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Twenty-Five Troubles

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The castle surrounds them, ceiling dark and heavy, a low hum of wind and water and movement of something rolling through flooded hallways. It feels more like a creature than a castle now, and the fact they’re wading through shin-deep water doesn’t help either, bringing up the suspicion that creature has swallowed them whole.

They walk in silence, stopping only to fight off red lyrium creatures when they peel off the walls and crawl out of cells. It’s a constant panicked dance around, slash and withdraw, stab and withdraw; one cut and it’s in your blood, one cut and you’re on the way to become one of them - just like bloody darkspawn.

Bull tries to keep him away from the fight, pull him back whenever a threat appears, but he’ll be damned if he stays back and lets him do all the work.

So what if Bull’s sick, and Das and Dorian are not. So what if he has nothing to lose. So what.

For a while, it’s just that - the high-pitched hum of red lyrium, the gushing of water around their feet and the occasional scraping sound when Bull’s horns drag against the ceiling; he doesn’t even seem to notice, too preoccupied with muttering something to himself, gripping his sword even tighter, head whipping around as his reddened eye squints, trying to see past the shadows.

It’s driving him crazy, the silence. His tongue itches to speak; words keep popping up, questions, beginnings of conversations, but just one glimpse of red forces them back down and Das doesn’t even know why. Maybe - maybe it’s that feeling of something much bigger around, something you better not alert.

Maybe it’s fear. Maybe he doesn’t want to curse his luck.

Four guards await as they step out of the dungeon, stationed on a platform over a pit that definitely wasn’t there before the time jumped forward. Bull and Dorian blast them right off; he doesn’t even get a hit in. Shame; no red lyrium on these. Could’ve really gone for it.

Two choices, two ways to go; stairs that lead up or stairs that lead down, into a dungeon much like the one they just emerged from.

“Where to, boss?”

Down; it’s not even a question.

The door won’t budge; they have to step back and let Bull force it open, and as he presses down, it just tears off its hinges; completely rusted shut.

“Doesn’t seem like it’s been opened in a while,” Dorian mutters nervously behind his back; Das clenches his dagger’s grip and shakes his head, trying to force out the thoughts that come with that sentence.

They killed everyone in that room, Bull’s voice echoes in his thoughts, a conversation back down in the dungeons. Well - everyone but me and Neil. I tried to hold them off, give him a window to escape, but I don’t think that worked. Sorry, boss. Didn’t see them grab him, but I heard his voice down here, afterwards. Singing.

“Bull,” he says, “How long?”

“…What?”

“How long ago… have you heard him sing?”

“Ah.” Bull pauses for a moment, then, with a deep sigh - it shatters into multiple voices as it comes out of his chest, just like his speech, - shakes his head. “…Fuck, I don’t know. Time doesn’t even feel real anymore.”

It’s then that they hear the humming.

A quiet, rasping noise in the darkness; in the first second when his ears perk up and towards the sound, Das takes it for something scraping on the ground, but then he makes out the melody, and his heart drops.

He says something, probably. He steps forward - he must have, because suddenly he’s past Bull and way past Dorian, and the stairs fly under his feet, and every once in a while there’s a gap and he dives down, but catches himself from tumbling all the way into the water.

Another door, half-torn off its hinges; the wood is so fragile he barely feels any resistance under his shoulder as it breaks open. There’s water everywhere, water and lyrium, and it’s all he knows; he barely registers his surroundings, all that matters is the song, the song.

Doesn’t matter that it’s distorted by echo, he’d know it anywhere; it’s simple, just five repeating notes, over and over again. Hummed by Adria as she stitched a torn cloak, sung with hushed words about flowers blooming in the alienage as she stirred a stew over the fire, repeated quietly in Neilar’s voice as they walked back from the hunt, so many times, with a smile, a sign of a good day.

He knows it, and by Andraste, he’ll claw his way to the source if he has to -

Das turns the corner, almost tripping into the water again and catching himself against the wall, and the song is gone. There’s a split second of terror; he looks up and there are just empty cells and a door grown over with red, and he’s alone.

For a moment, it’s almost like he imagined the entire thing, but then something catches his eye inside one of the cells; in the darkness beyond the crystals, a glow, two yellow-tinted dots - and, the next moment, they blink.

The dots sway; a dry, wheezing sound - and then they dive away, and the air fills with a sound of coughing, but it’s a voice, a live voice.

He latches onto the bars, presses his face against them, tries to see the silhouette; it’s kneeling now on a single patch of almost-dry floor, clutching its chest, coughing. The spasms die down, and the figure glances up; their eyes meet. 

His hair is grown out and matted, but even in the dark Das makes out familiar features, Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin, almost black against pale skin.

“Lethallin,” he breathes out in relief, and suddenly, the world stops spinning. He almost drops down himself - but another rush of adrenaline comes through, throws him at the door. The handle is grown over with red; he breaks the crystals off with his dagger’s handle and reaches frantically for his coat - at least some of his lockpicks must have survived, - but the door just creaks open. Even better.

“It’s fine,” he mutters to himself, then jolts up, looks into the cell again, calls louder, “It’s fine- it’s me. It’s me, mate. Not dead. I…” he laughs nervously, “…Long story. Just - let’s get you out, alright?”

Silence. Neilar stares back.

“…Alright?”

He watches Neil’s silhouette as he slowly pushes himself up, sways, leans on a nearby crystal for support and then pulls away, taking a shambling step forward. It feels like eternity, just watching him walk - but when he steps into the light, it’s not all that bad; he doesn’t see nearly as much crystals as Bull had, and there’s no red glow in his eyes.

It’s fine. It’s fine - he’s fine - he’s not fine, but -

Neilar stops, one step short of being an arm’s reach away. There are dark circles under his eyes, he’s paler and thinner than he’s ever been, and the look on his face… He’s scared.

Neilar stares at him for a long moment, closes his eyes, opens them again. Checking he’s still there. Something in his expression breaks; he takes one more, tiny, step forward, and mouths voicelessly: Das?

“Yeah,” he whispers; he thinks he’s smiling, but he can hear his own voice tremble. “It’s me. It’s - it’s all good, we’re gonna fix this.”

The corners of Neil’s mouth twitch into a smile for a moment, even though it fades quickly. He raises a hand, points at Das, then brings the palm of his hand to his chest and taps twice. In clan Lavellan’s hunters’ signs, that means: alive.

You’re alive.

But why in the Void would he use those now?

“Why - ” he begins; before the sentence is finished, Neilar begins signing again. Raised palm of the hand drops down like a tired animal’s head; sick. Hand held flat, raised to the chest; the way is blocked.

Before he has a chance to process those, hasted footsteps and heavy breathing sound in the distance; Neilar’s eyes widen as he steps back into the shadows, but Das recognizes the corrupted echo of Bull’s voice, that and the scraping of his horns against way too low ceilings.

The next moment, Dorian’s figure appears in the doorway:

Vishante kaffas, why in the! - ” he begins, out of breath, but then notices the cell and the prisoner, and his voice dies down mid-sentence.

Bull peeks in over the mage’s shoulder. At the same time, Neilar steps into the light again; again the doubtful look, but it disappears faster this time, and the smile stays. He waves, raises two fingers up to his head to imitate horns.

Hello, Bull.

“Neilar,” Bull responds, the relief in his voice clear despite the distortion. “Makes sense why he darted off now… It’s good to see you, Sparrow.” Then, he frowns. “Why won’t you talk?”

“I don’t know,” Das mutters, “He hasn’t said a word to me - ” he turns to Neilar again, “Sick? You said you were sick?”

Neil nods, comes out of the cell slowly. There’s a moment of hesitation, and then he gestures for them to come closer. When they do, he opens his mouth.

The dungeon is dark, but there’s just enough light to outline the jagged edges of red crystals scattered across his tongue, growing larger and denser back towards the throat.

“…Shit,” Bull says quietly.

Neilar closes his mouth, signs: shems. Points at a crystal coming out of the wall, signs, in the water.

Das swears. Loud.

“…If I may ask - what is he saying?” Dorian asks.

“It’s a Southern thing,” Bull mutters.

“I meant the signs.”

“Oh.”

“He says fuckin’ blighters poisoned his water,” Das says in a low voice.

The most important thing is to get out of here. Go back and make sure none of this ever happened. That’s their objective - but Maker help him, if, when they come across the Vints who did this, not even bloody Corypheus will be able to help them.

“Can we do anything to help?” Dorian asks.

After a moment’s pause, Neilar shakes his head.

I’m alive, he signs. You’re alive. This is good.

Then: It’s hard to breathe, but I can still kill shems.

Chapter Text

 

He resurfaces into reality, back to the cold air and drizzling rain, back to the creature grabbing his shoulders, and its face is his face. It screeches as he breaks the grip and shoves it back, shedding its form, scrambling further into the castle - and then it’s gone.

The ground sways beneath his feet, and, for a moment, the world goes dark; his knees fold, but there’s someone to catch him, help him back up.

“Thank you,” he mutters, a reflex; he doesn’t think they even heard. An arm wraps around his shoulders, supporting.

“You got me worried for a second,” an unfamiliar voice says. “But ‘course you were too tough for that thing. That demon probably ran off to cry in the corner,” the person adds with a laugh.

He looks up at them - at her. She’s taller than him, grey-skinned, red-haired(but the white roots of her natural hair are showing, he notes), golden jewelry on her horns. Her face is painted in bold, dark streaks, but the rain is slowly eating away at the paint, and it some places it’s already washed off.

She looks back at him, and the smile on her face slowly turns into a frown.

“…You alright, Adaar?”

Adaar. That sounds… familiar?

Oh, Maker. He has no idea who she is. Who’s the Maker? -

No, nevermind. Not the right question right now. Calm down; just calm down.

“Yes,” he says. “I’m fine. We need to finish it off.”

This, at least, is one thing he is entirely sure of.

She leads him into the hall, full of armored humans; templars, he catches the word repeated in different voices. Templars. This place doesn’t seem like a temple; he must be missing something.

Well - he’s missing a lot, and he realizes that more and more with each step, as the woman at his side continues to speak, throwing around names and words he doesn’t recognize; he’s supposed to know her, he realizes. He’s supposed to know exactly what she means.

Another woman approaches, human, dark-haired, shield on her back.

“Adina,” she says, “There is a wounded templar - I know you are not a healer, but she needs help.”

“Well, I’ll try,” the redhead says, uncertain. “It’s not going to be pretty, though.”

“I don’t think she cares. She’s dying.”

“Oh - oh, shit. I’m coming.” The redhead - Adina, - lets go of him, steps towards the other woman, then glances over her shoulder back at him.

“Rest a little,” she says. He nods.

As soon as she’s out of sight, he slinks away from the crowd gathering in the hall; it’s not easy, but familiar - some part of him knows how to go unnoticed, and also knows that it’s more difficult for him than others. Something about the way he’s built, his height. The same part is also aware of the bow on his back, of the correct way to use it and of all the items on his belt. He doesn’t know what any of these small metal things are, but he knows the exact situations in which he’d reach for them.

He slumps against the wall, rubs his eyes; his head hurts, hollow and full at the same time.

Adina. The other woman called her Adina, and his name?

Adaar. That sounds about right… he thinks so, at least. It’s not as clear as the bow.

“Aqun Adaar,” a voice whispers right next to him - sudden, but not startling, as if in the back of his mind he’d known this person was here the entire time. “Perfect middle, precision, balanced between worlds, order and destruction - clashing, but if you try hard enough, it makes sense.”

He looks up; there he is, leaning on a wall opposite of him, face hidden under the ridiculous large hat, turning a dagger in his hands.

“Hello, Cole,” he says, suprised how easy these words flow off the tongue. Yes, Cole - Cole, a person he can trust. Not a friend, but at least an ally; Cole helped him, somehow, that’s how he knows.

A person he can trust… No, not quite a person. A spirit.

“Are you in my head?”

“No,” Cole says, “Not anymore. All three of us got out; you, me and Envy, but Envy took a piece of you with it. Memories, a reference, sketches to build Adaar as he should be.”

“That’s why I can’t remember.”

“Yes.”

He thinks about it for a moment. First, he repeats the name in his head a few times: Aqun Adaar, Aqun Adaar, Aqun Adaar. He’ll have to remember to respond to that if anyone calls him.

“They also use Herald,” Cole says, “But you don’t like it very much.”

Herald… That sparks something new - quite literally; pain and a flash of light in the palm of his hand, startling him. He raises his hand, stares at the flaring green glow, eyes wide.

“It’s the Mark. It’s why you’re in charge.”

“…I’m in charge,” he - Aqun, - repeats.

“Yes.”

“And who takes over if I can’t be in charge?”

“No.” Cole shakes his head. “They can’t be you. You have the Mark, but it’s more than that.” 

“Then,” he says, “They can’t know I don’t remember.” He glances at the spirit. “Do you understand, Cole?”

“Yes.”

“If I remember - ” he lets out a small, nervous laugh, “If I remember correctly, you have a way to make people not see you.”

“Yes.”

“And you can read thoughts.”

“Sometimes.”

Aqun sighs.

“…Good enough. Listen,” he says, leaning forward, “This is what we’ll do. You will follow me, unseen, and tell me everything I need to know - names, titles. We’re going to pretend I know what’s going on.”

Cole blinks, confused.

“…Why?”

“Because I’m in charge,” Aqun says, “And there’s no one to replace me, and Envy is on the loose. We can’t afford the panic, and a panic will come.”

After a moment, the spirit nods.

“You can’t kill Envy,” Cole says. “Not before you get your memories back. I don’t know if you will be able to remember once it’s dead.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says grimly.

Chapter Text

“Kyana - are you alright?”

Alistair stops and turns around to look at her; she scowls back. His silhouette is blurry against the line of torches on the wall, the only source of light in the dark hallway.

She misses magelight. Cleaner, brighter, and it comes without the side effects of heat and smoke, the smell of which makes her want to vomit.

“I’m fine. We need to hurry.”

“But - ” his voice wavers, uncertain; she clenches her teeth, trying to keep from hissing at her fellow warden to shut up and keep walking. “That wound looks bad. Your entire side is bloody; I don’t think a bandage is going to cut it.”

Ah, yes. This.

“I’m fine,” she repeats with more pressure in her voice. Over the last few minutes, her leg has gone from numbness to stinging pain several times, and the feeling of warm blood sipping through her robe is insufferable, and she doesn’t need Alistair to add even more on top of that.

“They should have a stock of healing potions somewhere,” he continues as though she said nothing, looking now at the two guards accompanying them, “Maybe poultices - ”

Alistair!

A small wave of force glides through the air along with her voice; hot enough to knock the others down, but enough to make them quiet down, finally.

“We don’t have time to rummage through every room,” Kyana says. “We’re already too late. Therefore, we keep moving, and I swear I will burn alive the next person who mentions looting. Am I clear?”

In response, silence. She raises her voice again:

Am I clear?

“Y-yes, ser,” one of the guards mumbles.

“Good,” she says, and begins walking. The other three follow lead, and soon outrun her, leaving her limping at the back of the group. Alistair glances back, at first, but she shoots him a look that makes him rethink that decision.

Walking hurts, of course it does - it hurts more than anything she’s experienced before, the Joining, the Harrowing, neither of them come close to the everpresent burning and heaviness she feels now. She leans on her staff instead of her foot, but it still slows her down.

It’s fine, she thinks. I’m a mage; I don’t need to be fast. I need to be smart.

