He had fought harder, this time. There are still holes in her shoulder where his fangs had sunken into flesh, severed arteries, crushed bone. She suspects she will be walking with a limp for days as she heals, as her body recovers from the ravages of killing Fen’Harel again.
Were she still mortal—had the magic of the new world he had died to create not coursed through her veins—she would be dead a hundred times over. But she is not mortal, and she has had enough time to master magic with only one hand. They had offered to make her a second one, a magic arm made flesh and bone and blood, like the Elvhenan of her oldest dreams, and she had refused out of principle. When the prosthetic Dagna had made her wore out, she gave it up.
It is still hard, sometimes. Especially in the mornings. But she makes it work.
Ariala regards the corpse of Fen’Harel, swallowing her grief, as she always does. Three lyrium-red eyes regard her, the snout slack and open, always mocking. He is always mocking, in the end. Gods cannot die. They can only be replaced.
I will always come again.
She leans against the wall, head thunking against stone. After a moment to breathe, she sets to cleaning her daggers as she waits. As she works—as she waits for the magic to set in, as the Fade senses its lost one and brings him home to the ether—she feels warmth, as another settles on the floor beside her.
Compassion has long since forsaken the name and body of the boy who died alone in the White Spire. But she still calls him Cole, for old times’ sake. Not that there’s anyone else to remember the old times, no one she knows. It’s just her. She stopped caring about it a long time ago.
“It was harder this time,” Cole says, quietly.
“Yeah,” Ariala says. Her sigh is wet, and she lifts her bloody wrist to wipe at the underside of her nose. “But it’s okay. We’ll do better next time.”
Cole leans against her, and the press of his warm, ether-formed body brings memories to the surface. Iron Bull clapping her on the back and laughing as she choked on Qunari ale. Dorian shouting about the state of the library. The warmth of an aravel, and the bleats of halla. Da’vhenan, and Sunflower. The smell of paint and plaster.
“I miss them, too,” Cole says. “I liked them.”
Ariala clenches her jaw, swallowing thickly, and looks down at her throwing daggers, cleaned of his blood and lying still in her lap. After a moment, she lifts her hand, wiping at her eyes with the back of her wrist. “Yeah,” she says, clearing her throat. “Is he almost ready?”
The carcass has collapsed, and the once-spiked fur is a puddle of shimmering black. Cole stands up, shapeless white eyes burning against silver, and walks over. He is one of the only spirits she has ever seen walk, rather than float or glide. A carry-on from the old days, maybe.
“Yes,” Cole says. Ariala stands up, reaching up to unclasp her cloak. She gives it to Cole, and when his ethereal hand emerges from his body to brush her skin, she thinks of warm arms around her, the dimness of the rotunda at twilight.
Cole looks at her, apologetic, and she shrugs. “Do it,” she says. He nods, taking her cloak and kneeling down in the bubbling mass of black and lyrium red. She had tried to do this, once, but it had burned her to the bone; she still bore the scars, unable to heal them even after the two hundred years since this cycle started.
He pulls a little green shape from the tar pit Fen’Harel’s corpse had become and swaddles it in her cloak. He cradles it in his arms, exactly as one cradles a baby. The green shape’s light pulses, weakly, and Ariala swallows.
“Hello, Pride,” Cole says.
Pride. It is what she calls him, now, so she will not think of him as Solas. She had, in the earliest cycles. But such things had only brought her pain—he did not recognize the name, or resented her not distinguishing him from him, or hated himself, after he learned the truth.
And it would never matter, in the end. He would always twist into Fen’Harel, and she would always be the one to drive her knife into his heart.
Cole looks at her, and walks free from the tar pit. The tar recognizes him—as a spirit, as an old friend, she does not know. But where it had sucked the bottom of her shoes to hold her still and burned where it touched her skin, it lets Cole traverse freely. He steps onto healthy grass, and the separation of Pride from Fen’Harel is complete.
The tar makes a terrible sucking sound, just like the death-rattles that always wrack Fen’Harel’s last breaths, that always hollow Ariala’s stomach. And, slowly, the blackness shrinks, and shrinks, and shrinks, until it is gone. As if it was never there.
Cole stops in front of her, as Pride’s glow pulses like a slow orb of light. Ariala reaches out, but Cole hesitates. He has no face, not anymore, but she knows him well enough to sense his worry.
“You don’t have to do this,” Cole says. “You can rest. I know it’s hard.”
“It is hard,” Ariala agrees. “But I promised I’d bring him home, a long time ago. I’m not giving up on him.”
Cole smiles, and she holds Pride—small and new and full of potential—looking down at the pulsing sphere of light. When he is in her arms, Cole disappears, leaving her alone in the wreckage of the battle. Ariala sighs and goes to the edge of the room, sitting where the fourth wall had once stood. The stone gives out halfway into the room; any further and she would be plummeting into the ravine below.
Ariala sits on the edge, her bare feet dangling over empty air. Behind her, Corypheus’s painted black form—chipped and faded, now—towers over the Frostback Mountains and a burning Haven. The wind whistles through the derelict rotunda, but it has been a long time since she has felt the cold.
“Hey, vhenan,” she whispers. “Ready to try again?”
— ✦ —
It’s a shorter cycle, this time. He becomes aware of the monster Fen’Harel is purported to be sooner than she had anticipated. She spends days trying to convince him that he is his own person, that his choice to take a body had not been a mistake, but it is for nothing, as always. He runs away, and she knows in her heart the time has come again.
