“All right, we’ll split up. Bull and Dorian, check down that tunnel. Cassandra and I will go over the rest of the quarry and look for prisoners.”
“Sure, Boss.” Sending Dorian off with me. Bull’s Ben-Hassrath training broke this down rapidly. Probably nothing behind the decision to split, just wants to get this done quicker. They’re both mages; wouldn’t be good to split from their front-line fighters. But why me with Dorian? Why not Dorian and Cass, and me with him? Maybe he doesn’t know…
As he catalogued these questions, Iron Bull began to head down the tunnel, Dorian behind him. “I rather feel we shouldn’t be splitting off into pairs, but I can hardly complain if we can finish the mission and get out of this cold sooner.”
Bull shrugged, eyes scanning the dimly lit tunnel ahead. “Don’t worry, big guy, we’ll be back in camp in no time, and you and the boss can get all hot and—” He broke off there and crouched down. The dark smear was still wet and fresh, and the scent was clear.
Dorian’s voice was displeased behind him. “I beg your pardon, what were you about to say about Lavellan and I?”
Iron Bull glanced up. “Look. Blood.”
Dorian’s frown changed from annoyed to concerned. “Someone injured tried to escape this way.” Nodding, Bull unslung his axe as he stood. Dorian already had his staff at the ready.
They said nothing more. The tunnel was narrow, and visibility was limited by the rocks ahead. Iron Bull went first—naturally. He was the melee fighter. But he really didn’t want to get into a battle in this narrow, confined space. His own range of movement would be limited, and he’d be blocking a lot of Dorian’s line of sight—not that there was anything he could do about that. Maybe we’ll get lucky…
Then he saw it ahead. It was a Red Templar—for a moment. Then it wasn’t anymore. And then a nightmare broke loose in the tunnel.
Demons appeared all around them, summoned by the abomination—which warped again, taking the shape of Despair. Bull felt the tingle of Dorian’s barrier across his skin, and they both began to fight.
As expected, Bull could hardly swing his axe in this narrow space; he had to grip it higher on the haft to swing it at all, and he could barely put half his usual power behind each hit as a result. He could see Dorian’s spells whizzing past him, taking advantage of every narrow gap and managing not to hit Bull—though sometimes it was close. Nice of him, Bull thought, a little surprised Dorian was being so careful for his sake. But then again, it wouldn’t do Dorian any good to kill his own point man in this situation.
A demon vanished in that not-dead-yet way that Bull knew meant it was coming right back, and he twisted, looking for it, but had to chop quickly at another before it could get him. Claws raked his leg, tearing up his pants, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the demon reappear right behind Dorian, who had to turn and stab with his staff blade as fast as he could—he didn’t have the room to swing either. Rocks fell around them—a secondary concern, but one Bull noted instantly. This tunnel can’t hold up to much of this. Ordinary abuse, perhaps—not the explosions of magic and the force of Bull throwing demons against the rock walls.
The Despair demon was targeting Dorian, but there wasn’t much Bull could do about that. Despair always hung back; he couldn’t get to that one until he hacked down the small fry. He was putting his axe through shade after shade, keeping one eye on the flames Dorian was throwing past him at Despair…and then it flitted past them both and it was right on top of Dorian. “Shit!” Bull grunted, chopping down another shade.
“Kaffas!” Dorian’s voice behind him sounded surprised, and the heat of his fire spells suddenly vanished. With a bright flash, Bull saw him throw lighting at the thing. Bad choice, he thought—the rocks began to crack, larger chunks falling—but Bull knew better than to advise Dorian on his choice of spells.
“Watch out!” was all he yelled, as larger rocks began to break free and slam into the ground around them.
Bull’s split attention came at a price—a demon slammed him into the side of the tunnel—shit—making things worse. He jumped back at the thing quick and cut it down. Dorian backed up, dangerously close to him now, but he had to avoid the rocks. A cave-in was starting.
But the way ahead was finally clear. “Dorian, this way!” Bull plowed forward, and he checked to see Dorian scrambling after him, but without turning his back to the demon. The thing was twisting in a weird way, cracking and crumbling, revealing something else. A form that was more purple than cold blue-grey, more human. Too human, maybe.
