closed. Then she leaned forward on her knees and held my gaze very seriously. “I know this might be difficult for you, but it is called a longbow for a reason.”
Varric laughed. Even Solas snorted into his sketch of the shard he was studying.
“Fine!” I huffed, stalking off into the trees like the child I both felt and probably looked like. “Fine!”
Eventually, footfall and the sound of Varric’s rumbling laughter caught up with me.
“Wait up, Little Bird,” he called.
“No, Varric, I do not want to play another game of Diamondback with you.”
He laughed. “I wasn’t going to offer – I get bored of winning just as you get bored of losing, you know.”
Oh, like I believed that. “What do you want, then?” I grumbled.
He smirked and stooped down by the riverbed. “Just wanted to share a trick or two of mine for dealing with those templars.” He plucked a deep red lotus from the stream and held it up for me to see between two fingers. “But, if you’re not interested…” he trailed off with a shrug.
“No!” I said, stepping in his way as he turned back to camp. “No, I’m interested.”
“Good. Because you and I,” Varric murmured conspiringly as he ushered me closer, “we don’t need all those bells and whistles of magic or brute strength like the Lady Seeker. Brawn is overrated, and magic runs dry. But we have something better: our smarts,” he said, tapping my forehead with the lotus. “And smarts, Little Bird, if you use them right, can win you any battle, any day. The key, my friend, is in being prepared.”
“So… I just chuck it?”
Varric nodded. “Yep, pretty much. Oh, don’t forget to shake it up a little first. Get the juices flowing.”
“No flint, no need to light it up with an arrow?” I asked.
“Nope. Just a good old-fashioned chemical reaction. The bottle will smash, the contents expose to the air and, voila,” he grinned. “They’ll light up like kindling.”
Varric and I loitered just out of sight of the old fort. Fort Connor, according to Cassandra’s maps. Built early in Arl Eamon’s reign as a show of strength after the Orlesian occupation, the once strong fort had sat in ruins since the Fifth Blight. Until now, of course. Now, it served as an outpost for the renegade templars along the King’s Road.
Cassandra stood before us, giving us the usual debrief before a planned skirmish. “So, the plan is this: Varric and the Herald will draw the templars out using their… flaming flasks –”
“Fire grenades,” Varric corrected. “An Antivan recipe, in fact.”
“– While Solas and I will await them outside the gates,” Cassandra continued, as though she had not been interrupted at all. “There, you will use your magic to cut off their escape, Solas, while you two will Breach the walls while they are distracted. From there, you can take out any of whom you have a clear shot. In their panic, it should all be dealt with swiftly,” she concluded. “Have I missed anything out?”
“Yeah,” Varric smirked. “Count your kills. Winner gets first dibs on loot.”
There was no missing Cassandra's disgusted noise as we made for the fort, or the grin on Varric's face at the sound.
Our raid on the templars holed up in Fort Connor went on much as Varric had predicted. What he could never have predicted, though, was what we found inside.
“Red Lyrium,” Varric growled. “As if this shit wasn’t bad enough already.”
“It’s just like at the Temple of Sacred Ashes,” I said, drawing close to one. It was a strange thing, full of foreboding. A hum from within more felt than heard. I reached out a finger, only for Varric to appear out of nowhere and slap it away.
“Yes, and I’ll say now what I said then: don't touch it. It’s evil.”
“How can a rock be evil?” I asked.
Varric looked at me at though I’d just asked why water was wet. He searched about the room as if trying to find a simple enough answer somewhere, but it was Cassandra who spoke.
“You are of the Free Marches, correct?” she asked.
“My clan spend most of their time roaming there, yes,” I replied, not sure where this was headed.
“Then I trust you are familiar with the troubles in Kirkwall that led up to the Mage rebellion? If we are to hold Varric’s story as fact –”
“Which it is,” he intoned, sounding offended.
“– then it all began with the emergence of an idol carved from Lyrium such as this. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand,” she finished, standing next to the blood-red geode. It almost dwarfed her.
“Yes, but… how?” I repeated, looking around her at my warped reflection in its mirror like edge. “It’s just Lyrium, right?”
“Just Lyrium?” Varric laughed bitterly. “Trust me, this stuff is just Lyrium like Qunari Blackpowder is just an explosive. It is corruption made real. It…” he hesitated, as if the words were fighting him. “It whispers to you. Makes you think thoughts that aren’t yours. Twists everything you know and everything you hold dear. Drives you mad with power. And paranoia. Until nothing else matters. Until the only way to save you is to put it down.”
There was a silence that followed, punctuated only by the sounds of Solas dropping journals and pushing papers as he searched through the scorched remains of the templars’ intelligence. I had the feeling that there were a great many things Varric had left unsaid.
“And if you don’t believe me,” he resumed eventually, “ask Curly. He saw what it did to old Meredith first-hand.”
“Knight-Commander Meredith?” I asked. Word travelled fast among the merchants of the Marches. Even in the furthest reaches of the Vinmarks, her name and deeds – and madness – were passed along through horrified lips. “Didn’t she put every mage in her Circle to the sword?”
Varric nodded grimly. “And that was just the beginning of what she had planned. All for just a fraction of what you see before you.”
“So… what should we do?” I asked, looking between them. “If it’s that dangerous, then we can’t just leave it here.”
“Of course not. We’re going to destroy it,” Varric said obviously. He placed the last of our fire grenades before the glowing read mass, then took several paces back and motioned for us to follow.
The explosion, when he released his bolt, seemed to shake the entire fort. I hadn’t realised the magnitude of that elusive humming in my bones until the instant I felt it stop. When the dust settled, and all that remained were dull, smouldering fragments, Varric shouldered Bianca and turned to leave.
“Every last shard,” he vowed.
Thanks everyone who's been reading along so far and left comments and/or Kudos. Hope this chapter is up to scratch for you, and sorry to have kept you waiting so long!
~ Indie x