She gathers her daggers, her magic, her weapons, and she makes the trek to Skyhold.
She walks through the gates, and his booming, raucous, mad laughter greets her. Emerald Knight, his voice—and yet not his voice, not the one she remembers; she has not heard his voice in such a long time—says, coming from everywhere and nowhere. Wolf Slayer. Inquisitor.
The last title is sneered. She doesn’t flinch as she looks at the collapsed rubble of the stables, the derelict and rotting tavern. Her snowshoes barely make a dent on the accumulated snow as she starts for the main fortress.
Have you come to kill me?
“Yep,” Ariala says. “Listen, the faster you come out, the faster we get this over with. We gonna do this the easy way or the hard way?”
Fen’Harel’s hysterical, howling laughter rings in her ears; it is loud and powerful enough to make the earth tremble, enough to make the snow slide out from under her and send her to her knees. Ariala waits in the snow until his laughter subsides, then gets to her feet, casting a charm to wick away the snowmelt and the cold, keeping her warm. “Hard way, then?”
Come and find me.
She finds him in the gardens, this time. All that remains are the scattered pieces of pottery, the blocks of stone that had formed the gazebo’s foundations. Parts of the surrounding walls are ruins, or missing altogether.
In the center of the garden, lying in the snow, is the massive form of Fen’Harel. His fur is jagged obsidian glass, dripping tar and smoke and shadow; red lines crackle from his six infected lyrium eyes, little arcs of lightning that hum and pop. He lifts his head as she trudges into the garden. Black lips dripping with yellow spittle pull back to reveal a mouth full of curved fangs.
Dread Wolf. Bringer of Nightmares. He Who Hunts Alone.
Fitting monikers for the creature before her.
This is not the man she’d known and loved, but the god of her people’s legend. Born of beliefs in his monstrosity, in his cruelty, in his hatred of the People.
“I’ll make it quick,” she says, unsheathing her blade, coalescing her magic into a left arm of humming green light. Fen’Harel snarls, lunging for her, and she falls into the old, familiar dance of fighting him.
It is a long fight. His claws rake her body, and she cuts herself on the sharpness of his plated armor masquerading as fur. With the Veil gone, they are both free to use as much magic as they wish—and she has had more time to practice with it than he has, this cycle.
The final blow comes when she runs forward and slides under his massive body, between his paws, both individually larger than her entire body. She pushes herself up and points her blade against the soft spot in his breastbone—a patch of pale, vulnerable flesh that bears a healed-over arrow wound.
In every life, in every cycle, he has always carried the scar of the first time she killed him.
She shoves her sword into the scar, and it is over. He whines, a high-pitched sound that is intimate and terrible in its cruelty—as always, it cracks open her ribs, breaks the cutting-edge hardness of her heart to pierce the tenderness beneath. Ariala ignores the blood that pours over her hand, her chest, in hot pulses that smell like smoke and death; she ignores how he slumps above her, the entire weight of his massive body nearly crushing her.
She has to use magic to pull herself free. Her legs shake underneath her as she rises to her feet. When she breathes, her lungs burn from exertion. After a moment, she sags against his shoulder, burying her forehead in thick, blood-matted hair.
Fen’Harel whines, paws scrambling, claws dragging over stone. Trying to pull himself up. Trying to stand, again, and fight on. Fool, he rasps, his laughter dry, his fear showing through the cracks. I can still—
She closes her eyes. Cuts him off. “Rest, Solas.”
Solas? I know no Solas. I am Fen’Harel, and that is all I will ever be.
“It’s over,” Ariala says. “It’s done.”
Her voice is steel, and she staggers away from his shoulder to face him head-on. She stares down at him, her face betraying nothing. It has been many, many cycles since she cried. Since she allowed him to see her mourn him in his death throes.
Fen’Harel seizes. His massive paws scrabble over stone, but he does not have enough strength to raise his head, let alone get back on his feet. Ariala watches the ivory curves of his claws, but he makes no move to attack her. His laughter is rough, wheezing.
Gods cannot die, he warns her, as he has warned her a hundred times. A thousand. They can only be replaced.
“I said it’s over,” Ariala half-snarls. “Shut up. I don’t like when you’re talkative.”
I will always come again, Fen’Harel wheezes, laughing hysterically until he coughs and doesn’t stop. His tongue lolls out of his mouth, dry and bloody and cracked. She would think him dead if not for the desperate, ragged lifts and falls of his massive ribcage.
Her legs give out, then, and she ends up sitting next to his neck. Slowly, she reaches out to lightly brush her palm over his ruff. The fur here isn’t glass, or needles. It’s coarse—knotted, but soft, and slick with their combined blood. She exhales, ignoring the burn in her side where his poisoned claws had raked her hip and waist. She’d drank the antidote already. All that remained was waiting him out.
His coughs cease, punctuated by a spluttering sigh. She knows if she put an ear on his chest while he breathed, she would hear the sounds of his collapsed lung, trying desperately to work again.
It doesn’t usually take him this long to die, but it’s happened. She might slit his throat soon. A mercy kill, meant to speed up his death. She doesn’t want him suffering.
“It’s all right,” she murmurs, stroking the fur on his neck. She can wash the blood off later. Right now is him, and making sure he doesn’t die alone. She swallows hard, keeps petting him, and whispers, “We’ll do better next time, vhenan. Promise.”
Fen’Harel wheezes, his shaggy tail flopping once, his ear swiveling toward her.