But Bull wasn’t thinking about that as much as he was scanning the tunnel to make sure they were getting clear of the rocks, and looking for a chance to swing his axe past Dorian and hit the thing in hot pursuit.
Then—everything happened at once.
The ceiling fell. The demon lunged. Dorian threw magic, and it hit, but the demon already had him in its grasp. Bull raised his axe—no time to hesitate, he had to take his best shot. The demon was pushing hands and arms into Dorian’s body…
Bull swung hard, slicing down, narrowly missing Dorian, and cut the thing into shreds. It fell forward—into Dorian. A boulder was falling almost on top of them…
Bull grabbed Dorian around the waist and yanked him clear just in time, running with him down the tunnel. When they’d cleared the loose rocks, he dropped Dorian, who landed on his ass as Bull twisted and double checked that the demon was gone, simultaneously looking for the next rock fall.
The tunnel was stable, but the way back was completely blocked. “Shit,” the Bull growled, slowly lowering his weapon. He examined the stones in front of them, eyes scouring the walls and ceiling. “This is going to be a pain to clear away safely. Let’s get back a bit more. It could start crumbling again any minute.” He turned around and hesitated at the sight of Dorian. “Something wrong?”
Dorian had a hand pressed to his chest, his breathing was fast and heavy, he was sweating—all easily explained by the battle…if Dorian had not been accustomed to fighting for his life. But in all the battles they’d been in together, Bull had never seen him shaken like this before.
“Fuck,” Dorian whispered.
The Bull gave him a narrow look. “You’re not all right.”
“The demon.” Dorian swallowed. “I think it…” He shook his head. “It wasn’t Despair. It was Desire…masquerading somehow, for some reason. It got too close…”
Instantly, Bull was back on alert. His footing shifted as he raised his axe, eyes fixed on Dorian, who was struggling to get his legs under himself. Panting, Dorian glared up at him. “I’m not possessed, Iron Bull. You may sheathe your overcompensating weapon.”
The Bull didn’t move. His face remained blank. “All right…that sounded like you. But how do I know it’s not just the demon saying what you would say?”
Staggering to his knees, Dorian grit his teeth. “Delightful. If you knew anything about magic, I might be able to prove this to you, but thanks to your determined ignorance on the subject, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to take my word for it.”
His eyes narrowed. “That’s not gonna work for me.”
Hissing, Dorian gained his feet and snapped, “If I were possessed, I would seem fine! I wouldn’t give myself away by letting you see that anything was wrong. And I wouldn’t be like this!” To Bull’s surprise, Dorian flicked his robes aside to show the front of his trousers—and the obvious shape of his hard cock trapped in them.
Bull stared. “What the shit?” Of course, he himself wasn’t immune to the rush of battle, but if a dragon wasn’t involved it didn’t end up like that. And that was Bull. Dorian wasn’t the same way. He laughed with triumph in his most exultant moments, but quickly regained his composure afterward. And his dislike of the mess was too strong to turn a battle high into something sexual.
All this Bull knew, had already studied and verified and catalogued. But there was no mistaking that blatant erection.
Dorian’s face was red with fury and humiliation. “As I was saying,” he panted, leaning hard on a rock, barely keeping his feet, “it was a Desire demon. It got too close. In all the chaos, I didn’t get a good look at what it was doing, so I don’t really know what this spell is…” Dorian suddenly cut himself off and swallowed, hunching forward. “Fuck.”
The Bull studied him for another long moment, then slowly returned his axe to its holster. He was pretty sure anything trying to mimic Dorian would play the know-it-all—the most obvious tactic. If Dorian was admitting he didn’t know, that meant two things—it was really Dorian, and it was really bad. “All right…I believe you.”
“Maker be praised,” Dorian snarled. He unslung his staff again and began to concentrate—which meant he was doing magic, even if Bull couldn’t see it yet.
“What are you doing?” he asked, skeptically.
“Trying to dispel whatever this is,” he answered, teeth grinding.