Just as they approach the stairs to the next floor - her entire body protests just at the thought of climbing them; she orders them to shut up, - she hears skittering across the floor, and then feels a tainted presence.

She and Alistair turn around at the same time; their voices merge in one shout:

“Darkspawn!”

Alistair and one of the guards rush forward, deflecting crossbow bolts with their shields; the second guard takes cover behind a crumbled pillar. Her leg feels too heavy to do even that; all she can do is lean on her staff and conjure a barrier.

It feels better once she reaches into the Fade, allows her mind to do what it’s been yearning to do for hours: leave. She lets the feeling envelop her, help her forget the pain, the weariness.

Kyana closes her eyes and sends her mind forth.

She can feel each of the darkspawn; their location, their size, their movements. Alistair and the guards too, though weaker, small disturbances in the space.

She breathes in, exhales and reaches further, lets the magic fill her to the brim until there’s nothing left but pure energy, pure will. It washes over her thoughts, her senses; suddenly she’s aware of the exact reach her spells would have, how many of them she can afford, in what order.

Time slows down.

How does she want to do this?

The ground erupts beneath the group of genlocks Alistair is fighting off; they shriek as rubble tears through their flesh. The hurlocks’ crossbows explode in their hands, unused bolts rising into the air, forming a cloud that crashes right back onto them with arcane force; they don’t even make a sound.

She comes to on her knees, still clutching her staff; she tries to pull herself up, but to no avail.

Her gaze drifts to the left; the other guard lies still behind his pillar, dagger sticking from his chest; next to him, a genlock’s corpse, crossbow bolt in its neck. She didn’t even notice it happen - notice them kill each other.

The genlock draws in a rasping breath. Still alive -

Her first instinct is to cast one more spell and finish it off, but it’s overpowered by something new, something scratching at her from within like the worst hunger she’s ever experienced.

She feels the blood stain on her robes; it’s getting bigger, and with perfect clarity, Kyana understands she won’t make it down from that top floor if the wound goes untreated.

The genlock wheezes; she grinds her teeth and pulls herself towards it. It’s not a long distance, but she remembers all the curses she knows until she’s there, near the dying creature in the pool of its own black blood, and the demand within her is getting louder and louder.

She dips a finger into the tainted blood and draws a glyph on the ground; the simplest healing glyph, but inverted. They teach to flip it, nowadays, so it won’t work if a curious apprentice decides to try it - but her advanced studies included the correct form of the spell.

Drain Life.

Kyana watches as red mist trickles from what she assumes to be the darkspawn’s nostrils - and then shoots towards her; there’s a wave of heat and a wave of nausea, metallic taste in her mouth as she feels her body begin to compensate for the blood loss, devouring the stolen life energy.

The genlock goes still.

Not maleficarum, she thinks. Not maleficarum. Just simple entropy, clean and scientific transfer of life force from one vessel to another. The material in which the glyph was charted could have been anything.

Her leg still hurts, but she manages to get up to her feet again; it’s at this moment that Alistair runs up to her, out of breath.

“I might need another bandage,” Kyana mutters, leaning against his arm.

Chapter Text

Frey hisses and leans back, trying to escape the bright light pouring into the room as the door opens. It still washes over; even behind closed eyelids the world burns orange for a moment, and then the flash is gone.

She opens her now-teary eyes, blinks the haze away. Two dwarves, a lamp between them, stand in front of her.

Ah. These sods again.

Should’ve known there was something in that drink, she thinks. No Merchants Guild member would hire a servant this ugly.

“Well, well,” the “servant” grins, “Look who’s awake.”

“Who would have known,” the other adds, “That lady Fiona Sart is actually Frey Sartha. A dust rat working for the Inquisition.”

The lamp sways, and in its light she makes out the aforementioned guild member’s features. She groans; both of them were in on it? This is just embarrassing. How she’s going to look Leliana in the eye after this, she doesn’t know.

The “servant” takes this reaction the wrong way, though, because his crooked smile grows even wider.

“Makes yer head heavy, doesn’t it? I put in a little extra, hehe.”

“You think that is strong?” Frey mutters. “Right… Now I know you’ve never been to Dust Town.” She glances up at the two, grins back. “Compared to the local stuff, your sleepy juice is just fresh spring water.”

She glances the two over as she speaks; no keys or weapons immediately visible, but one of them must have the key to that door, and maybe to the chains binding her to this chair as well. They’d have to get closer before she can try anything, though.

The merchant steps forward; her heart jumps with anticipation, but he stops just short of her reach.

“We were going to skin you alive, you know,” he says, in a voice so friendly Frey has to stop for a moment and admire the delivery. “Hang you from your ankles and do what we do to all traitors.”

“Aww,” she smiles. “Still mad about your little lyrium operation, Tarash?”

She hopes that’s the name. Might’ve been his son. One of his sons. She’s got to give it to the servant - her memory’s still a little blurry after his poison. Maybe she can get a recipe before she leaves.

The merchant’s jaw tightens.

“You were an inconvenience,” he says, stiff, “But not anymore. We’ll get back on track.”

“The money we’ll make from you will help, yes it will,” the servant chuckles behind his back.

…What?

That’s new. Frey frowns.

“…Money? What money?”

“See, as much as we’d love to see you scream and bleed to death,” the merchant says, “A lovely serah offered a generous amount of coin for you, alive and undamaged.” The last part of the sentence is spoken with great regret.

The merchant steps back.

No-no-no, you get back there! -

He turns back; Frey watches his entire demeanor change as the door cracks open again, from gloating to servile and fearful, bowing nearly to the ground as a tall, slender figure enters a room. A human, female, dressed in scarlet robes -  followed by a man, human also, his clothing a single sheet of fabric tied around his figure; they look foreign, and the shape of the woman’s outfit just screams Tevinter. After a moment’s pause, the woman gives the two dwarves a short nod and Frey hears a sound that can only be made by a bag of coins being dropped to the ground. After a few seconds of frantic shuffling on the floor, the dwarves scurry outside, their prize in their hands.

Throughout this entire scene, the woman’s gaze is locked onto Frey.

The cell is dark for a moment, as the lamp is gone with the dwarves - but them, the woman snaps her fingers and a few glowing orbs appear in the air, much like the ones Frey’s seen the Inquisition’s mages summon.

“Magic, huh?” she musters a smile, though a less confident one. A Tevinter mage isn’t a dumb Carta henchman - and the way her hood and shoulder pads are styled into spikes are way too reminiscent of clothing Frey’s seen many times on corpses, sometimes killed by her own arrows. Venatori corpses.

“Well,” she shrugs and leans back in her chair, “Tough luck, lady mage; you got yourself a dwarf.”

The woman’s expression doesn’t change at all; it’s becoming a little creepy, to be honest. Then, the corners of her mouth curve up ever so slightly.

Oh - oh no. Nevermind, go back! This is so much worse!

“I must confess,” the mage says, heavy Tevene accent completely rearranging the sound of every word she utters, “I’ve only performed this spell twice so far. I am extremely curious what it’ll do to a dwarven mind.”

Frey continues to smile, nervously, as her mind races; she’s been preparing to talk two dwarves into getting their asses kicked, not… this. Not a mage, not a Venatori. What’s that spell she’s talking about? Torture?

She doesn’t like that part about a dwarven mind, not at all.

“…A new spell, you say? Wow, that’s - that’s just fascinating,” she says. “Mind to tell me about it? Y’know, it’s really - uh - it would really add to my experience of getting magicked if I knew.”

The woman’s smile widens.

“A curious one, aren’t you?”

“…Yes! Extremely,” Frey nods. “Especially - if I may, - if I’m speaking to such a gorgeous lady.”

“This is good,” the woman responds. “A curious mind is infinitely more useful than a dull one. Seneca,” she says, her voice suddenly sharp and cold. The man, who’s been standing behind her back, steps forward; slowly, he walks to stand in front of her, and then drops to his knees. He’s at Frey’s eye level now, and in the magelight’s glow, she can see his face: dark-skinned, but weirdly pale, a completely blank stare.

Then, she sees the scars scattered all over his chest and arms, and the light glinting off the thin, curved blade that has suddenly appeared in the woman’s hands.

Shit, shit, shit! -

Blood magic. She doesn’t know what to do with blood magic!

“For the Elder One,” the woman announces, her voice low and ceremonial.

“For the Elder One,” the man echoes flatly, and, with a flourish, the curved blade slits his throat.

 

Frey wakes up to daylight pouring into an open door, cold stone floor against her cheek and shoulder and the hum of many voices above her. Just a few feet away, a corpse lies on the ground, a woman dressed in scarlet robes. Even further, a pale body in a pool of its own blood.

A voice calls her name; someone kneels next to her and rolls her over; their armor clins with every movement, sturdy silverite plate with the Inquisition’s insignia on the chest.

They lean over her; a thick dark braid drops down and tickles her cheek.

“Frey,” Inquisitor May Cadash calls, her voice trembling as though she’s on the verge of tears. “Frey, can you hear me?”

Her hands are occupied, her throat is exposed; Frey could end the Inquisitor’s life here and then, but she does not. This isn’t the plan; this isn’t what the Elder One wants. Her mission is a much greater one, and it requires patience.

“Yeah,” she whispers, hoarse, and smiles at the Inquisitor. Cadash breaks down at the sound of her voice, drawing a deep breath and then pulling Frey into a hug; the armor is just as cold as the stone floor, and just as bloodstained.

Frey hugs her back. Patience, her mind echoes. Patience.

Chapter Text

The air within the cavern is thick with stench and moisture, hazy with vapors he doesn’t want to know the source of.

It’s hard to keep track of where the ground ends and the walls begin, to judge distance correctly, to keep an eye on both the monster’s tentacles popping out of the ground and the minions that keep rushing in to aid it. He tries very hard not to look at the creature itself; the one time he did, it was nearly impossible to tear his eyes away from the morbid sight.

Broodmother. The meaning of that word was told to them line by line, note by note as they crept through the tunnels, and yet, somehow, it’s still just beyond his comprehension.

A tentacle lunges forward, fast, but his blades are faster - and chunks of slimy darkspawn flesh fall to the ground; Zevran spins, slashing at another one creeping from behind. A moment’s window to breathe; he uses the time to reach for the last acid flask on his belt and hurl it in the direction of a group of darkspawn shuffling towards Alistair.

The poisonous cloud swallows them whole, along with a few of the broodmother’s tentacles; shrieks pierce the stagnant air, swallowed by the sound of thunder as lightning flashes above the creatures, piercing their bodies and finishing what he’s started.

Zevran turns around, grinning; there she stands, feet and staff planted firmly into the ground. He catches the last sparkles of purple arcane glow in her eyes as, with a gasp, Kyana resurfaces back into reality - and the moment where disorientation fades as she sees the results of her work, and the corner of her mouth twitches up ever so slightly. She notices him looking, and he can swear her smirk grows wider.

What he does not see is the tentacle whipping towards him from behind; all he feels is a blunt impact and the world goes tumbling away; he hits rock, something slimy, something metallic - an armored body? - and then rock again, as his back slams into the wall. His senses go blank from the impact, and so he doesn’t feel any pain - and doesn’t see the armored darkspawn towering above him either, as, with a roar, it raises a jagged sword into the air before plunging it into his chest.

Everything goes dark.

He doesn’t hear the scream that rolls across the battlefield the next second, doesn’t feel the wave of arcane energy that sound is infused with, doesn’t feel it eat its way through his defenses and into his bones like the darkspawn and even Sten and Alistair do. He doesn’t see every living thing within the cavern stumble and groan or shriek or screech or silently clench their teeth in pain, doesn’t feel the walls and ceiling begin to shake, absorbing the force.

He doesn’t see rubble and chunks of rock break off the walls, dragging across the ground and into the air, and, with a sound more characteristic of large explosions, launch forward. He doesn’t see Sten and Alistair dive out of the way just in time, doesn’t see darkspawn swept off their crooked feet like ragdolls, some of them becoming part of the wave of destruction, hurled towards the broodmother in the far end of the cavern.

He doesn’t see it all collide with her bloated body at the same time, doesn’t hear the guttural roars of pain that follow, doesn’t see the monster slump, struggling to take a breath, as dark blood oozes out of its many wounds, doesn’t see Sten grab his sword firmer and lunge forward, using the opportunity, carving a deep cut right through the abomination’s body, finishing it off for good.

He doesn’t see Alistair roll over, curse in a choked-up voice and get up to his knees only to double over and vomit into the muck. He doesn’t see Kyana, still standing, frozen, eyes open wide and flaring with magic, hair floating in the air around her, knuckles white, clutching her staff.

He doesn’t see her tear her feet away from the ground and make her way towards him, fighting for every step, throwing herself forward again and again until she collapses at his side. He doesn’t feel her hand on his chest, right above the wound, then on his neck, checking for a sign of life. He doesn’t feel the cold prickle of her magic as she calls for something still left in his body, anything, anything, please.

He doesn’t see her drop her staff, doesn’t feel her arms wrap around him, doesn’t feel her trembling hand brush bloodied hair away from his face, doesn’t see her lips move voicelessly.

He doesn’t feel her grip tighten suddenly, so much that it would hurt if he were there to feel it, doesn’t hear her utter a single, whispered, spiteful, “No.”

“Come back,” he doesn’t hear her say, command.

Come back.

He doesn’t hear the tingling sound in the air, doesn’t feel the temperature drop as the Veil tears open ever so slightly, doesn’t see her grind her teeth and close her eyes, pouring all the magic she has left and then some more into that tear, reaching for every spirit that will hear her in this Maker-forsaken place, pleading, threatening and giving an order all at once.

What he sees, hears and feels is darkness, and distance, and the haziness of floating away - and then a sharp tug in the opposite direction, followed by an even stronger one as something drags him back, back where there’s light and air and pain, back where there is something more than darkness.

What he feels is burning in his chest as the spirits knit flesh and bone back together; he gasps for air, and that air is disgusting, but he can feel it entering and filling his lungs.

What he hears is a long, heavy exhale, only slightly trembling at the end; what he sees is a blinding flash of eyes glowing white and a halo of dark hair - and then the magic flushes away, leaving behind hunched shoulders and sweat and dirt, and eyes red from smoke and vapor and maybe something else.

He manages a smile.

“…Andraste? You… look awfully similar to a certain Grey Warden.”

She doesn’t answer, just pulls him closer, holding him tight even though his armor is caked over with blood and dirt - the closest she’s ever held him, Zevran realizes suddenly.

Part of him thinks, well, that was worth almost dying for. The other part of him is terrified.

Kyana Amell guards her boundaries with more zeal than Dog guards her tent and more commitment than Sten recites the law of the Qun. For her to throw them away at a moment’s notice is… he doesn’t know what that means, but he doesn’t find it in himself to be happy about it.

She seems to realize the same thing, because in the next moment, there’s some distance between them again and she’s regained some of her composure.

Her voice is hoarse and quiet; there’s no anger in it, just flat exhaustion as she says:

“Don’t. Do that. Again.”

With that, she pulls away; for a split second, he wants to reach for her, tell her everything is alright, thank her for saving his life, hold her again, apologize for scaring her.

He doesn’t. The words burn on his tongue, but all of them are going to fall flat next to the few moments on the brink between life and alternative, to waking up in her arms, to feeling his heart beat solely because she ordered it to.

Nothing he could say can explain the terror and the odd comfort of this realization, and nothing she could answer would speak louder than the burst of magic that pulled him back to life.