Ariala freezes, her gaze snapping to the three red eyes she can see. One of them had been blinded by her sword, oozing dark blood that crusts its socket in a half-moon shape. The other two are focused on her, both half-closed, but she knows him well enough—even like this—to know his confusion.
You called me… vhenan?
Ariala exhales, closing her eyes. Fen’Harel waits for her answer as she takes her knife, the hilt slippery with blood, and pushes it into his heart.
She lets go and leans back on her haunches, rubbing the heels of her hand into her eye, fighting the despair crawling up her spine and hollowing out her stomach. “You’re free,” she gasps out, squeezing her eyes shut, willing herself not to cry. She hasn’t cried since the first few cycles, and there’s no point breaking that record now, hundreds of years later.
It was a mercy kill, this time. For a death that had taken too long.
She’d do better next time.
— ✦ —
Next time is better.
He becomes a spirit of Pride, once again, though he is curious, and ever in search of wisdom. He considers her a friend, and leaves her sometimes for years at a time, but he always returns to her.
She had stopped trying to keep him close to her a while ago. It always led to her losing him, one way or another; it always led to that terrible reunion at Skyhold. She has learned the painful lesson of letting him go, and hoping he would return to her. She has learned the painful lesson of non-interference.
“You never speak Elvhen with me,” Pride tells her in the kitchen. He does not eat, but watches her cook and eat—and though his only facial features are his bright green eyes, she has known him long and well enough to recognize his expressionless fascination. “Do you not know the language? I would be happy to teach you.”
“I know the language,” she says, releasing the handle of the pot to grab the wooden spoon and stir. “I just… like Common.”
“For being called Common, it is not very common,” Pride replies.
A lump wells in her throat. She swallows, blinking hard, then shakes her head and refocuses on her cooking. “I know. Not many people speak it nowadays.”
“Then perhaps it is valuable,” Pride muses. “Simply for its rarity.”
“Maybe,” she says. He says nothing more, and she’s only grateful that he didn’t ask why Common was so rare this time. She’s never told him the truth when he asks that question, and he always, always knows when she’s lying.
Instead, as she takes her pan off the stove and gets her food on a plate, he watches her with bright eyes, faintly pulsing. As she sits and takes her fork in her right hand, he says, “I have been thinking of taking a body.”
Ariala stills, keeping her gaze on her food. After a moment, she spears a piece of turkey and lifts it to her mouth, but it feels forced, hollow.
This is how it starts. This is how it always, always starts.
There have been times she convinces him not to take a body, at least for a short while. Times she encourages him to stay a spirit, and learn about the world. Times she has forbidden him, and times she does nothing. The story always ends the same way.
He always takes a body, and he always twists into Fen’Harel. She always ends up burying her knife in his heart. The cycle always starts anew. There will always be another.
Ariala closes her eyes. Not yet, she pleads to false gods she knows cannot hear. Please, not yet. I haven’t healed yet. I’m still not ready.
Sometimes she still dreams of his rasping voice, his wheeze of Vhenan?, so lost and confused. She had promised to bring him home, but all she’s done is killed him. Over and over and over. It’s exhausting.
“Have you thought about what kind of body you’ll take?” she asks.
Most of the times it is an elf. Sometimes it is something else. Sometimes it is a wolf. But that hasn’t happened enough cycles to know whether taking a wolf as his initial body accelerates the degradation into Fen’Harel.
“No,” Pride says. “But perhaps a body that will please you.”
Ariala looks at him. “Please me?” she asks, brow furrowing. He’s never said that before. “What do you mean?”
Pride’s green darkens, slightly. “It was nothing,” he insists, and Ariala narrows her eyes. “Simple curiosity.”
Ariala stares at him. “Suuure,” she says. “Yeah. Okay.”
Pride turns away, and she refocuses on her breakfast, determined to push the the way he had said please you from her mind. He hadn’t shown any interest in her the last dozen cycles, he surely wouldn’t this time.
(Don’t you dare hope, Lavellan.)
She won’t. She won’t. She knows better, now.
A few years later, he comes to her. Deep black hair, warmly dark skin, deep-set brown eyes that remind her of the forest, of home. Dimples in his cheeks, but not his chin, and no scar on his brow. A foreign body, but she would know him just the same. She always knows how to see him.
She leans against the door of her simple little home, built far away from the grandeurs of the new cities built on magic, without depending on the power of blood and spirit. She had done her part to help Solas’s vision grow, and now she is here, in a peaceful little cottage surrounded by apple trees.
“Pride,” she greets. “Wow. New look.”
“Does it please you?” he asks.
Ariala laughs, slightly, and his smile—his smile makes her heart flip. Her stomach flutters, and she wonders if her soul is really dead at all, as she has spent so long thinking. “Why does that matter?” she asks, draping her arm over her torso.
“You are so rarely happy,” he says. “I… I would like to see you happy, Ariala.”
Her heartbeat picks up. She casts her gaze away. Swallows. “You shouldn’t do things because you think they’ll make others happy. You should do things because you want to.”
“In which case—I would like to stay with you again. As before I left for the city, and received my body. I have missed your companionship.” He swallows, looks down. (In the back of her mind, a thousand miles and a hundred-hundred years away, he looks down. Admits: You are not what I expected.)
“I have missed you,” he says.
Her heart beats harder at that. The way he says, softly, you.
(He had called her vhenan with that tone of voice.)
(Don’t you fucking hope, Lavellan.)
She forces a smile. “Aw,” she says. “I’ve missed you, too, Pride. Yeah, of course you can stay.”