“Can you?” In Bull’s experience, Dorian’s knowledge of the healing, cleansing-type stuff was pathetic. He was good with fire and weird but effective with dead things, but Bull had yet to see him dispel anything, or even heal a cut on his own.
“That is, indeed, the question,” Dorian answered, voice strained. “I’ve seen Lavellan cast dispel. I’m hoping I can reproduce the glyph from memory.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Even partial success would be helpful.”
Bull watched, a little nervous to be stuck in such a tight space, so close to magic—particularly magic Dorian couldn’t claim to be doing correctly. And he definitely wasn’t. Several glyphs appeared on the ground around him. Bull couldn’t tell the difference between any of them, but they all fizzled to nothing without ever giving that little upward pop of light that usually meant something had happened the way it was supposed to.
Dorian finally looked up, sweating and breathing like he’d been running for hours. His hands were shaking, too. “No good?” Bull asked.
Dorian crushed the heel of his hand against his brow. “Why did I have to get stuck here with you. Lavellan could have dispelled it. Or he could have sent me with Cassandra. One spell purge would have done the trick, surely.”
“Shouldn’t the spell be wearing off on its own by now?” Bull had seen spells linger on the field after battle, but they all dissipated after a few seconds. Maybe a minute. As long as the caster was dead. “This is a long time for it to last.”
“You’re quite right,” Dorian sighed, leaning heavily on a large rock, turning to rest half his weight on it. He wiped at the sweat on his face with shaking hands. “It must have done something…”
This is bad. “…Or the demon isn’t dead.” It was a horrible thing to say, but Bull wasn’t going to play nice when a demon was involved.
Sharp grey eyes flashed up at him. “I am not possessed. I was going to say, it must have done something to anchor the spell in my body. It did manage to touch me, after all.”
“Hmm.” Bull considered this. He had seen that happen, yes. And it didn’t usually happen in other battles, but in this narrow tunnel… “That could have done it?”
Dorian folded over the rock for a moment, groaning heavily. “P-Possibly,” he managed to spit out, gasping air back in and trying to push himself upright again.
Analyzing all the available information, Bull stated his conclusion. “We need to get out of here.” Perhaps not the most mind-boggling idea, but it seemed to him that if Dorian had failed to dispel the problem and it might not go away on its own—“We gotta get back to the boss and Cass. They can help.”
“Quite,” Dorian agreed, in what sounded almost like a whimper.
He tried to regain his feet, then, and immediately crumpled. Only Bull’s speed saved him from collapsing to the ground. He caught Dorian; the next moment, surprisingly strong fingers dug so hard into his arms that Bull suspected even with those flimsy little “fingernails” humans had, Dorian might have broken the skin. Then he noticed something else.
“You’re freezing.” He hadn’t suspected this. There was sweat running down Dorian’s face, but his skin felt like ice.
“I am not! I’m burning up.”
“So you’ve got a fever,” Bull concluded. He dug in his pack and pulled out a blanket. “Wrap up. You need to keep warm.”
Dorian moaned, stiff as a plank in Bull’s arms, trying to pull away but unable to trust his own legs or make his arms work properly. “Get…get back. Get this thing off, I can’t bear it…”
“You’ll have to.”
Voice weakening: “Don’t…touch me.”
Bull sighed. “Normally, Vint, I’d do as you ask. But we gotta move, and it doesn’t look like you can.” Dorian protested, attempted to demonstrate that he could walk, and fell again. Bull caught him, as before, and swung his legs up to carry him. “Sorry, big guy. Survival before pride.”
He expected more arguments, but Dorian bit his lip and was silent. Bull carried him along the tunnel hoping they could find a way back to camp from here. Because this was bad. Very bad.
They found daylight—freezing cold daylight. And they found high stone walls.
“There’s no way out,” Dorian intoned flatly.
Very, very bad.
It was clearly true, even at a glance. Not even Sera could have climbed out of here. Silently, Bull carried Dorian out and made a circuit of the little clearing, checking for any tricks of perspective that might reveal another tunnel, footholds upward—anything. But there was simply nothing to see. It was a dead end.
The only thing they found was an empty brazier. “Hey, that’s one of those Fade-fire things, isn’t it?” Bull asked.