He gets back to his feet, cringes at the pain that follows, helps Kyana up.

“We need a rest,” he mutters.

“Yes. Preferably far away from the broodmother corpse.”

“…Agreed.”

They exchange glances; he lets out a nervous chuckle, and, to his surprise, Kyana echoes it.

In silent agreement, they each wrap an arm around the other’s back and limp back to the rest of their party.

Chapter Text

Adamant is dark and crowded and loud, smoke in the air, explosions shattering the night, leaving behind glowing imprints in the blackness and piles of charred bodies. Demons roaring, shrieking, dissipating into ask and falling off the walls, but new creatures will crawl out of rifts to take their place almost immediately. People, humans and elves and dwarves and even some qunari, mages with glassy looks in their eyes and warriors with battle cries on the edge of desperation, Wardens killing Inquisition soldiers, Wardens killing demons, Wardens killing Wardens.

People crawling on the walls only to be brushed down like a swarm of ants by an outburst of magic, people flooding the hallways and towers and courtyard, live, dead, bleeding, killing and dying.

For the Wardens. For the Elder One. For the Inquisition - for the Inquisitor.

It’s a distant cry the first time he hears it; the second time it’s the mage next to him, swinging her staff wide and calling out his title before charging right into the fray. The third and fourth are her teammates echoing the battle cry - and, from then on, he loses count.

For the Inquisitor. For the Herald. For the Inquisitor.

Adamant is huge, and the night sky is right there above him, but he still feels trapped in the scents and flashes and overwhelming noise of it all, the voices of people he never knew and probably will never know. They cut through the enemies, clear the courtyard, clear the walls, and every second that passes is his heart beating a little louder, his grip on the daggers tightening until it hurts and the Mark protests, flashing until the metal under his fingers begins to heat up from the energy. A wave of adrenaline, and not of the good kind; instead of crashing down on him when the time is just right, it builds slowly, towering, menacing, burning images of the keep and its defenders into his brain along with the battle cries of the Inquisition’s people, his people, invoking a mortal’s name instead of a deity’s.

It’s unbearable, scratching away at him, making the walls even taller and heavier around him, making the air thicker and thicker until he struggles for breath, but tries to do so quietly since there’s no time to lose; they need to move forward, they need to find the magister, to make him stop this.

Each second wasted on rest is Creators know how many more people dying with his name on their lips.

He thinks about it until he can’t anymore, until the fear in his brain becomes blank and wordless, a single thought throwing itself against his skull over and over again, stop it, stop it, stop, I want out, I want out.

The smoke burns his eyes, the voices drown out nearly anything else; he comprehends just enough of his surroundings to still be able to fight, flinging himself at the enemy before his feet refuse to carry him, striking before his mind catches up to the action, before any thoughts come through the haze he surrounds himself with.

I want out.

He carves a shade’s head off, jumps out of the way just in time to avoid a terror emerging from the floor; a slash across the creature’s fragile spine, and a fireball - Dorian? - collides with the skeletal body from the other side, finishing the work.

I want out.

“For the Inquisitor!” calls someone, a male voice with an Orlesian accent, and almost immediately it breaks off in a gurgling sound. He doesn’t look. He tries to remember how to breathe.

I want out -

The ground shakes beneath their feet as a pride demon steps out of the rift, electricity buzzing around it. Everyone scatters, out of the long whips’ way - everyone except Blackwall and him, both charging at the creature. He beats the Warden to it; his feet press against the ground one more time and he leaps off, sinking both daggers into the scaled back, clenching his teeth and groaning in pain as lightning snakes around the blades and into his armor, his body, almost causing him to lose his grip as the demon whips around, flailing its arms, trying to throw him off.

Still shaking, feet kicking in the air, he pulls himself up and presses a foot against the demon’s back, pulling one dagger up - sliding back down - and then driving it into the creature’s flesh again, higher up. Another roar, another rush of electricity; for a moment his arm goes numb, and then the feeling is back, and he goes for another strike.

…I want -

The world is just that for a moment, purple sparks and black blood and slowly weakening grip; the demon stumbles to the edge of the wall, and he catches a glimpse of the abyss, broken bodies lying on rocks and sand far, far beneath.

Then, the demon bursts into a cloud of smoke and he crashes down onto the stone floor, rolls and comes to a stop on his back.

He stares up, and it’s just different shades of black. The sounds of raging battle around him dull for a moment, and, for a second, he can breathe again, and the night air is cold, and the pain from too many cuts and collisions and spells catches up with him. So do his thoughts.

I can’t get up, he thinks flatly. I don’t want to go back there. I can’t.

Someone pulls him up, a sharp tug and they let go, but end up having to catch him by the shoulder when he begins to fall right back down.

He blinks, catches a glimpse of bloodstained silverite plate. Blackwall?

He thinks there’s a voice, too, that someone’s speaking to him, but for a blissful moment none of it is coming through - and then the comprehension crashes back in, words along with noise and smoke and understanding of how many seconds he just wasted lying on his back and staring at the sky.

He needs to get up, now; he needs to move; he needs to - he needs -

He pushes against the ground, tries to get back up, but doesn’t manage the effort even for that. I can’t, the voice in his thoughts repeats. I can’t.

It’s only more of the same ahead, and then something even worse in the end, and he needs to go, he needs to get there and save lives - he’s losing people right now, get up, get up, get up, - but he can’t; the sheer thought of it presses down on his throat until no air can come through, drains his strength until he’s unable to move, screams at him, you won’t make it through this.

But he has to. He has to. He has to.

Somehow, he’s eventually on his feet again, lucid enough to keep going. Someone shoves a healing potion into his hand. He downs it, forces the liquid down despite his body’s protests, and the haze clears away some more.

“We secured the walls,” a voice he recognizes as Hawke’s says. “Time to move forward.”

He nods, and takes a deep breath before the wave finally crashes over him.

Chapter Text

“It was right.”

These were the last words Dorian heard him speak; they had just stumbled out of the eluvian, barely escaping Corypheus. Still soaked from his fall into the Well, Neilar righted himself against the wall and looked at him with hazed-over eyes. The Anchor flared and crackled, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“It was the right thing,” he muttered, out of breath. “It was right.”

Then there was a brushing sound as his glove slid against the stone; his eyes rolled back and he collapsed forward, nearly knocking the arcane advisor off her feet. In the second it took her to right herself and turn around, Dorian was already by his side with a healing spell ready, but the magic passed through Neilar’s body aimlessly; there were no wounds to heal.

“‘Tis not a wound you can heal with a spell or potion, northerner,” he heard the witch’s voice above his shoulder. “Your Inquisitor has taken on an enormous amount of arcane energy without any training. Now, his mind will either bend or break, and there is not much for us to do except wait.”

“Sparrow can take it,” Varric said. “I doubt that Abelas guy would let him drink if he couldn’t.”

Since then, a week and two days have passed.

 

He can hear Iseran clicking his tongue before the door of the Inquisitor’s quarters even opens. The healer opens it a frown that softens once he identifies the visitor, but doesn’t fully go away; he glances Dorian over and shakes his head with a quiet sigh.

“I am afraid I have no news for you,” Iseran says. “It is all the same.”

His heart feels heavier every time he hears these words, but Dorian only says:

“I know.”

“You will be the first to know when there is an improvement, I promise.”

“I know.”

There’s a moment of silence as they exchange glances, and then Iseran clicks his tongue one more time and steps aside, letting him in. This ritual has already grown familiar; Dorian understands Iseran’s subtle attempts to tell him there is no point in coming here this often, but they are predestined to fall flat. Iseran knows that, but keeps repeating them out of sheer obligation. He hasn’t complained even once about him coming here - and to Dorian’s knowledge, he’s been all but chasing out with a broom all other visitors except for Morrigan, the one time she agreed to come up here only to declare the same thing as on the first day.

“Thank you,” he says quietly. Iseran nods silently; part of the ritual, also.

The room is warm and quiet, windows shut, flames crackling peacefully in the fireplace. Almost as if nothing is happening - except there’s a faint scent of herbs and a stronger one of lyrium in the air, and the typically empty desk holds potions and notes, as well as Iseran’s journal. His staff is leaning against the bookshelf; the healer more or less moved into these quarters by now. Dorian knows this is twice as stressful for him; aside from Neilar’s condition, he also worries about the patients he left in the infirmary. Other healers will take care of them, but Iseran wouldn’t be Iseran if that was enough for him.

Dorian glances around the room, as usual, stalling for just a few more seconds of time. There was a study he read as an apprentice; it talked about the influence of the Fade on time and space, mostly, but a few chapters were also dedicated to possibility. It pondered whether something really exists when one does not see it, especially in the Fade where reality is formed entirely through perception - and suggested that the moments when we do not look are the ones in which change happens, the fabric of the world swaying ever so slightly and adjusting itself to appear differently when the observer will look again.

He’s trying to trick that system, right now; to give the world just one more chance to shift and form a better outcome while he’s not looking. It doesn’t work, of course - he’s not in the Fade, and that theory is bullshit. Nothing will change in these few seconds; he will stare at the wall, and then he will cross the room and kneel by Neilar’s bed, and it will hurt to see him, but Dorian will still smile because he missed him so much.

It happens just so; it always does.

He hears a door open and close as Iseran leaves the room, probably to stand outside and glare at anyone who might approach - or maybe take a break, Maker knows he deserves one.

Dorian leans on the bed. On some days, he finds Neilar peaceful, like he’s just sleeping - but on others, there’s a slight frown on his face, lips pursed. On these days, he’ll sometimes turn and mutter to himself what Iseran recognizes as elvhen, but even he doesn’t know all the words. When it’s a day like this, he seems just on the verge of waking up - but in reality, this unrest only means the fight with whatever arcane entity has touched him is far from over.

Today is one of those days. Dorian watches Neilar’s head turn slightly to the side; his eyelashes flutter for a moment, and Dorian’s heart skips a beat - but his eyes remain shut.

He tries to force the disappointment down, and only partially suceeds. He notices Neilar’s fingers dig into the sheets as he turns again and exhales a word Dorian doesn’t recognize. Gently, he reaches for Neilar’s hand and intertwines his fingers with his, letting him hold onto his hand instead of the sheets. His touch is warm.

“Hush now,” Dorian murmurs. “I’m right here.”

Maybe it’s just his imagination, but it does seem as though Neilar’s breaths grow deeper and steadier after that. Dorian smiles again, running his thumb across the back of Neilar’s hand gently and letting himself have this moment of being close, together, whatever the circumstance. Letting himself be, just for a moment, at ease.

This moment doesn’t last for long - about until he remembers that he is, in fact, alone in this room; that Neilar doesn’t share this moment with him, however Dorian would like to pretend otherwise. That’s when the moment turns bitter, and self-resentment begins to scratch at the back of his mind; there is nothing to be happy about. Whatever is he smiling about when his amatus is right there, fighting against something nobody truly understands, and, for all Dorian knows, he could be very well losing?

It’s magic that keeps Neilar asleep. Magic is what Dorian does, the one thing he prides himself on besides his charm and fine taste, the skill he’s always excelled at. So why, in the Void, there is nothing he can do to help in this sutuation?

He shouldn’t be here right now. He should be ears deep in research, working by Iseran’s side, making things better. Helping to bring him back. So what if the magic is elven; if there’s anything he learned from his time in the Inquisition, it’s that there are a great many parallels between elven discoveries and those of his own people, and that is because they are the same.

But if even a Keeper doesn’t know anything - and Iseran is just as clueless as any of them are; he’s never said it outright, as a healer’s role forbids him from ever admitting defeat until the patient is gone for good, but Dorian knows he is, - if even a witch that claims to have spent a lifetime studying elven lore cannot say anything useful…

In his mind, this situation, this condition, is temporary. It is a process, an excruciatingly slow one, but it will be done eventually; Neilar will wake up, it’s a question of when, not of whether.

…But what if it’s not the case?

No, no, he shouldn’t even be thinking about this, because it’s not true - not because of the hollow, cold dread that fills his chest at the thought, not because when he tries to imagine that future there is just an endless nothing. Alexius’ dark timeline provided more than enough proof that this world, this timeline, cannot go on without Neilar Lavellan.

But it’s not that, no, it’s not even that - it’s just not true, so there is no reason to waste time thinking about it. And so he retreats again, back to the dubious comfort of Neilar’s hand clasping his own and knowing that he’s still alive, still fighting.

“You wouldn’t leave me, would you?” Dorian asks him quietly. “You’re smarter than that. You know I’ll find you on the other side of the Veil if I need to. Right?”

A few seconds pass in silence.

“You’re driving me crazy, you know,” he mutters, lowering his gaze from Neilar’s face to the sight of their interlaced fingers, studying it. “I am furious, amatus. There is a world to save, and you are taking your damn time with that Well magic. How long do we have to wait for you, tell me? Should we have Corypheus march in here so you understand it’s time to finally wake up?”

That last joke doesn’t land well at all; all it does is send chills down his spine again, making him ponder if only for a moment: what if? He chases it away again, irritated with himself for even bringing it up, then looks back up at Neilar.

“Well, listen to me ramble,” he says. “Not even half as fun without you staring at me the entire time. Let’s go back to that soon, yes?”

Silence. He sighs and leans forward, pressing a kiss to Neilar’s forehead - and then pulls away, letting go of his hand at the same time. It hasn’t become any easier since his first visit, neither will it tomorrow.

Dorian stands up. His eyes linger on Neilar some more; funny thing, how the reality he struggles to face is also the one he struggles to let go of, over and over again.

“Come back,” he says before finally turning away.

He leaves the quarters to find Iseran waiting for him outside, sitting cross-legged on the floor; the healer gets up at the sight of him, stretching briefly before approaching.

“Do you get any rest at all?” Dorian asks.

“Plenty,” Iseran says. “Do not worry about me, falon.”

There are tired notes in his voice, as well as worry - oddly enough, directed at him, Dorian, and not the actual patient. Iseran puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, looks him in the eye.

“We will get him back,” he says, simple and firm, and even though Dorian knows neither of them have the grounds to make that assumption, he believes him.

He nods:

“We will.”

Chapter Text

“Keep an eye out for trouble,” Juliet says in a low voice. “We’re about to cross into the Bastion of the Pure.”

“...The what?”

“The lyrium caves, you moron,” Ayla mutters.

“Well, just say the lyrium caves, then,” Enarin grumbles and glances around uneasily, gripping his shield tighter. He’s not the only one on edge; Moira has noticed Juliet reach for her sword at a sudden noise or a shadow darting past more than once, and Ayla seems ready to send the arrow nocked in her bow flying towards the first suspicious movement she sees.

Moira can hardly blame them; reports of strange dwarf-like creatures sealed in metal armor, carrying strange devices that can blast a hole right through your chest, are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl, including herself. It doesn’t help matter that she’s never been that deep before. She tries to calm down by pointing out to herself that those tunnels aren’t that different from the Circle’s underground levels at all, winding paths and secret chambers all around - but the Circle didn’t have lurking creatures with weapons unseen before, not usually, at least.

But these creatures are destroying bridges and killing the Inquisition soldiers who are building them, and Moira’s team, along with any others, has been sent in as reinforcement. You don’t get to choose where you serve the Inquisition, you get a direction and head there to fulfill your duty, that’s all.

She’s the mage in this team. Her job is to keep them alive, wherever they go and whatever they face, the two human women and the elf who became her friends over the last few months, and that’s what she’ll do; no point in wondering about the rest.