He smiles, in a way he had never had in his first life—with dimpled cheeks, and wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. His smiles always show his teeth, these times.
She’s glad, personally. It just means he hasn’t lived long enough that his smiles are as heavy as the weight on his shoulders. It just means he’s happier, and he is so achingly deserving of happiness. For at least a little while. As long as whatever runs this universe—she is older now, and wiser, than to believe in the gods her people venerated and feared—deigns to show him even the smallest bit of kindness.
She doesn’t know the last time her smile had shown her teeth.
She steps aside, and his face lights up. He approaches her, steps up onto her porch, and he rejoins her life again.
Months pass, and she waits for the deterioration, but it never comes. He speaks only in Common with her, and soon his accent slips away entirely. He teaches her how to help him care for his hair, styled in densely coiled dreadlocks she had only seen with Rivaini peoples, and then, when Rivain was destroyed with the other human nations, elves with Rivaini blood.
In turn, quietly, and with no small amount of shame at her blatant interference, she suggests he learns how to paint. He is an avid learner, as interested in her apple orchard as he is in color theory and stories of the Veiled world.
(“You lived at that time, did you not?” he would ask her. “Yes,” she always said. Nothing more. Always, always, he would say, “It must have been so difficult, then.”)
One day, when it is snowing—thick, fluffy flakes that stick to her eyelashes and cheeks and hood—she walks side-by-side with him. She holds shears, and he holds a basket full of pruned branches that she’ll use for kindling, though the People have long progressed past using wood for fuel. Instead, in the cities and the rural areas alike, they harness the energies of the world—sun and wind and water.
She’s just old fashioned like that, maybe.
Pride does not question her choice not to use magic in her apple orchard, not as he has in other lives. This time, she thinks he believes it’s just one of her many weird quirks.
When they return to the warmth of her cottage, Ariala shivers despite the warming charm Pride is quick to cast over the space. Pride sets the basket of kindling by the fireplace, kneeling to stack it neatly in the hearth before lighting it with a snap of his fingers. As the wood pops and burns, Ariala settles into the soft couch. She watches the snow crust the windowsills and paint ice patterns into the glass. Pride sits next to her, knee knocking against hers, and she takes a deep breath.
Don’t you hope, she thinks, but she’s always been weak around him. She leans against him, lightly, waiting for him to push her away. But instead, Pride makes a quiet sound, a soft exhale ( exactly as he used to, when she would rest her cheek on his shoulder and watch him read) and wraps an arm around her shoulders.
Her heart thrills, flying so high the vertigo makes her stomach clench.
“You know,” she says. “When I was younger, I didn’t even have a home like this place. I lived in a wagon.”
His gaze flits from the fire, to the orange vallaslin that even now remains inked into her brown skin. “Of course. You were Dalish, when the Veil still stood.”
“I am Dalish, still,” Ariala reminds him. “But I don’t want to talk about that.”
A moment passes. She listens to the thum-thump of his heart and wonders when it will corrupt and twist inward, turn him into something he should never have had to be. Something he never deserved to be. The monster they all feared him as.
“What do you wish to discuss, then?” Pride asks. “If anything?”
“Meh. You have any ideas?”
“Well…” Pride clears his throat, lifts his arm. When he stands, his shadow blocks out the fire, casts over her body up to her heart. Ariala rests her elbow on the back of the couch and props her head on her hand, watching him. He steals a glance at her, then straightens his back and crosses his hands behind his back. Her stomach sinks.
When had that become a habit?
“I have been… trying to determine some way to show you what you mean to me,” he says.
Ice fills her veins, and Ariala glances away, covering her mouth with her fingertips. In that moment, for a heartbeat, she is not sitting before a hearth, but walking hand-in-hand with him, the mist of a grove’s waterfall dewy on her cheeks.
No. No, he wouldn’t be so cruel to her. He wouldn’t. Not this life.
Tears prick her eyes.
(How had he balanced all the memories, before? It seems each one is just another weight added to her shoulders. Another set of claws to tear at the emotions she had worked so carefully to nurture back from the abyss.)
Ariala swallows and looks at him. He is looking at her with a quiet hopefulness she hasn’t seen on this face, let alone any others of his. He is still several feet away from her, and his arms are loose at his sides, not clasped behind his back, though his hands flex nervously. Open, not guarded. Awaiting her response.
“What?” she finally asks, after several long moments of staring at him with a racing heart and an utterly, utterly blank mind.
“You are a remarkable woman,” he says. She sees his throat bob as he swallows, ducks his head down. (A hundred, hundred years ago, she remembers: you are not what I expected. Eyes averted, fingers tight behind his back. Shame at the admittance of his failings, his flaws.) “And I understand if you have no interest in me. Only say the word, and I—I will leave you in peace. But I have… I have always, I think, felt something for you. And I returned, to see you, of course, because you are a dear friend, but I freely admit I also had some small hope of reciprocation. Or, at least, of earning your affections.”
She says nothing.
He swallows, waiting. She tries to think of Solas ever being so honest with her, but he had never been. Not like this. Not until the very end, at least.
(Tel’abelas. Tel’abelas, Ariala, vhenan. Ar—ar lath—)
Ariala doesn’t look away from him. She owes him that, at least. After several long heartbeats of silence, she slowly shakes her head. “I don’t think this is a good idea, Pride.” Her heart aches when his face falls, so clearly expectant. She fights the urge to close her eyes, to shield herself from his reaction. She licks her lips, starts, “There are—”
“Considerations?” he asks, and the way he says it makes her think of the dim gold-red glow of the rotunda, and Solas’s blush when she had teased him about Fade tongue—
If I could have a little time to think.