Dorian’s head rolled as he looked over. “Ah…yes.” His pale eyes lit for a moment with a hope that was obviously mostly desperation. “I’ll activate it. You never know what veilfire might reveal. If I find a rune, perhaps the Maker will smile and let it be something useful.”
He stretched out his hand, and Bull held carefully still. He’d never been this uncomfortable—standing there, trapped, holding an unstable mage in his arms while that mage did something magical with Fade fire that no one knew anything about. And on top of all that…
But no. Bull wasn’t going to worry about that. It wasn’t relevant. It was bothering him, sure, but he wouldn’t act on it. Nothing could make him do that.
As Bull carried Dorian, Dorian carried the veilfire all around the little dead-end clearing, then back into the tunnel. Finally, something lit up. “Ah!” Bull moved them closer so that Dorian could get a good look by the creepy green light.
“Is it helpful?” Bull asked.
Dorian stared at the thing for a long moment, his arm dropping the torch. “No. It’s ice magic.”
A hand scraping into his hair viciously, Dorian echoed his thought. “Damn it,” he whispered furiously. “Kaffas, shit, damn it.”
Bull cleared his mind. Focused. Next step… He carried Dorian as close to the cave-in as he dared, and set him down. “I’m going to make a fire. You’re still too cold.”
Dorian made a strained sound that could have been either agreement or disagreement—or just pure misery.
It meant going back out to the clearing to gather snow-wet wood, but Bull had tinder and survival skills. And snow was preferable to rain. Rain soaked in. But Bull could whack snowy wood against a rock and get most of it off before it had a chance to melt. It wasn’t too wet.
He got a fire going.
Dorian sat wrapped in his blanket. Drifting, he swallowed a few times, watching the flames grow brighter. Then: “How long do you think before they find us?”
Bull glanced up. The draft was taking the smoke through the rockslide. There must be cracks near the top, funneling the air through. Would it be enough for a signal? Probably not. Could he clear the rocks with his bare hands? Hmm. Bull studied the ceiling and walls. Maybe…but the tunnel isn’t stable anymore. Damn. Getting out of here is going to be a pain.
He smiled crookedly, trying to make a joke out of it. “Could be a while. Maybe not though. Depends how soon Lavellan wants you back.”
Dorian laughed bitterly. “I’m a dead man, then,” he mumbled. “He’ll be swooning over Cassandra until nightfall.”
Bull kept his confusion hidden. “I thought you two were…”
“We were,” Dorian answered shortly.
“…Probably not.” Hmm. “We, ah, are probably on the brink of ending our…affair. Our last conversation was heading in that direction, but we were interrupted. He’s quite taken with Cassandra, now.”
That explains why he split the party the way he did.
Without answering, Bull pulled out his pack. He had bandages, and it was about time he did something about his bloody leg. Quietly, he cleaned the scratches and wrapped it up. He noticed the way Dorian’s eyes riveted to the process as soon as he started taking off his boot and rolling up his pant leg.
This is very bad.
It was no secret that the first introduction of the altus and the Ben-Hassrath had been pretty hostile. It was also no secret that their banter had quickly turned sexual—flirtatious, in an aggressive way. What was a secret was how close they had come to releasing all that tension—before Lavellan had cluelessly stepped in the middle and whisked Dorian away.
There had been drinks. Looks. Murmured insinuations, taunts—dares, even. A moment out of sight behind the tavern when they grabbed each other and locked lips in a way that was guaranteed to lead straight to bed…
But in getting there, they’d run into the Inquisitor, who had specifically come looking for Dorian. Bull didn’t know what they talked about or did that night, but Dorian hadn’t turned up at his door after all. Not long after, he and Lavellan were pretty clearly an item, and so they’d been now for months.
Bull tied off the wrapping around his leg and replaced his pants and put his boot back on. “You doing okay?” he asked, with his eyes on what he was doing.
“Hmm? Regarding the Inquisitor or just generally?” Dorian’s voice was strained. “Because at the moment, I don’t particularly care about Lavellan.”
With a slow nod, Bull studied him—sweaty, pale, shaking. A mess. “So it’s not that you’re trying to stay faithful to him.”