They must be getting really close, because she can feel the distant hum of lyrium all around; muffled, but crying for her attention, like the trickling of water reaching a traveler’s ears in the middle of the desert. It tingles and calls and bounces around, almost like… moving.

Suddenly, Enarin stops.

“I hear footsteps,” he says.

The next moment, the echo reaches her too; heavy thuds and scrapes of metal against stone, too quick to be darkspawn, heading right towards them.

“Shit,” Juliet whispers, and stops too. “Get ready.”

They fall into formation; the warriors step forward while Ayla and Moira take a step back. Ayla readies her first shot; Moira takes a deep breath and reaches for the Veil. Part of her expects to feel nothing, as if miles and miles and miles of stone could block one from the Fade, but she does feel the familiar hum of magic in the back of her mind.

Figures appear in the back end of the tunnel; short and stocky, glimmering with silver and blue in the faint light. Metal suits from head to toe; it’s hard to believe there is a being of flesh and blood inside them, especially as the engravings on their armor are burning with lyrium blue.

She casts a barrier just as blue flames flare out from the other side; something crashes into her defenses with a force she could only attribute to a spell and then fades, small pieces of metal clinking down onto the ground.

Ayla’s arrows bounce off the lyrium-infused armor; some just shatter.

Blue flames crash against the shield again; Moira grinds her teeth, feeling the impact echo in her temples.

“How are we supposed to get out here?” Enarin yells above the thunderous noise that follows each explosion.

I’m working on it! -

Struggling to keep concentration on the barrier the entire time, she fumbles with her belt until she finally manages to detach one of her lyrium potions and down it; feeling the liquid fire rush through her veins, she clutches her staff and casts.

Frost covers the tunnel’s walls and crawls towards the creatures, developing into larger and larger crystals of ice glowing ever so slightly in the dark, engulfing some of the suits completely and rendering all of them immobile.

Moira drops the barrier. The warriors rush out, but find no moving target. She exhales, relieved, feeling her own pulse still pounding in her temples.

“Let’s go,” she says. “They won’t stay there forever.”

They move on. She pays no mind to the frozen figures. This is her mistake.

None of them notice the cracks spreading across one of the ice crystals as the creature trapped within struggles. It shatters into pieces right as they walk by, as the figure tumbles to the ground, regroups and immediately lunges forward with a roaring battle cry distorted underneath the metal helmet. In its hand, there is a strange bundle glowing with lyrium, and it flares up.

Earthshaker, a word from a report comes up in Moira’s memory for a brief second. Explosives.

Juliet and the others seem to remember the same.

Run!

Juliet’s voice is the last thing Moira hears before a blue flash consumes the cavern, and the sound of an explosion shatters the air; the last thing she sees is the others darting forward. Her foot catches under one of her own ice crystals as she tries to follow, and the last thing she feels is the surprise of falling before the world turns into noise and then nothing.


 

She wakes up to darkness and a splitting headache. Moira hisses a curse, blinks and tries to reach her aching temple - but fails to raise her arm.

That’s when she becomes aware of the pressure on her chest and her limbs, the cold stone all around, and the pain.

Breathing becomes much harder suddenly as her eyes focus enough to see the flickering magic barrier, mere inches away from her face, and the heaps of rubble it is holding back; some of the stones have began to sink through, weighing on her.

Frantically, she tries to reach into the Fade, to push the weight off - but finds nothing; the throbbing ache behind her eyes and the burning in her chest inform her of an almost drained mana pool.

Lyrium potion. She still had - there should be - Maker damn it. If she could just twist her arm enough to get to them…

It takes a good few minutes of struggling and freezing as the barrier flickers, threatening to fade, but finally she’s able to reach her belt - and when she does, her fingers meet only shards of glass scattered on the ground.

...Alright. Time to panic.

She should call for help. Is - is anyone else out there? Did anyone else survive the collapse? How long has she been unconscious?

Between the headache and the constant flickering, it’s really damn hard to concentrate on anything.

Moira breathes in slowly, waiting for a pang of pain or resistance from above to stop her, but none of that happens. She exhales. Should she be worrying about conserving air? It’s hard to make much out from behind the barrier, but some of these stones seem like they have large gaps between them. Is it enough? Will it just buy her more time? Maker, she doesn’t know.

She hates the thought with a passion, but it’s probably better to prepare for the worst and assume she’s going to suffocate.

With that in mind, taking the next breath is much harder, but shes still manages to fill her lungs and push the air out, calling as loud as she dares:

“...Juliet?”

Silence.

“Ayla?”

Silence.

“Enarin?”

...Silence.

None of them are here, then. Either that, or… or they fared worse than her. She doesn’t want to think about that. She saw them running, they got pretty far ahead; they must have escaped the worst of it and assumed her dead. Hopefully they make it to one of the bridges and get some help. Maybe they’ve already sent someone to help her… that doesn’t make sense. Why would they do that if they think she’s dead?

Inhale, exhale. She tries to keep herself from fully filling her lungs now; she has no idea whether that’s right, she might be just making it worse, but fear just won’t let her breathe freely anymore.

Alright. She can’t get out of here. There’s no one in earshot. She doesn’t know how much air she had left. How would she know that she’s running out? Dizziness?

No, stop. Backtrack. What’s the most important thing right now? Getting out, yes, but - she can’t have it right now. What next? What’s the most urgent thing, what’s going to kill her first?

The barrier flickers.

She needs mana.

Moira closes her eyes, bites down on her lip as her entire mind protests against it; no, not darkness again, open your eyes, look, when you can see you know you’re still alive, what if it all collapses right now, what if -

She thinks of the glass shards on the ground, sharp and inviting. Blood magic has never crossed her mind before, but - she might have no choice. She’s never dealt with demons from that side, but if it buys her time or even gets her out of here…

Just one problem: to find a demon, you need to reach the Fade. To reach the Fade, you need mana, and she has close to none of it left; if she doesn’t find a source soon, the spell will begin to feed on her life force. It might kill her before the rocks even begin to fall.

In the silence, merging with the rushing of her own thoughts, there is a hum; unnoticed at first, but as she lies there trying to come up with a plan, it grows louder and louder in her… ears? She’s not even sure that is an actual sound, but Moira knows the source well enough. Lyrium, the same lyrium she heard before the attack, the same lyrium those metal suits were stuffed full of.

If any of their bodies are around… Maybe she could reach one. Touching raw lyrium coud outright kill a mage, but she’s wearing gloves, and maybe, maybe whatever they did to it to imbue their weapons with it was enough to weaken the effect.

Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that only made it worse. But if she has to choose between possession and death by lyrium as her worst-case scenario, Moira is fairly sure she likes the lyrium better.

So she slows her breath down even more and listens, trying to forget everything but the hum, to identify where it’s coming from. One source is close, and she thinks she might be able to reach it - but for that, she’d have to go past the barrier.

She opens her eyes.

Okay, Moira. Just - just reach your hand out. The barrier isn’t going anywhere. This isn’t how it works.

Still, it takes some time to convince herself to slowly lift her arm and push it past the thin glowing surface; it flickers again just as she does and her heart drops at the same time as the stones sink towards her some more. It almost makes her stop, retreat back to her failing bubble of safety - but she lets the fear push her forward instead, out and through a gap between stones, where she’s fairly sure she can see a glimmer of metal now. After a few moments of fishing around, her fingers hit something hard, and by the clinking sound she knows this is it. The sound - and the rush of energy at her fingertips.

She stretches as far out as the rubble allows her, getting a better grip on the piece of armor; her fingers find a gap in the metal and something soft underneath. Her stomach turns - but, once the initial disgust settles down, confusion comes in. Her magic tells her she’s still touching lyrium. Liquid lyrium?

Were they even really alive?

She’s not about to complain, not now. She draws evergy from the dead body, slowly, cautious not to burn through it too quickly - and watches the barrier grow brighter and stronger, alleviating the pressure just enough to no longer feel crushed.

Moira breathes out; half an exhale of relief, half a nervous chuckle, shaking her head with a smile that came out of nowhere.

It works. It’s working… for now. Maker knows how long she’ll be able to keep this up, but… it’s something. She tries to draw some of the energy away from the spell and into her own mana pool, but gives up on the idea as soon as the rocks drop down an inch again.


 

She jolts awake to a distant noise, hissing in pain as her forehead passes the barrier and hits the stone above. It’s lower than she remembers, and the steady flow of energy through the barrier is closer to a trickle. Not good.

...When did she pass out again?

The noise grows louder and closer, and suddenly turns into voices - all of them calling her name. Her throat tightens as she realizes one of them as familiar. She takes a shaky breath, and calls back:

“...Evelyn?”

Then again, as loud as she can:

“Evelyn!!”

Nothing changes for a moment, and dread washes over as Moira suddenly wonders if the voices are real - but then Evelyn’s voice sounds again, and it’s much closer.

“Moira! Maker’s breath - where are you?!”

“Over here,” she calls, doing her best to keep her voice clear.

Rushing footsteps - and as they come closer, other voices come through, familiar too. Varric’s voice almost gets lost in the low rumble of Bull’s, but she still manages to tell them apart. There’s another one, too, one she didn’t expect to hear here at all:

“...Where? Ev… Evelyn, w-where have you heard? - ”

“I think she’s behind the rocks - “

“I’m here,” Moira says weakly, and, thank the Maker, they are close enough to hear her.

“Thank the Creators,” Iseran exhales; his voice is trembling as though he’s on the verge of tears, and something tightens in her chest upon hearing him like that. “Ma lath - are y-you - are you hurt?”

That’s… an interesting question, actually. She faintly remembers her entire body hurting, but she doesn’t feel any of that anymore; she wonders why. She’s still been able to move around some, though, so…

“...Well, I’m speaking to you right now,” Moira says, “And… And that’s about all I can say, really.” She chuckles nervously. “See, I - I’m not exactly behind the rocks, it’s more, uh… under them.”

There’s a moment of silence.

“...Well, shit,” Varric mutters.

“I’m - I think I’m fine,” she adds. “I’ve been keeping a barrier up, so I’m not crushed as far as I can tell, but I don’t know how much longer it’ll hold. Get me out of here, please?”

She utters the last words with a smile, though an uneasy one; it’s a weird state she’s in right now. Her heart is pounding, and she can’t tell whether it’s fear or excitement; some part of her still struggles to believe these voices are real, and another part of her still hasn’t woken up, and she’s feeling more and more dizzy by the second  - but Maker, she’s so glad to hear all of them.

“Working on it,” Evelyn says. “Don’t worry, we’ve got two mages; we’ll lift those rocks in no time.”

“Two mages,” Moira echoes her.

“Yes, me and Iseran - you’ve heard us.”

“Iseran,” she repeats.

“Yes - I - that’s what I said.” Evelyn sounds worried. “...Are you really alright?”

“Well, I’m buried under Maker knows how many rocks right now, so no, but - ” a laugh escapes her, surprising even Moira herself. “Just - Iseran - you’re here. You’re down here.”

“I… I am.”

“...But you hate caves,” she says.

A strange sound comes from the other side; she can’t tell whether it’s a laugh, a scoff or a sob.

“M-moira - are you - are you serious? They s-said - in the camp - your t-team went mis-missing. You needed help. Of course I am here.”

“...Sorry, vhenan.”

“Do not.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Bull’s voice sounds suddenly, “But, Moira - do you remember how you ended up under there?”

“Those… lyrium dwarves ambushed us. One of them pulled out an explosive device, and the ceiling collapsed.”

“Right.” He sighs. “That’s what I thought, too. We have a problem, boss.”

She and Evelyn respond nearly at the same time:

“...What problem?”

“We don’t know how far the rubble goes,” Varric says. “If we start taking rocks out of there, more might fall down.”

“What he said,” Bull agrees. “You two need to make an opening so we can get her out, but first, we need to figure out which rocks are safe to move. Otherwise...”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but the meaning is pretty clear.

“Well,” Moira says, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Keep that barrier up, that’s what you need to do,” Evelyn responds sharply. “We - we’ll figure it out. Right?” The last word sounds slightly muffled; Moira assumes she turned away to look at her teammates.

“Right,” Varric mutters. “Shouldn’t be a problem, just - crap, I need something to write on.”

“I don’t,” Bull says.

“Well, you two go figure it out then,” Evelyn snaps; after a small pause, she sighs and adds, much quieter, “Sorry. This - this is getting to me. I’ll be better.”

“Hey,” Moira calls; immediately, all four voices respond in a cacophony of “what”.

“Evelyn and Iseran,” she says, “While they go look at those rocks, will… will you two keep me company?”

“Of course,” Evelyn says immediately, and, at the same time, Iseran answers:

“Yes, of course we will.”

“...Thanks.”


 

“You know,” Moira says, “I understand everything’s awful right now, but you guys are the best.”

Evelyn lets out a small laugh, confused.

“...Thank you?”

“I’m just saying - not every person who gets trapped under rocks gets to be rescued by their best friend and the love of their life rushing in. I’m going to hug the hell out of you when I’m out of here.”

Now Iseran laughs too, and there’s comfort in that quiet sound unlike any other.

“J-just wait until I can see you again, vhenan.”

Suddenly, a thought comes to mind.

“Evelyn… How long have we been missing?” Moira asks.

“About a day.”

“...Has anyone made it to the bridges? From my team?”

Evelyn is quiet for a moment.

“I don’t know, sorry,” she answers finally. “News travels slower with one of the passages collapsed.”

Moira tries to understand if she’s lying, but it’s always been hard - and now doubly so, with a haze across her thoughts and the shine of her own magic hypnotizing her focus away.

“Those armored things are like barrels stuffed full of lyrium,” she mutters. “That’s how I’ve been keeping that barrier. There’s one right here - I’ve been drawing on the lyrium in his suit, and… and I think under it as well. How can there be lyrium under it, Evelyn?”

“I think… I think they’re eating it. Or drinking it. I don’t know - we found scriptures about them consuming it somehow.”

“Oh.” This is… gross? Terrifying? No, neither, oddly enough - just weird. “...Well, it’s fortunate for me. Though I think I’m going to run out of dwarf juice soon.”

Maker, Moira!” Varric’s voice sounds from somewhere further away.

“I am in lethal danger! I can say whatever I want, Varric!”

“Yes, but hypothetically, would you want your last words ever to be dwarf juice?”

“Varric!” Iseran calls, furious, Evelyn echoing him.

Moira snorts.

“No, no,” she says. “He has a point.”

“Do not joke about that,” Iseran says, “Please.”

“...Alright,” she agrees.

A few seconds of silence pass. As the nervous joy wears off, she suddenly becomes aware of the weight above her again, of the darkness around.

“You know,” Moira says, “We found some notes here and there - from Grey Wardens. They came here to die.”

“Yes,” Evelyn says, “We found some too.”

“One of them was from a mage. She fell down from a cliff and broke her legs, but she was still alive for some time. And she kept writing. I got chills when we read that journal. I remember looking at that final entry and thinking, thank the Maker that’s not me.”

“Moira - ” Iseran begins, but she interrupts:

“Thank you. The two of you, and Bull, and Varric, and also, Iseran - I love you.”

“Stop talking like you’re about to die!” Evelyn whispers.

“I’m not,” she says.

“Yes, you are!”

”...Boss,” Bull calls. “We think we’ve got it! Come here when you’re ready.”

Moira sighs.

“Go,” she says.

“No, wait - ”

Go. You’re right, I’m not going to die, so we’ll have the rest of that conversation when I’m out of here. Alright?”

There’s a pause.

“...Alright,” Evelyn says, though Moira still hears reluctant notes in her voice.

She hears shifting and footsteps as the two get up and move away - or so she thinks; a moment after the footsteps grow distant, she hears Iseran’s voice.

“I love you too,” he says quietly. “Ar lath ma, vhenan.”

“Ar lath ma,” she echoes. She can feel the barrier straining, slowly beginning to burn into her own reserves again; if she wants to get out, it needs to be done soon.

She doesn’t hear him walk away, but a moment later his voice sounds distant, mixing with others’.

Moira closes her eyes and focuses on the barrier, trying not to think about what will happen next.

Chapter Text

“Sereda,” Demetrius whispers, hoarse but way too loud in the silence that’s surrounding them.

“I’m here,” she says quietly.

“Where… are we going?”

“Somewhere safe.”

“…How far is it?”

“I don’t know,” she answers, and though she manages to keep her voice steady, her fingers clench the dagger’s grip in frustration. “You’ll have to hold tight. Keep walking.”

“I’m so tired,” he mutters. “Sereda - “ a cough interrupts his words, “- Maybe - ” he tries to continue, but the cough cuts him off again. Finally, Demetrius manages to finish, “…Maybe I’ll rest here for - just a little bit. And you’ll keep going.”

“You’re mighty talkative, I see,” she says. “If you have the energy to speak, you have the energy to walk.”

He attempts to stop, but she pulls him forward, forcing him, with a groan of protest, to take the next step.

“Sereda!…”

Another tug, a sharper one.

“This hurts! - ”

“If you want me to stop, start putting your feet forward yourself!”

“Sereda,” Demetrius’ voice trembles as though he’s about to break into tears, “Please - I can’t - it burns - ”

But she pretends to not hear any of this and continues dragging him forward, and, for all his pleading, he takes step after step to keep up with her.

 

The chilling air of the tunnel is a stark contrast to the fevered heat radiating from the body next to her. Demetrius’ head hangs down limply as he leans against her shoulder with his entire weight, forcefully pulled by her forward rather than walking at her side; his rasping breaths and dry coughs fall into the same rhythm as their footsteps. Sereda can’t tell how much time passed since she last heard him talk, but it has been a while. The rusted sword he picked off a genlock’s corpse is still clenched tightly in hand, though she knows he’ll be no help in the next fight - and that fight will come.

Sereda doesn’t need a Grey Warden’s senses to see shadows dart across the walls, to hear footsteps and the shifting of armor, quiet as the creatures producing them are trying to be. She spent nearly half of her life in the Deep Roads; she knows when darkspawn are nearby.

They’ve been trailing them for a while now, like deepstalkers following their future prey around, waiting until it tires to storm the creature at its weakest. But darkspawn don’t eat, and it’s not food they are waiting for; it’s her.

A woman entering the Deep Roads risks infinitely more than a man. Should a male warrior fall, his fate is either quick death or succumbing to the Taint; a female will be dragged off to be made a broodmother. For that, some revere women who still choose to join the fight as fearless in the face of such fate, while others condemn them for risking strengthening the darkspawn army in case of defeat. For that, one of the first lessons Sereda has learned, and later taught her own soldiers, was to never let herself be captured alive.

For that, the silverite dagger’s thin grip is comforting in the palm of her hand; yesterday’s purchase from the Diamond Quarter, slipped through the bars of her prison, Gorim’s goodbye. The jailor turned a blind eye, perhaps out of respect for the royal name. Violation of tradition, and far more than she deserves for her stupidity - but a blessing, for it will allow her to die like a warrior without delivering a blow against her own kingdom when the time will come.

It would have been easier on her own, if her word against Bhelen’s was enough, if her father and the Assembly believed Demetrius was innocent. It would have been easier if he stayed out of danger instead of rushing between her and the slash of a darkspawn blade, driven by this stupid guilt of his. It would have been easier if that slash was lethal.

It would have been so much easier, but there she is, counting seconds and footsteps, watching the darkspawn watching her, slowed down by a brother as good as dead, with the Taint already in his veins. Sereda knows she should leave him or end his life mercifully, instead of making his last hours all the more painful by dragging him on and on through these tunnels - but Demetrius clings to her blindly, unaware of his surroundings and the passing of time, and she keeps finding new ridiculous reasons to put off the parting.

Maybe he will power through; Legion soldiers have been known to sometimes live with the sickness for months, still capable of thinking clearly or fighting. Maybe it’s not the Taint at all, just a fever caused by an infected wound, and she might be able to salvage some supplies and treat him. Maybe the Grey Wardens still haven’t left the tunnels, and some Wardens are mages, and some mages can mend wounds otherwise lethal.

It’s all just wishful thinking, she knows it is - and deep down, Sereda doesn’t know why she even bothers; there is no way out of here. She’s fighting for a hundred more steps and a thousand more breaths of stale tunnel air before they both die.

She knows it will happen, but her heart still sinks when the weight on her shoulder grows even heavier and then suddenly slides off as Demetrius’ knees fold; his sword tumbles to the groung with a clanging sound as he collapses right by it.

Sereda kneels by his side, picks the sword up and stands up to face the darkspawn.

Two genlocks step out, weapons at the ready. They’re not charging, just walking towards them, knowing she won’t run; dry cackling echoes off the stone walls as they approach.

Sereda decides not to wait. She leaps forward, closing the distance, and swings the sword at the closest genlock; as it raises its own blade to deflect the attack, the silverite dagger pierces its side and the creature shrieks in pain, crumpling down. Sereda spins around and hacks at the other genlock’s neck right as it comes towards her, axe swinging past; there is an impact, and then her blade slides free as the deformed head tumbles off the darkspawn’s shoulders.

She tenses up, waiting for the next creature to come out of the shadows, but a second passes and there is none; as a wave of dread hits her, she turns around just in time to see a longer, skeletal figure crouched over Demetrius’ unconscious body. The shriek looks up, dead eyes meeting her gaze.

Leave him alone!

Her voice shatters into echoes in the narrow space as she rushes back towards the creature; it tilts its head back and responds with a shrilling cry of its own, then leaps up, pressing all four limbs against the ceiling for a split second and lands behind her back. Sereda whips around, keeping her eyes on the shriek. A brief thought passes through her head: that’ll bring more of them.

The creature lunges forward; she dodges the blades affixed to its arms, tries to reach it with her dagger, but it twists away. It’s a whirlwind of attacking and evading and desperately trying to keep an eye on her brother between countering her opponent’s movements; finally she spots an opening and dives beneath the blade-arms, carving the shriek’s stomach open. There is a second of silence as it tumbles down limp, and then she hears the footsteps - feels them in the Stone. Heavier, in larger numbers, coming from the direction they were headed in.

Stepping over Demetrius, she sees them; towering figures slowly becoming clearer and clearer as they approach. Hurlocks; five she can immediately see, and the Stone tells here there are more behind. More than she can fight off, and they are approaching quickly.

Her heart pounds wildly in her chest as Sereda stands frozen, watching the darkspawn come closer and closer.

This is it.

When she shakes the odd paralysis off, they’re close enough for her to make out separate parts of their armor, to hear each creature’s growling as the tunnel carries it towards her. She knows what has to be done.

Slowly, Sereda raises the silverite dagger and holds it up to her throat.

“I’m sorry, brother,” she says quietly.

She knows he doesn’t hear her; he stopped hearing her a long time ago.

She stares forward, meeting the flaring eyes of what seems to be the party’s leader - and just as she takes one last breath in preparation to pull the blade across, she watches those two lights suddenly go out.

A spike of ice bursts through the hurlock’s chest the next moment and he collapses down; the four around him turn and stumble back under heavy blows and arrows and flashes of light. As they fall down one by one, Sereda sees the blues and silvers of Grey Warden armor come out of the darkness. These are the ones she assumed to be more darkspawn, she understands suddenly.

Her hand drops down; both her weapons fall to the ground, and she falls to her knees with them, cut down by a sudden wave of dizziness - relief? Or has she missed a hit from that shriek, and it’s begun catching up with her?

She lifts her head up to see the Wardens coming towards them; the man leading them is familiar. Duncan, she recalls. He calls out something, but she doesn’t understand a single word. Her mind is still stuck a few moments ago, with the dagger against her throat and the darkspawn coming closer, towards her and the brother she failed to spare from his suffering.

…her brother.

“…Demetrius,” she mumbles. “Help him.”

She doesn’t know if he responds; the next moment, the last of her senses fade away and the world goes dark.

Chapter Text

“Whatever happens, don’t let them see you cry.”

It’s one of the first lessons she’s ever learned, and one she’s carried through the entirety of her lifetime; tears are a sign of weakness, reassurance for your opponent and nothing but trouble for you. She’s learned to push them back and put on a smile instead; whenever you hurt, whenever you want to scream, smile - and that will scare the hell out the people trying to get to you. It works like magic, every time - assuming that you’re dealing with people, of course.

Some things don’t care if you cry or laugh or scream. Some things just want you dead.

Folks who’ve seen a darkspawn say that they laugh, and it’s a weird echoing sound, as though they’re hollow inside. Frey always thought those were just exaggerations, something to make the things sound scarier - but now she hears the same laughter echo off the walls of the tunnel as footsteps pass by, heavy slow thuds and lighter, armor-jingling skittering merging into a single terrifying march rhythm.

She can’t tell how long she’s been there. She can’t tell how much longer she’ll have to stay in this hiding spot, jammed into a crack in the stone, just barely out of sight.

Turns out, there’s a good sodding reason this path wasn’t marked on any Carta maps. Turns out there’s a reason why nobody followed her in despite the more than generous offering for her head.

You’d think a lifetime in Dust Town would render you immune to all kinds of stench, but the smell in the air is unbearable; it’s thick and colorless and it feels like it sticks to the inside of your lungs. The fabric of her shirt does nothing to filter it out, and she tries not to wonder whether the Blight can travel through the air.

Where are they going? Why are there so many of them, here, now?

Would she stand a chance if one, just one of those things suddenly decided to turn its head to the right?

Frey doesn’t want to know the answer to any of those questions.

She curls up, buries her nose deeper in her shirt and tries to breathe as slowly as possible, ignoring the violent pounding of her heart and the trembling of her entire body.

Suddenly, a hollow growl disrupts the cacophony of noises. The line halts, and so does her breath; she presses her hands over her mouth and tries to push even further back in, even though she already feels cold stone against her spine.

There’s a growl again, probably the same creature - and footsteps, heavy footsteps followed by clinking of armor and smaller screeches of protest; she can almost see one of the creatures push through other ones, going, going… where? She tries to listen, feel through the stone, but fear won’t let her make anything out, just the weight of many, many creatures very close to her.

The footsteps are getting closer.

It’s her. They’re coming for her -

She hears several voices now, speaking in low growls over each other - and then, suddenly, the movement resumes and the air fills with noise again, as though nothing happened - and that noise, she realizes, is beginning to grow fainter.

She stays frozen in her hiding place for ancestors know how long, afraid to move long after she stops hearing the darkspawn. Her hands and the collar of her shirt are weirdly wet when she finally takes them off her face, and so are her eyes.

Frey curses voicelessly and tries to blink the tears off; there isn’t a single surface in this entire cave system she’d trust enough to wipe her eyes with.

Chapter Text

The scout’s eyes widen and gloss over; glowing cracks cross his face for a moment, and then flames burst through, human form shattered and burning off, as a mass of red and orange and yellow unfolds from within as though emerging out of a coccoon, roaring into the cave’s humid air and immediately filling it with steam.

It lashes towards her with a flaming clawed arm, and her heart still hurts, but Moira calls on a shield to deflect the attack; she reaches for the Fade, sends her magic outwards, and -

Nothing. The impact’s full force crashes into her and tears the staff from her hands, sending her flying back into the wall; the world goes dark for a second, and then she finds herself curled breathless on the ground, her chest and back aching from the collision.

She scrambles back up just as the glowing figure glides out of the mist, toothy grin on its wide face.

“Cassandra!” Moira calls. “Evelyn! Sera!”

Silence - and then the demon cackles and opens its maw, flames pouring out.

Her magic surges, a chill on her skin; she throws her arms up expecting a wall of ice to come out of the ground, but all that comes is flames, an explosion of heat and light. There is a moment of numbness - and then pain drags its claws across her face and down to her neck, as the old scar reopens, and the hurt from it begins to spread all across her body, the metal of her armor heating up.

Moira screams.

Behind the flames, she still sees an elven figure - but it’s too tall and thin to be Grandin, dressed in robes rather than armor, holding a staff rather than a sword.

Holding her staff.

Enchanter Otto’s glasses flash at her, and, inside her head, she heard his voice whisper:

A mage cannot survive outside the Circle.

The flames burn and burn, and she can feel her magic flowing to her wounds, trying to protect, to heal the damage - but nothing happens.

“Moira,” Otto says, his voice weirdly different. “Moira, wake up. Then’dar, vhenan.

Suddenly, the flames are gone, and her eyes open to darkness; she feels a prickle, as though there’s something in her eye. The air is chilling cold, and it burns entering her lungs almost as much as the flames in her dream did.

There’s a figure leaning over her; as her vision comes into focus, Moira makes out the familiar golden vallaslin, the braid thrown over his shoulder and the look of concern on Iseran’s face.

He exhales in relief, and his breath comes out in a little cloud, reminding her of the cold. It’s then that she notices their tent’s interior is lined with frost. There is a trickle of steam coming off Iseran’s clothes, the ice evaporating the moment it touches him.

“...T-thank the Creators.”

Slowly, Moira brings up a shaking hand and runs it over her face; more frost comes off. It doesn’t melt at her touch, just crumbles off her hair and eyelashes, glowing ever so faintly in the dark. It’s magic.

She remembers sending wave after wave of magic out, trying to defend against the Rage demon, and feels the remains of that evergy still flowing from her fingertips.

“Maker’s breath,” she murmurs, shutting that flow down. Her mana pool is almost empty.

Moira pushes herself up and hears the layer of ice covering her blanket crack as it folds. Even though it’s her own magic, she can’t help but shiver - both at the cold and the realization of what she’s done.

“Maker - I - Iseran - I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she repeats, dazed.

“It is alright,” he says quietly. “You are awake now.”

“Just a moment, I… I’ll fix this.”

Iseran only shakes his head in response, and dispels the ice crystals; they dissipate into white smoke, leaving only a faint trail of frost behind. Warmth begins to return into the space around, and as it does, Moira realizes just how cold it was in here before.

“I’d freeze us to death,” she whispers, voice trembling.

“You would not, I just…” Iseran lets out a frustrated sigh. “I-I am just sorry I did not wake up sooner. Give me your hand,” he says. Moira obeys, putting a hand forward; her fingers feel numb.

Iseran reaches for her hand - but the slightest touch of his fingers is scorching; she hisses in pain and pulls back, and at the same time hears Iseran gasp quietly as his hand pulls back as well.

Was… was she so cold that it hurt too?

“I’m - ”

“It is fine. Everything is fine. Here - p-please, give me your hand again.”

She does so - and this time, Iseran slowly brings his palm closer to hers until she can feel the heat radiating from him, but not quite touching yet. It’s hard to keep her hand steady, but she manages, and, slowly, she feels her fingers begin to thaw as blood rushes into her hand. The warmth begins to creep into the rest of her body, allowing her to move closer and closer until they finally meet in the middle and Iseran wraps his arms around her; Moira buries her face in his shoulder, trying to get as much heat as she can, and it’s still so cold .

“Shhh,” Iseran whispers above her ear, and his breath feels like hot air rising above a campfire. “You are safe. You are safe, ma lath.”

You are safe, he says, and the relief from these words makes her throat tighten; she doesn’t notice the first breath that turns into a sob and the first tear that rolls down her cheek, warm, until her shoulders begin to shake from something other than cold as she cries quietly, almost silently, into Iseran’s shoulder.

 

Chapter Text

“You know,” Dagna says, “You really shouldn’t be here right now.”

When Aqun tries to respond, at first all that comes out is a cough; it takes him a moment to collect himself and try again, successfully this time:

“I know, I’m not here for long. There’s - there’s just one thing I need to finish.”

Dagna tilts her head to the side and gives him her best skeptical look, eyes narrowed and lips pursed; the kind of look you’d get for suggesting replacing volcanic aurum with copper, or saying that “just a little more lyrium should do the trick”, or coming to work in the Undercroft when you’ve been fighting off a cold for couple of days now.

“I don’t trust you,” she says. “You need to go rest.”

“And the people in Emprise du Lion need landmines to keep behemoths from smashing their camps.”

“That - alright, alright, this one is kind of overdue.” She sighs. “Fine… Do you need a hand with that? I’m kind of busy, but,” she glances over to her table, where two other dwarves work meticulously over a runic scheme, “You can have one of those. I think they’ll be happy to work with something that clicks again.”

Aqun chuckles hoarsely; Dagna’s assistants, almost all dwarves with some sort of mechanic background, have become a familiar element of the Undercroft’s landscape by now. At first he tried to remember the exact number and names of them, but so far none of those assistants lasted more than a week - much to the frustration of the Inquisition’s higher-ups, who nonetheless kept finding new helpers for Dagna in an attempt to speed her research up.

“Thanks,” he says. “I’ll let you know - but keep them, for now. I just need to finish the scheme, and - ” another fit of coughing cuts off his words, forcing him to lean on a nearby table for support, “ - and get it to Cullen for approval,” he finishes, straightening.

Dagna eyes him dubiously again, then shakes her head and says:

“Okay, then; good luck. But, Tinker,” she adds, frowning slightly, “Don’t overwork yourself.”

He salutes jokingly.

“Yes, Arcanist Dagna.”

Dagna rolls her eyes, but he can see her trying not to giggle as she walks back to her work station.

Compiling notes and sketches into a final schematic is always a tedious process, but, luckily, also one that doesn’t require much thinking; all the material is already there, on paper and in the form of the test version they built - currently sitting on his desk for reference, disarmed. All that he needs to do is to put it together in a way that others can understand - and that’s what he does, slowly transferring schemes and names of materials and assembly notes onto a blank sheet. Even the cough goes away for a while, or at least he stops noticing it, too focused on getting the proportions right.

It’s not until he’s halfway through that his eyelids grow heavy and the numbers written in his own hand start mocking him; an eight turns into a three and a one into a seven, and, thank the Maker, he catches those mistakes on time, going over the entire sheet again whenever he notices just one.

Focus, he scolds himself. You get it wrong, and everything we make by these is ruined.

Somewhere in the chamber, he hears a buzz and then a small explosion, followed by Dagna exclaiming something in dwarven. The assistants mumble back, probably trying to explain themselves. Poor souls; they’re trying their best, probably, but it takes more than mechanical expertise to do what she does. It’s a shame Circle mages can’t handle raw lyrium; their expertise would probably help more than a smith’s education.

His thoughts trail off again, and so nearly does the line he’s been drawing. His hand still twitches as he rights himself, leaving an ink stain; he curses quietly, and feels his own voice echo inside his skull.

It’s fine. It’s fine. The stain doesn’t obscure any details, it’s just one imperfect line; no need to rework the entire thing. He’s making progress.

Aqun sighs and rubs his eyes, trying to get rid of the pounding headache that’s only getting stronger and stronger. It’s also getting uncomfortably warm in here, which is weird, because the Undercroft is a literal cavern, and probably means he’s getting worse.

“Come on, not yet,” he mutters, forcing his vision to focus on the sheet again. He needs to finish this - and then that cold can knock him out for a week, for all he cares; the assembly teams will handle the mines from there on.

He manages to finish the visual part without any more mistakes, thankfully. He does misspell “Silverite” more than once, and, looking at the scratched-out-lines, murmurs an apology to whoever will be forced to work by these later. To be fair, he’s seen and worked with schemes way messier, but this is far below his standards. He’d redo everything from scratch, normally, but right now, he’s just powering through.

By the time he finishes the last note and signs his name and today’s date in the corner of the page, his head is spinning, and all parts of reality that aren’t directly in front of him are blurry at best - but he’s done, finally, and this is all that matters. He stands up, pushing the chair back; now he just needs to wait for the ink to dry, and -

The world sways; he tries to keep balance and fails. The sight of the Undercroft flies past, and suddenly, he finds himself on the ground, staring at the ceiling and the corner of his desk.

His desk - Maker, the scheme! Did he hit it? Is it ruined?

He tries to get up and check, but his movements turn slow and heavy all of a sudden. It suddenly occurs to him that the chamber is silent, and that there’s a figure approaching him; after a moment he recognizes it as Dagna’s. She kneels by his side, speaking hastily, way too fast for him to make up words.

“I’m fine,” he tries to say, but she doesn’t seem to hear. “Dagna, the scheme - ”

She puts a hand on his forehead - her touch feels ice cold, - shakes her head, and says something to the assistants behind her shoulder.

This is getting really awkward, Aqun thinks. I should get up.

It’s the last thought that finds its way into his head before, against his will, his eyes close and the world spirals away into darkness.

Chapter Text

The fearlings are everywhere, twisted human-like bodies flooding the clearing which suddenly seems so small, the sight and noise of them drowning out nearly everything else. It’s hard to focus when everywhere he looks is the same; he can just keep sending arrow after arrow out without aiming and he’s still guaranteed to hit, but what good will it do?

The fearlings aren’t what he’s looking for. He’s watching for the Nightmare.

The Anchor flares up in response to the Fade twisting as the demon appears to his left; Aqun drops the grenade he’s been holding to, and, as the lightning erupting from it scatters the nearby fearlings, takes a clear shot at the Nightmare’s head. The arrow hits, the creature flinches and disappears again.

It’s not the end or it. He’s not sure what will be the end of it, but they have little choice except to keep trying; it does feel pain, at least, if those convulsions are anything to go by.

The demon bleeds into existence again; he shoots and misses, the mark on his hand flashing at the worst possible moment and ruining his aim. Corypheus’ voice cackles around him; Maker, he’s so sick of this voice.

“Keep trying, Inquisitor,” it whispers. “Keep fooling yourself that you have any control over this broken, broken world.”

Then, it disappears again.

“Your words are nothing but lies, demon!” Stroud calls out from somewhere within the fray, no response to follow.

“Where are you,” Aqun whispers, scanning the horizon over the fearlings’ heads - and, suddenly, the Nightmare responds, its voice closer and clearer than ever as though it’s standing right behind him:

Oh, I am still here. I just prefer not to waste my effort on insignificant critters such as this Warden.

He whips around, reaching for his belt frantically - but finds just sleek green rock and empty space behind his back, no hovering figure in sight.

No responses from his teammates follow, either, and Aqun realizes he might have been the only one to hear that line; his stomach sinks as he remembers another voice that sounded just as close, creeping inside his head, trying to scrape his thoughts together into a believable imitation of him.

He turns around and releases an explosive arrow into the sea of fearlings to clear the way; the demons’ bodies shatter to pieces, but he finds no Nightmare behind them.

But words bear no weight with you, the voice speaks.

“Shut up.”

No, you’re a man of action. I respect that.

“Shut up!

Then allow me to speak your language, the Nightmare says, and suddenly its figure appears right in Aqun’s line of sight, hovering high above the scrapping demons and fighters, the mages’ attacks flying through the air. Nocking the arrow, he sees the Nightmare has caught Hawke’s and Vivienne’s attention as well; he draws the bow with expectation of seeing both the arrow and magic missiles crash into the demon, but suddenly it dives away, all shots going overhead as it swoops down towards the battlefield. As it soars back up, Aqun trains another arrow on it - and only then notices the creature’s silhouette has grown larger, for some reason.

That reason becomes clear as it stretches a skeletal arm forward, the second figure becoming visible as it detaches from the mess of limbs that is the Nightmare; a smaller frame, clawing at the fingers wound around its throat, feet kicking wildly in the air trying to reach the creature’s body.

His eyes register the height, then the armor and widen in fear - and the arrow ready to be released goes wide at the last moment, crashing against a green cliff in a pointless explosion; it would have hit had he not pulled away, he’s sure of that, and it would have crashed straight into Das.

One of the mages, however, doesn’t manage to steer her spell away the same way - and he watches, petrified, as a ball of fire flies roaring towards the two; at the very last second the demon blinks away, and its laugh vibrates through the air and the ground beneath their feet as the spell fades without finding a target.

“Careful, Champion,” it says, “Your allies care much for that elf, even if you don’t.”

“I’ll aim the next one better,” she promises grimly. “Let him go!”

“Oh, they do care so very much,” the demon hums in a sing-song voice, ignoring her words; Das twists in its grip and for a moment it seems as though he’s about to fall free, but the claws just catch him again. His voice sounds, too faint to make any words, but none of them need to understand these to know he’s cursing the Nightmare out - and then it cuts off as the clawed hand’s grip around his throat tightens, reducing him to silent struggle.

Very, very much, the Nightmare’s voice repeats in Aqun’s head.

He should - he should be doing something. He should activate the mark, distract the thing, take a shot - but the Anchor is dull now of all times, and no matter how much he thinks about drawing the bow, his hands refuse to obey.

You care a lot, don’t you? How much for putting him back down?

Come on - one shot. He can aim it. It’ll startle the demon, he’ll drop Das, one of the mages will catch him. One shot. One shot. Draw the bow. Draw the bow, damn you -

You disarm, and I put him back, the Nightmare says. How does that sound?

He clutches the bow’s grip, slowly takes aim; it feels like tons of solid metal all of a sudden.

The moment he does, one of the spider-like limbs on the demon’s back shoots forward and through Das’ shoulder.

He doesn’t remember letting go; the bow just falls to his feet on its own somehow along with the arrow not shot, followed by the same bloody laughter. He stares at it for a painfully long moment, then kicks it away and looks up again.

Your grenades too, the demon says.

Around him, the fight is still going. Hawke and Vivienne are holding their barriers while the warriors are slashing away at the fearlings, keeping them from getting too close - but half of them are keeping one eye at the sky, and the rest are keeping one eye on him, the Inquisitor, who just dropped his weapon to the ground.

His grenade belt joins the bow on the ground and disappears under the fearlings’ feet. He tells himself not to look at the others. They don’t hear what he hears. They have no idea what’s going on.

He looks up.

“Let him go,” he says quietly, knowing the demon will hear what it needs to hear.

Laughing. Again.

“Don’t you remember what I said?” the Nightmare asks, for everyone to hear. “You have no control. This world is broken,” it hisses, “And it will break you.

And, in the next moment, he watches as the demon brings the rest of its spider limbs forward and, all at once, plunges them into Das’ chest; his figure twitches, and then goes still.

The demon withdraws its strike and tosses the body aside; it hits a nearby rock and slides off, limp, unmoving.

The world freezes.

There is movement happening all around, sounds, shouting voices, but none of that reaches him; his mind, his tunnel vision, is stuck on one thing - the sight of a body falling down to the ground. It’s just an image, at first, and then the realization sinks in, further drowning out everything else, even his own thoughts, leaving nothing but terror.

He made a mistake.

He made a mistake, and it cost -

And now -

None of those sentences is finished; his mind fights kicking and screaming against the reality that unfolds before his eyes, and underneath this mess, something starts to stir, acidic hot and painful. A pull, a sting, it bubbles and rises - and then bursts out like a geiser, taking over, breaking his locked-up posture into motion again and throwing him forward.

Later, he won’t be able to bring himself to call it a rage. It’s not anger propelling him, he barely feels anything at all - not even the fearlings’ claws raking across his face and arms as he dives into their lines. The Nightmare didn’t ask him to discard the dagger on his belt, and it’s enough protection until he locates the rest of weapons again and, just as he picks up the bow, feels the Anchor flare up.

It’s not a rage; it’s a hunger, hollow and mindless and mechanical, and it’s sated only briefly with the snap of a demon’s spine, the impact of an arrow, a shredding explosion, the violent vibration in the air as he tears through the Fade and a glowing green rift forms right beside the Nightmare, paralyzing the creature in mid-air.

It’s not a rage; it’s a need, simple and blunt, for destruction.

He shatters an antivan fire vial on the ground and, as the fearlings hiss and stir away from the roaring flames, empties his quiver into the frozen shape in the sky - even as its form crumples and then falls down limp, crushing into the ground and taking a dozen fearlings with it.

The rest of the demons are easy work; his remaining grenades, Stroud’s and Cassandra’s blades and the mages’ support are more than enough to wipe the battlefield clean.

The fighting dies down, but the ringing in his ears and the burning inside remain, and there’s no purpose to them with no enemies and no ammunition left. The rift, the way back, is right over there, but he finds himself staring dumbstruck at the dead fearlings piled up at his feet, mind blank, no idea what’s next. The burning demands more, more things to shatter, but he doesn’t know where to find them; he barely feels his marked hand except for the pulses of pain that shoot through it, and weariness starts to settle in on top of everything else.

Some part of him know he’ll have to turn and look, eventually; he can already hear armor clinking as someone makes their way towards the location of Das’ fall.

He knows he should join them. He should be the first - he’s the bloody Inquisitor - but he finds himself locked into place again, unable to move even an inch.

Then, he hears Cassandra gasp - and, an infinity away, Stroud’s voice cries out:

“Madame Hawke! Madame Vivienne - over here! The elf - he’s still breathing!”

More shifting of armor, hasted footsteps running - and, just as the meaning of those words sinks in and Aqun whips around, the ground begins to rumble; the sky darkens with an enormous shape, many-eyed and many-legged, rising over them.

The true Nightmare.

“Run!” he hears Stroud shout. “Run - I will hold it off!”

Hawke’s voice:

“No - I’ll stay!”

The haze flushes away in a heartbeat - and, before his mind starts processing anything else, Aqun makes the calculations.

“You heard Stroud!” he shouts back. “Everybody - move!”

And they pick up their wounded teammate, and they run.

Chapter Text

It happens too fast. One moment, they’re running, the lyrium-infused dragon’s jagged form cutting through the air above them - and the next, there’s a deafening noise and an eruption beneath their feet, and as he puts a foot forward it sinks deeper than it should before hitting ground, and his next step hits nothing at all.

The next thing Errol knows, they’re falling.

Darkness swallows them almost immediately, the torches and spell flashes and burning fires of Adamant remaining far, far above, the gigantic silhouettes of walls and rubble the only shapes keeping them company on the way down. It’s such a long way, and so little time, and by the time his brain turns back on again, they’ve lost way too much of it.

This is a scene ripped straight out of his nightmares - but now, when he’s actually living it, he’s numb, as if his mind just forgot to feel scared. His eyes dart and lock onto the only light source, a green glow, just a few feet in front of him - and that’s when his heart belatedly plunges with fear.

Even then, his first thought is not about himself. 

Neilar. Neilar is going to!...

This is a whole another nightmare, violent enough to push him out of his stupor, send him struggling through the air until his fingers find purchase on his friend’s armor, pulling him closer. A shouting voice sounds, and the speed rips it straight out of the speaker’s throat and leaves it far behind and above unheard.

The ground is so close. He heard somewhere that, when falling from a great height, the fear of crashing will kill you before the impact does. He feels like this just might happen now, there’s already a piercing ache in his chest - but a hand reaches out and grabs his arm, and Neilar shouts something to him, and the wind takes his words away too.

In a split second where neither his thoughts or his lungs or his heart, anything at all but his most basic movement is working, Errol pulls him in, their armor clashing as he wraps his arms around Neilar and lets himself sink down with his back towards the ground.

He closes his eyes, bracing for impact. Who knows if it’s worth anything at this height, but maybe - just maybe - they’ll get lucky and he’ll break Neilar’s fall - and if they don’t, well, at least Errol tried, and he’ll die protecting the one he loves like the gods have intended.

Behind his closed eyelids, the world erupts in a scorching flash of light. He feels the dry heat on his skin. Is something burning?...

There’s no impact, there’s no pain, just falling - falling for far longer than he’d expect with the distance that remained, falling and falling and… slowing down? 

Coming to a stop. Then -  dropping in the opposite direction.

It’s a tiny fall and a much smaller impact; a clanging noise as armor hits the ground, and a choked groan from underneath him, cursing in elven.

His mind kicks in again, and, for a moment, Errol wishes it wouldn’t; with coherent thinking, comes the realization his attempt to protect Neilar backfired horribly when... gravity reversed itself, and it’s him who ended up crashing on top of the other. The other, way more lightly armored, smaller in frame, elf.

He rolls aside as quickly as his aching, dazed state allows, tumbling down to the ground and onto his back. A sky full of green meets him, as green as the ground he stared at a moment ago, with... bits of stonework and rock floating in the air?

It’s not Adamant. It’s probably not even the Western Approach. And Errol barely registers any of it at all, because right now, he’s too busy wishing that fall had actually killed him.

He pushes himself up; the world spins and his body protests fiercely, but it doesn’t matter.

“Lethallin,” he breathes out, desperately trying to get his eyes to focus again. “Lethallin! - ”

“...Fenedhis lasa, my head .”

Neilar’s voice is still strained, but just hearing him speak is already a tremendous relief; even more so when the haze finally drops away from Errol’s vision and he sees Neilar sit up, wincing as he slouches a little and rubs the back of his head, hissing in pain. He then brings that hand in front of his eyes, squinting:

“...Is that my blood?... Blight, I… I can’t tell.”

“I’m so sorry,” Errol mumbles, so hopelessly guilty that for a moment he thinks he might cry. “...I’m so sorry. I - are you hurt? - “ he reaches awkwardly for Neilar and freezes midway, not knowing what to do with himself, then retracts his hand and struggles to his feet. “...Ringing bells, I’m so sorry , I didn’t mean to hurt you, I thought - I just wanted - I - “

His head starts spinning even more violently than before, nearly sending him tumbling back to the ground - but he rights himself enough to stand firm and offer Neilar a hand up; he accepts, thank the gods.

“I’m so so - “

“Falon,” Neilar interrupts him tiredly. “Please. I’m not hurt, and - and you did nothing wrong. You…”

All of a sudden, Neilar’s voice trails off; he halts, still holding Errol’s hand and staring into his face with an expression that makes his stomach turn, eyes still narrow with exhaustion, but there’s something in them that just - 

“...You tried to save my life,” Neilar says quietly.

Errol blinks. In his shame, he somehow managed to forget that part for a moment.

He feels more like vertigo packed into a human body than an actual person, right now, with the plunge off the bridge catching up to him and Neilar staring at him like this, but he still manages to pull on his best lopsided grin.

“...Well,” he says, “Of course? Someone has to save the world savior. You are the most important of us, and it’s not like Varric or Dorian would manage to break your… Though Dorian would cast a spell, probably,” he finishes, defeated, as the put-on joy evaporates from his voice and expression.

That’s right. Magic. And he just tried to break the fall with his own body like the pigheaded idiot he is - 

The next moment, his balance is threatened again as Neilar nearly crashes against him in a hug, awkward and stiffened by armor and pain both, but zealously genuine - and Errol has no idea what to do with himself, torn between guilt and utter happiness. 

“Thank the gods for keeping us both safe,” Neilar says, relief clear in his voice, and steps back. “And… Thank you, lethallin.” His voice drops. “...I owe you one, I suppose.”

“You really don’t,” Errol replies weakly. “It didn’t even work, for blight’s sake.”

Neilar just shakes his head.

“It’s the intent,” is all he says. “I won’t forget this.”

 

Chapter Text

Zevran cracks his eyes open, and it’s still dark. This fact is a mystery for exactly one second, before the prickling of fabric against his skin explains it: a blindfold.

He wiggles a little, checking for more restraints - and, sure enough, the cold weight against his wrists and the rattling of a chain clues him in. 

Well, well… It certainly has been a while since he last woke up chained and blindfolded - but some experiences need refreshing from time to time, he supposes.

Cold stone floor, heavy air, the smell of smoke and the crackling of torches; an underground chamber, no doubt, and he’s not alone in it. He can hear the other person breathing - and, as soon as he moves again, that person lets out a satisfied cackle.

“The legendary Black Shadow… Not so legendary now, though,” the stranger muses. A shift of fabric as his captor crouches by his side; Zevran doesn’t really need his sight to perceive the self-satisfied grin spreading on his face.

“The Crows,” the stranger says, voice dripping with gloat, “Send their regards. Master Viola in particular.”

Zevran chuckles softly. Now things begin to make sense.

“She has moved quite a way up in the ranks, hasn’t she?” he asks the other Crow. “...Such a magnificent mansion. Excellent traps.”

“Good enough to fool you,” the man sneers.

“Oh, most certainly. See, here I am,” he rattles his chains a little. “Trapped and bound. A testament to your hard work.”

He hears his captor - his guard? - suck an irritated breath through his teeth.

“Hold on to that cheer,” the man advises him. “The master is headed to a meeting, and when she reveals that she has Zevran Arainai trapped in her basement… Many will want to have a word with you,” he grins. “And, of course, there will be a handsome reward for us who caught you.”

Zevran raises an eyebrow, though, sadly, this act goes unnoticed underneath the blindfold.

“I would hope the reward is handsome,” he notes. “Otherwise it would be quite insulting, you know. I am not one to brag, but my work is of high quality - ”

“Shut up!” the man hisses; another sound rings through the air, one of the most familiar sounds in the world. A blade sliding out of its sheath. The blade’s location does not remain a mystery for long; the very next moment, he feels a cold, sharp edge press just underneath his jaw.

“They’ll want you still capable of talking,” the Crow tells him, “But nobody said you have to be perfectly intact - ”

The blade begins to press into his skin.

“...Just one moment, if you would!” Zevran calls out, and the blade stops - its owner probably halted by the uncalled cheer in Zevran’s tone rather than any actual concern.

“Before you, hm, indulge yourself… Would you mind undoing this blindfold?” Zevran asks. “...There’s hardly any need in it, honestly. If your words are anything to go by, I won’t make it out of here anyway.”

There’s a few moments of silence - and then the blade moves up, cutting through the side of his blindfold and leaving a thin stinging line on his temple. He shakes his head, allowing the fabric drop down, and smiles at the man in front of him; a fellow elf, in fact.

“Many thanks,” Zevran says sincerely. “I would hate to miss what happens next.”

The Crow’s expression slowly shifts into a confused frown - and that’s when a rumble passes through the chamber’s walls, a faint one, but it’s enough for Zevran to know.

“...What did you do?” the Crow whispers frantically. “What did you do - ”

The door behind his back slams open and collapses, torn off its hinges; a gust of wind sweeps in, cold and familiar. The Crow’s eyes widen as he turns around - and, the next moment, he’s ripped from his place. Zevran watches him sweep through the air and land plastered against the wall to his right, a couple of feet off the ground, held by an invisible force from sliding down or moving at all.

I,” Zevran tells the Crow, “Did absolutely nothing.”

The sound of footsteps comes echoing down the stairs leading into the chamber. Even, somewhat heavy, with the clacking of a staff’s base against stone separating one step from another.

“Unfortunately for you,” Zevran continues, “There has been a grave oversight in this plan.” 

His smile widens. 

“...You’ve angered my wife.”

Just then, she steps into the chamber, separating from the shadows of the stairway. He can feel the air humming with magic around her; their eyes meet just as he finishes the last sentence.

Kyana raises an eyebrow. He returns a perfectly innocent look.

She glances aside, acknowledging the elf pinned against the wall, still trying to struggle. Back to Zevran.

It’s all the movement on her side - but the Crow’s abandoned dagger hovers up all of a sudden, steadies its position - and then whistles through the air, embedding itself deep within the elf’s eye socket.

His corpse falls loose and slides down the wall, coming to a rest as a shapeless heap on the floor.

In a few steps, Kyana crosses the remaining distance between them and kneels by Zevran’s side; the glow behind her eyes brightens for a second, and healing magic does its work.

He smiles fondly:

“Coming to break my chains, amore?”

The corner of her mouth curls up.

“You mean that lock you picked open at least ten minutes ago?”

“You’re no fun,” Zevran complains and lets the loose shackles slide off his hands, making a show of rubbing his wrists and grimacing until Kyana laughs quietly.

“Did you get the information we need?” she asks.

“Master Viola is attending some sort of meeting right now,” he answers. “At the end of which she intends to present, I assume, a variety of other Crow higher-ups with Zevran Arainai trapped in her dungeon.” 

He catches a mischievous twinkle in Kyana’s eye.

“Well,” she says, “I think she is still intending to do so. I think no one survived long enough to notify her of what just happened here. Shall we wait for Viola and her dear friends to arrive, and… surprise them?”

Zevran can’t help but laugh. 

“You are enjoying this way too much, Warden-Commander,” he accuses her, reaching to brush a strand of hair out of her face.

“Oh, and you,” Kyana rolls her eyes, and repeats mockingly, “Coming to break my chaains, amoore?

He raises an eyebrow:

“Well, anyone would enjoy such a rescue. It almost happened too fast, to be honest… I wish you had said one of your lines when you made that entrance - though silent fury was just as good.”

“...My lines?”

“Yes, your lines,” Zevran shrugs. “You know…” he clears his throat, and proclaims, in his best imitation of a heavy Fereldan accent, “I stared Death in the eye, and it blinked first!

Kyana stares at him for a good moment.

“I don’t say… Well - I did - I don’t have lines.

“Worry not,” he chuckles, “I am utterly enamored with the way you say them.”

“...I really say these that often?” she mutters. “...No - you know what - that’s a conversation for another time. We have an ambush to set up,” she says resolutely - and, with a grin, Zevran agrees:

“That we do.”

Chapter Text

“It all starts with the stance,” Blackwall says.

May nods, watching him intently as the Warden grips his shield tighter and brings it forward. She notes the way he centers himself, shifts his weight.

“You should always try to position yourself in a choke point, serve as a wall that cuts the enemies off,” he continues. “…Imagine there’s a line in the sand. On one side of it, there’s a threat. On the other is everything you hold dear. You’re standing on that line, and you’ll do everything it takes to keep these two separated.”

His voice starts off calm and even, but grows harsher towards the end, slipping into the same tone she’d heard him use for the farmer “recruits” from the Crossroads, ringing with determination; May can’t help but smile at that. Here’s a man truly passionate about his cause; she felt a little guilty turning the Orlesian expert away, but none of his pompous words could possibly compare to the unrelenting drive of a Grey Warden. If there is a person who can teach her to defend and inspire, it’s Blackwall, whether he knows it or not.

“Do I need to actually draw a line in the sand?” she jokes; a steely look meets her gaze, and for a moment May thinks the question was a mistake - but then she sees the Warden’s eyes crinkle with amusement.

“It’s just a saying, as far as I know,” he answers. “…Now - when you’re ready, try to knock me off my feet.”

She picks her own shield off the ground, leaving her axe lying there for now, and takes a step back, winding up. In a second’s notice, she measures the distance and an angle and throws herself forward; the air rattles with dissonant clanging as their shields clash. She expects at least a little give, but it’s like ramming a stone wall; her force returns right to her, and it’s nearly enough to knock her off her feet. She stumbles back with a surprised cry - and it transitions into a laugh as she rights herself.

“That,” she says, “Is amazing.”

“As I said - it all starts with the stance.”


 

The lightning spell comes out of nowhere. 

“Holy, Hero, incoming!” Varric yells somewhere to her left, and it’s barely in time. May dives out of the way, but it still clips her shoulder, and she feels her fingers go numb as her weapon drops down to the ground, blade almost fully sinking into the hot desert sand. A clipped, stifled groan swallowed by the buzzing explosion tells her Blackwall wasn’t as fortunate. Sod it! - 

She whips around, growling with pain and frustration, just in time to see the robed spellcaster dissipate into smoke just a few feet away - and to see one of the Tevinter soldiers swing his maul in a wide downwards arc, right towards the Warden’s unmoving figure on the ground.

May gets there first. She doesn’t know how, with the sand enveloping her feet and her ears still ringing and the heat beating down on her, but she does. Her shield arm swings upwards to meet the blow, and the impact is worse than the lightning strike; she feels it in her forearm, in her shoulder, in her jaw, all the way through her spine. She feels rather than hears something crack in her shoulder area, before her arm goes entirely numb and falls limp, the shattered remains of her shield falling to the ground. May herself nearly follows suit, for a moment - but she manages to remain standing, sucking in a breath through clenched teeth as she looks up at her opponent. Three times her size, with his weapon still intact, and hers is out of reach; the face is obscured entirely in the shadow of his helmet, but she can feel him staring. Maybe gloating.

The soldier takes a step back, betters his grip on the maul. May’s vision blurs; all she can smell and taste is blood. Also heat. Sodding desert.

Her axe is way too far, her shield destroyed, her friend wounded behind her back.

The Tevinter stares as, groggily, the beat-up dwarf in front of him swipes her foot through the sand, drawing a horizontal line - and, stepping to stand on it, sneers upwards at him, baring bloodied teeth with the disdain of a Carta brute with nothing left to lose.

“You’ll have to go through me,” she hisses.

He swings.

Chapter Text

The smell of sweat and wet fur hits Roh’len the moment he lifts the flap of the tent. Paired with the loud, rasping breaths coming out of the darkness, for a moment it makes him think Lou’s sleeping in her wolf form - but there’s too much empty space inside the small tent for that to be true.

“Da’len,” he calls. No reaction; his brows pull into a worried frown as he reaches further into the tent, for the blanket she’s curled under. Blanket? If he had any doubts something’s wrong, they’re gone now. Lou can’t stand the heat. The cold of the night has always been a welcome relief for her, so why…

“…Wake up, da’len. It’s almost sunrise, we have to go. Everyone is waiting for you.” 

Carefully, he pulls the edge of the blanket away - and as he does, a terrible feeling comes over him. Her eyes are still closed, her hair, cut short for the journey, is matted with sweat, sticking to her neck and her face. He can feel the feverish heat radiating off her skin, and… something else in the air, a smell of sickness. 

“Da’len?… Lou? - ”

No, not a smell - a feeling, one that makes his stomach turn and his tongue curl into the back of his throat, choking, familiar.

Roh’len freezes - and that’s when Lou finally stirs, cracking her eyes open with a groan that turns into a snarl at the sight of an intruder by her bed, sliding her hand under her pillow and grabbing her dagger only to recognize him as a friend and relax. Her relieved exhale fades into a cough; she drops the dagger to steady herself against the ground.

“Roh… Roh’len,” she manages finally, hoarse. “Didn’t realize it was you. Sorry.” 

She winces, squeezing her eyes shut for a good moment and shaking her head with another groan.

“…Shit, I slept in, didn’t I. I’ll get ready, just give me - ” her eyes blink open, glowing faintly in the dark space, and she squints at him. “ - Roh?”

He’s still staring, caught up in the feeling and in the stubborn hope that he got it wrong, that it’s just his imagination. That this feeling is… something else. Anything else. 

“…Roh’len, you alright?”

A nauseating presence, it’s been in the back of his mind for the last few days, and it’s no wonder in a blighted wasteland. It’s the strongest from darkspawn, quieter from fellow Wardens, the proximity of another blighted creature. But now… now, there’s another faint pulse of awareness, another source of the Taint. Right in front of him.

“Da’len… how are you feeling?” he asks, and his own choked-up voice sounds alien.

“…Bad.”

“How… how is your wound?”

They’ve had a run-in with a band of hurlocks, just before finding this spot to camp. He’s told her to stay back. She didn’t, but - but Anders said the wound was clean. It was clean, it couldn’t, this - please, it couldn’t, no, no.

Lou scrunches her nose, touching her left shouder.

“…It’s fine,” she says. “Kind of numb, but I think it must’ve healed by now. Werewolf perks,” she laughs dryly, and reaches into the collar of her shirt to undo the bandage. A moment of fumbling, and she pulls it out:

“See, not even - ” she begins, and her voice trails off mid-sentence. The bandage is stained black. Lou stares at it, then holds it up to her nose and sniffs it. Her eyes go wide; she twists her neck and sniffs her wound. Pulls her collar back, looks at it, swallows. Looks back over to him.

“Uh,” she says. “Roh?”

“Show me,” he says, voice faltering at the end of the phrase.

The cut itself is healed, but the scar tissue over it is an odd dark color - and there’s a web of darkened veins beginning to spread underneath the skin. 

He claps a hand over his mouth before any words escape him, but it doesn’t help much.

“It’s bad, isn’t it,” Lou says in a low voice. Roh’len shakes his head, forces his hand back down.

“No,” he says.

“It smells like the Blight.”

“No,” he mutters. “No, no - ”

“Roh!”

His eyes snap to hers; Lou fixes the collar of her shirt back on and stares at him. He thinks he sees her hands tremble.

“It smells like the Blight,” she repeats. 

Roh’len feels the corners of his mouth twitch back, his throat tightening; he forces all of it back down, a sudden hollow pressure inside his chest, filling his lungs and threatening to rip a hole through..

“You’ll be alright,” he says. “You - we’ll help you. You will be alright.”

His words are a sharp contradiction to the horrible sinking feeling inside, tension and weakness and nausea mixing together. How could he allow this to happen? How could he be so careless, again? How didn’t he see, how didn’t he do anything, how - 

“It’s fine if I won’t,” Lou says hoarsely. 

“You will.”

“…But if I won’t, it’s fine.”

“Stop. Saying that,” he hisses; Lou grinds her teeth, and a growl comes through.

“I’m not a toddler, Roh’len! I know I’m younger than all of you, but - ” a cough cuts her words; Lou folds over for a second, and pulls away when he reaches to help her, sucking in a wheezing breath before trying again, “ - But I know the Blight. When you said we’re going to a blighted wasteland, I knew what it meant, and I was fine with it.” She looks up at him. “…Shame if I don’t make it back home, but I’d rather die here, free, than live a long life serving a witch. So by the gods, if you say even one damn thing about how it’s your fault - ”

“It is my fault!” he snaps, raising his voice unwillingly; it’s enough to make even Lou recoil for a moment, pulling her head into her shoulders defensively. Seeing her react with fear hurts even more; seeing her scared, afraid, sick - Creators damn it, can he keep a single person in his life safe?

“It is,” he repeats, voice cracking into a whisper. 

For a few long moments, it’s quiet - and then Lou’s voice cuts the silence:

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I was just trying to help.”

“I know.” It’s all the response he can manage, with his mind gone almost completely blank.

“Roh, I’m fine with that. Really. It’s fine.”

“No, he says. “No, it’s not. I - I should have kept an eye on you. And I didn’t.” No, he didn’t, and look what happened. “…But we’ll help, Lou. You’ll be alright. You’re traveling with three Wardens, and even a healer. What’s the point of us if we can’t help?”

She grins. “…Will you make me a Grey Warden?”

“Maybe,” Roh’len answers. Fen’Harel knows where the closest Warden outpost would be, but… it isn’t impossible. That can work. Yes, that can work.

“Or maybe I’ll just power through like a mabari,” Lou continues to muse.

Roh’len takes a deep breath. 

“…For now, you’ll get ready for the day,” he says. “Try to keep to your human form, I - I want everyone to be able to understand you if you need help. And go see - ”

“I think Anders is developing an allergy to me, at this point.”

Lou.

“Alright, alright,” she mutters. “I will. It’s not like you can just magic this away, you know.”

“I do. But we will all help you through this, whatever it takes.”

Lou snorts out a laugh. “You sure the others know that?”

“They will soon enough,” he says. 

Silence falls again. Roh’len hesitates for a moment - and then reaches to pull Lou into a hug despite the protesting noises that follow. They die down soon enough, though, and he feels an awkward pat on his back as well.

“It’s going to be fine,” she says, and adds, louder, “…If you don’t squeeze me to death.”

“Sorry,” he mutters, lightening his grip just a little. “Sorry.”

Chapter Text

The water is pleasantly cool around his fingers, the river’s noise a soothing presence in his mind. Clear, freely flowing water, and there’s no threat or ominous feeling to it; he’s missed it so much, just like he missed the sky and the woods and the open planes of land, and Halani’s company. She’s away now, though, grazing with Hanin while their owners work on their laundry.

Neilar pulls his spare shirt out of the water and examines it critically. Clean enough, overall, but he can still see the faint traces where it was once stained.

To his right, a faint splash sounds as Errol pulls his own shirt out and starts wringing the fabric; Neilar glances at him just in time to catch an amused look.

“That shirt’s going to dissolve if you keep going like this a little longer,” Errol says. “It looks clean enough, love; let it rest.” 

Neilar grimaces, but, after a moment of hesitation, abides. It takes some fiddling until his ironbark fingers find proper purchase on the wet fabric, but it’s only marginally harder to figure out than gripping a dagger; he twists and wrings the shirt until no water comes trickling down from it, and then unfolds it, leaving it to dry on the rocks with the rest of their laundry. Which… isn’t a lot; they left Skyhold with little more than the clothes on their back and a change in their packs. They didn’t really need more - and that’s good, because he doubts he’d be able to put up with much more of this.

“I think that’s all of it,” he murmurs; Errol hums in agreement, and, suddenly, laughs. Neilar blinks in confusion, and looks up at him.

“…What’s funny?”

“Nothing, really,” Errol admits, scooting closer to him across the grass. “But it’s an awfully domestic moment for a couple of runaways, eh?”

Neilar chuckles quietly. 

“Who would have thought that being on the run could be this peaceful,” he says. “I’m starting to think Leliana just let us off the hook. If she were serious about keeping me in, I’d expect she’d unleash, you know…” He gestures vaguely around. “…Everything.”

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” Errol muses. Neilar meets him with a blank stare - apparently obvious enough for Errol to realize he doesn’t understand.

“It’s from a nursery rhyme,” he explains, and even attempts to hum along to the melody, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

There’s a slight pause, and the corner of Errol’s mouth curls up as he finishes, “…Couldn’t take us back to Skyhold again,” and wraps an arm around Neilar’s shoulders. Neilar gladly follows through with the motion, leaning in and muttering with an amused smile:

“Those aren’t the actual lyrics, are they?”

“They’re not,” Errol agrees. “…The original song is about some guy falling off a tall, tall wall. Pretty gruesome, when you think about it. And they sing it to children!”

“…I like your version better, then.”

It’s a warm day, and their clothes dry quickly. All the better; the longer Neilar sits still, the louder are the whispers in the back of his head - the Sorrows know he’s complacent, for now, but they do not hesitate to remind him of their impatience. They don’t stir up his dreams much, at least - and his body has been his own for quite a while now.

What happens next is hardly even a sound - the slightest vibration in the air, scratching the very edge of his attention span; still, his ears perk up on instinct. The long-suffering shirt drops from his hands as he recognizes the nature of that tiny, faint creak.

Neilar whips around.

An arrow shoots from a half-drawn bow and arcs into the ground; the archer cries out in pain and drops her weapon, slouching and clutching her shoulder where his throwing knife sunk in. The one at her side, however, still has his bow at the ready and his eyes fixed on them; more people are stepping forth, one, two, three, four - armored lightly, but well, the Chantry’s emblem etched into their gear. Humans, dwarves… No elves. Of course Leliana wouldn’t send elves.

Another blade slides into the palm of his hand. He hears Errol curse quietly through his teeth. Blight; he wishes he could turn around and check on him, but he doesn’t dare take his eyes off the man with the bow and the two people flanking him.

“I would advise you to stop right where you are,” Neilar says quietly. “The first to move forward or to attack, dies.”

Fortunately - or not, - the strangers halt. One meets his eyes; a human woman. The one in charge? Probably.

“You’re not in much of a position to bargain, ser Lavellan,” she says. “We’re well-informed about your skills, but you are outnumbered and largely unarmed - and I doubt you could reach me before this arrow reaches your husband.”

Out of his view, Errol snorts - and a moment later breaks into a full-on laugh. Some of the surrounding… agents of the Divine? - exchange confused glances; others just stare at them blankly. The speaker’s expression sours.

“Whatever amuses you so?” she asks dryly. 

“Just - ” Errol wheezes, “ - Sorry, just - just give me a moment. Bells, lady… You set out to catch Neilar “Godslayer” Lavellan with, what? With six people? Informed about his skills, alright.”

Neilar shifts his weight, uneasy. Errol isn’t wrong, but him getting shot is a very, very real concern right now. He lets his eyes dart around and his mind run the calculations as the conversation goes on, still watching for any sort of movement on their side, anything at all. Their own weapons aren’t that far away; if things go bad, when things go bad, they can get to them. All they have to do is outrun that first arrow.

“Six you can see,” the woman says. 

Neilar takes a breath to chime in, but Errol beats him to it, sighing the last of his laughter away and speaking up again in a much calmer tone:

“…Jokes aside, we’re not going anywhere. How about we part as friends, and you send the Divine our regards, eh? I dare say she doesn’t really want any of this to end badly - unless she changed quite a lot since the last time I’ve met her.”

His words are met with ringing silence, and the slight shift in their opponents’ posture is enough to let Neilar know the time for talking is nearly over. The still-standing archer’s shoulders draw back - 

“Errol, duck!”

He doesn’t have time to check whether his words have been heard or followed; the shout still hasn’t fully left his throat by the time Neilar throws himself forward and at the archer, crashing into him and setting his aim off; a moment later he hears a small splash, an arrow hitting water. Miss. The man tries to grab him; a swipe of Neilar's knife towards his face sends him staggering back on instinct, throwing his head up. A strike to the underside of his jaw, and he falls flat on his back.

Neilar whips around; Errol is flanked by two of the dwarves, but he has his sword already. Good - 

A blunt, deafening impact to the back of his head, and he tumbles forward; the feeling of hitting the ground comes from far, far away, as colors and sounds blur and fade into an incoherent mess.

Armored footsteps near him.

Errol’s voice.

“Hands off my husband! -

Darkness.

…The water comes trickling in slowly, as if seeping through the cracks in a stone wall; had he been fully awake and aware, Neilar would have laughed at that timidity, at the audacity to approach him so carefully after what the Sorrows had already done to him.

But he’s weak, and Errol needs him, and they can’t go back to Skyhold or wherever Leliana wants him to be - and the water offers help, and he takes it, allows it to burst through the wall and knock him off his feet, sink and submerge him and fill his mind with icy whispers of vengeance.

He opens his eyes, and the world is muted and distorted and tinted dull green, like he’s staring up at it from the bottom of a perfectly still pond. A familiar feeling, the feeling from his nightmares, the feeling of being puppeted and thrown around and torn at the edges - but now, he’s willing.

What he sees is the human commander’s face, with the handle of his knife sticking out of her neck. 

He sinks again, and the next time his eyes find light, he’s slashing the throat of a dwarf in Chantry armor. He spins around and drives his other dagger into the stomach of the archer he wounded earlier.

He sinks. He resurfaces. He sinks. His body moves, and movement is all there is; no pain, no sense of impact, of distance. He watches himself carve through enemies, and wishes the Sorrows would show him just a glimpse of how Errol is doing - but the moments of awareness never last long enough.

Then, just like that, the water drains - and he’s pushed back to consciousness, dizzy and hurting and out of breath, the taste of blood in his mouth, a dagger clutched in each hand, and the riverbank is silent.

His head snaps up, and his eyes find Errol; still standing, alive… unharmed? Staring back at him, perfectly still, probably wary of setting the Sorrows off. 

Neilar drops his weapons.

“…I’m me, vhenan,” he exhales. “I’m me.”

Errol’s expression cracks with relief the moment these words are spoken - and he rushes to Neilar’s side, dropping his own sword the moment he’s within touching distance, grabbing his shoulders, asking whether he’s alright, whether he’s hurt.

“…I’m fine - I - I’m fine,” Neilar mumbles, almost sure that’s the truth.

“Your eyes went green,” Errol says; his eyebrows pull into a worried knot. “You were - if only I got to you faster - I’m sorry - ”

“Don’t. I… I know what happened. They helped.”

Neilar looks past Errol’s shoulder and at the riverbank; there’s red in the water. Bodies in Chantry-stamped armor scattered around.

“Did any… get away?” he asks, voice low. There’s a silence way too long for a question as simple.

“I don’t know,” Errol says finally.  

He closes his eyes for a moment.

“…Alright.”

Gently, he twists out of Errol’s grasp and turns around, looking the battlefield over. Some bodies are in familiar positions; he remembers them falling. They could have lived, probably, he thinks absently, had they been fighting him. The Sorrows never strike to incapacitate, only to kill.

Blight, his head hurts.

“Well,” Neilar says, hoarse, “I suppose that’s all the king’s men. Something tells me we shouldn’t stick around for all the king’s horses.”

Now would be the perfect time to stop staring at the corpses of Leliana’s agents, turn around, gather their things and leave. That really is something he should do - so why is he still staring at them, studying the bloodied faces? There’s some sort of hollow feeling keeping his eyes fixed on them. But he’s going to turn around now, yes, right now, he’s going to - 

At the end, it’s Errol who turns him, cupping his cheek and guiding his eyes away from the bodies behind his back.

“Look at me, love,” he asks softly, and smiles when Neilar follows the request. He takes a tiny step forward, pressing his forehead to Neilar’s - and it’s a grounding touch, taking his attention away from the droning buzz in his head.

Neilar closes his eyes and allows himself to sink into this touch for a moment - into a comforting darkness where there is no chase, no blood on his hands, and no Sorrows.