Ariala laughs and turns away, pressing her hand to her mouth so he will not hear how it breaks mid-syllable. Sucking in a gasp through her nose, she blinks twice, lifting her gaze to the ceiling.
Is this how you felt? she thinks, a little desperately.
“That’s a word,” is what she says.
This has never happened before. You will turn against yourself, and become a creature you despise. I’ll be the one to kill you.
But, maybe, a still, small voice whispers, this time will be different.
Don’t you fucking hope, Lavellan!
Ariala swallows, closes her eyes, listening to the race of her heart. Beside her, the couch dips, and Pride is watching her, expression open and endearingly hopeful, eyes wide. “Ariala,” he starts. “Whatever amount of time you need—I am willing to wait. Or even if you do not need any time at all, and you have already decided to turn me away—”
Ariala shakes her head. This hasn’t happened before—not since the very first life they’d shared together, when he was Solas and not Pride—but she knows, she knows, it will not end well. Tragedy is sewn into the marrow of their bones, she knows this now.
Fuck it, she thinks, giddy and nauseous and guilty. She presses her thumb into his chin, where his dimple had once been, and the action is enough to startle him into silence. He sucks a breath between his teeth, and Ariala leans forward, pressing her forehead against his.
He is not so tall as before, but that’s okay. Less neck strain for her.
She tilts her head up, closing the narrow sliver of space between them, and kisses him. Pride is still stiff, but his hand moves to cradle the curve of her elbow, sliding up her arm to her shoulder. She pulls back, kisses him again, a gentle brush of lips on lips. He inhales, and she swallows his soft gasp.
She remembers how to be gentle. It has been a long, long time, but she remembers.
When she pulls back, Solas cups her cheek and brings her back into another kiss. Less experienced, but just as eager—his teeth clack against hers, and she breaks away to laugh. He laughs with her, and then his fingers are burying in her hair, and she is kissing him, kissing him, kissing him.
The sickly bubble of uncertainty and fear dissipates. Her fool heart throbs beneath her breastbone, painful and aching, a sore muscle gone too long unstretched. Ariala’s fingers skirt over the curve of his jaw, curl over the back of his neck, keeping him close. She wants him close, like this, always.
They break apart, and Ariala shifts to lift herself up on one knee, pressing her forehead against his. She swallows, thickly, keeping her eyes shut. Solas does not move; his thumb strokes the curve of her cheek. When she opens her eyes, he is grinning at her, cheeks dimpled.
“Does this mean my feelings are requited?” he asks, giddy in a way she has never, ever heard from him before. It is new, and her love is old, but this—this she can grow to adore.
Ariala laughs, hoarsely, and slings her arm over his shoulders, bringing him into another kiss. He wraps an arm around her waist, pulling her into his lap, and she laughs wetly against his lips, uncaring of the tears that sting her eyes.
Let me have him, she thinks, as the first tear slips free. Solas’s eyes are closed, and she wipes it away before he can notice. Sniffling, she kisses him, again, again, her hand gripping his shoulder, unwilling to let him go.
Let me have him this time.
— ✦ —
It is good, while it lasts.
A year and a half—the longest she’s ever had with him, since the first. The madness comes more slowly than before, but it comes, as inevitable as the tide. She does what she can, but even immortal, she cannot stop the threads of poisonous belief—that he was a monster, an eldritch being, a creature to be feared than loved—from hooking inside his soul, twisting him inside out.
When she finds him on the bathroom floor, shaking, red in his eyes, she knows.
“Vhenan,” he says, his voice almost double-toned. She thinks of hysterical laughter, and a voice that shook the stones of Skyhold. He looks up, hands shaking. The tips of his fingers are curved into claws. “Vhenan, what is happening to me?”
Ariala swallows, slowly sitting down, balancing herself on her one hand. When she reaches for him, he flinches away, hiding his face in his hands. She gets on her knees, wrapping her arm around him and pulling him close. He weeps into the soft cloth covering her heart, and she can only rest her cheek atop his head and hold him close.
Maybe this time, she thinks, it doesn’t need to be said.
Maybe this time they both know.
A month later, in the warmest time of summer, she wakes up to find his side of the bed cold.
Her heart beats so hard she almost faints, and when she opens the door, Cole is sitting on her doorstep next to a basket of harvested apples. He looks apologetic, even though he’s just a silhouette of grey and white. Ariala looks at him and shuts the door, pressing her back against it and sliding down to the floor.
Cole floats through the wall and sits next to her, legs manifesting from his incorporeal form. He rests two spindly arms on his bent knees, and she stares hard at his elbows, uncertain whether the tendrils she sees are smoke or patchwork, ragged sleeves. Her vision’s a little blurry.
“It doesn’t have to be you, this time,” Cole says. He crosses his legs at the ankles, leans forward to trace a nonsense shape in the wooden floorboards. Ariala wipes at the wetness under her eyes, already sniffling. Cole looks up, meeting her gaze. “I still remember where the knife needs to be.”
Ariala closes her eyes. “I promised I’d bring him home,” she says. “Thank you, Cole, but I have to be the one to do this.”
“All right,” he says.
He leaves her be, and she grieves the newest loss of her love alone.
— ✦ —
His laughter is howling, this time, so loud it shakes the stones of Skyhold. Dirt and dust and pebbles rain down around her. He’s close enough to take a bite out of her knee, but he doesn’t. Never has. He’s always, always too busy laughing at her.