“Wha—nnh!” Dorian’s body jolted again. He caught himself on his hands, but he was losing the battle to stay upright. “What. Do. You. Mean.” Panted, forced out through sheer willpower.
“It’s nothing against me, either,” Bull mused. If Dorian had never shown any interest in him until now, Bull would have died on a demon’s claws before he’d touch that. If it was only the spell. But there had been no spell before Lavellan. So if they were now back to that… “I’m just trying to figure out why you’re putting yourself through this,” he explained.
Dorian writhed, briefly, but managed to keep himself off the ground, propped on shaking arms. “As if I were the one to cast this fucking curse on myself!” he snapped. “What a fucking—!”
“Not that,” Bull cut him off. “I mean the way you’re fighting it.” He met Dorian’s eyes with steady sincerity. “Dorian. You know I would help you. And you know I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Not something like this. I’d just help you, if you needed it. If you wanted.” Thinking of another possible sticking point, he added, “You don’t even have to ask. Just tell me what to do.”
The strain on Dorian’s face was painful. His usually full lips were a thin line, his grey eyes desperate, like a man facing death.
Worried—because Dorian really looked sick, like he was close to passing out—Bull began, “Dorian…” but Dorian shook his head sharply.
“I do understand,” he rasped. “And perhaps I was thinking…that as soon as Lavellan and I…officially ended it…” He paused, panting heavily. “I might see if you wanted…to pick up where we left off.” His body twisted in a convulsion. Dorian grit his teeth and slammed his fist into the ground. “But. It. Doesn’t matter!” He punched the ground again. “I am not going to fuck you because of some miserable piece-of-shit demon’s spell!” His eyes were blazing now, furious. “I will not be tempted! No demon has the power…to make me do anything!”
Bull blinked. Wow. It felt like something invisible stabbed him in the chest. Bull’s heart beat faster. I didn’t know someone could be this strong, he thought, and then: Is this love?
But he didn’t say that. What he did was rise carefully and go around the fire and sit behind Dorian, picking him up from the ground. He was trembling violently, and made protesting noises that were more like whimpers. Bull quietly explained, “You almost hit your head that last time.” He frowned. “And you’re still too cold.” Crossing his good leg, Bull lifted Dorian off the cold stone ground and set him in his lap. He covered him in front with the blanket and wrapped his massive arms around him.
“Oh, don’t…” Dorian sighed, the rage fading to misery.
“Look, I know this might seem to make it worse, in some ways. But nothing’s going to happen. I’m going to warm you up and keep you from hurting yourself. And if you start to take back anything you just said, I won’t hear it. So just…hang in there, big guy.”
“I’m not…taking it back,” Dorian bit out—the last really coherent thing he said for a while.
It was the right call, for Dorian’s sake. He thrashed and writhed in Bull’s arms, but it wasn’t any worse than it had already been. And at least this way he began to warm up. And he didn’t hurt himself—he nearly broke Bull’s collarbone snapping his head back in a convulsion, but it was all right. Keeping Dorian still and uninjured took a lot of strength, but Bull had that.
He had other strengths, too, and Dorian tested those much more—not by going back on his refusal. He never did that. But the way he smelled was incredible. Like nothing Bull had ever experienced before. If the situation had been pleasant, Bull could have lost his head to that scent of overpowering desire.
But he didn’t.
Dorian being in such obvious pain made that impossible.
After a while, the thrashing began to fade—but Bull only grew more worried. Dorian lay in his arms, limp and twitching. His body temperature was stable now, but he was barely conscious. He wouldn’t freeze to death if he fell asleep…
“Focus,” he mumbled. “Have to focus. Stay awake.”
Dorian’s head rolled. “Can’t go into the Fade. Not like this. Too many demons already. Won’t be able to fight them in the Fade.”
That was the scariest thing yet. The idea of Dorian fainting, then suddenly warping and mutating into an abomination in his arms… “Hey, how’s your research going?”
“The Corypheus stuff. You were working on finding out who he really was. Where’d you leave off?”
“Hm. Mm.” Dorian swallowed. “I was…there was a clue from before the Second Blight…” Dorian’s voice faded, and after a second, Bull jostled him a little. Carefully.
“Yeah? The Second Blight? That’s old. What did you find?”
“Hmm? Oh. A copy of a copy of a copy—at best. A hint. Need to go back further. Before the First Blight. That’s the trouble.” His words were slurred and nearly monotone. Not lively, not like Dorian at all. Bull swallowed his fear and kept him talking. He asked about the research, history, magic—all the things Dorian could usually talk endlessly about. He got short, vague answers, for the most part, but at least Dorian was still awake.
He moved to any topic he could think of—alcohol, Sera’s pranks, Leliana’s noisy ravens, the food, the weather. But Dorian kept drifting.
“Tired,” he mumbled, not seeming to hear the last thing Bull had asked. “Hurts. Stop offering, stop. I said no.”
Bull felt his skin crawl. Dorian wasn’t talking to him.
“Hey, Dorian. …Dorian?” He gently patted the guy’s face. “Can you hear me?”
Foggy grey eyes opened and looked up at him and, oddly, Dorian snorted. “Incessantly,” he mumbled. Something about his look twisted in Bull’s gut—like he wasn’t referring to the mostly one-sided conversation Bull had been keeping up.
He ground his teeth together, searching Dorian’s eyes. He was still in there—distant, but there. “Am I gonna have to break your neck soon?” he asked, quietly.
A number of emotions flickered over Dorian’s face—amusement, sadness, relief, exhaustion…but not fear. “No,” he rasped, and raised an arm, gripping the strap of Bull’s harness across his chest. “But it is a comfort to know that you would.”
Then his eyes rolled back, his whole body arching stiffly, his heels digging and scraping into the ground. Dorian made a gut-deep sound of pure pain, and Bull held him tight to keep him still and thought, He’ll die before he’ll give in.
And that—yeah, Bull really might be in love. A guy that strong—how could he not fall for him?
As the convulsion passed, Bull heard something. It sounded like distant voices echoing. He went still and focused his hearing, and it came again: “Dorian? Bull!”
“Over here!” he yelled, making Dorian jolt in his arms. He rose stiffly and lay the guy down on the blanket, hurrying closer to the cave-in. “This way! Boss! We’re trapped!”
The voices got louder quickly, and soon Lavellan had reached the other side of the cave-in. Bull shouted an explanation to him quickly. Clearing the tunnel would be a delicate job, but Dorian was in trouble now.
“If we can make an opening,” Lavellan suggested, “without bringing the ceiling down on us, I may be able to cast dispel through the gap. As long as I can see him.”
“Right. Let’s try that.”
It felt like it took ages. Lavellan had turned out a few scouts to look for them, at least, so he was able to send word back to camp to summon more people to help. They brought beams from the quarry and reinforced the ceiling before clearing away some of the rubble at the top. Finally, Lavellan had a hole he could see through.
“I can’t see him from here. Bull, can you move him to…right there?” A circle glowed briefly on the ground.
“Yeah, got it.” He hurried back to Dorian, scooped him up, and carried him into sight. “Almost over now, big guy.” He set Dorian down. “Can you see him now?” he called.
“Good, yes—all right, here goes…”
A glowing glyph appeared on the ground around Dorian, shone bright enough in the dim tunnel to hurt Bull’s eyes, and popped upward with an almost explosive energy. Bull tensed, checking the walls and ceiling again, but only some dirt and pebbles were knocked loose.
Dorian collapsed with a moan. Bull, heart in his throat, dropped beside him. “Dorian? You good?”
“Is he all right?”
With Bull’s gentle pull, Dorian rolled over. His face was chalky, sweaty, and his hands still shook weakly, but he licked his lips and faintly smiled. “Thank the Maker. I’ve never been so delighted to lose an erection.”
Bull grinned, squeezing his shoulder. “Enjoy those blue balls while you can…”
“Don’t say anything filthy right now,” Dorian interjected. “Just go thank Lavellan for me, and find me a way out of this horrid tunnel and back to camp.”
“Yeah,” Bull sighed, unable to wipe the grin off his face. “I’ll do that.”