Gods cannot die, he half-screams, blood mixing with spit to form pink foam that lines his black lips. His fangs gleam in the afternoon light. Ariala kneels before him, ignoring the tears that burn her cheeks, the lump that tastes like salt in the back of her throat. She can’t breathe through her nose, it’s so clogged. They can only—
“Be replaced, I know,” she half-snarls, half-sobs, collapsing next to him. “You—bastard. I thought this was the one. I thought—I thought—”
She dissolves into sobs, shoulders shaking, sitting back on her heels and lifting her hand to cover her eyes. She weeps, her tears and sniffles echoing in the empty ruins of Skyhold, with only the near-rotten eyes of the Inquisition to watch over her grief.
Fen’Harel is quiet. If not for his rasping, wet breaths—no collapsed lung, this time, only too many little cuts—she would have thought he’d died. But no—of course he has to finish his little spiel. He can’t rest without the satisfaction of telling her just how thoroughly she’d failed, again.
Ariala shakes her head, swallowing down a pitched scream. She bites on her cheek until the skin breaks, and blood floods her mouth, copper and iron and salt. The pain gives her focus, as it always does, and with enough time in the quiet, her tears subside, leaving her sore and aching.
She is so sick of tears.
When she opens her eyes, Fen’Harel is watching her. Still alive. Another mercy kill, then. Ariala holds his six-eyed gaze—he had fallen on his stomach, this time, not his side—and reaches for her knife. But she is startled into stillness when his six eyes blink, a rippling wave of lyrium red, and a pained dog’s whine escapes his throat. A sound she’s never heard from him, and it hits her as solidly as any kick to the gut. She staggers, sitting on the ground properly, tasting bile at the back of her throat.
I am so tired, Solas’s voice says.
She has not heard his true voice since—
No. No, it couldn’t be. Grief has finally, finally taken its toll on her. Playing tricks with her mind. She’d heard things, it wasn’t his voice, she hasn’t heard his voice since she cradled him on the battlements with her arrows in his throat and in his heart. Couldn’t be real. Not possible.
But hope drives her forward, makes her drag herself along the floor with one hand. He doesn’t move, though he would’ve had an easy opportunity to lunge for her, to close his fangs around her torso and bite down. Instead, he chuffs, whining again when she maneuvers herself to sit beside his head, stifling her groans at the pain that reverberates through her body. She leans against his snout, breathing hard. He doesn’t have the strength to lift his massive head, and she doesn’t have the strength to stand, so this will have to do.
I am so tired, Solas says again, and Ariala blinks past the film of tears in her eyes.
She knows better than to beg him to stay.
“I know, vhenan,” she whispers to him, stroking the fur between his eyes. A few of them close at her gentle touch. This time, the fur is not blood-soaked, and it is not jagged as glass, and it is not coarse. Soft, silken shadows. Ariala leans forward to kiss his forehead, between his top row of eyes. “I know. You can rest now. It’s over. Tel’abelas. Be at peace.”
I will always come again, Fen’Harel says, but this time, instead of gleeful proclamation, it sounds like—grief. Familiar to her, in a way she has not experienced in too long.
(Solas standing before her, framed by a massive elvhen ruin, his gaze cast on the ground. The grief in his voice. I know, vhenan. And we are running out of time.)
Ariala’s hand shakes as she cards her fingers through silken black fur. “I know,” she says. “And I will be here for you when you do. Ar lath ma, arasha. You’re free.”
Fen’Harel’s six eyes all fall shut. She watches a tear slip from the corner of one of his eyes, soaking into his fur, and bites her cheek so hard she tastes blood.
She’d been so close, this time.
Ariala closes her eyes and leans down, touching her forehead to his. She keeps her fingers clenched in his fur for a long, long time. Breathe in through her nose, out her mouth, one, two, three, just so she won’t scream her grief to the sky and risk collapsing Skyhold completely. Tears burn her eyes and course down her cheeks, and she only tightens her grip on his fur, nearly ripping it out of his cooling skin.
A warm presence settles beside her, and she thinks of a warm, rough voice singing hymns to the Mother as the tattoo needle pressed to the bone. You are so brave, my dearest. She thinks of arms wrapped around her, smelling like herbs from the garden. He’d picked her flowers that day, to put on her desk in her quarters. She remembers, still.
“He was glad it was you,” Cole tells her, gently. “He was glad he didn’t die alone.”
Ariala doesn’t let go of the fur, even when it pops and hisses. Even when it turns gooey in her hand and starts to melt. Starts to burn. She grits her teeth against a scream, squeezing her eyes closed, remembering his face—all of them, every one of his faces, her heart, her heart, she promised to bring him home—
Cole’s fingers are pale and flesh-colored when they take her own, pry her fingers off the burning tar the corpse has become. Ariala stares at the slow-forming puddle that had once been her heart and weeps.
“It’s so hard,” she gasps. “It’s so hard, Cole. I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t—I want him—he didn’t deserve this, he was good, it was good, we were so close—”
“I know,” Cole says. When he wraps his arms around her, she smells Bull, Dorian, Varric. Her sobs are wrenched unwilling from her throat, leaving her gasping and pathetic, collapsed on the floor of Skyhold’s Great Hall with only Cole for her support. “It’s okay. You did your best. You can take a break if you want. He won’t mind.”
Ariala weeps in his arms, clinging to the warmth of his incorporeal body, and when he strokes her hair she lets herself think of the sunlight warmth of aravels, and her grandmother’s smile, and the memory of a halla chewing on Solas’s shirt.
To think—those are the old days.
Her laughter cracks and shatters, and she is back to weeping.
Gods, she’s so tired. So tired.
But she takes off her cloak and gives it to Cole. When he returns, Pride bundled in his arms, Ariala wipes the wetness off her cheeks, ignoring the lace of tears on her lashes as she looks down at him. She clears her throat, but her voice still sounds choked full of grief.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” she says, swallowing hard. “Let’s try this again, okay? We’ll get it right this time.”
— ✦ —
She doesn’t. Even though the elves have progressed past belief in the gods, into secularism and democracy—even as Fen’Harel is shrouded once more in myth, and regarded only as a story than something to be feared—the cycle continues, as it always has.
But the next time, after she drives her knife into his heart, she swears she hears Solas’s voice again, just a faint murmur against the point of her ear. Vhenan.
The next time, it’s thank you.
The next time, she swears she hears the Dread Wolf whisper ar lath, vhenan.
And that—that is the last straw. That is what breaks her.
She does not weep; her tears had dried up with her hope, four cycles ago. She pulls her dagger from his heart and stands, watching the emaciated, glass-furred body of Fen’Harel sink into itself and form a puddle of tar. When Cole takes from its abyss the fledgling spirit of Pride, she does not offer him her cloak to swaddle it.
Cole looks at her, pale eyes sad. “It’s been very hard,” he says. “You’ve been strong. You can rest, now.”
“Is it him?” Ariala asks, numb.
She turns away.
“But it might be, soon,” Cole says. “Pieces of a puzzle, patchwork, slowly sewing the seconds together to make himself new again.”
Her head hurts. The Wolf knocked her into a wall and she’d hit her head hard enough the light hurts her eyes. She rubs her forehead, trying to focus on his words, but the concentration doesn’t come. Ariala shakes her head, waving her single hand. Cole and his riddles have become less complex to her as time passed, but this time, his meaning is lost on her, and she is too tired to try to figure it out. She just knows she won’t let herself hope, ever again.
“I’m done,” she says.
Cole nods, accepting. “Okay.”
She walks away.
— ✦ —
She dreams of him, because of fucking course she does. The universe has never seen fit to give her even an ounce of peace.
They’re in the rotunda, before its destruction in the… sixteenth cycle, she thinks. Maybe eighteenth. One of the teens, for sure. She’s on the sofa, and he is lying across it, his head in her lap, eyes closed as she hums an old Dalish lullaby. The mountain sun fills up the room, and she is bent over him, her hair out of its bun, spilling down onto his chest.
He is not as he had been in Skyhold, but four cycles ago, when she had thought it over, stupid fool she was. Her hand strokes his hair, the backs of her fingers brushing over his dark brown forehead. She’d stopped dreaming of herself with two hands centuries ago.
Solas opens his eyes and smiles at her. She smiles back at him through her fog of tears.
“How long can we do this?” she asks him. Solas’s smile fades, and he regards her with the same solemn grief she sees in the mirror.
“You will have to be strong a little longer, vhenan. I am sorry,” he tells her, in his old voice, and her throat closes. She blinks, tilting her head back, staring up at the sky. He doesn’t move from her lap, but takes her hand, intertwining their fingers. He pulls them to press over his heart, her palm flat against his chest. Not a gesture he had ever had, originally. But on the apple farm, it had been his favorite way to show affection.
She knows better than anyone how much fond memories can hurt. She shakes her head, tears spilling over her lids. One falls onto his face. He doesn’t brush it away. She watches as it curves down his cheek, leaving a wet gleam behind.
“I’m tired of being strong,” she tells him. “I’m tired, Solas.”
“I know,” he says. “I know I have caused you—so much sorrow. Ir abelas, vhenan.”
Ariala does not say tel’abelas. She does not say ar lanastan, and grant him forgiveness. She only shakes her head, and lifts her hand to wipe away her tears. Solas watches her, silent, and lifts his hand to brush his fingertips over the curve of her cheekbone. The touch is an ancient familiarity, and her body responds to it from muscle memory. She softens, eyes fluttering shut, turning into the touch.
He sits up, still holding her face, and presses his forehead to hers.
“Have faith,” he says. “Please. I am almost ready.”
She wakes up.
— ✦ —
She does not know how long she stays in her apple orchard. Her little farm thrives, and she busies herself with it for a few decades. Then she gets an invitation to visit the great New Arlathan, rebuilt upon the old ruins in what had once been Tevinter, seven centuries ago, and Elvhenan before that. She sees vehicles powered with magic floating through the air, towers that reach the clouds, city sectors that float high above her, accessible only by eluvian.
She attends a symposium, where advocates and activists and politicians debate ideas and policy. She enters the temple of the Mother, where a glittering golden dragon stares down at her, and thinks: Andaran atish’an, Mother.
The gods and the Evanuris have shifted over the centuries; the gods stripped to their archaic foundations, archetypes of Mother, Father, Hearthkeeper, Craftsman, Hunter, Shepherd, Death, Deceit, Trickster. The Evanuris have been placed in history textbooks and museums, where they belong. Even the Dalish that remain have taken more eagerly to the archetypes than the historical figures that enslaved their ancestors and sacrificed them for blood, no better than Tevinter.
She walks into the Temple of the Trickster, where a grinning wolf towers ten feet tall, fur painted russet, its eyes golden. He casts a shadow stretching all the way to the temple entrance, bathing her in it.
She stares into the Trickster’s six golden eyes, and thinks of scarlet smoke curling from lyrium-infected eyes. She regards his russet fur, and thinks of black needles and glass, textured like obsidian sharpened to wound.
She thinks of the spirit of Pride, left neglected in a pit of Fade tar, and wonders what Cole has done to it. Whether he still lives, whether the cycle continues. Perhaps Compassion has accomplished what she never could.
She hopes so. They are both deserving of kindness, after everything that has happened. She has found some semblance of it in her apple orchard, even though he is no longer with her.
She shakes her head and turns her back on the Wolf, walking out of the temple. She spends the next few weeks in the city, exploring the museums, visiting the old sites. There is a museum dedicated to the Sundering—what these new elves have named Solas destroying the Veil, and everything that was not elven with it—and in it are preserved murals from his old fortresses. Shimmering tapestries, interwoven with thread and fabric alike, show shifting images of the exhibit.
Ariala walks past a room, and stops. After a moment, she turns back and walks in.
The room is mostly empty, despite the complete mural that stands before her. She blinks, hard, and drops her gaze, hurrying to the display plaque. It is written in Elvhen, with an empty display next to the words. She places her hand on it, and impressions flash through her mind’s eye—memories preserved of the mural’s discovery, and restoration, and placement in the museum.
She pulls her hand back, reading the Elvhen, dragging her finger along under the words as she whispers them to herself.
This mural, which scholars largely agree is another piece in Fen’Harel’s storied portfolio, was found in a fortress within the Free Marches, only a few dozen miles from the now-destroyed city of Wycome. As the fresco is unique within Fen’Harel’s vast body of work, what its subject matter is in reference to is unclear and still hotly debated in academic circles.
Ariala drops her hand and lifts her head, studying the painting of a brown-skinned elven woman kneeling before a grove of trees, with two halla—a mother, and a baby—by her side. By instinct, her hand lifts toward her throat, grasping for a necklace she had hidden away long ago. When she grabs nothing, she bites the inside of her cheek, inhaling hard, and lowers her hand.
She does not know how long she stands there, staring at the mural of herself kneeling before her grandmother’s tree. But when she finally finds the strength to pull away, it is far past dark, and she is heartsick to the bone.
She leaves the museum, and the city. She returns to her apple farm.
— ✦ —
She’s sitting on her porch, still in her sleepwear despite the lateness of the day. She’s been awake for three hours, but she has only managed to drag herself out of bed within the past fifteen minutes. Now she holds a cup of cocoa between her palms, staring out over the mist-shrouded grassy hills that lead to the closest eluvian, ignoring the dull ache of emptiness sitting heavy in her chest. The summer morning is muggy and humid, and she thinks about the weights on her shoulders and eyelids as her hair curls and sticks to her skin.
She remembers she’d asked him about uthenera, once.
Maybe it’s time.
She’d like to see everyone again.
Inhaling slowly, she sips at her cocoa, closing her eyes. And when she opens them, there are two people cresting the closest hill, the one whose slope goes straight to her little home.
One is a gangly boy in ragged, patchwork clothes, his face covered by a wide-brimmed leather hat. And the other—
Ariala sits up, heartbeat skipping and then racing, pounding in the tips of her fingers and the points of her ears. She sets her cocoa on the porch floor and stands up, swallowing hard. She rushes to the first step, then slowly descends, pressing her hand to her chest. Her heart is beating so hard she almost feels dizzy.
Her breath rushes out of her, almost a sob, and she runs.
She stops in front of him, panting, and he is staring at her wide-eyed, pale hand gripping his staff with a white-knuckled grip. His mouth works, but no sound comes out. He is not quite as he was—his eyes are not so narrow, his nose not so aquiline. His eyes are black-brown instead of blue-grey. But he’d shaved his head, and his chin is dimpled, and his cheeks are splashed with freckles.
Ariala swallows the lump in her throat. She steps forward, and Solas’s gaze darts down as he tenses. She thinks of another time when he had stepped away from her, gaze averted—clad in golden armor and wolf fur, hands behind his back, vhenan falling like a death sentence from his lips.
Cole hums, and Solas glances at him, then at her. Ariala’s jaw clenches. Her hand is cold.
“Is it you?” she asks in Elvhen.
“I believe so,” he says, in Common. His hand flexes around his walking staff. “I do not feel… chained, to the creature your people worshipped, any longer.” He offers her a weak smile, and his cheeks are dimpled. His eyes gleam wetly in the morning light. “I am sorry I could not come home sooner, my heart.”
Ariala’s breath catches. She staggers, once, a half-hearted lurch—and then she launches herself forward. He staggers under her unexpected weight, but soon regains his balance. The staff clatters to the dirt and he wraps both his arms around her, lifting her from the ground, his face buried in her hair.
“Beloved,” he murmurs, and Ariala sobs, clinging to him.
“Don’t go,” she begs. “Stay with me, this time, please, Solas, don’t leave me again—”
“Yes,” he breathes, and she closes her eyes, burying her face in his throat. He lowers her back to the ground, but his arms are still tight around her, and she never, never wants him to let her go. She shakes in his arms, unable to stem her tears, and Solas is weeping, too, his tears soaking her hair where he has pressed his cheek to the top of her head.
“I will stay,” he promises her.
They’d do better this time.
lift with your knees, atlas,
the heavens are a burden
but in the starlit ink of constellations
you have written: