Actions

Work Header

Precipice of Change

Chapter Text

Several things alert me to the fact that I’m awake, and none of them are particularly pleasant.

            Firstly, there’s the inane dripping from somewhere behind me that promises to drive me to the brink of insanity in a mere matter of moments. It’s too fast to be a leak, too slow to be running water, which leaves me to assume it must be deliberate. If so, tactic very successful.

            I grit my teeth to the noise upon waking, my nerves on edge from the inconsistent tap.

            Secondly, my knees feel tight and cramped. I realize slowly that this is because I’m kneeling against a stone floor. Some equally hard surface props me up, the cold stone biting into my shoulder and forehead unforgivingly.

            Thirdly, and most pressingly, my left hand aches. It burns with all the heat of a fire and stings with the slice of a blade. It reminds me dully of the first time I tried to conjure lightning—wildly unsuccessfully. Keeper Deshanna had healed it quickly, but the memory of pain has stuck with me.

            I open my eyes slowly to see the damage and gasp in the dark room.          

            Which brings me to the fourth thing.

            My hands are cuffed together tightly, my wrists aching from the rigidity of the constraints. The coldness from the iron seeps into my skin, pressing persistently against bone.

            Something in the room crackles like magic, and my hand begins to hurt more. I gasp and close my eyes tightly, struggling against the cuffs as if to ease the pain. Green light floods the blackness of my eyelids, blinding me, and I recoil sharply, pushing up off the column. A whispered cry is pulled from my chest and then the pain disappears, fading again.

            I open my eyes to find the source of the green light as it fades, but I see no torches or braziers that could have produced such a glare.

            I hurriedly look at my hand to find the source of the pain—the cut or burn that aches so much. I stare in shock as green light flares again, and I jerk back away from my hand so hard that I slide off the pillar beside me and collide with the stone floor beneath. I cry out in surprise, scrambling back once when I realize that it is the green light I saw; it is the source of magical energy in the air.

            “Mythal,” I gasp, staring at my hand.

            It’s obviously magic—but it’s unlike any I’ve ever seen or heard of. Keeper Deshanna never mentioned anything of its kind, and I never saw her cast anything even remotely similar.

            Magic continues to crack in the air, but the light begins to fade again, and the pain stops as quickly as it started.

            Mythal, what in the—

            The door across from me bursts open with a startling crash, and I recoil from the bright light of a torch. I sit up quickly to identify my…jailors?

            Two women stand silhouetted in the doorway, one of them clutching the torch high above her head. She moves it to a placeholder beside her, and the room brightens enough for me to see them. And to realize that I have never before seen them in my life—and I would know; I have a good memory for faces.

            One has short black hair with a single long braid wrapped around her head like a lopsided crown. Shadows fall below her sharp cheekbones; her features are curved into a hard, cold stare as she glares at me, her eyebrows low over her dark eyes. A scar dances thickly across her left cheek as she works her jaw. Her hand rests on the sword at her waist, and I find the implication persuasive enough to not move.

            The second woman watches me expressionlessly. Her face is kind, but there’s a deep darkness in her eyes that alarms and unsettles me. Her long, purple cloak sheathes her hair, but a few short, fiery strands fall forward to her cheeks. Her eyes are bright and inquisitive—decisive and ominous. I realize at once why her expression disturbs me more than her counterpart: hers are the eyes of a predator who knows her prey has been caught. More than that, she does not look content to feast; she wants to play first.

            She moves her hands behind her back, and I lift my chin, waiting for whichever one will start the interrogation or abuse. I’m not unfamiliar with stories of what humans like to do with their Dalish prisoners.

            The black-haired woman steps further into the room. At once, several swords ring out in the silence, giving me the second shock of a lifetime when I realize I have not been alone this whole time. I turn to see four long blades levelled at me, their owners bathed in shadows that hide their features.

            I look up at the woman before me uncertainly. I run through a quick list of possibilities, and all of them terrify me, though I do not allow myself to show it. The Circle goes high on my list of fears, but neither of them has the look of a templar. Well, maybe the black-haired woman, on second thought.

            She circles me slowly, and I watch her out of the corners of my eyes, unwilling to turn away from the red-haired woman at the door. Her eyes don’t leave mine, her expression still quietly calculating my fate. I want to ask whether she intends a quick or slow death, but I refuse to speak first. I’m also afraid the black-haired woman might lop my head off if I dare make light of the situation, so I keep my lips sealed, waiting for the explanation for all this to present itself.

            The black-haired woman leans over my shoulder, speaking loudly and angrily into my ear. I jerk back involuntarily from the loud sound after so much silence. “Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now,” she orders.

            Her rich, low voice reverberates off the walls, echoing her demand in my ears, which only adds to the increasingly terrible headache I’ve begun to develop. Her accent I recognize as Nevarran, which puts me at a complete loss as to where I am. I’ve no memory of traveling to Nevarra. I feel like that would sort of stick out. 

            “The Conclave is destroyed,” she continues, moving to the red-haired woman’s side again. “Everyone is dead. Except for you.”

            My heart skips a beat, and my eyes widen as I remember a long room, mages and templars glaring at each other from opposite sides—a woman in a long white robe and tall white and gold cowl, a sunburst design embroidered on her clothes. A peace negotiation for the raging civil war, meant to be had on neutral, holy ground—the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Keeper Deshanna asked me to attend, indicating she feared what impacts the deals may have on all elves, not just those in the mages’ and templars’ war paths.

            “Wh-what do you mean everyone is dead?” I stutter uncertainly. 

            The last thing I remember is stepping into the hall—the thrill of fear from seeing more people gathered in one place than I’d ever seen before; the dread of the men and woman in silver-plate armor, swords ablaze across their breastplates; the wariness of the mercenaries lining the back walls hired to keep the peace; the trepidation of my fellow mages, their robes cinched tight around their waists as they sat down, glancing warily or angrily at the templars across from them. Mages, templars, elves, humans, dwarves—eyes cut to each other, sideways glances that made me uncomfortable and wary of the staff in my hand. Several guards talking to each other, their expressions concerned—Divine Justinia’s seat at the head of a long table empty—a—a…

            I frown, struggling to remember the rest.

            “Explain this,” the Nevarran demands, grabbing my left wrist.

            She pulls my hand up roughly, and I fall forward, managing to catch myself on a knee and a foot. I gasp and grunt when my hand ignites. Fire burns across my skin, aching and singeing, though my skin neither blisters nor reddens. The green light blinds me again, and the woman throws my hand down roughly in surprise. She steps back once, her hand gripping her sword handle more tightly. She unsheathes an inch of it, watching me warily, like I did it on purpose.

            And then it hits me—fear—they’re afraid of me.

            I bend in on myself, gritting my teeth as I struggle with not showing weakness, but the pain digs to my bone, lancing across it violently. The pain stops as quickly as it began, and I breathe out in relief.

            “What have you done?” the Nevarran demands. “Tell me what that is!”

            “I-I can’t,” I say, looking up at her.

            “What do you mean you can’t?” She begins pacing around me again, and the red-haired woman watches me curiously.

            “I don’t know what that is,” I reply, my voice rising with a slight tremor of panic. “Or how it got there!”

            “You’re lying!” The Nevarran grabs my cuffs aggressively, and another lance of pain jolts through me when she jerks me forward. My knees skid across the stone, and I gasp as my wrist twists.

            Panic and fear cloud my judgement when I look into her eyes. She thinks I’ve done something—something obscene, and she will do anything to extract the information she wants. Her eyes glare into mine, hatred and disgust evident in her expression.

            “We need her, Cassandra,” the red-haired woman says lightly. Her accent is Orlesian, her voice gentle but firm at the same time. She grips the Nevarran’s arm and pulls her back roughly when the woman doesn’t let me go. I sag forward when the black-haired woman doesn’t release me immediately and then sit back up.

            For a split, idiotic second, I think the Orlesian might help me, but she looks at me darkly, her light eyes devoid of any sympathy.

            I swallow thickly. Their suspicion chokes me. I’ve felt the fear of being an apostate in a crowd or an elf surrounded by humans—but this is entirely different.

            “I-I don’t understand,” I admit, my mind swimming and aching and throbbing as I try to place things into their proper order.

            “Do you remember what happened?” the Orlesian asks, her voice less friendly with me. “How this began?”

            I blink at her, searching my mind for the answer. “N-no,” I breathe. “I remember…being at the Conclave and then…”

            “And then?”

            “And then…I don’t know—I woke up here. I was at the Conclave, and then I was here—I don’t understand.”

            “There was a woman behind you when you stepped out the Fade. Do you remember her?”

            I stare at the Orlesian woman, waiting for her to elaborate or perhaps admit to joking. “I—what?”

            “Who was she?”

            “Who was who?”

            The Orlesian narrows her eyes. At first, I think it’s in suspicion, but I quickly realize it’s in confusion. “You don’t remember walking out the Fade?”

            “Walking out of the—” I frown. “That’s—impossible! What are you talking about?”

            Cassandra and the Orlesian exchange a weighted look I don’t know how to interpret. “You don’t recall the woman?” the Orlesian asks again.

            “What woman?”

            Cassandra grips the handle of her sword again as she steps back to the Orlesian. “Go to the forwarding camp, Leliana. I will take her to the rift.” Her tone, so hard with me, is almost soft with the Orlesian—still gruff, but kinder. Curtness must be her way then—though she really doesn’t like me.

            Leliana seems displeased with the request. She offers me one last inquisitive glance before she turns around and walks away, moving with the grace of a dancer and the light tread of a thief.

            Cassandra turns back to me, and I meet her glare as evenly as I can. I imagine she sent Leliana away to kill me, perhaps torture me for information I don’t have. I sit up as straight as I can, staring at her evenly.

            Never again shall we submit.

            I have nothing to give her, and I refuse to offer her the privilege of seeing me cry or beg. I will do nothing to dishonor my people, my clan, or myself.

            Therefore, I am very surprised when she leans down and slips a key into my cuffs, releasing me.

            “What…did happen?” I ask hesitantly, keeping deliberately still as Cassandra binds my hands together with rope.

            I wince at the burn against my left hand when she jerks them tighter, but she fortunately doesn’t notice.

            “It…” she sighs, “will be easier to show you.”

            She stands me up slowly, and I’m caught off guard by the sudden change in her demeanor.

            Does she believe me, then?

            My legs are numb and wobbly under me, but I make an honest effort to not reveal that. Unsteady as my gait becomes, I hold my head up with all the pride a Dalish can have while she’s being escorted handcuffed down a dark hallway, possibly to her doom.

            Cassandra leads me, turning through several doors and heading up many flights of stairs.

            “Least you don’t have to worry about me escaping, what with this elaborate maze,” I mumble.

            Cassandra glares at me.

            “That was…a joke.”

            “There is nothing remotely funny about this situation.”

            “Right…”

            Cassandra pushes open a final door, and I suddenly recognize my surroundings.

            Well, not recognize, per se, but I at least understand where I am, though I’ve never been here before. The sunburst emblems and statues of Andraste give it away quickly. 

            “I didn’t realize Chantries had prisons,” I muse to distract myself.

            Cassandra doesn’t bother with a reply. I don’t blame her.

            Candles are lit across the room. Several people are on their knees, their hands clasped tight as they pray to a statue of Andraste. Others rock back and forth, hugging their knees, reciting quiet words under their breaths with haunted eyes.

            Cassandra grips her sword again to steady and soften its ring as she walks. She pushes through one of the massive doors at the end of the room, pulling me through it.

            I step out into the biting cold as snow drifts down around us. My eyes burn in the brightness of day, and a flicker of light blinds me from the left. I shy away from it, the powerful glare of the sun blind—

            No—not the sun—

            My eyes widen, and my heart skips a beat. I slowly look back up to what I saw only briefly in peripheral.

            “Mythal,” I gasp, staring in horror.

            Green—the sky is—the sky is green—

            High above the mountains around us, a storm brews in the sky. Clouds form in lightning-infused circles. They, themselves, would have been alarming enough if not for the horror of what they react to.

            A slow breath is pulled from my lips, and my mind trips over itself as it tries desperately to comprehend or even acknowledge that what I’m seeing is true.

            If we were near the ocean, I would think it a cyclone, but there is no sea, and it churns green, not blue.

            Bright as the sun, a rolling, spewing, angry spire of green energy roils in the midst of the storm clouds, furiously discharging lightning streaks that dance across the sky in enraged green paths before they disappear. The cyclone whirls down with an unmoving column of energy that stabs into a valley hidden from view, blocked by mountains.

            Magic—

            But what spell—

            What mage would do this?

            My lips part in horror, and terror weighs me down. The end of the world.

            “We call it the Breach,” Cassandra says, her voice low as she, too, stares at the storm. “It is a massive rift into the world of demons that grows larger with each passing hour. It’s not the only such rift, just the largest. All were caused by the explosion at the Conclave.”

            “An explosion can do that?” I hear myself ask, though I don’t recall summoning the words.

            “This one did,” she replies. “Unless we act, the Breach may grow until it swallows the world.”

            “Unless we act?” I repeat. “What…how do we even—”

            The Breach suddenly flares, pulsing brilliantly with a blinding glare. Green fire bursts from the storm like waves crashing against cliffs. It arcs across the sky in rivulets, spewing down into the valley below. The crash of an explosion roars across the frozen lake between us, deafening me from even this distance.

            I cry out and fall to my knees when my hand crackles and burns with more intensity than before. My fingers spasm and jerk on my left hand as the same green energy blinds me. I writhe and pull at the ropes around my wrists, desperate to stop the pain.

            Cassandra kneels down before me as I gasp and struggle. “Each time the Breach expands, your mark spreads, and it is killing you.” I groan and recoil as an unseen flame burns across my skin, lancing over my wrist, and then I sag in relief when the light fades and the pain stops. “It may be the key to stopping this,” Cassandra adds, her eyes growing sympathetic. “But there isn’t much time.”

            I look at her steadily, involuntary tears brimming my eyes. “I understand,” I say as firmly as I can. Mythal, ma ghilana.

            “Then…?” Cassandra asks, a hopeful edge creeping into her voice.

            “I’ll do what I can,” I elaborate. “Whatever it takes.”

            Cassandra’s expression softens in evident relief. She almost looks like she might even smile, but she helps me to my feet instead, and that’s just as good. She takes my elbow lightly, escorting me, though I deem it more for show than because she thinks I’ll run.

            She leads me through the small village, and everyone turns to watch. Soldiers stop in their tracks, forgetting their duties and destinations as they turn to glare at me. Women at the edges of tents cross their arms, and children hide behind their parents. Men grip their blades as we pass, and I suddenly find myself grateful for Cassandra’s hand guiding me—and the hand she keeps ready on her sword.      

            Several people spit as I walk past, and I might have known that, in the wake of a horror in the sky, all these shems would care about is that the prisoner is an elf.

            I regret the thought as soon as I have it. They think I’ve done this to them. They think I’m responsible for this horrific storm, that I’m capable of blowing up a sacred temple and killing those within.

            “They have decided your guilt,” Cassandra explains, unconcerned with her volume as she goes. “They need it. The people of Haven mourn our Most Holy Divine Justinia, head of the Chantry. The Conclave was hers.” Cassandra pulls me through two large doors by the gates of the village, leading me left towards a bridge across the frozen lake. “It was a chance for peace between mages and templars. She brought their leaders together; now they are dead.”

            I look down, allowing a terrible realization to settle over me. Suddenly, I feel a burst of relief that my keeper sent me and me alone to the Conclave. I regret the sensation as it spreads, aware that Cassandra likely lost a great deal in that blast, judging from the haunted look in her eyes and the determination of her gait.

            Soldiers nod at Cassandra as they open two wooden doors, revealing the long stone bridge. Cassandra pulls me to a stop as we step onto the bridge, turning to me.

            “We lash out like the sky, but we must think beyond ourselves, as the Divine did, until the Breach is sealed.” Cassandra pulls a thin blade from her belt and cuts off the rope around my hands. “There will be a trial,” she warns. “I can promise no more.”

            I rub at my wrists. “Where are you taking me?”

            “Your mark must be tested on something smaller than the Breach,” she answers. “We will meet the others in the valley.”

            My left hand looks fine, but I run my fingers across the skin, still searching for a blemish or a cut—something that would explain the pain. My skin feels sensitive, as if glass is embedded within, and I wince, pulling my fingers away quickly.

            Cassandra notices my reaction and looks down at my hand. I drop them both. She turns without comment, and I jog to keep up with her. My confidence falters when I see a man crying over a covered body. A hand rests against the stone, and the man moves it with care under the sheet, bending over the body with silent sobs that shake his body.

            I swallow and look away quickly, grief gripping me.  

            Whatever it takes.

            My words to Cassandra were, admittedly, false bravado, but in the wake of this horror, I feel a twinge of strength inside me—something I didn’t know I possessed. I realize my words, though mistakenly bold, were also true. I will do everything in my power to stop whatever it is that has been unleashed.  

            The air is thick with fear, but I feel it lend me courage where it paralyzes others. I breathe in deeply and focus my confusion, my anger, my dread, and I channel them into action.

            “Fear in the absence of hope is a paralytic. You must be that hope,” Keeper Deshanna murmurs, her hand smoothing the crease in my worried forehead.

            “I will not fail you, Keeper,” I reply, bowing my head respectfully.

            “I have never feared that from you, da’len. You have not, not could you ever. You are your mother’s daughter. The strength of clan Lavellan runs in your veins. You are my First; you are our future. You must endure.”

            And so I shall.

Chapter Text

My eyes are glued to the Breach as I follow Cassandra down the snowy path. It flickers and glimmers brilliantly. It’s terrifying, of course, but there is a certain horrific beauty to the nightmare.

            As I watch, the column of energy surges once more, and white-hot pain slices through my wrist. I gasp as tears spring to my eyes. My hand jerks me forward, as if yanked by the Breach, and I fall to my knees, gripping my hand as it throbs and aches. I cry out involuntarily and Cassandra turns sharply to see me on the ground. She walks back to help me, and I sag in relief when the pain stops. I breathe raggedly, slumping over slightly. Cassandra finds my arm and helps me to my feet.

            “This is going to get old,” I complain.

            She gazes at me sympathetically, placing a hand on my shoulder to steady me. “The pulses are coming faster now,” she murmurs, her voice thoughtful and worried.

            She turns around, and I walk briskly with her, breaking into a half-jog when she quickens her pace again. I wasn’t a hunter in my clan, and while I’m accustomed to walking miles to reach a new home, high-speed chases and long stretches of jogging were never really my forte. My legs, I think, could continue. My lungs, however, are far less agreeable.

            “How long was I in that—room?” I pant, using a less aggressive word than prison or jail cell.

            “Several days,” she replies. “We were unsure whether you’d waken.”

            “Did anyone…look at my hand?”

            “Yes.”

            I glance at her. “And?”

            “He did what he could.”

            “Ah. Good…”

            “I must warn you: the valley will not be pleasant. The larger the Breach grows, the more rifts appear, the more demons we face.”

            “Fantastic…How did I survive the blast?”

            She glances at me. “They said you…stepped out of a rift,” she answers, her voice incredulous and quiet, “then fell unconscious. They say a woman was in the rift behind you. No one knows who she was. You really do not remember?”

            I try again and then sigh and shake my head.

            She grimaces. “Everything farther in the valley was laid waste, including the Temple of Sacred Ashes…I suppose you’ll see soon enough.”

            We cross another stone bridge, and I glance up at the Breach again. My eyes sting as I try to look up into its highest point. It’s too bright, and I look back down to see the Breach pulse again. I prepare myself for another onslaught. Instead, the Breach spews out an array of boulders. One of them launches across the sky in an arc, heading exactly for—

            I reach for Cassandra, yanking her arm back roughly as the boulder crashes into our bridge, but the effort is in vain. The ground loosens beneath our feet, and we tumble down with the rest of the crumbling bridge to the frozen lake below.

            I hit the ice hard on my hip and then my back, and I gasp for air when it is suddenly ripped from my lungs. Cassandra looks at me urgently, and I give a weak nod and an unsteady thumbs-up as I try to sit up. Cassandra stands, rubbing the back of her head as I manage to clamber to my knees.

            “Fenedhis,” I curse, looking back up. A rock slams into the lake beside me, and I glare at the Breach as I wait for the ice to buckle. Another explosion from the Breach startles me, and something collides harder with the middle of the lake. The ice cracks and shifts but mercifully doesn’t break.

            Instead, two shade demons slide across the glassy surface towards us.

            Cassandra’s blade rings out sharply as she pulls it from her scabbard. “Stay behind me!” she orders before she charges forward. She raises her shield in time to block a strike from the demon. Its claws rake shrilly against the steel, and my ears recoil from the screech.

            I look around quickly and find a sword. I pull it up but hesitate when I see something else. I smirk and lunge for the wooden staff. I spin it in my hand, testing its weight and balance, and I grin again as I feel my magic course through me evenly. It feels so good, so natural, to have a staff in my hand that I feel completely in control.           

            I breathe a quiet word, raise my hand to the sky, and call down lightning. Two white-hot, precisely aimed bolts strike the demons, stunning them with an audible clap. Cassandra whips her head to me in shock before she glares at me and cuts one of the demons down with a growl. It falls to the ground, disintegrating as mysteriously as it had appeared.

            The second demon catches Cassandra with her back turned, and I know I’m to blame for her misstep. It raises its claws to her, prepared to strike, but I erect a fast barrier between the two, maintaining it easily. Cassandra whips around again when the demon slams into it loudly, unable to harm her. She glances at me angrily, moving around the barrier to cut the demon down.

            I grin, breathing out heavily as I drop the barrier. “Nice work.”

            Cassandra walks forward briskly, her sword levelled at me. She drops her weight a little, angling her shield down in a terrifying way that I recognize immediately. Instinctively, I step back and raise my staff.

            That was stupid.         

            “Drop your weapon!” Cassandra bellows. “Now!”

            Anger flits through me. “Do you really think I need a staff to be dangerous?” I demand.

            “Is that supposed to reassure me?” Cassandra scoffs.

            “I haven’t used my magic once in all this time,” I argue. “I’m cooperating, but I’m not just gonna stand by and watch you fight everything. You said there were demons out here. Let me fight.”

            For a long moment, Cassandra simply glares at me, and I prepare myself as best I can for what I think she’s about to do. Instead, she sighs and relaxes her position, bringing her shield down. She tugs it over her shoulder and sheathes her blade. “You’re right,” she admits reluctantly. “You don’t need a staff…but you should have one. I cannot protect you.” She turns and walks a couple paces before glancing back at me. “I…should remember you agreed to come willingly.”

            I stand upright and grip the staff, letting it tap against the ground with every other step as I catch up to her. “I didn’t know you were a templar,” I muse quietly.

            “I’m not,” Cassandra replies.

            “You hold your shield like one.”

            “Well, I’m not.”

            “Well…if you were, thanks for not nullifying me.”

            “I cannot fight and carry you at the same time.”

            I glance at her and then laugh at the unexpected joke. When she cuts her eyes at me, I think maybe she wasn’t kidding. Then I remember what nullification feels like, and I make a face. “Fair point, actually.”

            “You have been nullified before?” she wonders.

            “And I do not recommend it,” I mutter.

            “Here,” she suddenly says, pulling a sack of flasks out from her belt. I hear them clatter together quietly. “Take these potions. Maker knows what we will face. I know you…” She glances at me again. “...probably can heal yourself, but…take them anyway.”

            “Thank you,” I reply, tying the sack to my belt quickly. I slip one out and sniff it curiously. “Canavaris?” I murmur.

            “Elfroot," she corrects.

            I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “Same thing.”

            She looks at me again. “Oh…” She makes a face. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t call it elfroot, would you…”

            I take a quick drink, sighing out when the warm liquid pushes my headache back and soothes my hip. It has no effect whatsoever on my hand, but I guess that would be too easy.

            I feel more alert, my vision sharper now that the small discomforts are removed.

            “Where are all your soldiers?” I ask breathlessly, trying in vain to match her pace.

            “At the forward camp,” she replies, “or fighting. We are on our own for now.”

            “What do—”

            “There!” Cassandra warns, pulling her sword out again. I look ahead to the frozen lake at another group of shade demons. “Watch out! If we flank them, we may gain the advantage!”

            She hurries across the ice, and I jog around the edge of it. I realize, as I glance at her, that Cassandra takes quick care with her steps, choosing the thickest parts of the ice. It cracks under her weight but shows no sign of caving in—yet.

            Her shield deflects a blow, and I stop when I’m on the other side of the demons. I call forth fire, burning a demon alive—dead?—as Cassandra turns to the other to ashes. I think we’re done when something slams into the ice near Cassandra. I watch in horror as the ice begins to crack and shift, and Cassandra bounds backwards to escape it when the rock falls through the ice, shattering it. The fissure races ahead of Cassandra’s quick movements and widens beneath her feet before she can make it to safety. Instinctively, I whirl around, spinning my staff powerfully with another word. Cassandra gets hit with the force, landing on the other side of the riverbank just as the spot where she was standing breaks apart. I run around the shore as she looks up in alarm—likely expecting to be swimming right now.

            She looks up at me in surprise when I stop before her, offering my hand. “Thank you,” she says, gripping it.

            I pull her to her feet. “Can’t carry you and fight at the same time.”

            She smirks, turning away before I can properly appreciate the little victory.

            She leads the way, and I jog beside her. She moves across another bed of secure ice fearlessly. I move as quickly as I can, slipping more than once, until she alerts me to another round of demons.

            “Up on the hill!” she calls. “It attacks from a distance.”

            I target the wisp while she charges after the shade demons. My first few attacks are dodged easily, so I freeze it in place quickly and then call down lightning to break through the block and electrocute the wisp within. It dissolves, and I turn to help Cassandra only to see her walking back towards me, sheathing her blade.

            “Not bad,” I muse.

            She rolls her eyes and makes a disgusted noise. “Thank you for that assessment.”

            “You’re welcome.”

            Breathing heavily, we mount a steep hill. Cassandra has to catch me more than once when I choose less stable footing, and by the time we reach the top, I’m exhausted. Cassandra’s rigorous pace doesn’t slow, not even for a second. She marches forward determinedly.

            I suppose we get another half a mile or so before another rock falls from the Breach and another set of demons tries to kill us.

            “Seriously?” I demand angrily, whirling my staff around. “Can we go—just a few minutes—without all this drama?”

            At least they aren’t spiders.

            Something flickers in my mind—a vague memory of something, and I hesitate. A demon’s claw catches on my sleeve, slicing through the material and across my skin. I light it on fire angrily as Cassandra turns another to dust. I raise a barrier between her and a demon when she mistimes a lunge, and she nods at me gratefully, resetting herself. When she’s ready, I lower the barrier, and she slices the last demon down. As she sheathes her blade, I press my fingers to my arm, murmuring a few words, and my skin stitches itself back together again.

            Cassandra’s forehead is dewed with sweat despite the snowy weather. She breathes heavily and adjusts her breastplate as she begins to climb the steep set of stairs built into the mountain. I follow her quickly, my lungs aching. I was beginning to wonder how the woman with me doesn’t tire, but I realize she isn’t immune to exhaustion; she’s immune to quitting. There is no room for failure.

            Cassandra hesitates a moment, stopping on the stairs as she listens, and then she picks up her pace, taking the stairs three at a time. “We’re getting close to the rift! You can hear the fighting!”

            “Who’s—fighting?” I manage to breathlessly call back, falling behind her as my chest aches.

            “You’ll see soon! We must help them!”

            Cassandra reaches the top and disappears around the corner, heading right. I groan and pick up my speed, cursing myself for being the Keeper’s First and not a damn hunter. Assan would have no trouble with this shit.

            I reach the top, gasping absurdly, and I hear the shrill ring of steel against stone, the tug of a crossbow, and the soft sound of magic in the air.

            I gasp and heave, following the sounds of fighting to see that not only has Cassandra beaten me here, but she’s already launched herself into battle while I stand here gaping.

            I can’t help but pause when I see the rift. It looks like the Breach, only significantly smaller. It glimmers in the air, a small tear in the Veil between this world and the Fade. Beyond it, I can see the shadowy, dark fragments of the raw world beyond.

            “Fen’Harel,” I curse, looking at it a moment longer. As I do, a rage demon climbs through the tear, sliding across and melting the snow beneath it.

            I run forward to the fighting. Demons are everywhere, and I search for where the need is greatest. Cassandra and a few soldiers clash against several shade demons, holding them back. A dwarf with a crossbow handles several wisps on his own, dispensing bolts like it’s second nature. An elven mage wields his staff gracefully, using the blade at the end to finish off a demon while simultaneously pushing another back with a powerful force. He steps forward, stabbing the demon to the ground before continuing.

            Sweat stings my eyes as I call another round of lightning to the demons Cassandra is fighting. The elven mage turns to me in surprise at the new magic, as does the dwarf. I block a demon from attacking me by pushing it back with my staff. I whirl around, stabbing it quickly before stopping a demon from approaching the dwarf from behind. He glances back casually, nods at me with an impressed expression, and shoots the demon in the head before moving on.

            The other elven mage pushes the rage demon back, calling upon ice to destroy it. I combine my magic with his, trapping the demon in a solid block as it roars. The mage glances at me again and at my hand as it glows before he focuses his attention on a demon behind the dwarf. I turn and erect a barrier between the two as the elven mage takes the shade down. The dwarf gives a quick flourish of his hand in thanks, and I smirk at the casual gesture.

            “Quickly!” the elven mage calls, jogging over to me. “Before more come through!”

            I look at him confusedly as he takes my left wrist. He lifts it into the air, thrusting it at the rift. My hand suddenly flares, and I grit my teeth in surprise when I feel a surge of magic rush through my fingers. Pain flickers wildly, and I gasp, tightening my hand into a fist. A line of spewing green energy connects me to the rift, and the air crackles with magic. The sound of energy builds to a deafening rate before it finally plateaus. The rift pulses brightly, and then the tear in the Veil heals itself, leaving behind nothing to prove it ever existed at all.

            The elf releases my hand and steps back while I stand there like a fool, staring at where the rift was. I look down my hand, shock coloring my features as it courses through me.

            “What…what did you do?” I ask, looking at my fingers before raising my eyes to the elven mage.

            “I did nothing,” he corrects in a smooth, silky voice. “The credit is yours.”

            I gape at him before pulling my mouth closed. “I closed that thing? How?”

            “Whatever magic opened the Breach in the sky also placed that mark upon your hand. I theorized the mark might be able to close the rifts that have opened in the Breach’s wake, and it seems I was correct,” he answers, his tone pleased.

            My hand glows as he speaks, and I stare at it. It does hurt—a lot—but it hums, too, soundlessly, but I feel the magic vibrate under my skin. I grit my teeth at the pain, focusing instead on the way energy crackles within it.

            “Meaning it could also close the Breach itself,” Cassandra murmurs, coming close.

            “Possibly,” the elven mage replies, glancing at me. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation,” he adds with a private smile.

            I snort incredulously and then sober up when Cassandra glares at me. “Sorry,” I say, straightening. “I just…” I clear my throat. “Sorry. This is serious.” The elven mage watches me, his eyes a little amused now.

            “Good to know,” the dwarf suddenly says in a rich, velvety voice, adjusting his gloves. “Here I thought we’d be ass-deep in demons forever.” I turn to him, smirking at his casual tone. A man after my own heart. “Varric Tethras,” he greets grandly. “Rogue, storyteller, and occasionally, unwelcome tag-along.” He winks at Cassandra and receives a glare in return. “This here’s Bianca,” he adds, patting his crossbow with a fond grin.

            “Good to meet you, Varric…and Bianca,” I reply.

            “You may reconsider that stance in time,” the elven mage murmurs with another small smile.

            Varric scoffs. “Oh, I’m sure we’ll all become great friends in the valley, Chuckles,” he replies, offering a winsome smile.

            “Absolutely not!” Cassandra says sternly, stepping forward. “Your help is—appreciated, Varric, but—”

            “Have you been in the valley lately, Seeker?” Varric asks. I glance at Cassandra. Not a templar. A Seeker. Huh. “Your soldiers aren’t in control anymore. You need me.” He raises an eyebrow, as if daring her to challenge the statement.

            Cassandra looks as if she wants to argue, but she offers a disgusted noise instead and turns around angrily.

            “My name is Solas,” the elven mage says to me, “if there are to be introductions. I am pleased to see you still live.”

            Varric snorts. “He means, ‘I kept that mark from killing you while you slept.’”

            I look up at Solas. “Oh, well—thank you. That’s—good to know. You seem to know a great deal about it all,” I add.

            “Like you,” Cassandra says, “Solas is an apostate.”

            I grimace at her.

            “Technically, all mages are now apostates, Cassandra,” Solas corrects before returning to me. “My travels have allowed me to learn much of the Fade, far beyond the experience of any Circle mage. I came to offer whatever help I can give with the Breach. If it is not closed, we are all doomed, regardless of origin.”

            “See why I call him Chuckles?” Varric mutters.

            “What will you do once this is over?” I wonder.

            He allows a small smile. “One hopes those in power will remember who helped—and who did not. Cassandra, you should know, the magic involved here is unlike any I’ve seen. Your prisoner is a mage,” he allows, “but I find it difficult to imagine any mage having such power.”

            I look between them, offering Cassandra a hesitant smile. She rolls her eyes and sighs heavily. “Understood,” she replies, sounding drained. “We must get to the forward camp quickly.”

            Solas nods, and they lead the way.

            “Well,” Varric sighs as he watches them go, “Bianca’s excited.”

            I chuckle at him, and he pats my shoulder as we follow the other two.

            “Tell me, rift-tamer, what’s your name?” he wonders. “I need to know what I should shout when I want a demon turned to stone.”

            I snort. “My name or my preferred nickname?”

            “Well, now you have to tell me both.”

            I chuckle, but it fades away. “Suledin Lavellan, of clan Lavellan.”

            Solas glances back at me, his expression unreadable.

            “And the nickname?” Varric asks.

            “Sul.”

            “Sul,” he repeats, testing it. “Sul. I like it. Strong. Short. Easy to remember when I need saving.”

            I laugh again, glancing down at him.

            “This way!” Cassandra calls back to us. “Down the bank. The road ahead is blocked.”

            “We must move quickly,” Solas urges, glancing up at the angry green chasm above.

            Varric and I follow the other two over the steep bank. While Solas and Cassandra manage it just fine, we’re a little less graceful. I slip and slide on the way down, and Varric is somehow worse off than me. I reach out to grab his gloved hand quickly before he falls the rest of the way down.

            “Much obliged,” he says, righting himself.

            “I’m just using you for balance,” I correct, and he chuckles, the sound low and deep in his chest.

            We manage to make it to the frozen lake more or less intact.

            I glance at the ice dubiously as Cassandra strides across it. “Are we sure this can—”

            “Demons ahead!” Solas warns quickly, pulling to a stop.

            I jerk my head up, pulling my staff off the ground again.

            “Glad you brought me now, Seeker?” Varric calls loudly. His crossbow flicks loudly with each bolt he rapidly fires.

            I stare at Varric as he goes. “Holy shit,” I breathe. “That crossbow is...amazing! I've never seen one work so...flawlessly.”         

            “She’s a one-of-a-kind,” Varric grins. 

            I watch him a moment longer, understanding now, perhaps, why he’s so fond of it when I realize he rarely has to reload. I’ve always considered crossbows wildly inconvenient, and my clan never used them, but Varric’s works fluidly, sometimes spreading to fire multiple bolts or allowing him to let loose several in a row.

            “Holy shit!” I say again, forcing myself to refocus on the danger.

            I concentrate with all my strength, feeling my forehead dew with sweat despite the below-freezing temperature. I feel my mana slipping after so much activity. Solas, I’m sure, is running off reserves, too, and I don’t know how Cassandra is still going.

            I frown, focusing my energy on the largest of the demons. I call upon fire, passing it to my staff smoothly before aiming it across the lake and releasing it. I breathe energy into it, feeling a knot of a headache forming in my mind again from the pull. The fireball enlarges as it goes, exploding on impact, and I feel another bit of my mana fade as I grit my teeth.

            Cassandra charges across the ice, slashing at demons with a proficiency I’ve never before seen. Solas raises a barrier around her and manages to hold it tightly while moving his staff around to the others, fire and spirit rocks forming at the crystal without hesitancy. I watch, impressed, for a moment. I’ve never seen a mage conjure so much simultaneously. I only have a second to enviously appreciate it before Varric calls to me.

            “Hey, Sul, mind helping a dwarf out?”

            I turn my attention him and then thrust my staff out, trapping the demon in ice before its claws reach Varric. He reloads quickly and shoots the demon, turning it to ash in a smooth gesture.

            “Thanks!”

            Cassandra’s roar echoes across the lake, and I find myself more than relieved to be on her good side. Best keep it that way if I intend to live past today.

            The demons fall as quickly as they emerged, and, when we’re finished, I rest my staff on the ice for a moment, feeling drained. I wipe my forehead quickly and stand up as Cassandra glances back at me. She motions to us, and Varric and I cross the ice to join her and Solas, following the brutal pace they set.

            “You are Dalish,” Solas murmurs conversationally, glancing back at me once, “but clearly away from the rest of your clan. Did they send you here?”

            “My keeper did, yes,” I nod. Without the vallaslin, I would think he’s a city elf, but even thinking the name alongside him doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps just a wanderer, then. In that case… “What do you know of the Dalish?” I wonder.

            Solas glances back at me. “I have wandered many roads in my time,” he replies, confirming my theory, “crossed paths with your people on more than on occasion.”

            I look up at him. “We are both of the same people, Solas.”

            He makes a face, turning away before I can attempt to read it. “The Dalish I met felt…differently on the subject.”

            Varric sighs. “Can’t you elves just play nice for once?”

            I scoff. “We elves are plenty nice; it’s—”

            “No offence, no offence,” he adds quickly, raising his hands.

            I grimace and sigh. I walk briskly to catch up with Solas and Cassandra. My hand suddenly spasms, and I accidently let go of my staff. It clatters to the ice, and I grip my hand, jerked forward by the Breach. Cassandra catches me when I stagger. My vision blurs at the ache, and I squeeze my eyes shut, gasping. It burns under my skin, sizzling and scalding and stabbing.

            “We must hurry,” Solas murmurs to Cassandra, stepping closer to us, “before the mark consumes her.”

            I make a face, gasping again. “Excellent. That’s…very comforting.” I stand up, gripping my wrist. “Sorry,” I add, looking at Cassandra.

            “Come,” she says gruffly, setting a breakneck pace.

            Varric leans over and picks up my staff. “You alright, Snow?” he murmurs, walking beside me.

            “Snow?” I rasp, tears blurring my vision as the ache continues.

            “Your hair,” he shrugs. “Just trying it out.”

            I chuckle once with difficulty, finally relaxing when the mark stops. “Thank you,” I murmur, taking the staff back. “I’m not sure Snow’s the one for me,” I add.

            “Eh, we’ll see. I’ve got plenty of ideas.”

            I chuckle again, wiping my eyes. Varric pats my back once before gripping his crossbow again tightly.

            “So, are you innocent?” he wonders.

            “I don’t remember what happened,” I reply.

            “That’ll get you every time,” Varric sighs, snapping his gloved fingers. “Should’a spun a story.”

            Cassandra scoffs. “That’s what you would have done.”

            “It’s more believable! And less likely to result in premature execution.”

            Cassandra grunts a humorless laugh and moves more quickly. I can’t help but think it a punishment.

            I struggle to keep up, the weight of the pain and drama of the day pressing heavily against me. I groan when I see another steep set of stairs twist and curve against the side of another mountain. I wonder if there’s something wrong with me, because Solas and Cassandra make the journey easily—or at least without obvious complaint. Varric, at least, seems as displeased with the trek, so that’s comforting.

            I follow along as quickly as I can, preparing my mana in case we come across another group of demons. I tighten my grip on my staff, breathing out as evenly as I can as we ascend. I glance up at the Breach as we go, imagining all the dozens of ways this can go wrong.

***

I lower my staff, breathing ridiculously fast as the last demon falls. I raise my right hand to my forehead, collecting beads of sweat as they drip down my temples.

            “Fenedhis,” I pant. “If I ever see a demon again, it’ll be too soon.”

            Varric chuckles breathlessly, gathering his bolts off the ground. “Right there with you, Boots.”

            I raise an eyebrow at him.

            “Yeah, I knew it as soon as I said it,” he laughs, glancing down at my Dalish footwear. “Don’t worry; I’ll place you.”

            “Sul’s fine,” I chuckle.

            “Sul’s what everyone else will call you. No, no—you need a proper nickname, a unique one. I’ll find it. Don’t worry.”

            “I hope Leliana made it through all this,” Cassandra calls, out of breath as she sheathes her blade.

            “She’s resourceful, Seeker,” Varric replies casually.

            “We will see for ourselves at the forward camp,” Solas says, leading the way up the hill. “We are almost there.”

            I walk beside Varric, leaning on my staff more heavily as I go. We don’t get far before shouts and the clash of swords reach our ears. Tirelessly, Cassandra lunges forward, taking the rest of the hill quickly and disappearing over it. Solas follows her, and I grit my teeth, pushing my legs and lungs harder. At the top, I pause, taking a second to understand what’s happening. We’ve reached a long stone bridge that’s being used as a command center—the forward camp, I imagine. Two doors are shut tight, blocking its passage as, most notably, a group of soldiers rally against a horde of demons.

            “Another rift!” Cassandra shouts, drawing her sword.

            “We must seal it!” Solas calls. “Quickly!”

            “They keep coming!” a soldier exclaims. “Help us!”

            An archer near me falls backwards, scrambling to escape a demon now that he’s dropped his bow. I cry out a quick spell, throwing up a barrier that makes my finger tremble. Solas reacts at the same time as me, and our barriers combine, climbing high. I glance at him, seeing him nod, so I drop mine and focus fire on the demon.

            “Hurry,” Solas calls. “Use the mark!”

            “We’ll cover you!” Varric adds.

            I feel idiotic, but I jog forward a couple steps and raise my hand the way Solas did before. I feel magic pull through me, humming over my skin almost as if a river is rushing through me. Pain grips my hand, and tears spring to my eyes as I squeeze them tight, holding my breath. The energy between the rift and me flutters in the air, brightening behind my eyelids and deafening me until it finally explodes. I jerk back, freed from the magic. I feel drained and exhausted, and my hand aches as it glows. I open my eyes to see the rift gone, and I grip my hand, gasping.

            Solas looks at me, and I stand upright, looking away as I wipe my eyes. I turn to see the other soldiers staring at me. One pulls his helmet off, his expression awed.

            I look away from that, too, finding comfort in Cassandra's stoicism.

            “The rift is gone!” she announces to the soldiers, jarring them into action. “Open the gates!”

            “R-right away, Lady Cassandra!”

            “We are clear for the moment,” Solas murmurs, out of breath. “Well done.”

            Varric makes a face. “Whatever that thing on your hand is, it’s useful.”

            I nod, clenching my hand into a fist. I glance at Solas again as he walks forward. When this is over, assuming I survive, I’ll have a few questions for him. Of everyone, he seems the one most likely to understand. At they very least, he seems the most likely to theorize.

            We follow Cassandra through the forward camp and onto the bridge. Soldiers run back and forth, heading to one end or the other. They grab swords and shields and medical kits. Some of them carry bodies between them, moving them to more secure places. Rows and rows of soldiers lay still across the bridge, sheets pulled over their unmoving figures. I look down, watching the ground as I go, feeling heavy. Varric walks beside me slowly, resting his crossbow over his shoulder.

            “Maker,” he breathes, shaking his head.

            I look up when I hear a somewhat familiar voice, recognizing the red-haired woman who questioned me with Cassandra.

            “…don’t have a choice, Chancellor,” she says firmly, crossing her arms as she glares at a man in Chantry robes.

            He leans across the wooden table between them, studying a map dismissively. “Sister Leliana, you have already caused enough trouble by—”      

            “I have caused trouble?” she demands incredulously.

            “Ah,” the man says, standing as he sees Cassandra. “Here they come.” He fixes his glare on her, and she stops impatiently before his table.

            Leliana steps forward to Cassandra. “You made it,” she says, relief softening her tone. “Chancellor Roderick, this is—”

            “I know who she is,” he interrupts, glaring at me now. I raise my eyebrows at him, offering a thin smile I know he’ll interpret as sarcastic. He looks at Cassandra again. “As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take this criminal to Val Royeaux to face execution.”

            Solas looks over the valley with an impatient sigh, his gaze annoyed.

            “Order me?” Cassandra repeats. I want to point out that that wasn’t exactly the most…troubling part of his statement, but alright. “You are a glorified clerk, a bureaucrat.”

            “And you are a thug, but a thug who supposedly serves the Chantry.”

            “We serve the Most Holy, Chancellor,” Leliana snaps. “As you well know.”

            “Justinia is dead!” Roderick exclaims, throwing his hands up. “We must elect her replacement and obey her orders on the matter.”

            Solas looks more irritated as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Varric seems entertained, watching them duke it out.

            “Uh, not to interrupt,” I mutter, “but…isn’t closing the Breach the more…pressing issue?”

            Roderick scoffs, rounding on me. “You brought this on us in the first place!”

            I throw my hands up in frustration, and Cassandra glares at him venomously. She leans a hand against the table, and I don’t know how, but she makes it a threat. The chancellor gazes at her evenly.

            “Call a retreat, Seeker,” he implores, sounding defeated. “Our position here is hopeless.”

            “We can stop this before it’s too late,” Cassandra promises.

            “How?” he wonders. “You won’t survive long enough to reach the temple, even with all your soldiers.”

            “We must get to the temple. It’s the quickest route.”

            “But not the safest,” Leliana says. “Our forces can charge as a distraction while we go through the mountains.”

            Cassandra shakes her head. “We lost contact with an entire squad on that path. It’s too risky.”

            “Listen to me,” Roderick implores. “Abandon this now, Seeker, before more lives are lost.”

            He jumps in surprise when the Breach pulses with an audible explosion. My hand jerks me forward a step. I grip my wrist, looking away as I gasp in pain. Solas looks down at me, and I avoid him and everyone else, willing it to stop. I pull my hand back to my side, gasping quietly, forcing myself to stand upright. I see Solas grimace at the Breach, his expression serious. Leliana and Cassandra turn to me, sympathetic and unhappy. Roderick stares at me in horror, and Varric glances at my hand uncertainly.

            I slowly relax as the pain subsides. Each time, it feels like it won’t end. The Breach in the sky flickers and dulls again.

            “How do you think we should proceed?” Cassandra asks.

            I look at her, shocked. I wonder if perhaps this is a test, so I don’t bother asking her to repeat herself as I glance at the others. “I—say we charge with the soldiers,” I answer, my voice hard. “We don’t have time to lose. Whatever happens, happens now.”

            Cassandra nods her head once in approval. “Leliana, bring everyone left in the valley. Everyone.”

            Leliana nods and moves past us, shouting to a group of soldiers. I follow Cassandra down the bridge, flanked by Solas and Varric.

            “On your head be the consequences, Seeker,” Roderick calls after us.

            I glance at her to see her expression harden even more. She walks briskly, her eyes haunted. Her hand moves to her sword pommel, and I watch as she grips it so hard her knuckles turn white.

Chapter Text

The journey up the mountain is decidedly more arduous than anything else today. The most direct path to the frontlines turns out to also be the worst path. Rather than take the road, we find ourselves scaling the mountainside itself. I somehow wind up leading, using my staff for support more often than not. This worries me because I know that if I fall, I’m taking them all down with me. Cassandra walks behind me, then Varric and Solas.

            I breathe out a heavy sigh of relief when we reach the top, stopping a moment to catch my breath. Varric moves beside me, clapping my shoulder as he rests his hands on his knees. Cassandra and Solas, naturally, continue forward, breathless as they sound.

            “They’re trying to show us up, aren’t they?” I gasp, ripping my scarf off. I tie it to my staff, my fingers shaking.

            “Oh yeah,” Varric nods, staggering forward a few steps. “Shit. I wasn’t made for this much climbing.”

            I chuckle a little hysterically, walking forward numbly after the others. I negotiate the boulders around the edge of the road and move to the considerably flatter path. Ahead, I can hear the telltale sounds of battle.

            Bodies line the road in long, jagged lines, but these are uncovered, and I look away quickly. Soldiers bustle around us, sharpening their blades and gathering weapons. Some kneel down, praying or crying.

            I follow Cassandra soberly, focusing on the back of her head rather than the weight of the tragedy around us.

            We reach a flight of stairs, but the lower half has been blown off, presenting a very steep drop. Cassandra makes it with no trouble, landing solidly far below. She glances back up at the rest of us waiting, but I don’t trust my ankles on such a drop.

            “Here, Freckles,” Varric says, offering his hand.

            “I don’t have freckles,” I reply, accepting his help.

            He concedes, gripping the edge of the stairwell to help me down. “I’ll think of something.”

            He lowers me as far as he can, and I fall the rest of the way, landing with a stumble. Varric reaches back to help Solas, who politely declines. Varric slides off the edge of the stairs, landing hard beside me. I reach out to steady him, receiving his nod in response.

            I turn to the makeshift battlefield, swallowing thickly.

            Soldiers are everything; they litter the small clearing. Dozens and dozens, and still they are outnumbered.

            A man in red and black armor, furs like a lion's mane around his shoulders, battles four demons by himself, using his shield and sword to push his enemy back and fight. Almost every man fights three at a time. A soldier close to me is overwhelmed by five.

            Varric reacts to that at the same time that I do, and we make a good team. I raise a barrier in front of the soldier, shielding her from one of the demon’s claws. Varric fires and reloads so quickly that I barely have time to finish the barrier before the demons are gone. She turns back to nod at us gratefully before rushing to one of her comrades.

            Cassandra is halfway to the man in lion armor, and Solas focuses his attention on the new demons pouring from the tear in the Veil.

            I rush forward with Varric, stopping near Solas.

            “We must seal the rift!” he calls to me, his staff endlessly spinning and tapping the ground. “There are too many passing through!”

            I nod as I catch a demon with the blade at the end of my staff, slicing through it quickly with a grunt. I raise my hand to the rift, feeling the magic rush through me. Before I can connect with it, something tackles me around the middle.

            I hit the ground hard, crying out in surprise as claws rake at me. I raise my arm to block them, earning several deep cuts across my skin. Lightning suddenly slams into the demon above me. I feel the static charge the air around me, raising the hair on my neck. The demon roars and then disintegrates as I gasp. Solas reaches down and pulls me back to my feet, raising a barrier over us. I thank him quickly, thrusting my left hand out again. Solas’ brow furrows in concentration as he maintains the shield, and I can tell he must be even more drained than I am. I don’t even know how long he was fighting before I showed up.

            Demons rail against the barrier, trying to weaken it as I connect with the rift across the field. I step forward once, planting my feet firmly on the ground as I grip my staff. Green fire licks up past my fingers, aching and burning. A strangled cry bursts through my lips, and I curl my hand into a fist, trying to hurry.

            Before I can finish, the rift explodes, and the force of it knocks me back. I scream, my hand on fire as I grip it. I look up to see terror demons land on the snow and charge for the soldiers.

            Cassandra appears beside me, pulling me to my feet. “Are you alright?”

            I gasp and nod, gripping my hand.

            “We’ll cover you! Commander!” she shouts. The man in the lion armor glances back. “Shield her!”

            He seems to have a few questions as to what makes me so special, but he backs up to us regardless until he stands before me, his shield covering not only himself but me as well.

            “Soldiers! Come here! We need to form a wall!” Cassandra orders.

            Several fall back to us until I’m circled by Varric, Solas, the commander, Cassandra, and multiple warriors. Solas’ barrier stretches too large over us all, and I look at him quickly, certain it must be taxing as I thrust my hand up to the rift. His brow is furrowed, and his jaw is clenched, but he maintains the barrier against the terror demons who screech and claw at the shimmering wall between us. Magic pulses through me too slowly, but I don’t know how to make it go faster. Solas raises his staff, strengthening the walls around us, but it’s taking a heavy toll.

            The terror demons release a shrill scream that deafens me, and I cry out as almost everyone raises their hands to their ears. Tears flood my eyes as fire rakes across my arm, connecting me to the rift. The commander and the soldiers turn to me in shock, and I close my eyes tightly, clenching my hand into a fist. I feel it—barely, perhaps, but I can feel the torn edges of the Veil. I grip them tightly, feeling the magic hum, the rift fluttering as if to defy me. I wait until I’m sure I have a decent hold, and then I yank the rift shut with an agonized cry.

            I tear my hand away, gripping it with a gasp, and I wrench my eyes open to see the rift gone. The terror demons screech and pound against the barrier. Solas staggers forward, falling to one knee. Varric grabs my arm as the walls around us disappear. Immediately, I raise it again, holding it over Solas, Varric, and a few of the soldiers as he recovers, gasping a little. Cassandra and the commander launch into battle, reaching the same terror demon at the same time. Solas closes his eyes, wincing before he raises his hand, hurling a fireball at one of the terror demons. It catches on the wood, and the demon shrieks as it goes up in flames.

            “I have to drop the barrier!” I warn.

            Solas nods, pulling himself up. I wait until he’s ready and then drop the walls, swinging my staff at the second terror demon. It roars as the fire catches, and it shrieks shrilly as it falls. The third across the field goes down soon after, and then it’s just wisps and shades. They fall with relative ease.

            When it’s over, everyone seems to sag with the same exhausted relief.

            “The rift is sealed, as before,” Solas nods. He offers a small smile when he sees how dramatically I lean against my staff. “You are becoming quite proficient at this.”

            I snort, rolling my eyes.

            “Let’s hope it works on the big one,” Varric replies.

            “Just had to being that up, didn’t you?” I pant.

            “Sorry,” he chuckles.

            The man in lion armor comes forward, staring at me in awe. “How did you…”

            I shrug, gasping for air as I pull my collar.

            “The prisoner’s mark seems to have control over the rifts,” Cassandra answers.

            “Prisoner,” I snort. “Here I thought we were becoming friends.”

            Varric smirks at me. “She’s a little rough around the edges.”

            “I hope they’re right about you,” the commander says drily. “We’ve lost a lot of people getting you here.”

            “You’re not the only one hoping that,” I mutter, glancing down the field. Beside me, Varric chuckles, and Solas smirks.

            “We’ll see soon enough, won’t we?” the commander replies, clearly displeased with my levity. He turns to Cassandra. “The way to the temple should be clear.”

            “Leliana should be arriving soon,” Cassandra replies.

            “I’ll send her to meet you.”

            “Then we’d best move quickly. Give us time, Commander.”          

            “Maker watch over you,” he answers, stepping back with a last glance tossed my way. “For all our sakes.”

            I watch him as he turns and jogs to a wounded soldier. He takes the man’s arm, winding it around his shoulders as he helps him across the rest of the field. I make a face, and Varric mimics it.

            “Makes the rest of us look back,” Varric sighs.

            “You know him?”

            “I’ve met him exactly twice before this. Both times, he was more or less doing that.”

            “This way,” Cassandra calls, redirecting our attention.

            I follow her and Solas as they maneuver another decent drop. I stumble when I hit the ground wrong, gripping my staff. I start to make a comment to myself, but my good humor vanishes the instant I look up.

            My heart pounds my in chest, speeding up as I take in the horror before us. Cassandra, Varric, and Solas all stop, too, staring.

            There is hardly any evidence at all that a building once stood here, never mind a large temple. A few broken walls remain, the stone melted along the edges. Massive bricks lay in solitary patches, falling down from those few walls still standing. Beyond them, bodies are scattered. Most were burned away in the explosion, leaving nothing but scorch marks or shadows printed on the walls, echoes of the men and women who once stood here. Still some litter the ground, mere husks of what they once were.

            They sit frozen on the ground, sculpted in horror. Some are on their knees, melted arms raised to shield their heads from the blast. Too many were knocked to the stone beneath them, curled in on themselves to protect them from damage. Their clothes burned away in the blast. All that remains are the mutilated, deformed masses before us, bone bleaching through charred skin and sinewy muscle.

            My eyes brim over in raw panic as it bubbles in chest. Their hatred, their anger in Haven—Chancellor Roderick and the ones who spit at my feet; Leliana’s and Cassandra’s expressions in the prison—they thought I did this, that I was capable of…this.

            “The Temple of Sacred Ashes,” Solas murmurs solemnly.

            “What’s left of it,” Varric whispers, his voice hoarse.

            “That,” Cassandra says quietly, gesturing to a stone wall not far from me, “is where you walked out of the Fade, and our soldiers found you.”

            The others look back at me as I stare at the spot.

            “How did you survive this?” Varric whispers.

            I look around, tears falling as I shake my head.

            “They say there was a woman in the rift behind you,” Cassandra says again. “No one knows who she was.”

            I walk forward once, raising a hand to my chest when it bubbles again with hysteria. I realize why this time. “I can feel them,” I murmur softly.

            Varric and Cassandra look at me, confused, but Solas nods solemnly. “The Veil is weak here. They press against it, echoes of what happened ringing out,” he says quietly, “begging to be heard.”

            Silence follows his words, and I breathe out with difficulty.

            “Good to…know,” Varric mutters uncomfortably.

            “This is monstrous,” I whisper without meaning to, walking through the field of bodies. “How could someone do this…”

            I lead the way slowly into a broken hallway, an open-roofed reminder of the holy temple that once stood here. I look up as I round the corner and come to a slow stop as I reach a broken balcony. The air in my lungs is pulled from me in a quiet gasp.

            I look up and up and up. It never ends. The Breach is massive.

            Suddenly, my heart skips a beat, and my lips part. I could barely close a couple tiny, thin tears in the Veil. This—this is—

            I shake my head.

            Impossible. This is impossible. This kind of thing just can’t happen.

            A lump of raw energy hovers frozen in midair, its shape reminding me vaguely of everite. From it, waves of green fire flow upwards, churning in the cyclone I saw before. Here, it’s thicker than…I don’t even know what—a house, a Chantry, a mountain…

            I try to look up into the Breach, but it’s too bright, like staring into the sun. Beyond, I catch faint glimpses of the green, unveiled world meant to be separate from us.  

            I swallow thickly when I look down. A large crater sits where the rest of the temple once was, a massive hole blown into the earth. It must be the epicenter. The remaining walls lean precariously against the mountains around us, as if recoiling from the blast even still. I stare in horror, realizing that this was no ordinary spell—nothing I’ve ever heard of could do this, not even Qunari gaatlok. This is…

            Again, the word impossible leaps to mind, and I wonder if I’m dreaming, if this is some bizarre nightmare, a trick of the Fade, and that I'll wake up in my own tent with my Dalish clan, far removed from the horrifying implications of this moment. 

            “The Breach is a long way up,” Varric mumbles, staring up with me.

            I shake my head. “How the…”

            “You’re here!" someone calls. "Thank the Maker.”

            I turn to see Leliana run forward, a bow slung over her shoulder. Half a dozen men follow her, warily glancing at me or the bodies strewn around us.

            “Leliana,” Cassandra greets, “have your men take up positions around the temple.” Her voice holds an undeniable authority, and it jars me from my shock, lending me strength.

            Leliana nods once, turning back to quickly give instructions, gesturing to several places around the crater.

            “This is your chance to end this,” Cassandra tells me, coming to my side. “Are you ready?”

            I stare up again. “I…I don’t even know how to start getting up to that thing,” I breathe.

            “The Breach, no,” Solas replies, “but the rift.” He points down into the crater, toward the everite-like ball of energy. “This rift was the first, and it is the key. Seal it, and perhaps we seal the Breach.”

            I look up again, following the whirling cyclone of energy up to the massive Breach. “You…certain about that?”

            “As certain as one can be, under the circumstances.”

            “Fair…fair enough,” I mumble.

            “Then let’s find a way down,” Cassandra says. “And be careful.”

            My fingers suddenly flare, and I wince, gasping at the pain. Solas watches my hand, and Varric gives me a concerned look.

            “You okay?” he wonders quietly. 

            “Yeah,” I rasp. “Just—tickles.”

            He offers a thin smile at the joke, and I clench my hand into a fist again, walking forward with Cassandra as she moves across the crumbled floor. She glances over the balcony and then scales it, dropping to the rocky mountain below. I follow her, stumbling a little. She leads us around the edge, choosing the path carefully.

            Now is the hour of our victory.

            I stop walking, looking around for the voice that I hear in my mind. Varric, Solas, and Cassandra stop, too, which makes me feel better.

            Bring forth the sacrifice.

            “Please tell me you hear him too,” Varric mutters.

            “Creepy dude, deep voice?” I mumble. “Yep. Definitely.”

            Bring forth the sacrifice.

            This time it sounds like an echo. The voice crawls under my skin, clawing against my chest. It unsettles and unnerves me. I look for the source, but there’s no one here. On their elevated positions, the soldiers look fine, unconcerned. Clearly, they are far enough away.

            “Did you hear that?” Leliana murmurs, startling me.

            “What are we hearing?” Cassandra demands, looking at Solas as Leliana comes to her side.

            “At a guess,” he says, “the person who created the Breach.”

            Everyone looks at him. Varric opens his mouth a couple times before changing his mind.

            “How is that possible?” Cassandra breathes.

            “The Veil is thin here,” Solas answers slowly. “It is…retaining and…somehow replaying the memory of what happened. Spirits react to the emotions of the world around them, and they are deeply affected by destruction of this magnitude. It is possible that the spirits are allowing us to hear this. They will likely only offer bits and pieces—scattered and confusing.”

            “Do you remember this voice?” Cassandra asks suddenly, looking at me. “Perhaps you saw him?”

            “I—no,” I reply quickly, shaking my head. “I don’t—think so? I don’t remember.”

            Cassandra sighs out impatiently.

            “Let’s just close this thing, alright?” Varric mutters. “We can theorize later.”

            I follow behind the others as we round the mountain, edging deeper into the crater. Varric sees something that makes him stop in his tracks. I pause beside him, alarmed when I see terror flit across his expression.

            “That’s—red lyrium,” he says, pointing, his tone growing cold.

            I follow his gaze to red crystals that stab through the crumbled rock. They glow vibrantly, contrasting vividly with the green of the Breach.

            “The magic involved here must have affected the lyrium,” Solas muses, sounding fascinated by the discovery.

            “It’s evil,” Varric says sharply. “Whatever you do, don’t touch it.”

            I glance down at him to see his eyes haunted.

            “This way,” Cassandra says, dropping off another ledge.

            We follow her quickly, landing, finally, at the bottom of the crater. I look up at the rift. It’s massive here. I get so fixated on the idea that it looks like everite that it distracts me as I walk. Green energy swirls around it, constricting and slackening around the green stone-like mass. My hand flickers brilliantly again brought so close, and the quiet ache won’t go away. I look at it, watching the lightning-like pulses twine around my fingers wildly.

            Someone, help me!

            Leliana gasps at the woman's scream. “Justinia!”

            What’s going on here?

            I look up sharply at the second voice, startled even more. 

            “That was your voice,” Cassandra says to me, shocked and perplexed. “Most Holy called out to you, but—”

            The Breach flares again, and I stumble back when the green energy expands. The air around the rift glimmers a new color, and I step back again in shock. The sunburst emblem on the Divine’s clothes shines in the dim light, and I blink rapidly, uncertain I can trust my eyes anymore. 

            The Divine’s arms are spread out at her side, and she’s held up off the floor by some kind of red, swirling magic. It keeps her still, even as she struggles against it. A thick, black shadow stands in the foreground of the vision, occupying much of its space. The shadow holds a long, clawed hand out, but I can’t see what it offers past the mass of its body.

            Suddenly, someone runs into the scene. Shock grips me tightly when I recognize myself. It takes a long moment to make the connection, as I view myself from an outside perspective—even more confusing because I have no memory of this. None whatsoever.

            “What’s going on here?” I demand in the vision, staring up angrily—boldly—at the shadow.

            “Run while you can!” the Divine cries, struggling harder against her magical bindings. “Warn them!”

            The shadow turns to me in the vision, his eyes glowing red. We have an intruder. The same voice as before dances through my mind, itching under my skin, but the creature's mouth doesn't move to speak. Slay the elf.

            The vision explodes suddenly, forcing us all back several steps as it fades and the rift flares. In the background I hear the voices start up again, repeating the same scene over and over again while I stare at the Breach.

            “You were there,” Cassandra gasps, coming around to face me. Leliana stares at the rift in distress, her eyes haunted. “Who attacked? And the Divine! Is she…Was this vision true? What are we seeing?”

            “I-I don’t know!” I reply, my voice climbing in panic. “I don’t remember!”

            Solas walks forward to the Breach, gazing at it in wonder. “Echoes of what happened here,” he murmurs thoughtfully, almost as if speaking to himself. “The Fade bleeds into this place. This rift is not sealed, but it is closed,” he adds more loudly, turning to face us. “Albeit temporarily. I believe that with the mark, the rift can be opened, and then sealed properly and safely. However, opening the rift will likely attract attention from the others side.”

            “Oh good,” Varric sighs. “More demons.”

            “Stand ready!” Cassandra calls, turning to the soldiers as they wait around the temple.

            Leliana pulls her bow from her shoulder, her expression hard again. She finds a spot well away from the rift, pulling an arrow between her fingers. Varric moves near her, checking his crossbow. He nods at the soldiers who join us. They file down the temple walls near the Breach, providing a wall. Solas stands beside me, and Cassandra draws her blade. She watches the soldiers ready themselves, nodding at a few. I glance at her, waiting for a signal to begin. When she’s ready, she finds me and nods firmly.

            I make a here goes nothing face at myself and hold my hand up to the rift. It takes a second to register. I expect it to ache, but it doesn’t. Instead, I feel a surge of magic rush through me powerfully. I step forward once, overwhelmed at first by the intensity. I plant my feet, extending my hand out further. It feels—good. Pure, like raw, untamed magic, but it doesn’t feel out of my control. It feels sharp and strong, unaltered, unchecked. 

            I feel the ground tremble under my feet, pebbles jostling against the stone in even beats—footsteps? I glance at Cassandra. She eyes the rift warily, her sword clasped in both her hands. The ground shakes harder and harder the longer the connection holds, and then the rift explodes. The force pushes me back a few steps. I stumble into one of the solders. She rights me, and I grip my staff, moving beside Solas again with an apologetic glance at the woman.

            The Veil bursts open, ripping like a seam. Beyond, I can see the murky green world of raw Fade—almost like staring in a pool of swampy water. I feel it coming—something large, larger than anything we’ve yet faced. It continues to shake the ground beneath our feet. My teeth clatter from the force of it until I clench my jaw, glaring at the Breach.

            Before I really expect it, something massive launches itself through the rift. It rolls on the ground before standing to its full height, and I stand there staring at it like an idiot.

            I’m not the only one taken off guard. A half-second passes before anyone does anything, and then Cassandra’s battle cry launches me, and everyone else, into action.

            I hesitate a moment longer, listening to the sounds of fighting. The soldiers roar in unison, charging past me and Solas while I study the demon—Pride, if I’m not mistake. I look for a weakness. It stands significantly taller than us, reaching the heads of those mounted on the temple walls around us. It swats and kicks at those by its feet, pushing several soldiers back. Cassandra lands hard on her hip, but she gets up immediately, bringing another soldier to his feet before she charges forward again.

            Solas steps closer to me. “It’s weak beneath the neck, shoulders, and knees,” he calls.

            I nod. His staff whips around as he fires ceaselessly. I quickly raise a shield over Cassandra, breathing out the words quickly until the spell is complete. When she’s secure, I turn to the pride demon. I raise my left hand to call down fire, but it reacts with the magic of the Breach instead, sizzling and crackling. I gasp and yank my hand back sharply, feeling stung, as if by electricity. I tighten my hand into a fist, spinning my staff around instead to complete the fire spell. I aim the fireball at the demon’s shoulders, wary of hitting the soldiers by mistake.

            The demon roars in response, unfurling a thick coil of electricity like a rope. It unleashes it at us, and I try to raise a barrier over us instinctively. My left hand crackles with the Breach again, and Solas turns to me, pulling me out of the way. I stare at my hand briefly before thanking him breathlessly and hurling another fireball from my staff. Cassandra shouts something to the soldiers, and I look up in time to see the demon’s foot raising to stomp on them. I throw up a quick barrier before it succeeds. The demon trips over my walls, falling to one knee, and Cassandra and the soldiers attack while it's momentarily down. Varric’s and Leliana’s arrows are ceaseless, all aiming at the creature’s neck and shoulders.

            Solas is getting tired. I glance at him, seeing his magic weaken, his spells fewer and farther in between as he breathes heavily.

            My heart hammers in my chest. We’ve barely done any damage. This is taking too long. My hand aches, and I try to think of what to do, flexing it while I watch the others.

            “The demon is getting stronger!” Cassandra shouts as it stands again with a mighty roar.

            “More!” a soldier cries out.

            I glance over to see what she means as two shades propel through the rift.

            “You must seal it!” Solas calls to me breathlessly. “They will keep coming as long as it remains open!”

            I hold my hand up, stepping forward. Electricity stings my hand from the attempt. My fingers twitch in midair, and I realize with dismay that I’m too far.

            “I’m going in closer!” I call, jogging forward before anyone can argue. I skirt around the edge of the pride demon, ducking clumsily when it lashes its whip again. I raise my hand to the rift again. Fire breathes out of my hand, connecting me with green energy to the gaping tear. I feel it rush through me, and I plead with it to hurry.

            Mythal, I know you’re busy and all, but now would be a great some for some intervention.

            Something tackles me around the middle, slamming me to the ground.

            Thanks.

            I scramble, struggling to free myself from the shade demon's claws.

            “Help her!” Cassandra shouts.

            “I’m fine!” I yell.

            Most definitely not fine.

            I kick at the creature, trying to right myself. I roll as hard as I can to the left, trying to gain the upper hand, but it wrestles me back to the ground. I kick at its body, pressing my staff between us. I push it as far away as I can until I can get a foot against its midsection. I’m about to kick it off when lightning strikes it heavily, disintegrating it. I look up in a rush to see Solas stagger forward, leaning against his staff, exhausted. I scramble to my feet, but another demon grabs my right hand. I raise my left, conjuring fire, and then I scream when it misfires, lightning shooting across my hand. I search for the damage, struggling to free my right hand. My fingers twitch and ache, and I try to freeze the demon, my instincts making me a liability at this point. I gasp and groan when lightning strikes the ground before me, and I think Solas conjured it before I realize it was me. My hand feels cold as ice. I clench it tightly, fear making the adrenaline in me burn brighter. I push the demon off as hard as I can and then use the end of my staff to slice through it.

            Mythal, ma ghilana.

            I raise my hand to the rift, feeling the power surge through me again. My hand glows brilliantly, and I groan at the ache. Exhaustion and panic overwhelm me at the idea that this mark, whatever it is, has affected my magic, but I don't have time to dwell on the fear. 

            I step forward, pulled towards the Fade by the connection. The soldiers shout and call to each other, desperation in their voices. I cringe when I see a shade heading straight for me. He reaches out to claw me, and I raise my staff in an idiotic attempt to block it. Before it can catch my arm, it slams into a glimmering wall. I glance back hurriedly at Solas, seeing him wearily concentrating on me, his hand raised as he holds the barrier. I look at him worriedly, aware of how painful low mana is. He holds the wall up and conjures fire with his left hand, impressing me once again as he manages to maintain both spells. He throws it at the demon, which burns up at the same time that the rift explodes outward.

            I hit the ground hard, looking up to see that I didn’t seal the rift. I’m anguished before I realize that, while it didn’t do what I wanted, it did help.

            “The demon is vulnerable!” Cassandra exclaims when it falls to one knee, panting. “Now!”

            The archers on the walls loose a volley of arrows, aiming them perfectly. The demon roars, shielding its face. The rift flickers and quakes, and I raise my hand again. Nothing happens. I gape, thrusting my hand forward again, but it’s not connecting.

            Fuck!

            I look urgently to Solas, since he knows more about it, but his attention is on the demon, his staff whirling around quickly.

            They do a good deal of damage, but it’s not enough to bring it down. The demon rises again, slamming his arm against the temple walls. The archers tumble off, and I thrust my hand out to catch them. I cry out in shock as my hand spasms and flares. Solas catches them quickly, stopping their momentum and bringing them down more carefully. He looks at me as I find his eyes in panic. His expression is unreadable, and I look away, clasping my hand. I breathe out slowly, looking at the rift again.

            Please, Mythal, please help me this one time.

            I raise my hand again. The rift flickers angrily, and four more shades emerge from the Fade. I step back to avoid on of them, but my foot catches on a fallen soldier. I gasp and try to correct my step, but I wind up tripping over her instead.

            “Are you alright?” I pant, kneeling over her.

            “Arm—my arm—” she gasps, clutching her bleeding shoulder.      

            I glance up in time to catch a demon’s claws on my staff. I jerk the staff, pointing it at the demon. When it’s in position, I freeze the demon in place, jerk my staff free, and then call down fire upon it. As it burns away with a shriek, I grasp the soldier’s good arm and drag her away from the battle.

            “Stay here!” I call. “I’ll be back!”

            “Thank you…”

            I run back to the rift and hold my hand up to it urgently. The rift pulses and flares as its energy connects with my hand. Green embers fly out like lava between us, burning up before they hit the ground. I gasp again at the burn, gritting my teeth as involuntary tears spring to my eyes. The ache intensifies, bleeding into my bone, making my hand shake in midair as it cuts through muscle. I tighten my fingers into a fist, and the rift suddenly explodes, knocking me off my feet. I look up to it, exhausted, only to see that it’s still open.

            “Come on!” I cry, gasping and panting.

            I look for Solas again as the demon falls to its knee. The soldiers, Cassandra, Varric, and Leliana double their attack, and I see the demon getting weaker, but I see everyone else wearing thin, too. I find Solas’ eyes in desperation, and he jogs over to me, kneeling beside me.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “This rift apparently likes being open,” I mutter, standing back up breathlessly.

            “I suspect that is the demon's doing,” he replies. “You have weakened it.” He wipes his forehead. “You should be able to close it soon.”

            “Okay,” I nod, panting.

            “I should warn you,” he adds quickly, searching my eyes, “this rift is the first. It—will not be easy to seal.”

            I nod seriously.

            Solas stands beside me, facing the demon again. His staff spins wildly, and I do feel better having someone near me. I try to catch my breath, focusing all my willpower on my hand. The demon roars, the sound hurting my ears. I look over at it to see it fall, and my lips part when I realize it’s dead.

            “Now!” Cassandra shouts hoarsely. “Seal the Breach!”

            The rift spews green energy angrily as I raise my hand to it. A cry is immediately pulled from my lips as the ache intensifies blindingly once more.

            “Do it!” she calls again desperately.

            I feel the rift push me back, fighting me. I force my arm forward again, feeling everyone’s eyes on me as I grit my teeth. A breath slips through my teeth as a groan, and tears spring to my eyes, rolling evenly down my cheeks as they combines with sweat. The magic rips and roars across my skin, and a cry bursts from me again as I close my eyes, dropping my staff to focus my energy on the rift. I feel Solas’ magic combine with mine as he allows me to draw from his will, and I step forward again, gripping my wrist with my right hand. I feel our mana slipping away so quickly.

            I grit my teeth and glare up at the Breach. It flares angrily, pulsing and roaring, the sound deafening me. The ground shakes beneath my feet as the rift expands, trying to force me back again. It succeeds, but I step forward once more, closing the distance between us. I stand as firm as I can, feeling the stone beneath my toes, rocks digging into my footwear as I plant my feet. I force a step forward again, feeling fire scorch across my hand. It rips a scream from me, a sobbing cry that I sincerely hope is drowned out by the rift's cacophony.

            Before I anticipate it, the rift explodes, a churn of green energy shooting back up to the sky. The force pushes me back powerfully, and I land hard, skidding a few feet before I stop. Solas and Cassandra land beside me, and I look up at the Breach, feeling exhaustion pull me under. My hand aches, and tears run down my temples as my eyes slide closed. I hear Varric call my name, but I can’t manage to answer it. My hand hurts so much I think it must be gone, torn away by the Breach in my attempt to seal it, but I’m too drained to feel anything. I try to open my eyes again as I feel hands press against my shoulders. Someone calls my name again, and then darkness engulfs me.

Chapter Text

I frown when I wake up, breathing out sharply in surprise. I rather expected to not wake up at all. I open my eyes languidly to see a warm wooden room, candles burning brightly all around me.

            Well, certainly an improvement from the last time I woke up.

            I look around at the lanterns and the desk littered with papers. A bookshelf rests on the back corner of the wall, and I realize I have no idea where I am and no memory of how I got here.

            I really hope this doesn’t become a habit.

            I scan the room, startled when I see an elf standing near me, staring at me.

            I jerk upright in bed, and the woman jumps back, dropping the box she was holding. Glass jars clatter together in the fall.          

            “I-I didn’t know you were awake!” she exclaims, holding her hands up. “I swear!”

            I look at her, a confused frown spreading. “Why are you frightened?” I ask, softening my tone. She’s clearly a servant—a scared one.

            “Th-that’s wrong, isn’t it? I-I’ve said the wrong thing.” She wrings her hands, her expression distressed.

            “No, it’s alright,” I assure her quickly. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

            She drops to her knees, bowing her head to the floor in such a show of respect that I almost recoil in shock.

            “I beg your forgiveness and your blessing,” she says, her voice muffled. “I am but a humble servant.”

            I jump off the bed quickly and take her hand carefully. “Don’t—you don’t have to do that,” I say, lifting her back up as I try to keep the alarm out of my voice.

            “My apologies, my lady.”

            I laugh gently. “I’m no lady.” I frown. “I mean I am, but not a-a royal one.”

            A ghost of a smile flits across the girl’s face before she catches it, bowing her head again.

            “Where…am I?” I wonder. 

            “You are back in Haven, Your Worship.”

            “Gah, n-no, no—I’m just Sul. You can call me Suledin or Lavellan or ‘hey lady,’ but none of that honorary stuff, please.”

            “They say you saved us,” she whispers, her voice alarmingly awed. “The Breach stopped growing, just like the mark on your hand. It’s all anyone’s talked about for the last three days!”

            I look from my softly glowing hand to her. “I’ve been here three days?”

            “Y-yes…”

            “Wait…So…you’re saying they’re…happy with me? They don’t want to send me to Val Royeaux in a box anymore?”

            The elven girl steps back, her expression worried again. “I-I’m certain Lady Cassandra would want to know you’d wakened. She said, ‘at once!’”

            I feel a rush of anger at whomever it is she serves. Or is it just me she fears? “You don’t have to be afraid,” I say, reaching for her. “Don’t leave.”

            She shakes her head, walking backwards again shakily. “Lady Cassandra is in the Chantry with the lord chancellor. ‘At once,’ she said!”

            I watch as she closes the door quickly in her haste to escape. I sigh quietly and look at my hand again. There’s a quiet pain along it, but it feels so dull that I dismiss it. It is infinitely better than the way it was before. It still glows softly, which is alarming and bizarre.

            I look down further, frowning. My clothes have been changed for me. Not…sure how I feel about that. I look down at the tight-fitting casual clothes. Someone’s casual clothes. Definitely not mine.

            Fen’Harel take me. Humans wear the most unusual things. Why are there so many buttons? They're not even buttoning anything!

            I search the room for anything vaguely mine, and I’m annoyed to see that there’s nothing here—except my gloves, which I see draped over the edge of a chair. There’d better be a good explanation for my missing armor. It was traditional Dalish attire and dear to me. I spot a chest in the corner, and I open it curiously, relieved to see my familiar things. I glance around the little room quickly and then change as fast as I can, relieved to be in my own clothes again, even if they are a little inappropriate for the snow. I like the cold anyway.

            I pull my gloves on and secure my Dalish footwear, feeling the cold wood of the house beneath my toes and heels. My hair is unmanageably loose, and I look around the room quickly, catching my reflection in a mirror. I sigh, leaning forward to rub the skin under my eyes. I still look tired, even after so much sleep. I stare at my wild white hair, catching how sharply it contrasts with my dark skin. My vallaslin is as white as my hair, brilliant against my skin. I admire Keeper Deshanna's work once more. Mine is in honor of Mythal; twin branches spread under my eyes, lifting up to my temples gracefully. I've watched Keeper Deshanna apply the vallaslin to countless adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, and I don't think I'll ever get sick of watching the Dalish rite of passage performed. A sense of pride rushes through me, pride in my vallaslin and in my people. 

            My frustratingly long hair, however, I'm far less affectionate towards. I return to searching for something to tie it back with. A scroll with twine sits on the desk, and I figure that will do in a pinch. I slowly move the twine off, shrugging vaguely as I pull my hair back into a simple ponytail.

            Much better.

            I realize my legs are unsteady when I walk to the door—a symptom of three days’ sleep, I suppose. I open the door and step outside, and then I freeze in my tracks as the door closes behind me. Four soldiers stand near the little cabin, their arms crossed over their chests in a manner I’ve only ever seen offered to nobles, kings, generals. Their helmets hide their eyes, but there’s no mistaking that it’s me they’re offering the respectful gesture to now.

            I walk forward hesitantly, my eyes widening when I take in the crowd of humans waiting behind them. Men, women, and children—the same people who spat at my feet days ago—peer up at me from behind two long lines of soldiers. I take a quick glance behind me to see if there’s a king or something waiting, but the small yard is clear of anyone else. The soldiers ahead provide a path, winding around the edge of the village up to the Chantry. I step forward again, walking slowly—wildly uncomfortable by the crowd.

            “That’s her!” someone whispers eagerly.

            “She saved us!”

            As I walk, soldiers bow their heads and cross their right arms over their chests, each gesture unnerving me more than if they were all hailing tomatoes at my head. 

            “Thank you!” someone else shouts.

            I offer a weak smile, nodding.

            “Andraste sent you to us!”    

            I blink. Okay, not…exactly, but…

            “Andraste guides you!”

            This is getting…odd.

            “She blessed us with your arrival!”

            Um…

            I walk up a flight of stairs to a myriad of gasps, most of them about Andraste.

            What does one do when swarmed with dozens of people lobbing gratitude and uncomfortable praises at them?

            “Hello,” I wave. “Good morning…How…are you?”

            Apparently, one acts like an idiot.

            “She’s the savior!”

            Oh boy.

            I preferred it when they were spitting.

            I spot Varric in the crowd. He leans against the side of a post, his arms crossed casually as he watches me pass. I give him an alarmed, screaming-eyes expression that appears to amuse him, though he makes no move to save me. I also find myself searching for Solas—the only other elf here, apparently, who isn’t a servant, but I don’t spot him.

            I reach the Chantry more or less intact and head inside quickly, doing my best to ignore the whispers offered in my wake. Sisters and Mothers line the exterior walls of the Chantry, alarming me more with their bowed heads and folded hands.

            “Thank Mythal,” I breathe when I step into the empty Chantry. I frown slightly, wondering if that’s smite-worthy before I shrug and continue walking.

            I can hear the shouting when I get halfway to the closed door at the end. Guess I don’t have to ask where to find Cassandra.

            “Have you gone completely mad?” I recognize Roderick’s voice. “She should be taken to Val Royeaux immediately to be tried by…whomever becomes Divine!”

            I open the door quickly and step inside. “I hate to be egotistical,” I muse, “but I rather think this is about me.”

            Cassandra pushes off the table, standing upright. Leliana moves her hands behind her back as Roderick crosses his arms and glares at me. Two armed and armored men wait behind me at the door.

            “Chain her!” Roderick orders. “I want her prepared for travel to the capital for trial.”

            “Disregard that and leave us,” Cassandra replies smoothly.

            The door closes behind me, and I make a sympathetic face at Roderick.

            “You walk a dangerous line, Seeker,” he seethes, glaring at her now.

            “The Breach is stable, but it is still a threat,” Cassandra returns calmly. “I will not ignore it.”

            I lean against the table, glancing down at the map. “And here I thought we were ready to part ways as unlikely friends.”

            Leliana smirks. “Not quite.”

            “So,” I muse, glancing up casually at the chancellor. “Guess that means I’m still a suspect?”

            “You absolutely are,” he replies.

            “Mm. Makes sense.”

            “No,” Cassandra snaps. “She is not.”

            “Someone was behind the explosion at the Conclave,” Leliana adds. “Someone Most Holy did not expect. Perhaps they died with the others,” she suggests, casting a glance at the chancellor, “or have allies who yet live.”

            There’s an appalled silence before Roderick finds his words. “I am a suspect?”

            “You,” Leliana nods, “and many others.”

            “But not the prisoner?” he gapes.

            “I heard the voices in the temple,” Cassandra says. “The Divine called to her for help.”

            He grimaces. “So, her survival, that thing on her hand—all a coincidence?”

            “Providence,” the seeker corrects. It’s my turn to gape. “The Maker sent her to us in our darkest hour.”

            I laugh.

            Everyone looks at me.

            “Surely, you must be joking,” I scoff, waving my hands. “I—I’m an elf. Hello? Pointy ears? Vallaslin? Evanuris?”

            Roderick snorts. “Yes. Providence,” he mutters.

            “Not to mention,” I exclaim, “and I’m not being ungrateful here, but you were ready to execute me three days ago, and now I-I’m—” I laugh again, bewildered. “—Andraste’s chosen?”

            Cassandra glares at Roderick and then at me. “I was wrong about you,” she says. “Perhaps I still am. I will not, however, pretend you were not exactly what we needed when we needed it most.”

            I sigh heavily, pinching the bridge of my nose.

            “The fact is, the Breach remains,” Leliana says, “and your mark is still our only hope of closing it.”

            “This is not for you to decide,” Roderick snaps.

            Cassandra reaches for a tome behind her and slams it down, earning everyone’s attention. “You know what this is, Chancellor?” she wonders, her voice low. “A writ, from Divine Justinia, granting us the authority to act. As of this moment, I declare the Inquisition reborn. We will close the Breach, we will find those responsible, and we will restore order—with or without your approval.”

            The chancellor glares at her and Leliana. He brushes past me and storms out of the chamber bitterly. Cassandra offers a heavy sigh, rubbing the back of her neck irritably.

            Leliana steps forward, letting her fingers trail against the tome on the table. “The Divine’s directive,” she murmurs, her voice respectful and awed. “Rebuild the Inquisition of old…Find those who will stand against the chaos.” She looks up at Cassandra. “We aren’t ready. We have no leader, no numbers, and now, no Chantry support.”

            “But we have no choice,” Cassandra replies with another sigh. “We must act now. With you at our side,” she adds, looking at me.

            “Well…there goes my nap.”

            Cassandra gives me the surprise of a lifetime by actually smirking. “Help us fix this…before it’s too late.”

            She holds her hand out to me, and I realize that, despite everything, she genuinely is offering me a choice.

            I meet her eye soberly, and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a thrill of fear. The last time my people made a deal with the Chantry, we lost our homeland; we were rounded up or scattered to the winds. I search Cassandra’s eyes. There is no lie in what she says or what she is. Glancing once at the tome between us, I meet her eye levelly again and reach forward to shake her hand. She grips mine firmly, offering a hesitantly relieved smile as she nods at me.

Chapter Text

“Must you sit like that?”

            I look up at Cassandra and then pull my feet off the table before I continue staring at my hand.

            “When will the others be here?” I wonder. 

            “Soon," she replies. 

            “And they are…?”

            “Here to help.”

            I nod, flexing my fingers.

            “Does it trouble you?” she murmurs, glancing at my fingers.

            “It’s stopped spreading,” I shrug. “And it doesn’t hurt.” At this exact moment, anyway.

            She smirks. “We take our victories where we can. What’s important is that your mark is stable, as is the Breach. You’ve given us time, and Solas believes a second attempt might succeed, provided the Breach has more power…The same level of power used to open the Breach in the first place. That is not easy to come by.”

            I make a face, folding my legs up in my chair. I slide down and lean by head against the back, staring at the ceiling. “Mm, what harm could there be in powering up something we barely understand?”

            Cassandra offers another smirk when I glance down at her. “Hold on to that sense of humor.”

            “It’s my top priority, in fact.”

            She rolls her eyes.

            “I didn’t know you could smile,” I muse.

            “Ha ha,” she murmurs drily as the door opposite us opens quickly.

            “Forgive me, Lady Cassandra,” an Antivan woman in gold says, bowing once. “Our tardiness is my fault entirely."

            “Hardly,” a deep voice chuckles. I glance up to see the commander I met that day in the valley.

            Leliana follows them in, and I stand up, smiling at them as they circle the table.

            “Suledin, this is Commander Cullen, leader of the Inquisition’s forces,” Cassandra announces with a gesture.

            Cullen makes a face. “Such as they are. We met on the battlefield, as I recall,” he says, reaching across the table to shake my hand. “I’m pleased to see you still live.”

            “That makes two of us. I do so enjoy living.”

            He smirks.

            “This is Lady Josephine Montilyet,” Cassandra continues, gesturing to the woman in gold, “our ambassador and chief diplomat.”

            “Andaran atish’an,” she nods in response with a half-curtsy.

            “You speak elven?” I grin.

            She blushes, casting her eyes down. “You just heard the entirety of it, I’m afraid.”

            “And of course,” Cassandra adds, “you know Sister Leliana.”

            Leliana nods to me. “My position here involved a degree of…”

            “She is our spymaster.”

            “Yes,” Leliana sighs while I chuckle. “Tactfully put, Cassandra.”

            “Well, now I feel inferior,” I muse, earning a smirk from Cullen.

            “I mentioned that your mark needs more power to close the Breach for good,” Cassandra says.

            “I vaguely recall that conversation,” I reply, eyeing the maps spread out before me.

            Cassandra gives a heavy sigh at my sarcasm.

            “We must approach the rebel mages for help,” Leliana murmurs.

            “And I still disagree,” Cullen says quickly. “The templars could serve just as well.”

            Cassandra offers an impatient huff, and I gather they’ve had this argument before. “We need more power, Commander. Enough magic poured into that mark—”

            “Might destroy us all,” he finishes quickly. “Templars could suppress the Breach, weaken it so—”

            “Pure speculation,” Leliana interrupts, clasping her hands behind her back.

            “I was a templar,” Cullen replies. “I know what they’re capable of.”

            “Unfortunately,” Josephine interjects, “neither group will even speak to us yet. The Chantry has denounced the Inquisition—and you, specifically,” she adds, glancing at me.

            “Mm, that didn’t take long,” I muse.

            “Some are calling you, a Dalish elf, the ‘Herald of Andraste.’ That frightens the Chantry.”

            I choke and cough. “The—I’m sorry—they’re calling me the what?”

            Josephine looks up at me from her clipboard. “They are referring to you as the Herald of—”

            “She heard you, Josie,” Leliana murmurs.

            “Oh,” Josephine smiles, blushing. “Yes, of course.” She clears her throat. “The remaining clerics have declared it blasphemy and we heretics for harboring you.”

            “Chancellor Roderick’s doing, no doubt,” Cassandra grumbles.

            “Busy man,” I mutter.

            “It limits our options,” Josephine continues. “Approaching the mages or templars for help is currently out of the question.”

            “I’m sorry—I—can we back up?” Everyone looks at me. “Just—just how, exactly, am I the Herald of Andraste?”

            “People saw what you did at the temple,” Cassandra replies, “how you stopped the Breach from growing—”

            “There were dozens of soldiers there. And—Solas is the one with all the knowledge! He’s the one who told me what to do. Make him the Herald!”

            “You were the one who sealed the rifts.”

            “Solas told me how,” I say quickly, glaring at her.

            “You have the mark on your hand.”

            I narrow my eyes. “Alright, you got me there, but how does that—”

            “People have also heard about the woman seen in the rift when we first found you. They believe that was Andraste.”

            Leliana grimaces, and I gesture to her gratefully for the reaction. She sighs. “Even if we tried to stop that view from spreading—”

            “Which we have not,” Cassandra adds.

            Leliana offers her a blank look before turning to me. “The point is, everyone is talking about you.”

            “It’s quite the title, isn’t it?” Cullen muses, resting his hands on the pommel of his sword. “How do you feel about it?”

            “Oh, marvelous,” I answer. “I’ve always wanted to be a shemlen god’s chosen one. This falls somewhere between having a pet spider and visiting a Circle of Magi.”

            Cullen smirks. “Least we don’t have to worry about it going to her head,” he offers, glancing at the others.

            “Fen’Harel take me,” I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose again. “This is, quite possibly…no, this is definitely the most absurd thing that's ever happened to me.”

            “People are desperate for a sign of hope,” Leliana says. “For some, you’re that sign.”

            “And to others,” Josephine sighs unhappily, “a symbol of everything that’s gone wrong.”

            “Well,” I mutter. “Great first week of the Inquisition, guys. This is…already going great.”

            “Wait until the Crow contracts start coming in,” Leliana chuckles.

            I stare at her. “And then there’s that—the Crow contracts?”

            “Nothing to worry about,” she replies with a smirk. “They are under my domain.”

            “Wonderful.”

            “What we should worry about is the Chantry,” Josephine sighs.

            I sigh impatiently. “Aren’t they more concerned about oh, I don’t know, the massive rift in the Fade taking up half the sky?”

            “They recognize the threat it poses,” Josephine allows.

            “Oh, good. Glad their priorities are straight.” I sigh again. “Will they attack us?”

            “With what?” Cullen murmurs dismissively. “They have only words at their disposal.”

            “And yet,” Josephine replies curtly, casting a frown at him, “they may bury us with them.”

            “There is something you can do,” Leliana offers.

            “Run and never come back?” I guess hopefully. 

            Cullen chuckles, shifting his stance.

            “A Chantry cleric by the name of Mother Giselle has asked to speak with you,” Leliana continues, moving her arms behind her back again. “She is not far and knows those involved far better than I. Her assistance could be invaluable.”

            I frown. “A Chantry cleric…the same Chantry, mind you, that would see me hanged—wants…to speak with me?”

            “She’s a reasonable sort, from what I understand,” Leliana offers with a shrug. “Not one prone to idle gossip or skewed views. You will find her tending to the wounded in the Hinterlands near Redcliffe.”

            “If you’re going to the Hinterlands,” Cullen says, “look for other opportunities to expand the Inquisition’s influence.”

            Josephine nods in agreement. “We need agents to extend our reach beyond this valley. And you’re better suited than anyone to recruit them.”

            I nod. “No pressure.”

            “I will send a group of scouts to set up a camp and scout the area,” Leliana says. “I understand the Hinterlands have been hit particularly hard since the explosion at the Conclave.”

            “By what?” I wonder.

            “The civil war,” she answers. “Mages and templars. After the explosion, each group thought the other responsible. They have been battling ever since. In addition to their fighting, several rifts appear to have opened, demons patrolling whatever land is untouched by the war.”

            “In the meantime,” Cassandra adds with a glance at me, “let’s think of other options. I won’t leave this all to the Herald.”

            I cringe at the title. “Mythal, please don’t call me that.”

            She glares at me. “How can we expect others to believe in you if you will not believe in yourself?”

            “I believe in myself just fine. They can call me Glowy Hand or Elf Girl for all I care, but this Andraste nonsense is…nonsense.”

            Cassandra huffs indignantly, crossing her arms. 

            “Well,” I sigh, backing away slowly from the table. “This was…a great meeting. I’m just gonna…head outside,” I say with a wave. “Lovely to meet you all. If you hear I’ve fled Haven, don’t be alarmed. I’ll probably return.”

            Cullen laughs quietly, and I wonder as I depart if he realizes I’m only partly joking.

Chapter Text

I glance up at the Breach again. It still looks like a storm. Green light flashes across the sky intermittently as clouds swirl angrily around the tear. The churning chasm is gone with the first rift sealed, but it is still a massive rip in the sky of our world, showing the murky depths of the next. They were right, though; it has stopped growing. The thin edges distinguishing our world from the Fade glimmer in the fading sun, frozen in place. Rocks and boulders hover in the sky around the storm, proving to anyone who would doubt it that the magic involved is foreign and powerful.

            I look down at the pebbles I’ve gathered by my feet. I take my left hand's glove off and rub my fingertips against the tip of my thumb, breathing out slowly. I focus on my mana in a way I haven’t had to since I was a child. I extend my hand and try to freeze the pebbles to the ground. My fingertips grow cold, and I frown, focusing harder. I push my hand out further, trying to ignore the green glow as I focus on my magic.

            “Come on,” I mutter. "This is basic magic.”

            I try again, and my fingers tinge with blue.

            I look up sharply when I hear footsteps come down the path. I pull my glove back on hurriedly and move my leg out to topple the small tower of rocks.

            Solas glances up at me from the pages of his book when he hears the shuffle. “Oh, I apologize,” he murmurs, pausing. “I did not realize anyone was here.”

            “It’s okay,” I say quickly, gesturing to the snowy ground. “You don’t have to go. It's a nice spot.”

            He glances at me, hesitating from whatever he reads in my expression. “Are you alright?”

            “Just hiding from Cassandra,” I reply lightly, crossing my arms over my stomach.

            Solas smirks. “I would have thought it the masses of people waiting to meet you that bade you stay here.”

            I grimace. “And here I’d almost forgotten. Thank you for the reminder.”

            He chuckles once and closes his book. He sits across from me, leaning against the stone wall behind him as he tucks his legs in. I sit up, feeling ungraceful in my slouch.

            “The chosen of Andraste,” he muses, glancing at the Breach. “A blessed hero sent to save us all.”

            I make a face. “Am I riding in on a shining steed?”

            He smiles. “I would have suggested a griffin, but sadly, they’re extinct.”

            I sigh and snap my fingers regrettably.

            “Joke as you will,” he smirks, “posturing is necessary.”

            “Is it?” I sigh quietly.

            There’s a long pause filled only with the peaceful chirps of birds and the gentle tug of the breeze. “I’ve journeyed deep into the Fade in ancient ruins and battlefields to see the dreams of lost civilizations,” Solas admits, his voice melodic and smooth. “I’ve watched as hosts of spirits clash to reenact the bloody past in ancient wars both famous and forgotten.” I watch him when he pauses. His eyes seem far away, almost sad. He glances at me, clearing his expression as he offers another small smile. “Every great war has its heroes. I’m just curious what kind you’ll be.”

            “Hasn’t that already been decided for me?” I muse, making a face at the ground.

            “Nothing is inevitable,” he replies quietly.

            I glance up at him. “What do you mean, ruins and battlefields?”

            “Any building strong enough to withstand the rigors of time has a history; every battlefield is steeped in death. Both attract spirits. They press against the Veil, weakening the barrier between our world. When I dream in such places, I go deep into the Fade. I can find memories no other living being has ever seen.”

            “You fall asleep in the middle of ancient ruins?” I wonder, hugging my legs. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

            He smiles at my tone. “I do set wards,” he replies. “And if you leave food out for the giant spiders, they are usually content to live and let live.”

            “Gah,” I cringe, waving my hand. “Spiders—yeah, that’s—uh-uh, that’s a no-go for me.”

            Solas chuckles softly, his eyes amused by my reaction.

            I look at him seriously. “I’ve never heard of anyone going so far into the Fade,” I murmur. “That’s extraordinary.”

            “Thank you,” he replies, sounding genuinely pleased. “It’s not a common field of study for obvious reasons—not so flashy as throwing fire or lightning.” He shakes his head softly, resting it against the stone behind him as his eyes grow far away again. “The thrill of finding remnants of a thousand-year-old dream? I would not trade it for anything.”

            “It sounds amazing,” I reply, watching the snow drift slowly down. “I wish I could experience that.”

            Solas hums softly in agreement. “I will stay then,” he says softly after a long moment. His tone indicates a decision I didn’t realize he was questioning. “At least until the Breach has been closed.”

            “Was that in doubt?” 

            “I am an apostate mage surrounded by Chantry forces, and unlike you, I do not have a divine mark protecting me. Cassandra has been accommodating, but you understand my caution.”

            I glance up at him. “You came here to help, Solas,” I say firmly. “I won’t let them use that against you.”

            “How would you stop them?” he wonders.

            I meet his gaze levelly. “However I had to,” I promise.

            His eyes search mine, his expression unreadable until he smiles gently and his eyes soften. “Thank you,” he replies quietly.

            “Besides,” I add lightly, “I can’t be the only elven mage around here. Then I’d have to deal with all the cutting glances.”

            Solas chuckles quietly.

            “There you are,” someone calls. I look down the thin alley to see Varric walk over. “What’s this? You and Chuckles are hiding, and you didn’t invite me?”

            “Well, the key was discretion,” I muse. “I saw you talking to Cassandra, and I just couldn’t risk it.”

            He laughs, sitting down heavily beside me. “Believe me, I totally get it. So,” he muses, “now that Cassandra’s out of earshot…are you…holding up alright? I mean, you go from being the most wanted criminal in Thedas to joining the armies of the faithful? Most people would’ve…spread that out over more than one day?”

            I shrug. “Eh, I like to be efficient. I’ve never half-assed anything in my life.”

            Varric laughs. “Fair enough. I still can’t believe you survived Cassandra. You’re lucky you were out cold for most of her frothing rage. She is one tough jailor.”

            “Mm,” I muse, “and you sound intimately familiar with that concept because…?”

            “There was once a time I was the victim of her interrogation methods. As I recall, she had me kidnapped, blindfolded, and dragged half across Thedas to her torture chamber.”

            “Fenedhis,” I laugh. “Whatever for?”

            “Oh, you know, the usual stuff; I knew a guy. Or, well, a girl, in this case.” He waves his hand dismissively. “You know, for days, we’d been staring at the Breach watching demons and Maker-knows-what fall out of it. ‘Bad for morale’ would be an understatement. I still can’t believe anyone was in there and lived.”

            “That makes two of us,” I mumble. “It seems like pure luck that I escaped unscathed.”

            “Good luck,” Varric chuckles, “or bad? You might wanna consider running at the first opportunity.”

            I sigh and snap my fingers. “I tried that. Cassandra caught me and dragged me back in.”

            He smirks. “All I’m saying is I’ve written enough tragedies to recognize where this is going. Heroes are everywhere,” he sighs, “I’ve seen that. But the hole in the sky? That’s…beyond heroes. We’re going to need a miracle.”

            I breathe out heavily. “Fantastic…I feel much better now; thank you, Varric. Just the pick-me-up I needed.”

            “Ah, come now. It’s not all on you, you know. You’ve got a whole team behind you.”

            “Mm. A spymaster, a diplomat, and a commander who seem to never get along; a Seeker who genuinely terrifies me, a rogue dwarf, and two apostate elven mages, one of whom has just been ridiculously named ‘Herald of Andraste.’ What would possibly go wrong?”

            “That’s the spirit. You know, you remind me of a friend of mine, and she turned out alright! Despite all the odds stacked against her.”

            “Does she want another go at it? She can take my job.”

            Varric laughs. “I think you’ve got this covered, blessed Herald of Andraste.”

            “Fen’Harel,” I curse. Solas glances up at me. “I will throw something at you,” I threaten, throwing Varric a playfully angry look.

            He grins at me. “Hey, you know what, since you’re so approachable and not the chosen one—” I pretend to throw a rock at him, and he holds his hands up. “Mind if I ask you something?”

            “I do but go on.”

            Solas smirks.

            “I haven’t known many Dalish, so it might be rude or…maybe even personal? Shit, I don’t know.”

            “I’ll have you flogged,” I warn, earning a wide grin from Varric.

            “Your…” He gestures to my face.

            “Nose?” I sigh. “I’ve had it since birth, I’m afraid.”

            He laughs again. “I know it’s to represent your gods. Which is yours an offering to?”

            I smile. “Well, it’s not exactly an offering, but mine is for Mythal, the great protector.”

            “If it’s not an offering, then what is it?”

            “Keeper Deshanna explained to me the importance of choosing our vallaslin, how sacred the duty is to honor the gods of our pantheon.”

            “Excuse me,” Solas says quietly, rising quickly.

            “See you, Chuckles,” Varric waves before I can reply. “What does Mythal’s mean?”

            “She’s the great protector, our all-mother who—”

            “No, no, what does it mean to you? Why’d you choose hers as opposed to anyone else?”

            I bite the inside of my cheek thoughtfully. “I…guess it means…bravery and strength. Protecting the innocent, shielding the helpless, upholding justice. It means…being better—better than we were or thought we were.” I shrug uncertainly, giving him a questioning look. "Mostly, it just means giving cheesy answers to serious questions," I add uncomfortably. 

            Varric watches me a moment soberly before nodding. “You’re alright, Herald.”

            I groan, and he chuckles. “The only thing I’m heralding is my foot to your shin.”

            Varric laughs louder. “Alright, alright, message received…O, Chosen One.”

            “I will kill you.”

Chapter Text

I sigh heavily, looking up at the sky again impatiently. I don’t know why I think the ravens will return if I stare long enough. Leliana advised us to wait until her scouts reported back that the Hinterlands were secure enough to approach. I argued that we should start travelling and await word on the road, but Cassandra was louder.

            I stand up and pace restlessly for several minutes. I hate sitting around like this, waiting. While I wasn’t a hunter, I never stayed still for long. Whether Keeper Deshanna liked it or not, I would often hike through the woods for hours, sometimes days, at a time. Of course, it was always in her power to forbid me; she knew I would listen, and I often wondered why she let me go. Perhaps she understood the youthful urge to leave and do something else, to see something else.

            I suppose I got my wish.

            I amble over to Leliana’s tent where she spends long hours working. When I enter, I freeze, realizing I’ve interrupted her prayers.

            “‘Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just. Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood, the Maker’s will is written.’” I’m backing away slowly when she suddenly breaks scripture. “Is that what you want from us?” she murmurs softly. “Blood? To die so that Your will is done? Is death Your only blessing?” She looks up at me sharply, standing, and I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that she heard me enter. “You speak for Andraste, no?” My eyes widen. “What does the Maker’s prophet have to say about all of this? What’s His game?”

            I splutter for a second. “Don’t look at me!” I exclaim, bewildered. “I’m—first off, not a prophet, and second off, at a complete loss.”

            “The Chantry teaches that the Maker abandoned us. He demands repentance for our sins. He demands it all: our lives, our deaths. Justinia gave Him everything she had, and He let her die!”

            I blank at the anger in her eyes—the pain, the fear, the disdain. “I’m sorry,” I murmur quietly. “I…understand how difficult it is. Her death has clearly hit you hard.”

            “Not just me,” she whispers, gazing across the courtyard to the Chantry. “All of us. She was the Divine. She led the faithful. She was their heart.” Her expression saddens, giving her a weighted look far beyond her years. “If the Maker doesn’t intervene to save the best of His servants, what good is He?” Her voice is so soft, I wonder if she’s even talking to me at all. “I used to believe I was chosen, just as some say you are. I thought I was fulfilling His purpose for me, working with the Divine, helping people.” Her voice grows cold as she stares at the ground. “But now she’s dead. It was all for nothing. Serving the Maker meant…nothing.”

            I swallow, uncertain what to say to someone who’s lost their faith.

            “I’m sorry, Leliana,” I whisper. “M-maybe you have another purpose. Maybe that purpose was…leading you to…this purpose.” Well put, Sul. “I could help you find it.”

            She looks at me, sighing before she gives a quiet laugh. “No,” she murmurs, looking down. “This is my burden. I regret that I even let you see me like this. It was a moment of weakness,” she says, her demeanor changing. “It won’t happen again.”

            “It’s not a weakness to care,” I murmur.

            She looks down again, her eyes troubled.

            “Want a drink?”

            She glances at me. “It’s barely noon.”

            I wave my hand. “Time is an illusion.”

            She smirks halfheartedly. “Another time, perhaps. I have a lot of work to do.” As she says it, an agent comes into her tent, waiting to speak with her.

            I nod at her and exit the tent. I pass Varric with a wave, making my way towards the gates of the little village.

            “Oh! Mistress Lavellan!”

            I turn back to see Josephine chasing after me, her arms full of papers, a book, and her clipboard.

            “Ambassador?”

            She comes to a quick stop, dropping the book. I grab it quickly, saving it from the ground. “Oh, thank you so much,” she gasps, taking it back. “I’ve been so scattered today.”

            “Would you like some help?”

            “No, that is very kind. I was hoping, actually, that you might walk with me?”

            “Lead the way, Ambassador,” I reply. “Did you need something?”

            Her cheeks flush, and she glances away. “Yes…uh…well, not…precisely, but…I should like to know if anyone here has treated you unkindly, Herald. For…being an elf.”

            “If they have, they’ve been stealthy.”

            “Good,” she nods, relieved. “Please let me know if that changes. If we are to convince the world that Andraste’s Herald is an elf, the Inquisition must give you its upmost support. Stories of wild Dalish elves have grown even more outrageous as people learn of you.”

            “Charming,” I sigh. “How much worse could the rumors have possibly gotten?”

            “I…would prefer not to repeat them.”

            “Give me…something. I’m curious.”

            She sighs heavily and replies reluctantly. “Stealing children, selling peasants to slavers, burning down villages, using infants for blood magic—those are the stories about your fellow Dalish. I won’t repeat what they’ve said about you.”

            I glare at the ground. “Delightful. I suppose the magic is about as much of a problem as my ears?”

            “It…depends which way the wind is blowing. ‘Magic is meant to serve man,’ the Chant teaches. Close the Breach, and we can claim that is why Andraste chose you. Hopefully it will be enough to replace this gossip about the Dalish.”

            I sigh bitterly. “Why not claim the Dalish can steal your breath or turn into dragons while they’re at it?" I sigh again. "Now that I’ve said it out loud, someone probably has.”

            “Very likely,” Josephine replies reluctantly. “I will see what the Inquisition can do to contain the slander.”

            “Thank you, Josephine. I appreciate that.”

            “It may help if I know more about how you and your clan lived,” she suggests, turning to me as we walk.

            I look away, sad with the swell of homesickness. “All my friends are there. Everyone I ever knew before now.” I glance at Josephine and straighten. I made my choice to come. I clear my throat and answer her question. “Admittedly, I don’t know what days are like for other Dalish clans, but…for clan Lavellan, we hunted for food, moved camp every few weeks, shared stories in the evening…I think you’ll…understand if I’m reluctant to share the specifics just yet.”

            “Of course, Mistress Lavellan,” she replies, nodding firmly. “Do you have any intention of returning?”

            “Yes,” I answer. “I’d like to see them again when everything is done.” Keeper Deshanna and Assan most of all—the only family I’ve ever known.

            “I hope you get the chance,” Josephine offers sincerely. “Whether you’re with them or not, being the clan of the Herald of Andraste will mark them in history.”

            I know she says it to make me feel better, but I look down. “That’s what I’m worried about. Elves and fame tend to go poorly together. I hope my clan doesn’t suffer for my actions.”

            Josephine hesitates. “I—we can make inquiries as to how they fair, of course. Keep in contact with them.”

            “Perhaps,” I nod, uncertain how Keeper Deshanna would feel about that.

            “Would you…mind telling me something you enjoyed with your clan? A good memory, perhaps, so I can get a better idea of what like was like.”

            I consider it and then smile. “The best part was when the aravels—our landships—would pull off the road and into the trees. I used to spend weeks exploring the forests. My keeper would always be less…uh, pleased with my disappearances, but I just couldn’t wait to explore. As her First, I was supposed to remain in camp, but she never forbade me from going.”

            “You were your clan’s First? That—forgive my lack of knowledge, Mistress Lavellan, but that means you were intended to succeed your keeper, yes?”

            I smile. “It’s…a little more complicated, but yes. Keeper Deshanna was training me to take over one day as our clan’s leader.”

            “Will they find another First?”

            “I’m…not sure,” I admit sadly. “I was declared a First when my magic developed at an early age. I’ve never known another First. I suppose…she will have to find another, in case I…” I trail off.

            Josephine misses a beat. “What about family? Who were your friends?”

            “My mother died when I was born,” I reply, “in childbirth. My father…” I look across the frozen lake as we pass near it. “He died when I was older. He was a hunter, and he strayed too close to a human village.”

            Josephine turns to stare at me. “Surely you are not suggesting…” She looks pales, looking distressed. “Mistress Lavellan, I am—so sorry.”

            I nod once to acknowledge her and continue. “I was a…solitary child. I usually wound up reading or exploring by myself as a girl. I spent a great deal of time with the hahrens learning about our history and hearing all our old stories. As I grew older, it became clear that the hahrens intended for me and my childhood friend Assan to marry.”

            “Why is that funny?” Josephine wonders, giggling as I laugh.

            “I love Assan, but we both knew that our kinship was familial, not romantic.” I recall the man Assan only half-jokingly declared he would spend the rest of his life with. My good humor fades when I realize I may not be there to see how it goes. “I’ll miss him most of all.” I frown, trying to shake myself free from gloominess. “Keeper Deshanna was like a mother to me growing up. Needless to say, I was very surprised when she sent me here, so far from home.”

            “Did she give a reason why?”

            “She did,” I nod with a laugh, “but, as usual, it was cryptic and confusing.”

            She smiles warmly, not pressing me further. “Thank you for sharing so much with me. I understand the danger discussing such things could impose. I promise you the information you’ve shared will be protected.”

            I nod seriously. “I appreciate that.”

            “If you’ll excuse me,” she murmurs, “I have many letters to write!”

            She hurries off, nearly dropping her book again. I watch her go, chuckling as she abandons me so far from Haven. I turn around once to glance at the Breach, and then I make my way back to the small village.

***

I spot Cullen across the yard outside the gates of Haven. He calls out orders to a group of soldiers as they train before turning to speak privately with the man standing beside him. As I arrive, he finishes reading a document and quickly signs it, and then crosses his arms, watching the soldiers again.

            Since he appears so busy, I decide now is as good a time to properly meet him.

            “Shield down,” he orders. “Angle it towards your feet, Breven, or you’ll end up losing it.” I’m not sure if he means he’ll take it away or an opponent. “You there! There’s a shield in your hand—block with it. If that man were your enemy, you’d be dead.”

            “Whipping them into shape?” I muse, stopping beside him.

            He dismisses the soldier beside him, who bows his head at me as he leaves. I resist the urge to recoil.

            “We’ve received a number of new recruits,” Cullen replies, his tone softer. “Locals from Haven and some pilgrims.” He glances at me. “None made quite the entrance you did.”

            “At least I got everyone’s attention,” I grin, eyeing the soldier’s form as they skirmish.

            “That you did,” Cullen chuckles, uncrossing his arms. He rests his hands casually on his sword pommel. “I was recruited in Kirkwall myself,” he says, gesturing with a gentle nudge of his head that I should follow him. He walks leisurely through the warring soldiers, and I join him. “I was there during the mage uprising. I saw firsthand the devastation it caused.”     

            “Ser,” someone calls, catching up to us. I glance back to the man as he offers Cullen a clipboard with a lengthy paragraph.

            “Cassandra sought a solution,” Cullen continues more slowly as he reads. “When she offered me a position, I left the templars to join her cause.” He offers the clipboard back, nodding at the soldier, agreeing with whatever the letter said. The soldier crosses his arm over his chest, hurrying back to wherever he came from. Cullen turns to me, resting his hands on his sword pommel again. “Now it seems we face something far worse.”

            “The Conclave destroyed, a giant hole in the sky, mages and templars at war—things could be better.”

            He smirks. “Which is why we’re needed. The Chantry lost control of both templars and mages. Now they argue over a new Divine while the Breach remains.” He shakes his head irritably, though his tone doesn’t change. “The Inquisition could act when the Chantry cannot. Our followers would be part of that. There’s so much we can—” He stops, glancing at me with an apologetic smile. “Forgive me. I doubt you came here for a lecture.”

            “Not originally, but if you have one prepared, I’d love to hear it.”

            He chuckles, the sound deep and rumbling. “Another time perhaps.” He sighs. “There’s still a lot of work ahead. Sometimes—”

            “Commander!” Another soldier jogs up to us. “Ser Ryland has a report on our supply lines, and there are a few templars wishing to speak to you.”

            “As I was saying,” Cullen chuckles. 

            “I don’t envy you your job,” I grimace.”

            “Give it a few days,” he murmurs, reading the document. “This’ll be you.”

            “Fen’Harel, I hope not,” I laugh. “If anyone comes at me with a clipboard, I’m running the other way.”

            Cullen laughs, and then his expression hardens as he reads. “You must forgive me,” he says, looking up at me. “I must take care of this at once.”

            I shake my head slowly. “Damn you, Cullen. Damn you!” I turn around shaking my fists in the air as he chuckles quietly.

            I’m heading back into Haven when I see Cassandra fighting a dummy. She throws all her strength into each strike, making me wince each time.

            As I approach, she hits the stuffed object too hard, and it topples over.

            We both look down at it.

            “I think you need practice dummies made of sturdier stuff,” I muse.

            She snorts. “That would be nice.”

            “Like maybe iron.”

            She sighs, picking the dummy up. “Did I do the right thing?” she wonders, wiping at the sweat on her forehead before she begins her training again. “What I have set in motion could destroy everything I have revered my whole life. One day, they may write about me as a traitor, a madwoman, a fool…and they may be right.”

            “Well, what does your faith tell you?”

            She knocks the dummy over again on accident, sighing as she stands upright. She looks over at me seriously. “I believe you are innocent. I believe more is going on here than we can see.” She rolls her shoulder, testing the balance of her sword. “And I believe one else cares to do anything about it. They will stand in the fire and complain that it is hot.” I chuckle once. “But is this the Maker’s will? I can only guess.”

            I make a face. “Last time I checked, you didn’t have any choice.”

            “Didn’t I?” she wonders, hitting a second dummy. It falls after one swing.

            “Remind me not to get into a fight with you.”

            She snorts. “My trainers always said, ‘Cassandra, you are too brash. You must think before you act.’” She throws her sword down, walking closer to me. “I see what must be done, and I do it. I see no point in running around in circles like a dog chasing its tail.” She looks at me hesitantly before she squares herself to me. “But…I misjudged you in the beginning, did I not? I thought the answer was before me, clear as day. I cannot afford to be so careless again.”

            “Can’t say I’m not grateful to hear that,” I hum, folding my hands behind my back.

            She smirks at my tone. “I can be harsh, I know.” She turns back, and I think she’s leaving when she stops and glances back at me again. “You’ve said you don’t believe you are chosen…Does that mean…you also don’t believe in the Maker?”

            “Oh, no, I have a whole slew of my own gods to disappoint on a daily basis,” I reply.

            “And there’s no room among your gods for one more?”

            I frown at her. “I could say the same to you.”

            She grimaces. “I suppose that’s true…and I suppose it doesn’t matter now. I have to believe we were put on this path for a reason,” she murmurs, “even if you do not. Now it simply remains to see where it leads.”

            I watch her leave for a moment. “That was a really cool exit speech!” I holler after her.

            I see her faintly shake her head at me as she walks away.

Chapter Text

“Could you possible work any faster?” Varric wonders.

            “Could you possibly complain any louder?” Cassandra shoots back. She jerks the stones together irritably, trying to get the fire going.

            “Could you possibly be any grumpier?”

            “Could you possibly be any more annoying?”

            “Could you possibly pass me that rock?” I ask, turning to where Solas stands a few feet away. “Solas! It’s your turn!”

            Varric chuckles as Solas glances at me almost confusedly. “It’s a good thing you’re here, Huntress,” Varric sighs. “Finally, someone to joke with.”

            “Alas, I am no huntress,” I smirk.

            “I will come up with something,” he promises. “That’s sort of what I do.”

            “Is it?” I muse. “Could’ve fooled me.”

            “You wound me,” he scoffs. “Seeker and Chuckles,” he offers as an example.

            “Well…Cassandra is a Seeker, so…”

            “She’d kill me if I gave her anything else.”

            Cassandra gives a humorless grunt, glaring at the wood as she tries to light it.

            “Seeker, just let them do it,” Varric sighs. “You’ve got two mages right here.”

            “Varric, you are…” She grunts as she searches for the right adjective. “Utterly lazy. We cannot rely on magic for everything. If they start all our fires, cook all our food, heal all our wounds, they will not be ready for the fighting in the Hinterlands. They will be drained before we even get there.”    

            Solas and I glance at each other, sharing an amused smile at the notion.

            “Yes,” I gasp. “A fire here is a puff of smoke out there.”

            Varric laughs, and Cassandra looks pleased until she catches my tone.

            “Fine then,” she grumbles, dropping her rocks. “Light it.”

            “Solas?”

            “All yours,” he murmurs, moving away from the campsite. He stops on the ledge of the cliff overlooking the valley below.

            “See why I call him Chuckles?” Varric mutters.

            “Someone should really tell him to simmer down,” I reply. “He’s gonna get us all caught.”

            Varric nods in agreement. “I’ve seen some rowdy people in my day, but he takes the cake.”

            “At a certain point, it’s just too much.”

            “Would you light the fire?” Cassandra sighs.

            “Oh right.” I glance at the wood and aim my left hand at it. In an instant, the wood freezes solid. I stare at it.       

            “Thanks, that’s much better,” Varric says, spinning an arrow between his fingers.

            “Is that not what you wanted?” I ask, forcing myself to go along with the joke.

            “Herald,” Cassandra sighs, her tone a warning.

            I use my right hand, conjuring a flame to thaw the ice and then dry and light the wood. “Be right back.”

            I get up quickly, slamming into Solas when I fail to turn around first.

            “Sorry!” I exclaim, jumping back.

            “Are you alright?” he asks, catching the look on my face.

            “Yep. Just—getting more firewood.”

            Solas steps aside, and I move into the trees while Varric gets the stew going.

            This can’t be happening. I check my distance to the others, making sure I'm out of sight. When I’m satisfied, I try to conjure a flame with my left hand again. My fingers grow cold, and the trunk of the tree before me freezes solid. I stare at it, testing my right hand. The flame melts the ice again. I extend my left hand and try to conjure ice. A bolt of lightning crashes down loudly, snapping several tree branches.

            “Hey!” Varric shouts. “You alright?”

            “Yeah!” I call. “J-just—getting more firewood!”

            “You don’t have to chop the trees down yourself,” he hollers with a laugh.

            I laugh back, but it sounds false and high.

            I swallow, staring at my left fingers. I light a flame in my right hand again, and then try an ice dagger. I try my left hand, and the tree freezes once more. I pull my hand back, stepping backwards, a horrified realization settling over me. I can’t control it. I can’t control my magic.

            Fear crawls through me, chilling my blood. I stare at my hand a moment longer, and then I pull it back, stepping away from the tree. I jerk my glove back on and then walk back to camp slowly.

            “Where’s the firewood?” Cassandra wonders.

            “What?”

            “The fresh firewood you were lopping off the trees,” Varric chuckles.

            “Oh…it was rotten,” I mumble, sitting down heavily.

            Varric passes me a bowl of stew, and I close my eyes as it warms my hand.

            “Thanks,” I murmur.

            Solas accepts his bowl and appears on the verge of leaving when Varric stops him.

            “Uh-uh, Chuckles, sit down. You’re not getting away so easily. Sit, sit, sit.”

            Solas looks ready to refuse, but he sits opposite me instead, choosing the far simpler of the two options.

            Varric nods approvingly. “Good. Now, we all don’t really know each other that well, right?”

            Cassandra makes a disgusted noise, as if she knows exactly where this is going.

            “Come now, Seeker, this isn’t so bad. Chatting. Camaraderie. It won’t kill you, you know.”

            “Can’t we just eat in silence and go to bed? We need to get an early start tomorrow.”

            “And we will,” Varric sighs. “But before then, we should get to know each other—just a little. I'm not sure what you’ve all seen about it, but this civil war is dangerous, and we will undoubtedly be fighting as soon as we set foot in the Hinterlands. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather fight alongside friends than acquaintances.”

            “We’ve already fought together,” Cassandra points out, “and we all managed to survive.”

            “Don’t you think it would be easier to just agree?” Varric wonders. “We can go back and forth all day, eating up just as much time as a couple of harmless questions.”

            “Get it over with then,” Cassandra grumbles, eating quickly. “You have until I’m done with my meal.”

            “Never change, Seeker,” Varric murmurs. “How about we start with our religious idol?”

            “You better not be talking about me,” I say quickly.

            Varric chuckles. “Tell us something about yourself.”

            “I have brown gloves.”

            “Don’t be like the Seeker here, Herald.”

            “I will freeze you where you sit if you call me that again.”

            “Point taken.”

            “It occurs to me that we don’t actually know much about you,” Cassandra muses.

            “Oh, this just occurred to you, did it?” Varric mumbles.

            I glance between her, Varric, and Solas, feeling caught. “What do you want to know?”

            “I’m…not sure,” Cassandra admits. “Where are you from?”

            “My clan never stayed in one place for long,” I reply. “Though we primarily roamed the—”

            “Free Marches?” Varric guesses.

            “How did you know?”

            “Accent. I’m from Kirkwall, but you’re from…further east?”

            “That’s quite the ear you have,” I muse.

            “I’m all kinds of impressive.”

            Cassandra gives another disgusted noise.

            “Have you ever been to Kirkwall?” Varric wonders.

            “Ah, no,” I chuckle. “I never found myself in many cities.”

            “Right,” Varric sighs. “I suppose you wouldn’t.”

            “I didn’t think your people roamed that far north,” Cassandra adds. “Clearly, I’m mistaken.”

            “It was mostly the Blight that took us up there,” I reply.

            “Of course…Do you intend to go back?”

            “To my clan?” She nods. “I’d like to, when this is done.”

            “Did you have anyone there?” Varric wonders, chewing thoughtfully.

            I glance up at him, chuckling. “No, no one like that. Friends, though, of course. My best friend, Assan—I miss him a lot. And Keeper Deshanna, of course.”

            “What was she like, your keeper?” Cassandra wonders.

            “She is…different with different people,” I chuckle. “My own mother died when I was born, and Keeper Deshanna became something of a mother figure to me. She was always kind to me but very firm.” I look up at her. “What about you?”

            “What about me?”

            I smirk. “I’d like to get to know you better.”

            “You would?”

            “Don’t sound so surprised, Seeker,” Varric laughs.

            “Is that a problem?” I wonder with a smile.

            “Not entirely,” she answers suspiciously. “I’m…just curious as to your motivations.”

            “No motivation,” I reply, “beyond making things between us less…”

            “Antagonistic?” she guesses.

            I grin. “Exactly.”

            “As you wish,” she sighs. “My name is Cassandra Pentaghast, daughter of the royal house of Nevarra, seventy-eighth in line for the Nevarran throne. I joined the Seekers of Truth as a young woman and was with the Order until they withdrew from the Chantry. I remained as the Divine’s Right Hand, carrying out her order to form the Inquisition. And here we are. That’s all there is to know, my lady.”

            “Did you write that down first?” Varric wonders, missing a beat.

            Cassandra glares at him. “I was asked, and I answered.”

            “No, you did—you just…it was very…it was a good answer. So, you’re Nevarran royalty, huh?”

            “The Pentaghasts are a very large clan. Half of Cumberland could say the same.”

            “Really?” I laugh.

            “No,” she admits with another sigh, “but it feels that way. I have hundreds of relatives so distant they need charts to prove we’re related at all. And they have them, oh yes. The Pentaghasts value their precious blood like it runs with gold.”

            “Mm,” I muse, “so…not on very good terms with your family, then.”

            “I do not visit, if that’s what you mean,” she replies drily.

            I laugh quietly, chewing slowly.

            She sighs. “Someone should keep guard.”

            “Seeker, no,” Varric complains, “don’t go. We’re just getting to the best part!”

            “Stay all you like, but we’re leaving at dawn.”

            Varric watches her go. “Your turn, Chuckles. You’ve been awfully quiet. Where are you from?”

            Solas looks over the fire, his eyes distant. “I grew up in a small village to the north,” he replies quietly.

            “What, that’s it?” Varric asks after a moment of silence.

            “There is not much to tell.”

            “No city name or even a country?”

            “It is not a name that would evoke much recognition.”

            “Mysterious,” Varric grumbles.

            “That…vaguely reminds me, Solas,” I murmur. “I was wondering about some of your opinions on elven culture.”

            He makes a face. “I though you would be more interested in sharing your opinions on elven culture,” he replies, his tone irritated. “You are Dalish, are you not?”

            I frown in surprise, taken aback by his reaction. Varric, too, looks shocked. “I—My people come from the elves who refused to surrender when humans broke their treaty and destroyed the Dales,” I reply.

            “Your keeper was not wrong about that, at least,” Solas answers derisively. “We must mark the occasion of the Dalish remembering something correctly. Perhaps we should plant a tree.”

            My jaw drops in shock, and Varric looks between us. “Easy, Chuckles. She’s just trying to be friendly,” he says.

            “You insult my people,” I gape.

            “They insult themselves,” Solas replies quickly. “Remember, I have walked the memories of the Fade. I have seen the history the Dalish imitate.”

            I swallow and glance away. I can’t argue with that. “Ir abelas, hahren,” I murmur. “If the Dalish have done you a disservice, I would make that right. I know our knowledge is…limited. Strained. What course would you set for us that is better than what we know now?”

            Solas looks down and then back up at me, his expression softer. “You are right, of course,” he answers, his tone kind and quiet. “The fault is mine, for expecting what the Dalish could never truly accomplish.” He searches the ground behind me a moment. “Sometimes I forget…Ir abelas, da’len,” he murmurs. “If I can offer any understanding, you have but to ask.”

            A rush of excitement surges through me, and I sit up. Answers. True answers. Something Keeper Deshanna could not—or would not—always offer. “C-could you tell me—no, wait, I want to know—maybe—gah…Could you tell me about elves from before our time?” I ask, tripping over my words.

            Solas offers a small smile at my reaction, setting his bowl aside. He holds my gaze, speaking quietly and smoothly. “The Dalish strive to remember Halamshiral, but Halamshiral was merely a fumbling attempt to recreate a forgotten land.”

            “Arlathan,” I murmur.

            “Elvhenan was the empire,” Solas nods solemnly, “and Arlathan its greatest city.” His eyes fall to the fire. “A place of magic and beauty, lost to time.”

            “You speak as if you’ve seen it,” I realize, setting my own bowl aside and scooting closer.

            “We hear stories of them living in trees and imagine wooden ramps or Dalish aravels. Imagine instead spires of crystal twining through the branches, palaces floating among the clouds. Imagine beings who lived forever, for whom magic was as natural as breathing.” He’s quiet for a long moment, and I feel a quiet ache for a place I’ve never known. “That is what was lost,” he whispers.

            “It sounds wonderful,” I reply as quietly. “I wish I could have seen it.” I stare at the fire for a long moment before another question comes to me. “Are all Dalish elves like my clan?”

            “No,” he answers. “Your clan was unique in having enough interest in human affairs to send you to spy upon the Divine’s meeting. As your clans have been separate for so long, they have all changed, adapting to the lands in which they lived. Some are no more than bandits, others trade freely with humans, and some have disappeared entirely into the forests.”

            I blink slowly, transfixed by his melodic tone. “What about city elves?”

            “The culture in alienages or among the slaves in Tevinter is like any of the impoverished and powerless. They cling to memories of a better past, practice a few rituals to distinguish themselves from humans.”

            I look down. “Are they…happy?”

            Solas is staring at me when I look up again. His expression is hard to read, but his hesitation makes me wonder what he’s thinking. “That is a complicated question. Some are, perhaps. They find happiness in their rituals, in honoring what few traditions they have. For most, it is a bleak existence. For others, it is a prison whose guards torture and torment regularly.” I sag. “I have crossed paths with many spirits who reflect the knowledge of those who lived there. There is a hope in the alienages of joining the ‘free’ and nomadic wanderers, but the Dalish are no less shackled.”

            “What do you mean?” I wonder.

            “You said yourself that you must move regularly, that you were unable to venture into cities. Clans either disappear entirely or else risk human discovery and the inevitable ruin that wreaks. Is that so free?”

            “It’s better than an alienage,” I murmur. “Better than a Circle.”

            “Granted,” he acknowledges. “I have lived my own life not so very differently.”

            “Were you originally Dalish?”

            “No.”

            “City elf?”

            “No.”

            I glance to the side. “S-slave?”

            He gives me a stern look. “No. I have wandered for most of my life. As an apostate mage, I cannot stay in one place for too long, as you understand.”

            I nod.

            “I'm heading off to bed. Good night, fellow Marcher,” Varric murmurs, his voice tired.

            “Good night, Varric,” I smile. He returns it sleepily, stumbling to his tent. I look back at Solas. “Are you tired? Would you rather go to bed?”

            He smiles softly in return. “If you have more questions, I will answer them to the best of my ability.”

            I grin, sitting up straighter. “Do you know if the magic they teach in Circles is different from the magic I learned with my people?”

            He sways his hand to indicate a difficult answer. “No, and yes,” he replies. “Magic is magic, just as water is water, but it can be used in different ways. Dalish magic is more practical, not needing Chantry approval, although they still frown on blood magic—superstition,” he adds quietly. “Much of it is more subtle, a legacy from when elves were immortal.”

            “The legends of elven immortality,” I murmur. “Did they use magic to increase their lifespan?”

            “No,” he answers softly, his eyes falling to the flames between us. “It was simply part of being elven. The subtle beauty of their magic was the effect, not the cause, of their nature. Some spells took years to cast. Echoes would linger for centuries, harmonizing with new magic in an unending symphony. It must have been beautiful,” he whispers, his voice so somber than I can’t find mine for several minutes.

            It hurts to imagine it. Not knowing is a quiet ache, but it must be so much worse for Solas. He has seen it—the echoes of an ancient, unrecognizable world. He’s studied our origins, seen what we once were. I can’t imagine waking up again in our world, to where magic is stunted and feared and hunted. 

            I swallow and look up at Solas again, emerging slowly from my reverie to find him waiting patiently. “You said that the censor against blood magic was superstition?”

            “I did,” he nods, unapologetic. He smiles softly at my surprise. “It is fortunate Cassandra is not within earshot.”

            I chuckle quietly. “She would…have opinions,” I grin.

            He smiles again, his eyes holding my gaze. “Most modern cultures forbid blood magic. Publicly, even Tevinter disapproves of it. But as I said, magic is magic. It matters only in how it is used.”

            I wince, looking down. “I saw blood magic used once. It was…” I search for the word. “Horrifying.”

            “When used vilely, yes,” he nods.

            “So, if I whipped out a knife…”

            He laughs gently. “I would not judge you for it. There was a time when I considered using it myself, but unfortunately, using blood magic seems to make it more difficult to enter the Fade. A shame,” he muses, “as it is extremely powerful.”

            I grimace again. “You don’t think it…I don’t know…dehumanizes us?”

            He looks up at me, perhaps to gauge my own opinion. I try to keep my expression neutral again. “It matters only in how it is used,” he reminds me softly, his tone almost amused. “If you were to, say, use the blood of a child to increase your own lifespan, then yes, that would dehumanize. If you were to use your own blood to safely and practically defeat, say, a demon who would murder countless others, then I see no problem with it—provided it is used as a tool, not a crutch or a passion. The true problem lies in those who turn to it as a desperate last resort, particularly those poorly educated in its power. That is where you get abominations. That is where the true danger lies.”

            I consider that, chewing the inside of my cheek thoughtfully. “Can I ask you something unrelated?”

            “Of course.”

            “Can I ask you something personal? About you?”

            “Why?” he wonders, his voice friendly but guarded.

            “You’re an apostate, yet you risked your freedom to help us.”

            “Not the wisest course of action, when framed that way.”

            I laugh, and he glances up at me. “I appreciate the work you’re doing, Solas. I just wanted to know more about you.”

            “I am sorry,” he smiles, looking down at the fire again. “With so much fear in the air…” He sighs, offering another apologetic smile. “What would you know of me?”

            “What made you start studying the Fade?”

            He considers for a moment. “I grew up in a village to the north, as I mentioned. There was little to interest a young man, especially one gifted with magic. As I slept, spirits of the Fade showed me glimpses of wonders I had never imagined. I treasured my dreams. Being awake, out of the Fade, became troublesome.”

            “Did spirits try to tempt you?” I wonder.

            “No more than a brightly colored fruit is deliberately temping you to eat it.”

            I laugh. “Fair point.”

            He smiles. “I learned how to defend myself from more aggressive spirits and how to interact safely with the rest. I learned how to control my dreams with full consciousness. There was so much I wanted to explore,” he murmurs, his voice passionate and quiet.

            “I gather you didn’t spend your entire life dreaming?”

            He chuckles softly. “No. Eventually, I was unable to find new areas in the Fade.”

            “Why?” I wonder.

            He looks up at me, his expression unreadable. His eyes stay on mine for a long moment, as if attempting to read me. “Two reasons,” he finally replies. “First, the Fade reflects the world around it. Unless I traveled, I would never find anything new. Second, the Fade reflects, and is limited by, our imaginations. Simply put: to find interesting areas, one must be interested.”

            I grin. “Are you saying you’re an interesting person?”

            He chuckles, caught off guard. “Interested,” he corrects, amused.

            “Mmhm,” I hum, earning an endearing smile in return. “Is that why you joined? The Inquisition, I mean. To find new areas to explore?”

            “I joined the Inquisition because we were all in terrible danger,” he answers more solemnly than I expect. He blinks and looks up at me, a flare of levity returning. “If our enemies destroyed the world, I would have nowhere to lay my head while dreaming of the Fade.”

            I laugh. “Better reason than mine.”

            “What is yours?”

            “Cassandra strong-armed me.”

            He offers a quiet laugh. “I do not believe that,” he muses. “That she strong-armed you, yes, but you have had many opportunities to leave, yet here you are.”

            “Well, I have been known to make poor life choices, so…” He smirks at me. “As for your wanderings in the Fade, I wish you luck.”

            “Thank you,” he replies, his voice indicating sincerity. “In truth, I have enjoyed experiencing more of life to find more of the Fade.”

            “How so?” I wonder, smiling without realizing it at first.

            “You train your will to control magic and withstand possession,” he answers, his eyes appraising mine evenly. “The grace with which you cast is a pleasing side benefit.” My cheeks warm, and I look down. “You have chosen a path whose steps you do not dislike, because it leads to a destination you enjoy. As have I.”

            “So you’re suggesting I’m graceful?” I muse.

            “No,” he answers. “I was declaring it. It was not a subject for debate.”

            My cheeks flame, and I grin like an idiot, looking away with a surprised giggle that makes me feel even more idiotic. “Mm,” I muse wordlessly, trying to refocus my attention. I clear my throat, unable to look at him as I voice my next question. “You said you’ve traveled to many different places?” I ask, my voice a touch high.

            I glance back stealthily to see Solas smiling softly at the flames before he nods and meets my eyes. “This world, or its memory, is reflected in the Fade. Dream in ancient ruins, you may see a city lost to history. Some of my fondest memories were found in crumbling cities, long picked dry by treasure-seekers. The best are the battlefields. Spirits press so tightly on the Veil that you can slip across with but a thought.”

            “Which battlefields?” I wonder, sitting straighter again.

            “I dreamt at Ostagar,” he replies. “I witness the brutality of the darkspawn and the valor of the Ferelden warriors. I saw Alistair and the Hero of Ferelden light the signal fire, and Loghain’s infamous betrayal of Cailan’s forces.”

            “What?” I exclaim far too loudly. I look around quickly as Solas chuckles. Cassandra turns to me, perhaps thinking something is wrong, and I wave apologetically. “You saw them?” I gasp more quietly. “What was she like? The Hero of Ferelden! What really happened? Did Loghain betray them? I’ve heard so many different stories, all conflicting!”

            He smiles again, eyes appraising mine again. “That’s just it,” he admits. “In the Fade, I see reflections created by spirits who react to the emotions of the warriors. One moment, I see heroic Wardens lighting the fire, and a power-mad villain sneering as he lets King Cailan fall. The next, I see an army overwhelmed, and a veteran commander refusing to let more soldiers die in a lost cause.”

            “And you can’t tell which is real?”

            “It is the Fade,” he replies softly. “They are all real.”

            I smile at the poetry of his response. “What was she like? You saw the Warden-Commander?”

            “Yes, though it was several months before she truly found her place as a Grey Warden. In Ostagar, she was brave, fighting her way through darkspawn to reach the Tower of Ishal against all odds. In one memory, I saw her save a man from several of the creatures. In another, she led Alistair and several other men through the Blight-infested grounds, fearless in her endeavor.”

            I grin widely. “Gah, that’s so—I tried to learn as much about her as I could. She’s a city elf, and she managed to…change the entire world! I mean, she—she—by herself—” I shake my head.

            “Indeed,” Solas smiles.

            I swallow. She’s just a person. Just a really cool, insanely tough, inspiring person. Move on, already. “Have you always traveled and studied alone?”

            “Not at all,” he answers warmly, his tone fond. “I have built many lasting friendships. Spirits of Wisdom, possessed of ancient knowledge, happy to share what they had seen. Spirits of Purpose helped me search. Even wisps, curious and playful, would point out treasures I might have missed.”

            I grin. “That’s…” I hesitate. “I’ve—never heard of any spirits by those names, I’m embarrassed to admit.”

            “They rarely seek this world,” he replies. “When they do, their natures do not often survive exposure to the people they encounter. Wisdom and Purpose are too easily twisted into Pride and Desire.”

            I look down, feeling his eyes on me. “That’s sad,” I murmur. “But also…incredible that you can find them and learn from them, that they feel comfortable seeking you out. It…makes me regret all the ones I’ve passed without realizing, all the ones that I could have befriended or learned from…” Solas observes me, his expression thoughtful. “I’ve never heard of anyone going so far into the Fade, Solas. That’s extraordinary.”

            “Thank you,” he murmurs. “In truth, I enjoy the company of spirits to most people. However, thanks to the Chantry, they are not viewed as people, because they lack bodies of flesh and blood. Is Cassandra defined by her cheekbones and not her faith? Varric by his chest hair and not his wit?”

            I laugh softly, biting my lip to stop it when it sounds too close to a giggle. “You have an interesting way of looking at the world, Solas.”

            “I try,” he muses, “and that isn’t quite an answer.”

            I shrug, glancing up at him with a bold flare. “I look forward to helping you make new friends.”

            He blinks, surprised. “That should be…” He hesitates, eyeing me, perhaps to gauge whether he caught my meaning right. “Well…”

            “That isn’t quite an answer either,” I laugh softly.

            He chuckles once, looking over the valley beside us.

            I chew my lip, peering at the flames as my thoughts pull in several directions. “May I ask you something else?”

            “Of course.”

            “Can you—could you tell me more about the Fade? What do you know about it?”

            “A great deal,” he admits, “from my wanderings. There are few hard facts, but I can share what I have learned, if you have a question in mind.”

            I laugh. “Try dozens.” I glance up at the sky, at the large flickering green mass. “What do you know about the Breach?”

            Solas folds his legs in, looking at me evenly across the fire. “Simply put, it is a tear in the Veil between this world and the Fade, allowing spirits to enter the world physically. Small tears occur naturally when magic weakens the Veil or when spirits cluster at an area that has seen many deaths. But your mark allows you to exert some control over the Breach. That means it was created deliberately.”

            “The mark or the Breach?” I wonder.

            “I meant the Breach, but both, I suppose. They appear to be intrinsically tied to one another.”

            “Who would do this?” I whisper. “Who would open that thing deliberately? Surely they couldn’t have known the consequences.”

            Solas looks down, his expression solemn. “My guess? Only desperation can move someone to such lengths.”

            “Desperation of what?” I wonder.

            He doesn’t answer for a long time. “I cannot say,” he finally admits. “I can only speculate, of course.”

            I let that sit a moment, the weight of the temple growing heavier again in my mind. “What about the Veil?” I ask to move on.

            “Circle mages call it a barrier between this world and the Fade, but according my studies in ancient elven lore, that is a vast oversimplification. Without it…Imagine if spirits entered freely, if the Fade was not a place one went but a state of nature, like the wind.”

            I pause, letting myself picture it. “It sound like it would be wonderful,” I murmur.

            “And dangerous,” Solas nods, a small smile ghosting his lips even as his eyes appear sad. “But yes, a world where imagination defines reality, where spirits are as common as trees or grass.”

            “Wow,” I breathe, interrupting. “Sorry,” I add.

            He smiles at me, and then sighs. “Instead, spirits are strange and fearful, and the Fade is a terrifying world touched only by mages and dreamers.” He hesitates and then looks at me sincerely. “I am glad that I am not alone in seeing the beauty of such a world, along with the obvious peril.”

            “It would be…so different,” I murmur. “So beautiful…raw imagination…Would demons exist in such a world?”

            “Spirits would have no barrier, nothing to keep them trapped. Demons occur when spirits are either twisted against their purpose or when envy renders them weak to corruptions. Demons, as you know them, would no longer exist. There would still, of course, be those who were warped by emotion, altered by something entirely out of their control. But it would be different.”

            “What would happen?” I suddenly wonder.

            “What do you mean?”

            “If the Breach kept expanding.”

            Solas drops his eyes, and I watch as the flames from the fire dance in them. “This world would be destroyed.”

            I blink. “But you just said—”

            “If there was no Veil at all,” he corrects softly, his tone grim. “If it did not exist, if it never had. But it does. And to remove it…would release chaos into this world. A new world would emerge…at the price of this one.”

            I look down, feeling heavy again, though this time I’m not certain whether it’s his answer or the defeat in his voice. Perhaps a combination of the two. “What…what about demons?” I murmur, clearing my throat softly after a long moment. “What can you tell me about them?”

            Solas nods. “Your Dalish say that demons hate the natural world and seek to bring their chaos and destruction to the living, but such simplistic labels misconstrue their motivations, and in so doing, do all a great disservice. Spirits wish to join the living, and a demon is that wish gone wrong.”

            “That’s…very sad,” I murmur, frowning. “Is there…I don’t know, a way to coexist? To live with them…if not in peace, at least without such active confrontation?”

            “Not in the world we know today,” Solas sighs. “The Veil makes true understanding most unlikely.” He looks up at me. “But the question is a good one, and it matters that you thought to ask.”

            I don’t know why the simple comment sets my cheeks aflame, but it does. I gaze at the fire. “Can I say something wildly inappropriate after knowing you all of five minutes?”

            Solas looks amused and nods.

            “You seem sad.”

            His amusement fades, and his eyebrows pull together, perhaps in confusion, though I don’t look at him long enough to read it.

            “I don’t know how else to say it…but you seem sad.”

            He starts to answer, but I wave him off.

            “I just—wanted to say…I’m sorry, I guess. I’m sorry that you’re…sad.”

            Solas watches me for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “Your name,” he murmurs. “Suledin.” I look down. “Your people placed a heavy burden on your shoulders.”

            “And an unfair one on yours,” I point out, deflecting.

            His lips twitch in amusement. “Fair point.”

            I consider him. “You know what I think you are?”

            “What?” he wonders, entertained.

            “Ghil-Dirthalen.”

            He laughs softly. “Because I answered a few questions?”

            “Because you have this…entire world of knowledge at your disposal. I hope you get used to me asking you inane questions, because I’m bound to have a million more pop up sporadically.”

            “There is nothing inane about your questions. They reveal a thoughtfulness about the world around you.”

            I blush. “Well, thank you for answering.”

            “I will continue to do so, to the best of my ability.”

            “Spoken like a true Ghil-Dirthalen.”

            He chuckles, offering an amused smile before he returns his gaze to the flames between us.

            I glance up, startled when I realize the moon shifted further than I expected. “Well, it is certainly later than I thought.”

            “I apologize,” Solas murmurs. “I have a habit of getting carried away with—”

            “It was fascinating,” I grin. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

            “Thank you for listening,” he replies, his eyes trapping mine.

            I smile and stand with difficulty. “Good night, Solas.”

            “Good night, Suledin,” he answers softly, his eyes still sad as he looks down at the fire once more.

Chapter Text

I’m more than a little out of breath by the time we reach the top of a cliff overlooking the Hinterlands. I do my best not to reveal that detail, since my travelling companions apparently are made of sturdier stuff. Varric was right; we encountered several outlying groups of mages and templars on the way here, either hiding or outright fighting. When they attacked on sight, we were forced to respond, and I’m still tired from it. 

            The Inquisition camp is bustling when we arrive. In addition to numerous lookouts posted around the perimeter, several scouts are at a table, studying a map seriously. One of them glances up, a dwarven woman with tightly braided red hair and brilliant green eyes. She moves away from the others, waving at me as the others and I approach. 

            “Herald of Andraste!” she calls warmly. 

            I try not to react to the name, though it makes me want to recoil. She smiles, stopping before me as I discreetly try to catch my breath.

            “I’ve heard the stories,” she continues, “everyone has. We know what you did at the Breach. It’s odd for a Dalish elf to care what happens to anyone else, but you’ll get no backtalk here. That’s a promise.”

            I laugh. “Thank you—I…think.”

            She smirks. “Inquisition Scout Harding, at your service. I—well, all of us here—we’ll do whatever we can to help.”

            “Harding, huh?” Varric muses, leaning casually against the table beside us. “Ever been to Kirkwall’s Hightown?”

            Scout Harding shakes her head once. “I can’t say I have. Why?”

            “Because you’d be Harding in—oh, never mind.”

            Cassandra makes a disgusted noise, and I chuckle, clearing my throat to cover the sound when Cassandra glares at me.

            I turn back to Harding. “To be honest, I’m starting to worry about these stories everyone’s heard.”

            “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about,” she assures me. “They only say you’re the last great hope for Thedas.”

            “Oh. Wonderful.”

            She grins at my tone. “You picked a fine day for it. The Hinterlands are as good a place as any to start…fixing things. We came here to secure horses from Redcliffe’s old horse master.” Harding’s expression tightens. “I grew up here…and people always said that Dennet’s herds were the strongest and the fastest this side of the Frostbacks.”

            “Has there been a problem?” I ask as her eyes grow more serious.

            She grimaces. “With the mage-templar fighting getting worse, we couldn’t get to Dennet. Maker only knows if he’s still alive.”

            “We’ll find him,” I assure her. “And we’ll try to help with the fighting. I’m assuming they both have strongholds in the valley? The mages and templars, I mean.”

            Harding nods. “As far as we can tell, the mages are holed up somewhere northeast of us in the woods. A few of my men tried to scout it out, and they all returned wounded. We’ve seen the templars’ base in the west. It’s on the way to Dennet’s farm, but we couldn’t get close without some warriors. The templars are armed to the teeth.”

            “We’ll take care of it,” I promise.

            Scout Harding offers a formal nod. “Thank you. It would make the roads much safer for my men if those bases were destroyed. Mother Giselle’s at the Crossroads in the valley below. She’s been helping refugees and the wounded. Our latest reports say that the war’s spread there, too. Corporal Vale and our men are doing what they can to help protect the people, but…they won’t be able to hold out very long. You best get going. No time to lose.”

            “Thank you, Scout Harding.”

            She gives me another warm smile. “Good luck, Herald.”

            I watch her go and then turn to the others, looking at Varric in particular. “Are they going to call me that forever?”

            Varric chuckles, patting my arm. “There, there, Snow. It’ll all be okay.”

            I narrow my eyes at him playfully. “You already tried that one.”

            “Honestly, it’s just too fitting. Chuckles, Seeker, help me out. She’s a Snow, right?”

            Solas glance at me as I roll my eyes at Varric. “We must get moving,” he murmurs.

            “Agreed,” Cassandra says with a glare at Varric.

            “Right. Anyone know how to read a compass?” I wonder.

            Cassandra glares at me.

            “Fen’Harel, I’m joking, Cass, really.”

            “She’ll loosen up,” Varric whispers to me.

            Cassandra huffs. “I heard that, dwarf.”

            “I should hope so, Seeker.”

            “I see all the makings of best friends here,” I smile proudly, gesturing to them both.

            Cassandra makes a disgusted noise once again while Varric scoffs.

            “I’d rather pull out my own nails and eat them,” he mutters.

            I blink hard, recoiling a little. “Well. That was…vivid.”

            “I would rather return to Nevarra,” Cassandra adds.

            I laugh loudly. “Oh, she got you there, Varric. Point Cassandra.”

            “Fair enough, Seeker. Well played.”

            I pretend to snap to attention. “Now, enough horsing around. We have a horse master to find. Yes, I know that was hilarious. We don’t have time to laugh! Let’s go.”        

            Varric chuckles, shaking his head at me as I turn around. I lead the way—because apparently I’m qualified to do that now—down a steep bank away from the Inquisition encampment. Solas follows me and then Cassandra and Varric, who bicker back and forth quietly before they both fall silent. When I reach the ground, I look up and realize why.

            “Mythal,” I breathe.

            “First time seeing the war, huh?” Varric sighs.

            My eyes trail down the carnage—mages cut in half, templars frozen to the hillsides, blood and body parts sprayed against the rock and grass.

            “More will be lost if we linger,” Solas says quietly.

            “Yeah,” I mumble, blinking slowly. “Yeah. Sorry.”

            I try to avoid the bodies strewn haphazardly across the makeshift battlefield. Trees have been cut down, sliced apart by lightning, ice, or misplaced swings from battleaxes. Swords lay scattered throughout, along with several bloody staffs, some stabbed into fallen trees or the ground, some simply lying beside inert bodies.

            “There!” Cassandra calls, startling me. “Inquisition forces! They’re trying to protect the refugees!” She jogs ahead of us through a small canyon, pulling her sword out swiftly.

            “Looks like they could use a hand,” Varric replies, patting my back once before he jogs ahead too.

            I glance down once and then run forward, gripping my staff tightly. I take half a second to determine where I’d be most useful. Cassandra runs into the thick of the fighting, throwing herself into the battle without hesitancy. Varric moves off to the right, flanking the mages and templars. I empty my mind and focus on my energy, forcing myself to think only as far as my next spell.

            Last night, my hand was acting up, but earlier today, I was able to use it in fighting. I take a breath, praying to Mythal before I conjure a flame and smoothly pass it to my staff with my left hand. Relief floods me when it works again. Perhaps it was a fluke thing.

            Solas stops beside me, throwing up a shield around Cassandra as she charges forth fearlessly. I fall into my old habits, breathing with relief through my spells, giving them form and life as I launch them from my staff, spinning it around as I have for most of my life. I regain my confidence as we fight through waves of templars and mages, tapping my staff to the ground to deliver powerful blows of fire, ice, and lightning—my specialties.

            A group of templars run at Solas and me, and I call ice to my hand quickly. As soon as I breathe the word, a shudder runs down my arm, and I feel the air crackle. Once pale white, the spell turns a vivid purple, a bolt of lightning slamming to the ground just beyond my fingertips. I cry out, both in surprise and fear, falling backwards.

            “Suledin,” Solas calls, stepping back once as he deals with the templars. “Are you alright?”

            I gasp and grip my hand, yanking my glove back on. My skin feels singed and flaming—like it did before we closed the first rift. I nod at Solas and find my feet, sweat beading my forehead in sheer terror.

            “Hold!” Cassandra orders as templars flank her. “We are not apostates.”

            “I do not think they care, Seeker!” Solas replies quickly, throwing another shield around her when a flurry of arrows races to her.

            I breathe out in a rush, gripping my staff tighter. I clench my left hand, keeping it well away. Using my staff alone, I join the battle again, all my attacks slightly delayed when I realize I can't quite trust myself. The weight of my staff feels wrong with just one hand, and I fumble more than once. Solas glances at me as I work, and I try harder to appear more normal as I cast. 

            A group of mages rushes down the bank beside us, joining the fight with a loud battlecry.

            “We are not templars!” Solas calls to them imploringly. “We mean you no harm!”

            “Doesn’t look like they’re listening, either,” Varric returns.

            “This is ridiculous,” I mutter.

            Inquisition swords ring shrilly against the templars' blades and shields, clashing and bashing as they try to get enough leverage for a victory. I keep my left hand away, though it goes against my instincts. Each time it rises to fight, I have to force it back down. Solas moves fluidly beside me, his technique refined and powerful. He grips his staff with both hands, fueling enough magic to level a house. I consider holding my staff similarly, but I worry it won't work. Instead, my right arm aches under the weight, and a headache develops as I force myself to focus magic through only one outlet. It feels wrong and unnatural.

            It feels like hours that we spend fighting. By the time the last man falls, I’m exhausted and drained. I drop my staff, resting my hands on my knees as I pant and wobble.

            “Fen’Harel,” I gasp as Solas glances down at me. “That’s gonna get old.”

            Varric jogs up beside me breathlessly. “You alright, Snow?”

            “Fenedhis,” I curse. “Define—alright.”

            “Arms and legs still connected?”

            “Yes. I know this—because they are all—in a great deal—of pain.”

            He chuckles. “Then you’re alright.”

            “Dread Wolf, is this Mother Giselle here or what?” I breathe, picking my staff up again.

            “I believe I see her there,” Cassandra replies, pointing. She’s winded but, as usual, far more composed. “Among the refugees.”

            “Ah—all the way—over there…Okay—just—give me—a second—shit—”

            Varric smirks. “So, you fight in a lot of battles or…?”

            “Yeah—all—the time. It’s—gah—my favorite—pastime.”

            “Thought as much.”

            “For the love—of Sylaise—why—do people do this—when we could all—be at home—drinking tea—and complaining—about the weather?”

            Varric chuckles again. “C’mon, Snow. Let’s go see what that mother wants.”

            “Holy halla—I’m coming—I’m coming—just give me—a year—to walk over there—”

            Cassandra leads the way, as strong as ever. She’s made of granite, I swear she is. Solas follows her, then Varric with me, the ‘leader,’ pulling up the back. If I cared more, I might be offended. At least back here, I can huff and pant without too much notice.

            My travel companions suddenly stop and turn to me, and I stand upright, pretending to have caught my breath all the while cursing my sedentary lifestyle. Two Inquisition soldiers are erecting a banner—our banner, and I realize with a whoosh of pride that this is a big moment. The first place officially under Inquisition protection. Something like patriotism rushes through me, and I smile gratefully at the soldiers. They cross their right arms over their chests, nodding formally as they part ways with us. I take a moment to enjoy the victory, glancing and smiling at Cassandra. She eyes the flag with a similar pride, her eyes shining with duty and a promise.

            I admire the banner once more and then mount the steps to the makeshift medical camp at the top surrounded by several cabins. I see the mother—the only one—bending over a cot where a wounded man writhes in pain.

            “There are mages here who can heal your wounds,” Mother Giselle murmurs softly in a thick Orlesian accent. “Lie still."

            “Don’t—let them touch me, Mother,” the soldier gasps. “Their magic is—”

            “Turned to noble purposes,” she finishes sternly. I want to be angry at his accusatory implication, but then I see the burns lacerating his arms and neck, and I know it wasn’t the templars he crossed in battle. “Their magic is surely no more evil than your blade.”

            “But—”

            “Hush, dear boy. Allow them to ease your suffering.”

            The soldier lies back, closing his eyes. He winces when the mage comes close, but he doesn’t fight the robed man. Mother Giselle watches a moment before standing. She turns, spots me, and then makes her way over slowly.

            “Mother Giselle?” I check, clasping my hands respectfully behind my back.

            “I am,” she nods, “and you must be the one they are calling the Herald of Andraste.”

            “Not through any choice of mine,” I assure her quickly.

            She chuckles. “We seldom have such choice in our fates.”

            I frown slightly. I would have expected her to be as offended by the title as I am. “I’m told you asked for a chance to speak with the Inquisition?”

            “I asked for a chance to speak with you,” she corrects gently. She motions me forward, and I follow her, checking back for the others. Cassandra turns to a man who looks in charge enough to be Corporal Vale, I assume. Varric joins the healers as they work, talking with them somberly. Solas stands nearby, scanning the aftermath grimly. His expression shifts into mild anger when a mage is dragged in. From the wild, frightened look in the man’s eye, he’s clearly the victim of nullification. I look away quickly, following the mother.

            “I know of the Chantry’s denouncement,” she murmurs, coming to a stop far away from the others, “and I’m familiar with those behind it. I won’t lie to you: Some of them are simply grandstanding, hoping to increase their chances of becoming the new Divine. Some are simply terrified. So many good people, senselessly taken from us.”

            “What happened was horrible,” I agree quietly.

            “Fear makes us desperate, but hopefully not beyond reason." She gives me an imploring look. "Go to them. Convince the remaining clerics you are no demon to be feared. They have heard only frightful tales of you. Give them something else to believe.”

            I gape at her and then quickly close my mouth, laughing once humorlessly. “You—” I clear my throat. “The people who want me executed before a cheering crowd—you want me to-to, what, appeal to them? Won’t that just make things worse?”

            “Because you are not human?”

            I scoff. I hadn't even gotten to that reason yet in my list of why that would be a disaster. “That, too,” I reply.

            She purses her lips. “Let me put it this way; you needn’t convince them all. You just need some of them to…doubt. Their power is their unified voice. Take that from them, and you receive the time you need.”

            I open my mouth to argue, but it actually makes about as much sense as the rest of this. “You…” I sigh, “are very persuasive.”

            She offers a smile and a warm chuckle. “Your humor is a light in the darkness. Hold onto it.” 

            “Oh, I intend to." I glance down, resting my hands on my hips. "It’s good of you to do this,” I add seriously.

            “I honestly don’t know if you’ve been touched by fate or sent to help us…but I hope. Hope is what we need now. The people will listen to your rallying call, as they will listen to no other. Look at what you’ve done here,” she says, offering the Crossroads a wide sweep of her arm. “Your soldiers already patrol and stand guard at the gates, giving our healers time and space to aid those wounded by this civil war without the threat of another attack. The banner placed by your men inspires more hope than you could possibly imagine. You could build the Inquisition into a force that will deliver us or…destroy us. Your actions shape the world around you; your decisions have brought you here, today, to help these people. Where will they take you next, I wonder?”

            I flit between her eyes, feeling a little weightless as she speaks of destiny. “No…pressure.”

            She smiles again warmly. “I will go to Haven,” she murmurs, “and provide Sister Leliana the names of those in the Chantry who would be amenable to a gathering. It is not much, but I will do whatever I can.”

            “Thank you, Mother Giselle.”

            “Thank you, Herald.” She nods at me and turns, heading down the steps below me leisurely. I watch her somberly, crossing my arms loosely. 

            “Well?” Cassandra says.

            I jump. “Holy—how did you get here so fast?”

            “You can be very unobservant,” she retorts. “What did she say?”

            “She says some of the Chantry can be reasoned with.” Cassandra scoffs. “Yeah, it was more persuasive when she said it. She also is heading to Haven to speak with Leliana.”

            “Well, that is good news.”

            I nod, rubbing my forehead briefly. “I think we should find those bases Scout Harding mentioned, retrieve Master Dennet, and then head back to Haven.”

            Cassandra nods. “We have little time, but...yes, we must do something to help.”

            “Excellent. Well. Onwards and upwards.”

            Cassandra sighs at me and turns around. I shake out my left hand and follow her lead.

***

That night, I’m completely drained and exhausted. We spent the day tracking down the mages in the trees and destroying their main camp. Whatever supplies they had, we took back to the Crossroads and then sent soldiers to retrieve the rest. We found the templar encampment and did the same. A few templars escaped, but they've lost their stronghold and with it, their leverage. In a small farming homestead, we found and recruited Master Dennet and, after some persuasion, managed to convince him to gather his horses and head to Haven at once. As we were returning to a newly established  Inquisition camp, we passed by a rift. It hurt so much to close that it actually made me cry, an embarrassing fact that I did my best to hide from the others, walking away briskly, clutching my hand as soon as the rift was sealed. If the others noticed my behavior, they must have assumed I was tired, because no one commented on it. My skin felt singed for hours afterwards, aching and throbbing to the point where I searched it for obvious signs of inflammation or cuts, finding neither.

            At camp, we have a quiet dinner with a few Inquisition soldiers and scouts. I don’t eat much, though I was initially starving. My thoughts become consumed with the problem of my magic and the echo of pain still lancing down my bones. Varric and Cassandra turn in early, within minutes of each other. Exhaustion weighs so heavily on me that I feel dizzy, but I wait until Solas is by himself to approach him.

            “Solas?” I murmur quietly, careful to not startle him. I clutch my hand tightly, as if to keep the pain at bay, but it flares up my wrist anyway, lighting a fire under my skin as I wince. 

            He looks up inquisitively from his book.

            “Do you have a moment?”

            “Of course," he answers. "Is something wrong?”

            I swallow, glancing at the soldiers nearby. “Can we—perhaps go somewhere a little more private?”

            Solas stands immediately, and a swell of relief overwhelms me. He leads me towards the cliffs without question. A single scout perches on the edge, her eyes scanning the moonlit valley below with keener eyes than mine. I know there are others hidden around camp, but I trust Solas’ judgement, too distracted to consider our surroundings. When he stops, I feel confident we’ve escaped listening ears.

            “What’s wrong?” he asks quietly, his expression serious.

            I pull off my glove, wincing at the feeling of glass scraping against my skin. “I’ve—there’s—I think there’s something wrong wi-with my hand.”

            His eyebrows pull together, the simple gesture encouraging me to continue.

            “Whatever is…allowing me to seal rifts has…affected my magic somehow.”

            He stares at me, freezing. I peek at him to find his eyes confused and alarmed. “Wh—how do you mean?” he asks, his voice calm, if strained.

            “I-I can demonstrate. I-I’m gonna try to conjure fire,” I add, when I realize he won’t know the difference out of context.

            I extend my trembling left hand out, watching its emerald glow. I breathe the word, expecting ice to freeze the railing, as it has before in place of fire. Instead, the air crackles thickly with the spell, alarming me. Solas' hands clasp my shoulders, and he pulls me back just in time for a bolt of lightning to crash into the ground where I was standing.

            “Shit!” I say. “Sorry!” I add, shouting and waving to one of the scouts. “Sorry! That was me! Everything’s fine!”

            The scout resettles, and I look back at Solas in distress.

            He stares at my hand as it glows. “May I?” he asks, holding his own hands out.

            I nod, and he takes my hand gently, his fingers warm and gentle against mine. He pushes my sleeve up tenderly, searching my wrist and palm for something unseen. He twists my wrist softly, turning my hand slowly as he examines it. I watch him, my gaze flitting from our hands to his eyes, praying he can come up with an answer. 

            “I do not understand,” he murmurs quietly.

            “What?” I whisper. 

            “I…” He blinks, frowning at my hand as he searches it a moment longer. He seems unhappy with his answer, and I brace myself. “I—cannot explain why the mark should interfere with your magic. It shouldn’t…”

            “What do you mean?” I whisper, my chest tightening.

            His brow furrows again as he steps closer to me. He brings my hand up, studying it and its glow more closely. He murmurs something softly under his breath, and my hand warms from the quiet incantation. A soft blue glow emanates from his fingers, soothing my skin. I close my eyes at the reprieve, feeling them flood with relief.  

            “How does it feel to close the rifts?” he asks. “Do you feel anything?”

            “It hurts,” I admit honestly. “It—aches, like fire inside my hand, the heat trapped between skin and bone. Sometimes it feels like—like daggers slicing across my wrist, or like the bones themselves are shifting, like...fissures are breaking my hand apart. Sometimes my skin feels as if glass is being dragged against it. The softest brush of my sleeve or glove can be agonizing.” I frown at my own words, but they're are true as I can make them. 

            Solas blinks, his eyes rising to mine with no small degree of horror. “I…had no idea, Suledin. Does—it hurt now?”

            “It did, but not anymore,” I answer, closing my eyes again. “Whatever you’re doing—” I shake my head, at a loss.

            “Does your glove help? I notice you’ve been wearing one.”

            “Not with the pain,” I reply. “It just helps me remember not to use it.”

            He looks down again, his fingers probing delicately across my wrist, as if searching for a physical cause. When he doesn’t find one, he releases my hand slowly. The warmth of his fingers and his magic disappears, the blue glow fading. At its absence, the quiet ache returns deep in my bones. I swallow, easing my glove back on slowly.

            “I will search the Fade for any information as to why this might happen,” he promises, his eyes boring into mine. “And I will search for a way to ease your suffering, as well as a way to restore your magic. Has your mana been affected?”

            “A little. I feel it drain much more quickly than before. I can still cast with my right hand and staff.” I don’t both adding the so far that bounces around in my thoughts.

            “I will find an answer, if one can be found,” Solas tells me, his voice so full of promise that I can’t help but trust him.         

            “Thank you,” I murmur seriously. I look up at him. “And—please don’t…tell the others. I don’t want them to…” I trail off uncertainly.

            “I understand,” he nods. “I am…sorry this is happening to you. I will try to help you.”

            “Thank you,” I say again, swallowing as I look down. “I…I’m gonna get some rest. You don’t have to do anything tonight,” I add. “You must be as exhausted as I am." He doesn't reply to that, appearing deep in thought. "Thank you for speaking with me...Good night, Solas.”

            Solas glances over the valley, his brow furrowing in quiet concentration. “Good night, lethallin.”

            I look up at him at the familiar and friendly nickname before I turn around. I expect him to follow me back into camp, but when I glance back, I find him still on the cliffs, his eyebrows pulled together as he crosses his arms and stares up at the Breach in the sky.

Chapter Text

For the rest of our travels, Solas keeps to himself. He rests more than usual in his tent, waking only to travel, and even then he remains deep in thought. Varric and Cassandra are convinced he must have caught something, and they speculate as to what it might be. Relief floods me during those moments. Though I trusted him at his word, it still makes me feel secure that he didn’t discuss the matter with either of them in private.

            When we finally make it back to Haven, I’m exhausted and more than a little disheartened. The slow ache in my hand has shifted into a persistent throbbing. I can’t tell if it’s getting worse or if Solas’ magic was such a relief that it hurts twice as much without it.

            Varric and Cassandra separate upon our arrival; he heads to the tavern, but she moves back over to where the soldiers train. I don’t know how she does it, but she whips her sword out and continues thrashing dummies like we didn’t just arrive from days of travel.

            I walk along the path to the Chantry slowly, hoping to determine whether our efforts in the Hinterlands were successful. When I round the village and take the stairs to the top, I sigh heavily at the crowd gathered before the Chantry. Mages and templars shout and push at each other, tensions rising uncomfortably quickly.

            “Your kind killed the Most Holy!” a templar accuses, his voice raising over all the others.

            “Lies!" a mage fights back. "Your kind let her die!”

            “Shut your mouth, mage!” The templar goes for his sword.

            Before he can draw it, Cullen pushes through the crowd, separating the two men roughly.

            “Enough!” he orders. The crowd stills, several of the voices quieting.  

            “Knight-Commander!” the templar greets.

            I widen my eyes in surprise. “That is not my title,” Cullen retorts quickly, placing himself between the two groups again. “We are not templars any longer. We are all part of the Inquisition.”

            “And what does that mean, exactly?” Chancellor Roderick demands, stepping through the crowd.

            I actually groan out loud. I wouldn’t be surprised if he pitted the two groups against each other deliberately.

            Cullen offers a similarly displeased reaction. “Back already, Chancellor?” he grumbles. “Haven’t you done enough?”

            “I’m curious, Commander, as to how your Inquisition and its Herald will restore order as you’ve promised,” he calls, addressing the crowd more than Cullen.

            “Of course you are,” Cullen replies disinterestedly, refusing to rise to the bait. “Back to your duties, all of you!” he calls, waving the mages and templars away from each other.

            I decide in that moment that I really like Cullen. Roderick’s glare solidifies my response even more. As they say, an enemy of the Grand Chancellor is a friend of mine.

            The crowd disperses, but the cutting glances back and forth imply this argument is far from over. Cullen crosses his arms as Roderick starts in on him, pointing at him angrily. 

            I consider turning around. I really do, but then Cullen sees me. He seems relieved, perhaps hoping for intervention, and I sigh, moving forward. Can’t leave a commander hanging.

            “Herald,” he greets, his voice weary but far more professional than I’d be under the circumstances.

            “Commander,” I nod. “How are you?”

            “Wonderful,” he replies drily.

            “Chancellor,” I add, glancing at the glowering man.

            “Blasphemer,” he replies casually.

            I snort. “What’s the situation, Cullen?” I ask.

            The commander sighs heavily. “Mages and templars were already at war. Now they’re blaming each other for the Divine’s death—”

            “Which is why we require a proper authority to guide them back to order,” Roderick snarls.

            “Who, you?” Cullen challenges almost lazily. “Random clerics who weren’t important enough to be at the Conclave?"

            I turn my head to hide my smirk, but I’m sure Cullen sees it anyway.

            “The rebel Inquisition and it's so-called Herald of Andraste?” Roderick shoots back, offering a bitter chuckle. “I think not.”

            “Oh, I don’t know,” I sigh. “I think we’re about as functional as any new family. Besides, I have asked, on more than one occasion, for the Herald title to be revoked. I am an elf, last time I checked.”

            Roderick narrows his eyes at me. “That laudable humility won’t stop the Inquisition from using the misconception when it suits them.”

            Cullen shakes his head, crossing his arms over his chest again. “The Inquisition claims only that we must close the Breach or perish.” He sounds drained, like he’s repeated this dozens of times.

            “You say that now, Commander,” Roderick replies. “We shall see if the sentiment remains true.”

            “Well,” I sigh, “when I inevitably leave Haven again, good luck keeping order. Try not to let anyone riot.”

            Cullen smirks. “I’ll do my best.”

            “Speak of which, Cullen, could you accompany me to the war room?”

            “With pleasure. Chancellor, if you’ll excuse me,” he mutters, turning and striding into the Chantry.

            Roderick grimaces. “I will be here, watching and waiting.”

            “Consider me warned,” I sigh.

            I catch Leliana’s attention and wave her over before heading in after Cullen.

            “Remind me why he’s here again?” I muse, catching up to the commander.

            “He’s toothless,” Cullen replies. “No point turning him into a martyr by making him leave. He is a good indicator of what to expect in Val Royeaux, though. Scout Harding sent a report in before you arrived,” he explains when I glance at him questioningly. “I imagine that’s where you’ll be heading next.”

            “A prospect which delights me to no end,” I reply flatly.

            Cullen chuckles, pulling the war room door open for me. “Don’t worry. The Chantry’s only weapon is their word.”

            “Thank you—hopefully they aren’t as good at witty repertoire as me.”

            He chuckles again as he door closes behind us. I realize I forgot to grab Josephine, and I hope that Leliana does that job for me.

            “So,” I hum, leaning against the war table. “Commander Cullen. Where are you from?”

            Cullen smirks at my tone, resting his hands casually on his sword pommel. “I grew up in Ferelden, near Honnleath. I was transferred to Kirkwall shortly after the Blight. This is the first I’ve returned in almost ten years.”

            “Ten years?” I repeat. “Wow. Are you glad to be back?”

            “I was not sorry to leave at the time,” he admits, “and I did not expect to return. Now, between the Divine’s murder and the Breach, I’ve arrived to find nothing but chaos.”

            “Quite the homecoming,” I grimace. “You were in Ferelden during the Blight?”

            He looks away. “I was stationed at Ferelden’s Circle as a templar. I had…nothing to do with the darkspawn. The Circle was having its own troubles at the time. I…remained there…during the events of the Blight.”

            I note his discomfort on the subject and move on. “What about family?”

            He seems relieved, though he tries not to show it. “I have three sisters.”

            “And a Mrs. Commander Cullen?” I tease, raising an expectant eyebrow.

            He laughs. “No. No wife or children.”

            “Mr. Commander Cullen, then?”

            “Maker’s breath,” he chuckles. “No. Are you just trying to pass the time?”

            I grin at his discomfort. “Why? Am I bothering you, Commander?”

            He snorts and looks away, shaking his head.

            “What about Kirkwall? What was that like”?

            Cullen glances at me. “Leliana said you came from the Free Marches. You’ve never been?”

            “Ah, no, my clan never really went to cities.”

            “No,” he replies, shifting his stance. “Of course not. Forgive me.” He clears his throat softly. “While I was in Kirkwall, Qunari occupied and then attacked the city, the Viscount’s murder caused political unrest, relations between mages and templars fell apart, an apostate blew up the Chantry, and the knight-commander went mad. Other than that, it was fine.”

            I laugh, surprising us both. “I’m sorry—that was just—a very amusing summation of several terrible things.” I clear my throat. “Is there anything that didn’t happen there?”

            “We had no trouble from the Crows,” he shrugs.

            I laugh again, louder this time, at the unexpected joke. “Did you know Varric while you were there?”

            “He was inseparable from the Champion, so I often saw them together. We’ve spoken more since I joined the Inquisition, largely at his insistence. Apparently, I spend too much time with a serious expression on my face, and it’s bad for my health.”

            “Well, I wasn’t going to come out and say it like that, but…”

            Cullen chuckles as the door opens quickly behind me.

            “Ah, Cassandra, Leliana, Josephine, kind of you to join us," I muse. "We’ve declared war on Orlais in your absence.”

            “Don’t even joke,” Josephine laughs.

            “Before we begin,” Leliana says, passing me two scrolls. “A raven arrived from your clan.”

            “Really?” I murmur, fear suddenly striking me. I stand upright, my chest tightening as I accept the scrolls. The first bears the tree branch sigil of Clan Lavellan, the second the personal mark of Keeper Deshanna. I open that one first.

            Clan Lavellan offers greetings to the Inquisition and congratulates it on sealing the Breach that once plagued our sky. While some Dalish clans hate humans and wish nothing to do with them, Clan Lavellan has always dealt fairly with all and wished only for peace. That said, we have on occasion been forced to defend ourselves from those who saw us as only potential victims.

            It has come to our attention that a member of our clan has been declared leader of your Inquisition. As our clan does not follow the Chant of Light, it seems unlikely that she has been given a legitimate position of authority in what seems to be a religions organization. If she has indeed been granted this position, we would appreciate hearing of it. If we have been misinformed, it would ease our concerns to have her rejoin us as soon as possible.

            We await your reply,

            Keeper Istimaethoriel Lavellan

            I breathe out a sigh of relief. They’re alright. Thank Mythal. I let the letter curl up again and open the second scroll, grinning when I see the familiar scrawl.

            Sul,

            First of all, what’s this about your being a Herald of Andraste? You leave for a couple months and suddenly the world has gone insane. Secondly, and more importantly, remember that little conversation we had before you left about how you wouldn’t run off and join a religion organization? Oh yeah, we didn’t have that, because that’s insane . I hope you’re doing well. Blink twice if you’re being held captive by a religious cult. But seriously…are you alright? The keeper was worried by your absence, but she gave her usual vague ‘this is all part of the plan’ spiel when we heard you were this Herald person. Have you suddenly converted? Alternatively, did you change your name to Harold, and we just misunderstood the missive? 

            In all seriousness, I am relieved to hear you are alright, Sul. We were all so worried when we heard what happened to the temple you were sent to alone. I asked Keeper Deshanna to travel to Haven to be there for you, but she has forbidden anyone else from leaving the clan, for fear that we may not return. Please be careful, lethallin, and please write to us when you receive these letters. It will put our minds at ease to know you are safe and unharmed.

            Dareth shiral, lethallin.

            Assan

            I turn my head, swiping my fingers quickly under my eyes as I fold the scrolls back up. The others notice and politely look away, finding fascinating locations on the map to study. A lump forms in my throat, and I do my best to clear it.

            “What would you like us to do about this?” Leliana wonders. "I imagine they ask after your safety."

            I sniff and turn around, eyeing the map. “Would it be possible to send a few supplies as well as two letters from me? I’ll write them personally, so my keeper knows I’m well. I don’t want them to worry.”

            “Of course,” Leliana nods, offering a kind smile when I glance at her. “I’ll have my agents approach them with care. Bring me the letters when they’re ready, and I’ll send them off at once.”

            “Thank you, Leliana.”

            “Now, what about the clerics?” Cassandra wonders.

            I wipe my nose quickly, tucking the letters into the back of my belt securely.

            “I have been thinking about this at great length since we received Scout Harding’s report,” Josephine murmurs, leaning forward. “Having the Herald address the clerics alone is…not a terrible idea.”

            Cullen turns on her. “You can’t be serious,” he scoffs. “Without an honor guard—”

            “Mother Giselle isn’t wrong,” Josephine replies hotly. “At the moment, the Chantry’s only strength is that they are united in opinion. If we send a group of soldiers marching into the capital, it would be viewed as a declaration of war, an unnecessary demonstration of strength. No, she must go alone.”

            “And we should just ignore the danger to the Herald?” Leliana returns.

            “Let’s ask her.”

            I make a face. “Well, I must say, I am in favor of not being stoned to death. Cassandra? How do you feel about a stoning?”

            She ignores me, to her credit.

            “And I’m more concerned this won’t actually solve any problems,” I add, returning to Josephine.

            Cullen nods. “I agree. It just lends credence to the idea that we should care what the Chantry says.”

            “I will go with her,” Cassandra says, looking at Leliana. “Mother Giselle said she could provide us names? Use them.”

            “But why?” Leliana argues. “This is nothing but a—”

            “What choice do we have, Leliana? Right now, we can’t approach anyone for help with the Breach. Use what influence we have to call the clerics together. Once they are ready, we will see this through.”

            “Very well,” Leliana sighs. “Be careful, Herald.”

            I wince. “Okay, first off, thank you, but I will pay you—all of you, right now—if you never call me that again. Please.”

            Cullen smirks. Even Leliana appears amused. Cassandra and Josephine glare and frown at me, respectively.

            “We need a way to identify you,” Josephine says.

            “Fair but find something else—anything else.”

            “We leave tomorrow morning,” Cassandra tells me gruffly.

            “Excellent,” I sigh. “I love traveling.”

            She surprises me with an amused look.  “Don’t be late.”

            “Would you leave without me?” I wonder.

            Her brief humor fades. “Go so we can plan.”

            I scoff playfully. “Hear how she talks to me?” I mutter to Cullen.

            He smirks at me, and I hold my hands up defensively when Cassandra turns on me.

            “Alright, alright, before you have me removed, I get it, I get it,” I murmur. “If anyone needs my expertise in matters of the—alright! I’m going!”

***

After dinner, I sit on the snowy bank near the frozen lake. It’s freezing, of course, but the sky is clear, and I wanted to appreciate it without all the campfires blotting out the view. Countless stars shine through the darkness, and I hug my knees to my chest, trying to remember all the constellations. I quickly realize I only know two, but I make do with finding the other patterns, tracing them lightly. Snow drifts down in gentle waves, coating my hair and clothes. My breath fogs in the air, and I raise my right hand to my face, covering my mouth and nose when the latter begins to sting from the freezing temperature. The moon reflects off the glass of the lake, casting everything in a cool glow. I glance up at the Breach—tamed but not closed. I honestly worry what closing it will take, but there aren't a lot of options. Close it or everyone dies, so...

            Footsteps coming up the path alert me to someone’s approach, but they’re light and careful, as if to not disturb me.

            He doesn’t say anything at first. He merely sits beside me quietly, folding his hands in his lap. My heart sinks. If it were good news, he would have told me immediately.

            “It is a beautiful night,” Solas offers, admiring the stars.

            “Very,” I agree softly.

            Solas looks down and then over at me. I drop my hand, hugging my legs. I face him, staring at the wolf jawbone necklace he wears, unable to meet his eyes just yet. “I searched the Fade and spoke with many spirits in the hopes of finding an answer. I…cannot fix your magic at present, but I may be able to help with the pain. And…I had a thought.” I look up at him. His eyes are on mine already. “Closing the Breach is, of course, our primary goal, but if we can discover what was used to create it…” He glances away and then at me again. “Perhaps I can understand how to…remove the mark from you.”

            “Wouldn’t it be dangerous?” I ask. “Whatever it is?”

            He nods. “Any artifact of such power would be. The destruction of the Conclave proved that much.”

            “You don’t think it was destroyed in the blast?”

            “You survived, did you not?” he smiles softly.

            “Well, that’s true, but I’m special.”

            Solas chuckles quietly, and I find myself reveling in the small victory. It isn't long, however, before he grows serious again. “The artifact that created the Breach is unlike anything seen in this age. I will not believe it destroyed until I see the shattered fragments with my own eyes.”

            I realize how important this seems to be to him, and I straighten a little. “Then we’ll find it,” I promise.

            “Leliana’s people have scoured the area near the blast and found nothing. Whatever the artifact was, it is no longer there.”

            “Have you ever seen anything like it?” I wonder.

            He shakes his head, seemingly automatically. “No, as I said, this age has never—”

            “No,” I interrupt softly, “I mean have you ever seen anything like it?”

            He hesitates.

            “In the Fade?”

            “I…have seen many things in the Fade, but I cannot recall anything of this magnitude, no.”

            “Too bad,” I sigh. “At least then we’d know what to look for.”

            “I imagine we will know it on sight. Something of that power would not appear as an ordinary object. At any rate—” He angles his body towards mine, turning to face me. “I mentioned I had something to ease your suffering.”

            “You don’t have to—”

            “Please.”

            He offers his hands, waiting patiently, his eyes boring into mine. I sigh quietly and remove my glove tenderly, placing my hand in both of his. He moves a little closer, his fingers closing around mine gently, as if he’s afraid of hurting me more. He closes his eyes briefly and then breathes out slowly. I feel his magic hum in the air as he focuses his attention on my hand again. He whispers a quiet incantation, the string of words long and complicated under his breath. The words sound vaguely familiar, the rhythm of it singing in the air, but I can’t place them. They're unlike any spell I've ever heard. His fingers grow warm, glowing with a soft, beautiful blue energy.

            I close my eyes when I feel the slow pull of the ache ebb. It fades gradually, warmth replacing the wild heat. Solas’ magic traces along my fingers and deeper, lacing across my bones, exchanging pain with a numbness that settles over my wrist, calming and quieting. I release a strangled breath I didn’t realize I was holding as the magic takes effect. It feels so wonderful, so much better, that tears flood my eyes—to my embarrassment. I try to will them back, but they drip down my cheeks in two even, ice-cold rivers. I open my eyes again, watching Solas’ fingers on mine, and a heavy relief washes over me that he's capable of stopping this pain. The faint blue glow around our hands is ethereal, and I realize with startling clarity that I've never seen anything like it.

            Solas’ words fade away as he ends the spell, and the blue glow lingers for a moment around our hands before slowly disappearing. He looks up at me, and I realize his eyes suddenly look ancient, ages old with their wisdom. Beyond that, I see a flicker of a deep sadness that I only now understand how to read.

            I realize I’ve tightened my fingers along his, and I loosen them. Slowly, he pulls his hands back, his skin tingling against mine as it leaves. I stare down at my hand, pressing my fingertips to my thumb.

            “Is that better?” he asks softly.

            I close my eyes briefly and nod, smiling. “How did you do that?” I breathe.

            “I have learned a great deal in the Fade,” he murmurs.

            I smirk and laugh, opening my eyes to look at him again. “You know, that’s going to get old.”

            He gives me a questioning look.

            “Your impossibly vague answers,” I elaborate. He gives me a small smirk. “One day, you will trust me with the answer,” I add playfully.

            He looks down. His smile is unchanged, but there’s a shift in his expression that changes its meaning. I frown softly.

            “Thank you,” I say quickly when I realize I didn’t. “So much. This is…” I breathe out. “Wonderful.”

            “It will not help permanently,” he warns quietly, “but it should last for a few days at least. When it wears off, come find me, and I will set the spell again.”

            Gratitude overwhelms me. So naturally, I have to make a joke. “Any side effects? My hand falling off? Skin turning into scales?”

            He chuckles unexpectedly, a smile breaking across his face in an instant. I watch it, my own spreading in response. “No,” he replies softly. “The spell is, to put it simply, interrupting the connection with your nerves to block that specific pain. You will still feel heat and cold and the pinch if you cut your finger, but the ache of…whatever magic is at hand is, temporarily, blocked.”     

            “Thank you,” I repeat, my voice barely a whisper. “You didn’t have to find this. I appreciate your eff…efforts…” I frown. “That…sounded way less idiotic in my head.”

            He offers another small chuckle. He looks at me, his eyes capturing mine. I blink slowly, aware of how fast my heart has begun to beat. Some irrational part of me fears he can hear it, but I know, logically, that he can’t. He smiles softly again and then rises slowly. He offers his hand, looking down at me almost with amusement.

            “I imagine we should get some rest,” he murmurs. “We have a journey ahead of us tomorrow.”

            I accept his hand, and he pulls me up gently. “Cassandra told you about that, then?”

            “She is rather proactive.”

            I laugh, the sound bursting out of me, surprising me. “That is the perfect word for her. Not one to sit around.”

            Solas returns my laugh softly, and I listen to it with an idiotic smile. As we walk, I realize his hand is still wrapped around mine. He notices at the same time.

            “I apologize,” he murmurs, loosening his fingers.

            I tighten my grip, keeping his hand in mine. “For warmth, of course,” I add when he glances at me, earning his smirk. “Wouldn’t want to get frostbite so close to Haven. That would be embarrassing.”

            Solas chuckles again quietly, and something about the way he does it makes me think he doesn’t do it very often. “You are…very different from what I expected," he says, the words sounding like an admission.

            “What did you expect?” I wonder.

            He just shakes his head silently, looking down.

            We reach the gates of Haven, and I glance at Solas. “Guess this is where we embrace the possibility of frostbite,” I sigh.

            Solas’ eyes find mine, his expression disarmingly tender. “Good night, lethallin.”

            “Good night…hahren,” I tease with a grin.

            He laughs at my formal title in comparison with his familiar one, pulling the gate open. I step through it, smiling at him as he closes it again. I pull my glove back on slowly, walking to my cabin near the entrance. I glance back as I step inside, smiling at Solas’ back as he walks around a corner and disappears.

Chapter Text

“All I’m saying, Snow, is you’re Dalish,” Varric complains. “You’re used to walking long distances.”

            “Varric!” I scoff, swatting his shoulder.

            “Me,” he continues, “I’m a dwarf. We dwarves, if we’re not fighters, live sedentary lives. I’m a businessman. I thought my days of trekking all across Thedas were behind me.”

            “You sound like an eighty-year-old man.”

            “I feel like an eighty-year-old man today, Snow.”

            “Perhaps you should have been sleeping and not drinking last night,” Cassandra offers from ahead.

            I laugh, because I didn’t think she was listening. “She has a point,” I say defensively when Varric elbows me.

            “Seeker, I’m sure you’ve never been offered a drink in your life, but when you are, you don’t just say no. That’s rude, in tavern law.”

            “I never took you for a drunk,” she replies tersely.

            “I’m a dwarf, Seeker. It’s genetic.”

            I snort. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

            “Yes, the chest hair is natural.”

            “Thank you. It was bothering me.”

            Varric smirks. “What’s up, Snow?”

            I sigh, kicking a rock out of the road. “Really sticking with that one, huh?”

            “It’s the most fitting one I’ve come across. You got any better suggestions? Does anybody?”

            “You know, I’m not a snowflake,” I complain. “Look at my skin,” I add, shoving my arm at him.

            “Yeah, yeah, you’re dark, but your hair is too white to be ignored. Hence, Snow. Plus, your vallaslin ink is white, so—” He waves a hand. “—Snow, what was it you wanted to know?”

            “I’ve read your Tale of the Champion,” I muse, enjoying his quiet scoff. “I was wondering about a few things.”

            “That’s a pretty common reaction,” he admits. “Which parts were doubtful? Was it the dragon lady? Because that really happened, I swear.”

            I laugh louder than I mean to, the sound echoing through the trees. “Okay…hm…never really thought I’d get the chance to talk to the Varric Tethras—”

            “Also a common reaction.”

            I grin lopsidedly at him. “What happened to the mage who destroyed the Chantry? You never said.”

            “Ah,” he nods, growing serious. “I didn’t want to put Hawke out.”

            “Why? What happened?”

            “She…killed him.”

            “Oh,” I say, blinking.

            “It was a—hard decision for her. They were friends, but…You have to understand, it was a betrayal to her, to everything she’d tried to prevent. She’d risked life and limb to help with the mage conflict, and him doing that behind her back, after everything she did to help him…starting such a violet war in the streets…” Varric shakes his head, looking away. 

            “I’m—sorry that happened to her. You wrote her so…lighthearted.”

            “She’s a lighthearted woman. I didn’t want to include that in the book, because it was…” He sighs. “I just didn’t want to hurt her,” he mumbles. “She’s been through enough.”

            I glance down at him, chewing my cheek.

            “Anything else?” he asks after a moment. “Surely that’s not your only question.”

            “Well…the fight between Hawke and the Arishok.”

            “Oh boy.”

            “There’s no way she really could have killed him, right? It would have started a war with the Qunari.”

            Varric nods in agreement. “I was told later that the Qunari disavowed his actions. Apparently the Arishok didn’t get permission before he attacked Kirkwall, and the Qun didn’t want another Exalted March. When they finally sent a ship to haul the wrecked dreadnought away, they just said, ‘we will never speak of this again.’”

            “Seriously?” I laugh, mostly at his deep-voiced impersonation.

            “Absolutely. Have you ever met a Qunari? They’re so broody and serious. As far as I can tell, that’s the Qun’s version of an apology.”

            “What happened to the others? Fenris, Aveline, Merrill, and Isabela?”

            “Merrill decided to look after the elves left homeless by the fighting. She’s done a pretty good job of keeping them away from the mages and templars so far. I guess she had plenty of practice avoiding stupid human battles with her old Dalish clan. Fenris has kept himself pretty busy. Last I heard, he and Hawke were hunting down the Tevinter slavers who came south to prey on the refugees. I’m not sure exactly where they are at the moment. You can usually follow the trail of corpses, though.”

            “Then they’re still together?”

            “Oh yeah. Inseparable. It's not as cute as it sounds." I snort, rolling my eyes at him. "Seriously, I've never seen anyone brood more. It's like it's his profession or something. As for the others...Isabela went back to the Raiders. She’s calling herself an admiral now. I don’t know if she’s actually in charge or just has a really big hat. Might actually be the same thing, honestly.” I laugh again. “Sebastian—not surprised you forgot about him—he went back to Starkhaven,” he adds with a long sigh. “I’m sure he’s boring all sorts of people there.”

            I laugh loudly. “Wow, you really don’t like him.”

            Varric snorts. “Sanctimonious braggart,” he mumbles. “Aveline’s still guard-captain. I’m pretty sure Kirkwall would fall into the sea if she quit her job. Is that—did I get everyone?”

            “What about Hawke's sister?”

            “Oh,” Varric says, looking down. “She, uh…she died.”

            “What?” I murmur, shocked.

            “I didn’t put that in the book, either…Hawke was…” He shakes his head. “It was when we went into the Deep Roads with my bastard brother…She, uh…” He sighs heavily. “She got the Blight.”

            “Mythal,” I breathe. “That’s terrible…”

            “Yeah…”

            I shake my head. “Everything she’s been through…How can she still be so…?”

            “I don’t know,” he sighs, shaking his head again as he watches the ground. “I honestly don’t. People have broken from a whole lot less.” Silence follows his words for a long moment before he clears his throat. “Anyway, did you want to know anything else?”

            I struggle to think of something, certain he wants to move on. “Are you originally from the Free Marches?”

            “Yep. Born and raised in Kirkwall. And despite whatever you’ve heard, no, Kirkwall’s not that bad.”

            “Civil war and Qunari invasion aside.”

            He allows a wry smile. “Yes, civil war and Qunari invasion aside.”

            “And you said you were a merchant?”

            “A businessman,” he corrects softly. “My family has a seat in the Dwarven Merchants Guild.”

            “What’s the difference?”

            “To oversimplify it, merchants buy and sell goods; businessmen buy and sell stores.”

            “Ahh.”

            “In my spare time, I manage a spy network and occasionally, I write books.”

            “Wait, you manage a spy network? Why aren’t you our spymaster?”

            “To be honest with you, Leliana’s just a better spymaster,” he says with a shrug. “The truly great ones can keep their distance. They don’t get attached to their people. Me? I always wind up babysitting my informants and worrying about their families. Trust me, we’re in better hands with her.”

            “What kind of books do you write?”

            He laughs.

            “Did you like that segue?”

            “It was very smooth. I’ll have to remember it for my next book,” he chuckles. “I’ve tried my hand at a few genres. My crime serials are my most popular. Hard in Hightown. Guards breaking rules to get things done. The Tale of the Champion is the most famous thing I’ve written. Or…infamous, maybe.” I chuckle at that. “I started a romance serial once. Swords & Shields. But to be honest, I don’t have a knack for romances. Most of my stories end in tragedy. Probably says something unfortunate about me personally.”

            “Hmm,” I muse, grinning at him. “I think I’ll have to read these books of yours.”

            “Andraste’s ass, don’t bother,” he laughs. “I can pretty much summarize all their plots in one sentence. The hero—”

            “Hold,” Cassandra suddenly says, stopping. She turns her head to the side, listening closely. Varric and I catch up quietly. “This way!” she exclaims, loping off the road and into the trees.

            “And here I thought we were just going to have a peaceful journey,” Varric sighs, pulling his crossbow off his back.

            I grip my staff and follow Cassandra down the bank. I can hear it as we get closer. Moreover, I can feel it. Magic pulls at my hand, nipping at and under my skin, tingling and burning. I gasp, feeling the spell Solas so carefully placed overpowered in an instant. I suppose it was too much to hope it would work in the presence of a rift.

            We break through the trees to a clearing off the main road. A child and his mother are screaming as they press against a tree, desperate to escape the demons.

            “Herald!” Cassandra shouts, rushing over to them. “Seal it! We will cover you!”

            I tear my glove off, charging close enough to connect with the rift. I plant my feet and thrust my left hand out, ignoring the demons around me—perhaps foolishly. One darts across the field as soon as my hand connects to the tear in the Veil, but I can’t break away now. I raise my staff to shield myself, but before I can, the demon crashes against a glimmering wall.         

            I glance behind me to find Solas holding the barrier up.

            “Thanks!” I gasp, turning back to the rift.

            I grit my teeth, hearing the others fight. Solas manages to maintain the barrier, but I hear the soft sound of his magic as he casts other spells.

            “Quickly, Herald! More are coming through!” Cassandra shouts.

            “I’m trying!”

            “Now, Herald!”

            Tears flood my eyes, and I step forward, feeling the magic rip across my wrist. For a moment, I fear I must be doing it wrong, because it hurts so much more than before. I grunt through my teeth, clenching my fist as it burns and aches. The magical energy around me crackles and flares in the air like lava, spewing out ferociously, embers disappearing before they hit the ground. I tighten my fist again, gripping my staff fiercely in my other hand. The rift groans in protest, its rejection to me whining out shrilly as its volume increases higher and higher until it finally breaks off. A brief cry escapes me before I can stop it, but the sounds of the battle fortunately cover it. The rift yanks me forward several feet as it closes, and then I'm free. I bring my hand to my chest, cradling it as I gasp for air. Tears spill down my cheeks, and I turn away from the others, groaning.

            Solas appears beside me, wordlessly taking my hand. His fingers are gentle against mine as he searches my eyes. I look away, feeling weak from my reaction to the pain. Our hands glow a soft blue, his words low and soft. I drop my staff, moving my hand across my cheeks, hoping my tears have gone unnoticed.    

            “Are you injured?” Cassandra calls, and I realize the fighting is over.

            “Just a little,” I half-lie. “It’s alright now. Get them to safety,” I add, nodding at the mother and child.

            “Thank you!” the woman cries. “Thank you so much! You saved us!”

            I smile with difficulty and wave at her. Varric and Cassandra escort the family away, and I sag when the pain begins to ebb gradually.

            “Thank you, Solas,” I gasp, gripping his wrist with my right hand before I realize it.

            He nods once, continuing the incantation without hesitation. His words move more swiftly than last night, and before long, my hand is numbed again.

            I breathe out a sigh of relief, and Solas releases me. I pull my glove back on securely, relieved. He gives me a solemn look, but it somehow looks more like an apology than sympathy or pity.

            “It’s okay,” I tell him. “Thank you…so much. I’m sorry you had to do it again so soon.”

            “Don’t be sorry,” he replies quietly. "It's...no trouble. Do not hesitate to come to me if you are in pain."

            “Well done,” Cassandra says, breathless as she and Varric jog back to us. “You are getting very good at that.”

            “Why thank you,” I murmur, trying to sound lighthearted. “Shall we continue?”

            “Yes,” she replies, leading us back to the road.

            Cassandra turns to talk to Varric—or argue with him, I’m not sure. Solas walks beside me quietly. I keep my left hand held against my stomach, angling it close to me as I watch the road beneath Cassandra’s feet, lost in thought.

***

“They certainly spared no expense,” I mumble, looking up and around. Gold adorns the edges of the bridge to the lavish city of Val Royeaux. Twin gates stand open ahead of us, revealing an ornately decorated entrance. The marble-engraved stone under my feet must have cost more sovereigns than my clan saw in a year. Or maybe a decade.

            “The sparkling capital of Orlais,” Varric replies, equally sardonic.

            “Do you think they have enough statues?” I wonder, looking up at the dozens lining the bridge, each with their own plaque identifying their significance. They raise up taller than the aravels back home, their massive stone figures dwarfing us as we pass under them. “I think there should be more statues here.”

            Varric chuckles, and Cassandra shoots us a deadly warning glance. “The city still mourns.”

            I nod. “Sorry.”

            “Sorry, Seeker,” Varric says at the same time. “Best behavior, kids.”

            I snicker, and Cassandra shakes her head, her shoulders tense as we draw nearer to the chiming bells of the Chantry. They echo louder with each step, bouncing off the smooth stone of the buildings we pass. I look up at the walls of the alley, marveling a little at the architecture and stonework. Even with all my sarcasm and dismissal, I can't deny the masterful hands that built this place. It must have taken decades. We pass by a man and woman, both dramatically adorned in a variety of silks and ribbons and starkly contrasting colors that make my eyes hurt. When they see us, the woman gasps very audibly and scurries closer to her male companion.

            “Hm,” Varric muses, “just a guess, Seeker, but I think they all know who we are.”

            Cassandra sighs heavily. “Your skills of observation never fail to impress me, Varric.”

            “Just call it like I see it,” he says modestly, earning a chuckle from me and an intense eye roll from Cassandra.

            A woman in an Inquisition scout uniform jogs up to us from what appears to be a marketplace, stopping us in our path. Her eyes find mine, and she drops to one knee. “My lady Herald!” she gasps in awe, bowing her head at me. I step back, smiling politely as I give Varric an eyes-screaming look. He grins in response, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “You’re one of Leliana’s people,” Cassandra says when I fail to respond. “What have you found?”

            “The Chantry mothers await you in the market, but so do a great many templars.”

            “Wonderful,” I groan. “Just two elven apostates strolling through; nothing to see here, people.”

            “You are the Herald of Andraste. You will not be harmed,” Cassandra promises.

            “Pretty sure that’s exactly the problem, but I appreciate the sentiment,” I sigh.

            The agent looks between us. “People seem to think the templars will protect them from…from the Inquisition,” she adds regrettably. “They’re gathering on the other side of the market. I think that’s where the templars intend to meet you.”

            “Meet, aka capture,” I mutter.

            “Herald,” Cassandra warns.

            “Sorry.”

            “Only one thing to do then,” she says boldly, marching forward.

            I stare after her and then jog to catch up, grabbing her arm and pulling her to another stop. “You see, Cassandra, you-you say that, but i-it isn’t your freedom or your head they’re after. Can—come on, can we maybe just think about this for a second?”

            “There is nothing to think about. We did not walk all the way here to turn around at the gates empty-handed.”

            “This is obviously a setup. You and Cullen keep saying, ‘oh, all they’ve got is words,’ but no, no—because, you see, they’ve got templars. And templars—they-they nullify and they capture and they imprison, so—”

            “You will not be captured or nullified.”

            “You say that, but—”

            “I will not allow it.”

            “Okay, but—”

            “Herald, do you trust me?”

            I sigh and look up at her as she gazes at me levelly. I see the raw determination in her eyes, her refusal to surrender, despite the odds stacked against her. “Yes,” I realize with a heavy, irritable sigh. “Fen’Harel take me…Yes…damn it. I do.”

            Cassandra looks pleased. “Then let us be on our way. Agent, return to Haven. Someone will need to inform them if we are…delayed.”

            I gape at her.

            “As you say, my lady,” the agent replies, moving back down the bridge.

            “Why would you say it like that?” I groan.

            “Come. It is not fair.”

            “Wait, wait,” I say quickly, pulling her back a second time. I turn to Solas. “You don’t have to come in.”

            He looks at me evenly, his expression grateful but determined. “I’m alright.”

            “Really,” I say. “This is…I’m scared of this nonsense. You don’t have to come in. In fact, I insist you wait here.”

            “Thank you, Suledin,” he murmurs, “but I will be fine.”

            “Are you certain?”

            He gives me an almost amused look, but his eyes are soft. “Yes, though I do appreciate the thought.”

            I sigh, nodding. “Alright. Cassandra?”

            “This way,” she says, marching forward again.

            “Varric,” I mutter, “when you write about my hilarious death here in a few moments, can you leave out the part about me screaming all those curse words?”

            Varric grins, patting my back. “Sure thing, Snow.”

            “Thanks.”

            We enter the marketplace, and I look up and around, unable to not be impressed with the first official city I’ve entered. Blue walls raise high above us, regal and elegant. Magnificent arches loop between buildings and into shops where dozens of people, ornately clad themselves, pick through various items and discuss with shopkeepers. Above, us, thick, red spires of cloth adorn the walls of the circular market, twirling elegantly across the open roof to tie around the guard tower in the center. I initially wonder at their purpose, apart from purely aesthetic, until I realize that they block out large patches of the sun, keeping the market cool and comfortable. 

            I gape as I look around, walking into Varric. He chuckles, righting me as I continue to unabashedly ogle.

            Which is about the time I hear the grumbling, unhappy crowd.

            I drop my eyes to it and then sigh. Hundreds of people have gathered here, angrily thrashing their hands in the air either in argument or agreement to whatever was just said—I can't tell which. My eyes widen at their number, shocked at so many people all talking at once. How does anyone manage to think around here? Or get out a single sentence before a dozen more cut them off?

            Erected above them at the front of the crowd is a stage upon which several mothers stand. Their sunburst robes of white and red cloth brush against the wooden platform, their cowls hiding all but their faces. They implore the crowd, nodding in unison to something we missed. One of the mothers raises her hand, trying to silence the crowd. My heart begins to hammer in my chest when I realize this has all the makings of a potential riot if we're not careful.

            As usual, Cassandra is less impressed. She boldly leads us straight to it, pushing through the crowd to reach the front. I follow on her heels, resisting the childish urge to grip her arm for support.

            “Good people of Val Royeaux,” the forefront mother calls when she sees our approach. “Hear me! Together, we mourn our Divine. Her naïve and beautiful heart—silenced by treachery!”

            “Well, I don’t like where this is going,” I mutter.

            “You wonder what will become of her murderer?” the mother continues, glaring down at me.

            “Here it comes,” I sigh.

            “Well, wonder no more!” She throws a hand at me, and I roll my eyes without meaning to. “Behold the so-called ‘Herald of Andraste!’ Claiming to rise where our beloved fell. We say, this is a false prophet! The Maker would send no elf in our hour of need!”

            Rage bursts through me like a lit match at the disdainful way she says the word, like it's a curse. It takes all my willpower, but I hold my tongue, waiting a second to speak before I react emotionally and not logically. I force myself to remember our purpose here, difficult as it is. “You say I am the enemy,” I call loudly, allowing myself to be heard throughout the crowd. “The Breach in the sky is our true enemy! We must unite to stop it, or else we all will perish!”

            “It’s true!” Cassandra says, standing beside me. “The Inquisition seeks only to end this madness before it is too late!”

            Movement catches my eye to the right, and I glance over to see a group of templars march up the stairs to the stage. There are dozens of them. Their shields rest on their backs, and my eyes catch on the blazing sword of the Order, the emblem etched into their armor like a threat or a promise. My heart hammers, and I itch to back up, but I remain where I stand.

            “It is already too late!” the mother cries in response to Cassandra, gesturing to the guards at her side. “The templars have returned to the Chantry! They will face this Inquisition, and the people will be safe once more!”

            Templars march ahead of the mothers, dominating the stage. One of them pulls his hand back and slaps the leading mother harshly across the face, knocking her out of the way. She falls to her knees in a heap, crying as she holds her cheek. Her sisters fall beside her, wrapping their arms around her shoulders as they stare at the templars in shock. My anger finds a new target, rage boiling my blood. The crowd gasps, and I glare at the so-called faith militant.

            “How dare you?” I demand heatedly.

            The man in charge merely glances at me before moving off the other end of the stage, apparently disinterested in anything but abuse.

            “Lord Seeker Lucius,” Cassandra calls, moving through the crowd with him. I follow her angrily. “It’s imperative that we speak with—”

            “You will not address me,” the man says coldly, not even looking at her.

            “Lord Seeker?” she replies, shocked.

            “Creating a heretical movement, raising up a puppet as Andraste’s prophet. You should be ashamed. You should all be ashamed! The templars failed no one when they left the Chantry to purge the mages. You are the ones who have failed. You who’d unleash our righteous swords with doubt and fear! If you came to appeal to the Chantry, you are too late. The only destiny here that demands respect is mine.”

            I clench my jaw in the following silence, my anger bursting from me unchecked. "If you’re not here to help, then you just came to make speeches and to abuse Chantry mothers?”

            “I came to see what frightens those old women so much and to laugh.”

            A young templar steps forward, his eyes tight with conflict. “But…Lord Seeker…what if she really was sent by the Maker? What if—”

            The Lord Seeker silences him with a look. A cleric-looking man, the same who hit the mother, approaches the templar with his own cold gaze. “You are called to a higher purpose. Do not question.”

            “I will make the Templar Order a power that stands alone against the Void,” the Lord Seeker pronounces. “We deserve recognition—independence! You have shown me nothing, and the Inquisition, less than nothing. Templars! Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection. We march!”

            I watch them turn on their heels and file out of the marketplace in two parallel lines. The crowd behind me gasps in dismay, some openly weeping at the turn of events. Others grumble to each other in shock.

            “Charming fellow, isn’t it?” Varric mutters.

            “We should invite the lot of them over for tea,” I agree, my tone too bitter to be sarcastic.

            Cassandra looks lost. “Has Lord Seeker Lucius gone mad?” 

            “Take you know him?” I mumble. 

            “He took over the Seekers of Truth two years ago, after Lord Seeker Lambert’s death. He was always a decent man, never given to ambition and grandstanding. This is...very bizarre,” she says, staring after the templars. Her eyes look confused, but I see an undeniable glint of disappointment.

            “Well," I sigh, “guess we won’t count on the templars' support after all. Such a shame.”

            “I wouldn’t write them off so quickly. There must be those in the Order who see what he’s become. Either way, we should first return to Haven and inform the others.”

            I glance back at the platform to see the mother still on the ground. Her expression is shocked as tears roll down her cheeks. One of those cheeks flames red, a thick brand arcing across her skin from the ring the man must have been wearing. Another roll of anger bursts through me, and I approach her slowly as the crowd disperses. “Are you alright?” I ask quietly.

            “This victory must please you greatly,” she mutters.

            “Quite the contrary,” I reply. “For what little it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

            She looks up at me. “Just…tell me one thing. Do you…truly believe you are the Maker’s chosen?”

            “No,” I answer. “I’ve never claimed to be. I seek only to close the Breach.”

            “That is…more comforting than you might imagine,” she replies.

            “Do you need any help?”

            “No, but…if your goals are truly so honorable…” The mother glances at me, her eyes solemn and lost. “Then…I pray for your success. Clearly, we cannot rely on our templars to protect us any longer. If the Inquisition is truly better, then…I pray for you and...wish you luck. I suspect you will need it.”

Chapter Text

I lead the way back through the Orlesian market, eager to be free from the city. I'm relieved that the templars decided I was unworthy of pursuing, but I still don’t fancy hanging around anymore.

            “So, how’s city life treated you so far?” Varric muses as we walk, the sarcasm thick in his tone.

            I smirk. “I've come to the realization that I did not, in fact, miss anything after all, so that’s good.”

            “Ah, we’ll have to get you to Kirkwall sometime. That’s a proper city. Just stay out of Darktown. And keep an eye on your coin purse in Hightown. And don’t talk to anyone under twenty or over forty in Lowtown.”

            “Ringing endorsement,” I muse. "They should hire your for guided tours."

            “I’m good like that.”

            Cassandra suddenly grabs my arm and wrenches me back several steps, her gauntleted fingers hard enough on my skin to bruise. I think she’s mad at me until I hear and see a thin arrow plunge into a flower bed a foot from where I was standing.

            “How did you see that?” I gape at her, disregarding the potential danger. “You’re like a hawk. Also, thank you. Also, were they trying to kill me? Because they…very much missed.”

            “There’s a letter attached to it,” Cassandra mutters, eyeing the balconies above.

            “Hm.” I reach forward, and Cassandra stops me again.

            “It could be a trap," she warns, her other hand resting on her sword pommel. 

            “If they wanted to kill me, they wouldn’t have missed.”

            "That or they're terrible assassins," Varric offers lazily. 

            "Guess we know the Crows aren't involved," I chuckle darkly, gesturing to him. 

            Cassandra grimaces at our cavalier attitudes but releases my arm. I bend down to take the letter.

            “What does it say?” she asks before I’ve even unrolled it.

            I smirk at her and hold it up. “Okay, uh…It says, ‘People say you’re special. I want to help, and I can bring everyone. There’s a baddie in Val Royeaux. I hear he wanted to hurt you.’ Lovely. ‘Have a search for the red things in the market, the docks, and ‘round the café, and maybe you’ll meet him first. Bring swords.’ Signed, ‘Friends of Red Jenny.’ Well…that’s exciting. I also feel it bears mentioning that the writer doodled all over the page, and this is…” I squint, turning the page left and right. “I think a…loose drawing of the market? Not sure why there’s a...rather well-endowed dragon sitting in the center, but…yeah, pretty sure this is the market.”

            “If there is someone after us, we should find him,” Cassandra says.

            “Friends of Red Jenny,” Varric repeats thoughtfully.

            “Does that mean something to you?” I wonder, folding the letter back up and pocketing it. 

            “Sure," he nods. "They’re a diverse group. They can be anything you need them to be. Mostly, they’re unseen, but they do get things done—if in an unorthodox…sometimes disorganized way. They're no spy network, but, in my experience, their information is pretty solid. Might be worth checking out.”

            “We have no time for their machinations,” Solas disagrees lightly. “We must return to Haven at once and determine our next course of action.”

            I sigh heavily in agreement. “We are short on time. Are they really that useful?” I wonder, directing the question at Varric.

            He shrugs. “I wouldn’t turn my nose up at them.”

            I consider briefly and then sigh again. “Alright. Maybe we should...see where this goes, while we're here. Should we split up to find these...red things?”

            “No,” Cassandra answers immediately.

            “It would go faster if—”

            “No.”

            “Alrighty then. Guess we’re Team Inquisition on this one. To the…docks.”

            It all takes a great deal more time than I had hoped. At the docks, we find something hidden rather skillfully hidden behind a set of crates, unnoticeable if you’re not looking for it—and even then, it was pretty hard to find. The red handkerchief is tied securely around a key with a small, hastily written message scrawled in a different handwriting than the arrow's note: Key lifted from drunk swearing about Herald. Don’t know what door. I’m out, my debt is paid.

            After that inexplicable hint, we move on to the balcony overlooking the market. I spend entirely too much time searching the much too obvious red spires until Varric spots a hidden red sock near a plant box by a window. Stuffed inside is an incomplete document that reads, “…and we are to obey well. We meet at three bells to discuss how best to serve the new way.” Below that is another note written in a third messy handwriting: Herald go time. Praise Adrast.

            We visit three cafés, annoying the patrons and staff alike as we search through rows of tables and leave without even the guise of ordering drinks. In the last one we check, we find another red handkerchief with a stable report stuffed into it. Parts of it are lined in red, marking them significant: Thank you Friends for helping good Lady Keris. Saw those who asked about Herald enter third passage. Could not stay to see them exit.

            “Alright,” I mutter, sitting heavily on a bench. “Can anyone make sense of this? Spymaster Tethras?”

            He smirks. “Yeah, let me see the notes. This one stuck out to me, the one that says Praise Adrast. I thought they’d just misspelled Andraste at first, but here…let me see your map.” I search in my satchel for it and then bring it out, laying it flat beside me on the bench. “Here,” he continues, pointing to a part of the map in the neighborhood district of Val Royeaux. “There’s a chateau inside the city—Adrast’s chateau.”

            I make a pleased face at Varric. “Ooh, okay. This is fun!”

            He smirks at me crookedly. “So, three bells means three in the morning, obviously, and this must be the key to get you inside.”

            “Ooh, Spymaster. Very impressive. You're being promoted.”

            Cassandra sighs and rolls her eyes.

            “So…” I add, glancing up at her and Solas awkwardly. “Guess we’re…staying the night?” I grin widely, nudging the Seeker, who appears less than pleased. “It’ll the fun. Eh? Ehh? Ehh?”

            “Herald,” she sighs, exasperated.

            “Besides, it's late-ish. We don't want to start our travel back at night, right? That would just be...miserable. Did anyone happen to see an inn?” I wonder. “I was not, admittedly, paying that much attention.”

            “There’s one back in the main marketplace,” Varric answers, rolling my map back up for me.

            “That’s convenient. And…some place to eat?”

            He chuckles. “Also in the marketplace.”

            “Kind of them.”

            “This may be a waste of time,” Cassandra says, her tone still exasperated.

            “Well, it’s late now anyway,” I point out again. “We get on the road, we’ll only be walking a mile or so before we have to set camp anyway, so we might as well sleep here and get an early start in the morning, right?”

            “Fine,” she sighs. “Then let us be off.”

            I salute her and stand, following her back to the marketplace. As we arrive, a man in maroon-colored robes flags me down, walking over briskly. I think nothing of it, until Cassandra pulls me behind her roughly, her hand readied on her sword.

            “You are the Herald of Andraste, are you not?” the man asks, glancing around Cassandra at me. "I would like just a brief moment of your time. I mean you no harm," he adds, glancing at Cassandra again.

            “What do you want?” she replies suspiciously.

            “I have an invitation for the Herald. That is all.” He deposits it into Cassandra’s hand, bows respectfully, and then leaves.

            Cassandra watches him go and then glances at the parchment before handing it over. “What is it this time?”

            I open the elaborate envelope, pulling it free from an elegant and shining bow. “It’s from someone named First Enchanter Vivienne…I’m ‘cordially invited to attend’ her ‘salon held at the chateau of Duke Bastien de Ghislain.’ Signed, ‘Vivienne de Fer, First Enchanter of Montsimmard, Enchanter to the Imperial Court.’” I sigh heavily and make a face at Cassandra.

            “What time is the invitation?”

            “Seven bells,” I say grandly, waving my hand lavishly.

            “Date?”

            “It doesn’t say. Tonight, probably…right?”

            Cassandra offers a heavy sigh. “This is getting ridiculous…though I suppose we cannot turn away help. No matter how inconvenient they are making it.”

            “That’s the spirit, Seeker,” Varric mumbles.

            I sigh again. “Alright…Can we eat first? I could starve to death. I don’t know. It feels like a possibility.”

            “Yes,” Varric agrees.

            “Fine,” Cassandra grumbles.

            “We’ll eat, get some rooms, I’ll go to her fancy salon—whatever that is—and then we’ll go meet these Friends of Red Jenny—whatever that is. Sound good?”

            “I suppose, Herald.”

            “Excellent. Really liking Val Royeaux so far. This is…so much fun.”

***

Cassandra walks with me to the gates of the most ornately decorated place I’ve ever seen. I was ready to pass right by it, certain it couldn’t be someone’s salon, until Cassandra stopped me. I stare at the massive structure with no small measure of distaste. 

            "This is her salon?" I gape. "All this for just one woman? This could have housed a clan eight times the size of mine and still have had room for a few halla and an aravel."

            Cassandra sighs. "Must you exaggerate so?"

            "The disturbing thing is that I wasn't even exaggerating that much!"

            She offers another sigh. "Go on. Get this over with so we can be done with this ridiculous city."

            “You could go in with me,” I prod, not for the first time.

            “The invitation was for you and you alone.”

            “What if it’s an assassination party? I think you should come.”

            “Herald,” she sighs. “Just meet this de Fer woman and let’s be done with this. We have many things to do of more import than attending her party.”

            “Agreed. Let’s just go back to the inn, shall we? We came, we saw; sounds like a successful evening to me, one for the history books.”

            “Herald.” Her tone is warning, and I turn around, huffing.

            “Fine,” I complain. “I’ll go to her stupid party with her stupid fancy guests. If you hear screaming, it's probably me getting mauled by Orlesian finery.”

            I walk forward as Cassandra offers an impressive eye roll, adjusting my Dalish robes as I fidget. Guards—unarmed guards, for some reason—open the gates and then the doors of the salon for me with lavish bows. As soon as I step inside, a man with a long scroll looks up at me, his eyes sparkling behind a an ebony mask.

            “Mistress Suledin Lavellan, Herald of Andraste.”

            I wince as that draws several pairs of curious eyes, all hidden behind gold or silver masks. Of course I knew Orlesians had a proclivity for such attire, but it still unnerves me to be in a room whose occupants are disguised. I glance around uncertainly, walking into the party as confidently and casually as I can. Internally, I’m panicking.

            A man in a full gold mask approaches me, bowing deeply. His eyes gleam excitedly, but the rest of his expression is hidden. A woman joins him, offering an elegant curtsy, her face also protected by a lavish mask the same style and color as her counterpart.        

            “A pleasure, ser. Stanton Bouchard, at your service. My wife, Adette,” he greets warmly. “We so rarely have a chance to meet anyone new. It is always the same crowds at these parties.” 

            “Mm, my thoughts exactly,” I sigh theatrically.

            The woman, Adette, chuckles. “Oh, you are a treat.”

            “So, you must be a guest of Madame de Fer,” Stanton surmises. “Or are you here for Duke Bastien?”

            “Are you here on business?” Adette asks. “I have heard the most curious tales of you. I cannot imagine half of them are true.”

            “Oh, no, it’s all true,” I nod. “Every last word.”

            Adette gives an delighted squeal. “Oh, better and better! The Inquisition should attend more of these parties.”

            “The Inquisition,” someone scoffs loudly. I glance up to see an ornately decorated man descend the large flight of stairs hugging the side of the room. “What a load of pig shit!” He comes to a stop before me, the strong scent of wine suffocating. His mask fails to hide the long once-over he gives me. “Washed-up sisters and crazed Seekers? No one can take them seriously.”

            “I mean, seriously, they want us to believe someone’s hand glows?” I add, laughing falsely. Stanton chuckles beside me.

            If the second man heard me, he ignores me. “Everyone knows it’s just an excuse for a bunch of political outcasts to grab power.”

            “You got me,” I reply. 

            His eyes grow angry behind his mask when he realizes he’ll have to have this fight with himself. And he does. “All this shit about restoring order…Ha! Here comes the outsider, restoring peace with an army!”

            “Armies do help,” I muse, much to the delight of Stanton and Adette beside me.

            “We know what your Inquisition truly is.”

            “A power-grab, I know.”

            I can't be sure, but I think the man is scowling at me behind his mask. “If you were a woman of honor, you’d step outside and answer the charges!” he growls.

            I laugh. “This guy’s great,” I murmur, talking to the others.

            The man growls again and pushes a table over. Dozens of platters of decadent food topple noisily to the ground. Adette shrieks and backs away as glasses of rich champagne shatter on the marble underfoot. A thin, carefully constructed ice sculpture in the center of the table crashes to the floor; the work of such a skilled sculptor is defaced as it breaks into large chunks of ice that race across the marble in all directions. The party's crowd gasps and falls silent, all eyes falling on us. Even the band in the corner jolts to an unpleasant stop, the strings on their instruments scratching when they jerk in surprise.

            “Well now that was just rude,” I mutter.

            The man reaches back for the long dagger fixed to his back. Before he can grip it, he freezes in place, his eyes widening in panic.

            “My dear Marquis,” a low, honeyed voice scolds. I glance up to see its enchantingly dressed owner descend the stairs gracefully. “How unkind of you to use such language in my house…to my guests.” She tsks him softly. “You know such rudeness is…intolerable. And what a mess you’ve made.” She strides past the other staring guests, her step youthful and careless, despite the age I see fixed to the few lines around the corners of her mouth. Half her face is hidden behind her mask, but chocolate-colored eyes peer almost disinterestedly over the scene, a clear sign of a woman in complete control. 

            “M-Madame Vivienne,” the man gasps through a clenched jaw, his bravado gone in an instant. “I humbly beg your pardon!”

            “You should,” Vivienne nods in approval. “Whatever am I going to do with you, my dear?” She lifts a hand to the man’s chin, tsking again. Her fingers trail down his jaw, but she somehow makes the otherwise affectionate gesture appear intimidating. She turns to me, her eyes appraising me. “My lady, you’re the wounded party in this unfortunate affair. What would you have me do with this foolish, foolish man?”

            “Hang him!” I whisper-scream, curling my hand into a fist dramatically before I drop it. “No, I’m just kidding. I really don’t care.”

            Vivienne allows a wry smile under her mask, turning to the frozen man once more. “Poor marquis, issuing challenges and hurling insults like some Ferelden dog lord.” She waves her hand lazily, freeing the man. He coughs and bends over, gripping his chest as his breath fogs in the air. “And all dressed up in your Aunt Solange’s doublet. Didn’t she give you that to wear to the Grand Tourney? To think, all the brave chevaliers who will be competing left for Markham this morning…and you’re still here.” Oh snap. Somebody get this man some canavaris. “Were you hoping to sate your damaged pride by defeating the Herald of Andraste in a public duel? Or did you think her blade would end the shame of your failure?”

            Hm. Not a woman you want to make angry, ‘less you want a tongue-lashing. And by tongue-lashing, I mean a complete dissolution of your entire worth. 

            “Run along, my dear,” the First Enchanter murmurs silkily. “Do give my regards to your aunt.” She watches the man leave, cocking her head at his back. Her posture starkly reminds me of a wild cat toying with her prey. The rest of the party returns to their quiet discussions. Vivienne turns to me as the band starts up again, and she offers a warm smile, but her eyes are calculating. “You handled the marquis well. Are you sure you’re not Orlesian?”

            “Pretty sure,” I muse.

            She grins again, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I’m so delighted you could attend this little gathering of mine. I’ve so wanted to meet you. This way, Herald. Let us speak in private, mm?”

            “It was a pleasure, my lady,” Stanton says, bowing to me gracefully.

            I smile at him and follow Vivienne up the stairs. She leads me to a quiet room, striding across a rug thicker than my clan's winter blankets to the open window at the end. I join her, breathing in the sweet scent from the gardens below. She turns to me, the moonlight bathing her in a cool glow.

            “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Vivienne, First Enchanter of Montsimmard and Enchantress to the Imperial Court.”

            “Suledin,” I return, “of…clan Lavellan…most recently of the Free Marches and certainly not the Herald of Andraste.”

            Vivienne offers a chuckle, but it seems more to appease me than anything else. The nerve.

            “Well,” I murmur, “I can safely say that your salon has exceeded my expectations so far.”

            She smirks. “I’m glad to keep you entertained, my dear. I wanted to meet face to face. It is important to consider one’s connections carefully. With Divine Justinia dead, the Chantry is in shambles, but the faithful flock to your banner, pinning their hopes on you to deliver them from chaos. As the leader of the last loyal mages of Thedas, I feel it only right that I lend my assistance to your cause. Before you ask, my dear, I'm sure you will find me more than qualified for the task.

            “I am well-versed in the politics of the Orlesian Empire. I know every member of the Imperial Court personally. I have all the resources remaining to the Circle at my disposal, and I am a mage of no small talent. Now, ordinarily, I would be happy to serve merely as a liaison to the court, but these are not ordinary times. The Veil has been ripped apart, and there is a hole in the sky. It is now the duty of every mage to work toward sealing the Breach, and so I would join the Inquisition in the field of battle. With me, I offer to you the last loyal mages of Thedas, and we are, of course, loyal first and foremost to service. We have not forgotten the commandment, as some have, that magic exists to serve man. I support any effort to restore such order.”

            “Then you’re in favor of returning the mages to the Circle?”

            “Where else can mages safely learn to master their talents? We do not have your keepers to guide our study,” she muses, and I can’t help but hear the note of disdain she barely veils. “We need an institution to protect and nurture magic. Maker knows, magic will find neither on its own. In addition to the last loyal mages, I provide you my own talent, which, as I mentioned and you saw, is no small matter. You would also find yourself alongside a great admirer of the late Divine Justinia V, as well as someone who understands the workings of the Chantry. At its best, it unites the disparate cultures of Thedas and looks after its most vulnerable. Had she lived, Justinia could have accomplished so much.” There is a genuine twinge of emotion in her eye as she speaks of the late Divine, but she composes it so quickly that I can’t be sure I saw it at all. “Well, Herald? What do you say?”

            I nod slowly. Perhaps a Circle-loving, prideful woman is not my first choice for an ally, but I came here for help, not friends. And I can't deny the use of her of her connections. I'm sure the ambassador can make quick work of this woman's knowledge, and another mage would undoubtedly prove invaluable.

            Vivienne watches me quietly contemplate, her expression unreadable as she waits.

            I finally nod formally and gratefully to her. “The Inquisition would be happy to have you, Lady Vivienne.”

            “Great things are beginning, my dear,” Vivienne murmurs, pleased. “I can promise you that.”

***

At a few minutes to three, Solas, Cassandra, Varric, and I find ourselves at the gates to Adrast’s courtyard. The road is quiet, most everyone asleep in their beds at this late hour. Guards patrol the area in well-timed intervals, but this particular alley remains empty. 

            “So, wait, she’s some high-and-mighty mage who believes in the Chantry?” Varric sighs heavily, displeased. “Great. Another Sebastian.”

            I chuckle. “I’m sure you’ll get on famously.”

            He just sighs again. “Hopefully this Red Jenny friend is less 'righteous.'”

            I slip the key through the gate, pleased when it unlocks. “This feel weird to anyone else?” I mumble, stepping through. “Breaking and entering? Or…well…entering?”

            “Eh,” Varric shrugs. “It’s a gray area.”

            “How?”

            “We heard someone screaming.”

            I roll my eyes. "And just so happened to have a key?"

            "It was already in the keyhole. Owner must have forgotten it there."

            "I will not ask why you have these answers so ready," Cassandra mutters under her breath. 

            "Probably best that way," Varric nods. 

            We wind through a maze of hedges through the garden. When we arrive at the doors closing us off from the chateau, I test them to find them unlocked. I make a face at the others, shrugging carelessly as I pull one of the doors open.

            And immediately duck, reeling back when a fireball rushes past my face.

            “Shit,” I gasp, glancing back to see the others unharmed. "I'm starting to think this is the Orlesian version of a 'hello.'"

            I step into the chateau courtyard to find a man in a gold mask staring at me. He lobs another fireball, and I use my staff to knock it aside.

            “Herald of Andraste!” he shouts, his accent thick. “How much did you expend to discover me? It must have weakened the Inquisition immeasurably.”

            “I honestly didn’t know you existed until you tried to kill me just now.”

            “You don’t fool me! I’m too important for this to be an accident! My efforts will survive in victories against you elsewhere!”

            A guard gives a pained grunt behind the man and falls to the ground. An elf in a red tunic, plaideweave leggings, and choppily-cut blond hair pulls back the string of her longbow, aiming at the man before me.

            “Jus’ say ‘what,’” she calls with a grin.

            The man gasps. “What is the—”

            She releases her arrow, the shaft of it running through the man’s mouth a split second later.

            “Gah!” I complain, jerking my hand up and my head away. “Warning!”

            The girl giggles. “Eww! Squishy one, but ya heard me, right? Jus’ say ‘what’? Rich tits always try for more’n they deserve.” She leans down to retrieve her arrow, jerking it out with difficulty. “‘Blah, blah, blah, obey me, arrow in my face.’” She cleans the arrow on her tunic carelessly and adds it back to her quiver. “So, ya followed the notes well enough! Glad to see you’re…” She looks up at me and sighs heavily. “And, you’re an elf.” She shakes her head unhappily. “Well, hope you’re not…too elfy. I mean it’s all good, innit? The important thing is you glow. You’re the Herald thingy!”

            “Yes…” I glance sideways before looking at her again. “What’s…happening right now?”

            “No idea,” she shrugs, “I don’t know this idiot from manners. My people just said the Inquisition should look at ‘im.”

            “Your people?” Cassandra repeats. “Elves?”

            “Ha!” the girl snorts loudly. “No. People people. Name’s Sera. This is cover. Get ‘round it.”

            “What?” I reply.

            “For the reinforcements! Don’t worry—someone tipped me their equipment shed. They’ve got no breeches,” she giggles confidentially.

            I frown again, confused. “They’ve—”

            Before I can even finish the question or process the motion, several men come shouting and running down the hall from the mansion behind her. I see their weapons first, but then my eyes widen as I realize I didn't mishear her. Their legs are all bear, and I have to commend their commitment to come charging out here half-naked. 

            “Why wouldn’t you take their weapons?” I call to Sera as she hops to the balcony above and starts firing arrows.

            “Because…no breeches!” she giggles harder.

            “You know, Seeker,” Varric calls as I spin my staff around. I hear his crossbow fire quickly as she charges forward. “There I was, having a perfectly ordinary life! I thought the weirdest thing that would happen would be the tavern mixing up an order or Hawke drinking herself into thinking she could fly, but no—here I am, fighting alongside an elf who stole several men’s clothes because it made her laugh, an elf who is so serious that I worry his face might get stuck that way, and yet another elf who seems incapable of taking anything seriously.”

            “Oh! Hey, that’s me!” I grin, pointing at myself.

            “So thank you,” Varric continues. “Honestly. I could be drinking at the Hanged Man or arguing with some Merchants Guild idiots, but no, I’m here, in some Orlesian chateau garden fighting a bunch of nearly-naked humans.”

            Cassandra scoffs, thrusting her sword into one of those men’s chests. “This was hardly my expectation!”

            By the time the fighting is over, I’m convinced I never want to see a pair of men’s smallclothes ever again.

            Sera grins and skips over to me, collecting her arrows along the way. “Friends really came through with that tip. No breeches!” She cackles again, her voice ringing out giddily. A small chuckle escapes me at the contagious sound of her laugh, and she grins. “So, Herald of Andraste. You’re a strange one. I’d like to join.”

            I laugh. “I’m the strange one,” I muse. “Could we take a few moments for sense to reassert itself? Who are you people?”

            Sera snorts. “I’m not people, but I get what you want. It’s like this. I sent you a note to look for hidden stuff by my friends? The Friends of Red Jenny! That’s me! Well, I’m one. So is a fence in Montfort, some woman in Kirkwall…There were three in Starkhaven! Brothers or somethin’. It’s just a name, yeah? Let’s little people, ‘friends,’ be part’a somethin’ while they stick it to nobles they hate. So here, in your face, I’m Sera. ‘The Friends of Red Jenny’ are sort’a out there. I used them to help you! Plus arrows.”

            “Wait, so…you’re offering spies?" I ask, confused. "We have a spymaster who—”

            “Here’s how it is,” Sera says, cutting me off with an air of impatience. “You important people are up here, shovin’ ye cods around. ‘Blah, blah, I’ll crush you, I’ll crush you!’ Oh…crush you…” She starts making kissing noises, and I cock my head, more confused than ever. She clears her throat and drops her hands. “Then you’ve got cloaks and spy-kings. Like this tit. Or was he one of the little knives, all serious with his…little knife. All those secrets, and what gave him up? Some houseboy who don’t know shite but knows a bad person when he sees one. So no, I’m not Knifey Shivdark all hidden. But if you don’t listen down here too, you risk your breeches.” She giggles. “Like those guards? I stole their…Look, do you need people or not? I want to get everything back to normal. Like you?”

            I look down, laughing once. “Alright, Sera,” I smirk. “I can use you and your friends.”

            “Yes!” she grins, standing on her toes excitedly. “Get in good ‘fore you’re too big to like! That’ll keep your breeches where they should be! Plus, extra breeches, because I have all these…You have merchants who buy that pish, yeah? Got to be worth something. Anyway. Haven! Let’s go!”

            “What, now?” I laugh.

            “Yeah! No time like the present ‘n wha’ever.”

            “We’ve booked a couple rooms at the—”

            “Ah, no, I’ll just meet ya there, yeah? See ye there, Herald! This will be grand!”

            I watch as Sera turns and skips off down an alley. At the last second, she breaks into a sprint, giggling as she turns a corner.

            “Uh…” Varric murmurs.

            “Score one for Team Inquisition?” I reply.

            “She is certainly…colorful,” Cassandra adds.

            “Worse case scenario, she steals everyone’s clothes,” Varric shrugs.

            “Alright,” I muse, turning around. “Let’s…sleep. And then leave this blasted city before anything else weird happens.”

***

In the morning, we make our way groggily through the marketplace. Well, I’m groggy. Everyone else is just fine, despite our limited sleep.

            “You guys are giving me a complex,” I complain, stifling a yawn as I follow the others. 

            “Excuse me,” a woman says, her accent also Orlesian. She stops us in our tracks, and Cassandra steps beside me, her hand resting on her sword warily. The woman notes the reaction and holds her hands half up, revealing her lack of malicious intent. “If I might have a moment of your time?”

            I see the woman's green Circle robes and glance at Cassandra. “Of course,” I reply.

            “Wait,” Cassandra blinks. “Grand Enchanter Fiona?” Her voice is surprised as she removes her hand from her sword.

            “Leader of the mage rebellion,” Solas adds, impressed. “Is it not dangerous for you to be here?”

            She nods. “I heard of the Chantry’s denouncement yesterday, and I wanted to see the fabled Herald of Andraste with my own eyes.”

            “You almost missed us,” I muse. “I’m glad you didn’t.”

            “As am I. You are seeking help with the Breach, are you not? Perhaps you would look to your own people for help.”

            “The mages would be my preferred alliance,” I admit, shrugging apologetically when Cassandra turns on me. “I was not aware you were will to discuss the matter, however.”

            “Consider this an invitation to Redcliffe,” Fiona replies. “Come meet with the mages. An alliance could help us both, after all. I hope to see you there. Au revoir, my Lady Herald.”

            “Well, that was odd timing,” Varric mutters as we watch the woman disappear into a crowd, fading from sight.

            Cassandra grimaces and then turns to me. “Come,” she says firmly. “Let us return to Haven.”

Chapter Text

When I wake up in Haven, I stretch out lazily on my bed, letting my arm drape over the edge. I never realized how good it would feel to be back in Ferelden. Two days in Val Royeaux, and I was ready to tear my hair out.

            I get up slowly and dress, limited to either something human or my usual Dalish robes. I stick with the robes, combing my hair back into a simple ponytail to get it out of my way. I know Sera arrived here several hours ahead of us. When I asked one of the guards if they'd seen her, he said she was in the tavern, so I head off to find her, hoping to maybe understand her a bit better. Also, just because she amuses me.

            Outside my cabin, the weather is particularly freezing, and I smile in the tufts of snow that drift down. Being in the heavy humidity of Orlais made me realize how fortunate I am that Haven is nestled in the snowy Frostbacks. The village is bustling, as it normally is at this late hour, and I realize I overslept. The guards are just switching duties as I pass them, and I smile politely when they catch me watching. When I step through the doors of the little tavern, I find Sera sitting near the fire. She waves me over, grinning from her chair.

            “So, this is it, huh?” she muses, looking around. “Oh no—it’s fine, yeah? It’s just…I thought it’d be bigger.” She hesitates and then laughs loudly. “Pfft, that would’a been hilarious if you were a man, right? Wasted." I smirk at her, shaking my head faintly. "Anyway, stoppin’ wars should earn more sovereigns’n this. Need things back to normal for coins to be flowin’ again. Another reason the templars ‘n mages need to be sat down.”

            “The templars and the mages?" I muse. "Most people pick a side.”

            “Most people are stupid.”

            I snort. “Fair, but where do you stand on the war?”

            “In the middle, with everyone else. You know what I hear about mages? Nothin’, until one goes all demony. Know what I hear about templars? Nothing, until they take ‘maybe mages.’ That’s why they both need to be sat down, like I said.”

            “I think it’s a hair more complicated,” I chuckle.

            “Well, sure,” Sera allows. “The sky has a hole in it. But I can’t put an arrow in that. Well, I have." She frowns. "Doesn’t come down. That’s…weird. ‘N that’s the point, right? It’s weird ‘n right there, but they still want to punch each other. They’re too busy to look up where the real questions are.”

            “Is there something else you’re looking for?” I wonder. “Like, what’s behind all this?”

            “Maybe? I don’t know! First thing’s first, right? I help you—march-march-arrow-kick—then people stop being stupid, and everything starts to make sense again. Sound good to you, all touched Lady Herald?”

            I laugh. “Sounds good to me. End all war, stitch the sky.”

            She cocks her head at me.

            “The easy one first, of course,” I add.

            She giggles loudly. “You’re daft, yeah? Most people get special, they lose their snark. Can’t see how stupid it all is. I think I’ll like you, Lady Herald. Maybe you’re a little chosen, yeah?”

            “Well, it sounds good to me. I’m ready to give it a shot. That’s all I can ask from anyone else.”

            “I’m in!” she grins. “It’s an investment, yeah? Better pay off, too. Stupid war ‘n…everythin’. I had things to do!”

            I laugh. “Me too. It’s churlish really.”

            “Right!”

            “Okay, I thought I could make it, but I’ve got to get out of here. Too early for so much alcohol.”

            She giggles as I stand and escape.

            I take a huge breath of fresh air, feeling a little lightheaded from the scent of the tavern. 

            “Ah, good, Herald,” Cassandra calls. “Come with me. We must speak with the others.”

            “Gah, there goes my nap,” I murmur following her.

            “The others are waiting in the Chantry.”

            “Naturally,” I muse.

            She leads me so quickly that I have to jog to keep up.

            “Are we racing?” I wonder, my breath pulled from me more sharply.

            “You really should train more often,” she says, glancing at me.

            I make an impressed face. “That was a good one,” I smirk. "Point Cassandra."

            She rolls her eyes with a disgusted noise, walking at a more brutal pace to punish me. We pass by Solas on the way. I look up and wave at him, smiling like an idiot. He returns it kindly, his lips curling up almost in amusement. It makes my heart react wildly, and I sigh at myself.

            Cassandra pushes open the Chantry doors, leading me inside.

            Josephine looks up from her clipboard, and I see the rest of the war council waiting in the middle of the hall. “It’s good you’ve returned,” she murmurs. “We heard of your encounter.”

            “You heard?” Cassandra repeats in surprise.

            “My agents in the city sent word ahead,” Leliana replies. “Of course.”

            Cullen crosses his arms. “It’s a shame the templars have abandoned their senses as well as the capital.”

            “At least we know how to approach the mages and templars now,” I sigh.

            “Do we?” Cassandra wonders. “Lord Seeker Lucius is not the man I remember.”

            “True,” Leliana nods. “He has taken the Order somewhere, but to do what? My reports have been…very odd.”

            “We must look into it,” Cullen decides. “I’m certain not everyone in the Order will support the Lord Seeker.”

            “Yeah,” I allow with a shrug, "but the mages are actually willing to talk.”

            “The Herald could simply go to meet them in Redcliffe,” Josephine agrees.

            Cullen snorts. “You think the mage rebellion is more united? It could be ten times worse!”

            “At least they’ve opened a dialogue,” I reply. “Lucius shut me down so fast that I couldn’t even get out the tiny detail about sealing the Breach.” I tighten my left hand into a fist, feeling the ache return to my hand with a vengeance. A flicker of irritation flares with it.

            “We cannot discount the mages,” Josephine says.

            “Or the templars,” Cullen adds.

            “The mages are open to discussion,” Leliana argues. “We at least know where to find them. We have no idea where the templars are.”

            "Are you suggesting they're not worth the time it would take to find them?" Cullen demands. 

            Leliana rolls her eyes impatiently. "I'm suggesting we don't have the time to find them. If they wanted to be useful, they had their chance. The mages are at least willing to discuss matters."

            Cullen snorts. "No doubt with several strings attached."

            "Anything they ask for, Commander, would be worth it if it means we can seal the Breach," Josephine says firmly. 

            "We don't know that," Cullen replies. "Undoubtedly, they'll demand their freedom in return for their aid, and we can't offer that. They're dangerous and unpredictable. The templars at least have discipline."

            Leliana scoffs. "Is that what you call it?"

            “Just—make a decision,” I snap a little harshly. “Tell me where to do. We don’t have time for all this bickering.”

            “I agree,” Cassandra says.

            “We shouldn’t discount Redcliffe,” Josephine repeats. “The mages may be worth the risk.”

            “They are powerful, Ambassador,” Cassandra allows, “but more desperate than you realize.”

            “So, it’ll be dangerous,” I sigh, rubbing my wrist with my right hand in a useless effort to ease the pain. “I’ve been in danger since before I stepped out of the Fade.”

            Cullen grimaces. “Right now, I’m not certain we have enough influence to approach the Order safely.”

            “Then the Inquisition needs agents in more places,” Cassandra decides. “That’s something you can help with,” she adds, glancing at me.     

            “In the meantime,” Josephine murmurs, “we should consider other options.”

            Cullen, Josephine, and Cassandra turn around, heading in their own directions, but Leliana moves closer to me.

            “There is one other matter," she says quietly. "Several months ago, the Grey Wardens of Ferelden vanished. I sent word to those in Orlais, but they have also disappeared. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even consider the idea they’re involved in all this, but the timing is…curious.”

            I chew my cheek, resisting the urge to wince at a particularly sharp stab of pain. “That does sound odd, I agree.”

            “The others have disregarded my suspicion, but I cannot ignore it. Two days ago, my agents in the Hinterlands heard news of a Grey Warden by the name of Blackwall. If you have the opportunity, please seek him out. Perhaps he can put my mind at ease.”

            “And if he can’t?”

            Leliana blinks, her expression carefully neutral. “Then there may be more going on than we thought.”

            With that pleasant thought, Leliana turns around and heads into the war room after Cullen. I sigh, turning around to leave the Chantry. I shake my hand out, swallowing as the burn begins to throb. Before I can escape the dim room, though, Vivienne steps into my path, surprising me.  

            “Madame de Fer,” I greet, clenching my fist. “I did not realize you had arrived.”

            “Early this morning," she nods dismissively. "I met an elven mage earlier. Solas, I believe he was called.”

            “Yes,” I reply, unable to curb a fond smile.

            “I admit I was surprised. I didn’t expect to find mages among the Inquisition, apart from yourself, of course. Tell me, why were you at the Divine Conclave?”

            “The war benefits no one,” I reply carefully. “It must end, and order must be restored. I went to see which way the wind was blowing to help my clan prepare.”

            She nods approvingly. “If only the rebels saw things so clearly. Justinia’s death has shattered the balance of power in Thedas. If it is not restored quickly, countless lives will be lost. Mages, templars—innocent people of all kinds now look to the Inquisition to decide their fate.”

            My hand throbs, and I'm annoyed me that she blocked me from leaving, but I try not to reveal that to her. “I imagine that’s why you wanted to be here, to have a hand in deciding that fate.”

            “Wouldn’t you? For almost a thousand years, the world believed it was in the hands of the Maker. And now many believe you are the agent of His will. Whatever the truth is, that belief gives you power.”

            I grip my left hand, itching at the glove. “I’ll try to put it to good use,” I murmur to hopefully end the conversation.

            “I suppose we’ll see,” she sighs, displeased with that response. She gives me a false smile. “I’ve stolen enough of your time, my dear. Don’t let me keep you.”

            I nod at her and step aside, moving out from the Chantry. The sun blinds me, and I move briskly forward, but I don't get very far.

            “Excuse me,” a deep voice says quietly. I stop, shaking out my hand as I look up at the owner. A soldier of some kind—not one I’ve seen here before. Judging from his armor, he's not one of ours. “I’ve got a message for the Inquisition, but I’m having a hard time getting anyone to talk to me.”

            “Sorry about that,” I murmur, shaking my head as I step closer. “What’s the message? Also, who are you?”

            The soldier smiles at my tone. “Cremisius Aclassi. I’m with the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company."

            "I'll...admit that I've never heard of your company," I murmur a little breathily when he pauses, my voice tight. I swallow to clear my throat, my vision blurring slightly from the pain. I breathe out a little sharply, but the sound goes unnoticed by the man before me. 

            "We mostly work out of Orlais and Nevarra, but we got word on some Tevinter mercenaries gathering out on the Storm Coast. My company commander Iron Bull offers the information free of charge.” I frown slightly, intrigued and a little confused. “If the Inquisition would like to see what the Bull’s Chargers can do for you, my commander has asked that the Herald meet us there and watch us work.”

            Ah. Interesting. “Well, I look forward to meeting this Iron Bull,” I reply, clenching my fist before I shake it out again. The soldier notices this time, glancing at my hand before meeting my eyes. I turn to go and stop, turning around with a blink. “The Storm Coast is a decent journey to make. Please, feel free to stay here until you’re ready to depart again.”

            “Thank you,” he replies with a polite nod, “but I’d best be getting back.”

            I nod and smile. “Well, I look forward to seeing you again. I'll gather the others, and we'll travel to meet your commander soon on the Storm Coast."

            The soldier's eyes widen slightly in surprise. “Then you are—the Herald?”

            Irritation flickers again at the title, and I know it’s misplaced. It isn't his fault. “Unfortunately,” I smile wryly.

            “Forgive me, Your Worship, I did not realize—”

            “Please,” I say, shaking my head when he offers a quick bow. “There’s nothing to forgive. I’m sorry to run off, but we will find you all at the Storm Coast. Please tell your company commander that I look forward to meeting him.”

            “Thank you, Herald.”

            I wince. “Suledin,” I correct with a pained smile, shaking my hand out again. “Or Lavellan, whichever you prefer.”

            “As you say, my lady,” he replies with a formal nod. "Forgive me, but...are you alright?"

            “No," I admit, laughing weakly. "I...tweaked my wrist training." Well, that was an interesting excuse. "Excuse me,” I smile, walking backwards.

            Tears prick my eyes, and I gasp quietly as I turn around. I grip my left hand tightly, feeling the fire return threefold. I massage my hand until doing so makes it hurt more.

            I find Solas’ cabin as quickly as I can and knock quietly on the door.

            “Come in,” he calls softly, his voice faint through the thick door. 

            I push inside carefully, poking my head through. “Solas?”

            He looks up from his desk, closing a book.

            “Are you busy? I can come back—”

            “No, please,” he replies, gesturing for me to enter.

            “Sorry to bother you,” I say tightly. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind—”

            He must see how I hold my hand and the tears in my eyes, because his expression softens, and he holds his hands out to me.

            “Thank you,” I breathe, stepping closer to him. “I’m sorry.”

            “You needn’t apologize,” he murmurs quietly.

            I take my glove off slowly, gasping a little, and then I give him my shaking hand. His fingers are soft on mine, and he finds my eyes as he begins the incantation. I feel the rhythm of his words roll smoothly off his tongue, and once again, I can’t help but feel like I know the melody, but I can't place why. Solas' expression is soft, almost sorrowful, and I lower my eyes after a moment, feeling my cheeks flush. I watch his hands instead, and the soft glow that emanates from them.

            When he’s finished, I regret the disappearance of his fingers. My own hand lingers for a moment, outstretched, and it takes me a second to take my hand back.

            “Thank you,” I say again. “Sorry for interrupting.” I realize I said that already, too, and I quickly move on. “What—uh—what’re you working on?” I wonder, clasping my hands behind my back. I lean over a little, turning my head to read the title only to realize I don’t even know the language.

            “I was—researching known magical artifacts, hoping to understand what may have caused the explosion. As you suggested, it would help to know it by sight.”

            “Have you found anything promising?” I ask, stepping closer to see his notes. They’re written in elven, but I can’t read them from this far away.

            “Nothing useful,” he sighs.

            “I’m sorry,” I offer. “Is there anything I can do to help? Apparently, being the Herald to a god you don’t believe in has its benefits.”

            “You doubt Andraste’s existence?” he wonders, sounding interested, not irritated—unlike the others who’ve asked me the same. “Sit,” he adds, gesturing to a chair beside him.

            I smile and move to the chair, my knees brushing against his leg in the tight space. I sit close to him, resting my arm on his desk. “I believe she existed,” I answer. “As a person.”

            “But you don’t believe in the Maker,” he finishes.

            “We have our own gods,” I remind him.

            He looks away with a quiet breath, his eyes searching the wall beside us.

            “That brings up something I was wondering.”

            He looks at me curiously.

            “What do you believe in?”

            His expression turns questioning. “What do you mean?”

            “You don’t strike me as very religious, but am I misreading that? When I mention our gods…my gods,” I amend gently, “you don’t respond, but you don’t respond to the Maker, either.”

            His eyes search mine. “You see a great deal.”

            I blush, hoping he doesn't realize why I've paid more attention to him in particular. I hesitate a moment before I remember myself. “It’s a gift,” I murmur modestly. "So what do you believe? If that's not too personal. You don't have to answer."

            He allows a small smile. “I believe in cause and effect.”

            I narrow my eyes. “That’s not really an answer.”

            “No,” he chuckles. “I suppose it isn't. Perhaps I have no faith.”

            I consider that, searching him. “That must be lonely.”

            “Not really,” he replies indifferently.

            “You don’t ever worry about someone watching over you? I find it comforting to seek out Mythal when I’m afraid or Falon’Din when I lose someone. My clan used to—” I stop when I see Solas’ jaw clench. I don’t think he realizes he’s done it. I smile. “You don’t even like hearing about them,” I realize softly. 

             He looks up, parting his lips to speak—to offer an apology, I think.

            “It’s alright,” I reply quickly. “I’m not offended, of course. I understand. It must sound to you like what it sounds like to me when they go on about the Maker and the Maker’s plan and all that…Do you believe in Andraste?” I wonder. “As a person, not a religion.”

            He smiles softly. “I saw her.”

            I freeze. “What?” I ask slowly.

            “In the Fade.”

            My jaw drops. “You—what?”

            He nods solemnly.

            “I—wh-what was she like?”

            Solas releases a long breath, searching the wall for the answer. “She was…strong,” he replies, his words slow when he usually finds them so quickly. “She was righteous. She sought freedom for her people, made the elves’ cause her cause. She devoted her life to justice and equality....and she died for it.”

            “Then the Chant is true?” I gasp. 

            He squints slightly. “Parts of it. Slivers of truth are buried within, but the Chant suffers the same fate as any history or religion. Their stories are written dozens, sometimes hundreds of years after the event, when the only facts that remain come from those passed down through generations, facts that are twisted and marred by the weight of fiction.”

            “That makes you angry,” I note. 

            He glances at me silently, his expression difficult to read. 

            “What of our—sorry, the Evanuris?”

            “What of it?”

            “Did you see them in the Fade, too? You mentioned seeing Arlathan. Did you see the pantheon?”

            He shakes his head once, looking away from me. “I saw no gods in my journeys in the Fade.”

            I chew my lip, backtracking a little. “So…just cause and effect, huh?”

            He gives a small smile. “I believe…that we create our own destinies.”

            “That, therefore, nothing is inevitable?” I smile softly.

            He nods, looking down.

            “I like that," I admit, smiling again. "I—”

            Someone knocks on Solas’ door, which I realize that, in my haste, I left open. “Hey, Chuckles, have you seen Snow any—there you are,” he says, coming around the corner into the room. “The Seeker’s looking for you. Think she’s ready to start tearing down tents if you don't appear.”

            “Did she say what for?” I wonder.

            “War council, I think.”

            I sigh. “I’ll be right there. Thanks, Varric."

            “No problem, Snow.”

            I watch him leave and then turn regrettably back to Solas. “Guess I have to go.”

            He gives me an amused expression, likely at my reluctance.

            My heart thuds in my ears erratically, and I glance up at him nervously. “Maybe…we could talk more—tonight? Maybe with dinner? I-if you want, that is. I mean, I’m not—of course you don’t have to—that’s not an order or any—”

            “I would like that,” Solas replies, his smile openly amused now.

            I grin too wide, forcing myself to rein it in. “Excellent. Well…” I stand up quickly, hitting his desk with my hip. “Whoops—” I step forward, brushing against him clumsily, my knee hitting his elbow. “Whoops, sorry, sorry—I’ll see you there, then. I mean then, then. Okay, I’m leaving…But I’ll see you…”

            Solas’ smile spreads, and I watch it as I walk backwards. “Tonight, lethallin,” he finishes.

            “Yes! Forgot what I was...saying—yes. Tonight. I shall see you tonight.”

            I find the door and close it behind myself, trying to ignore the way my stomach flutters as I lean back against it, closing my eyes.

            My mind drifts back to everything I just did, my cheeks growing redder the more I recall. I shake my head, my heart hammering in my chest. “Gods, you complete and utter idiot."

Chapter Text

It takes many long days of travel to reach the Storm Coast. Scout Harding and her men went ahead and settled a camp before we even left Haven. Leliana received that first letter, informing her of their arrival, and then nothing. Worried for the scouts’ safety, I decided to head there before the Hinterlands.

            We had to camp just outside the Storm Coast last night after it started pouring. This morning, the rain shows no signs of letting up as we find ourselves crossing the grassy and rocky hills nearer to the coast. I’m not sure why I was expecting sunny skies and warm breezes from the sea. I would laugh at my former self if I wasn’t so damn cold.

            “Hey, Snow, anything you can do about the rain?” Varric wonders, tucking loose locks of his soaked hair behind his ear.

            I gasp as we climb a particularly brutal hill, my own hair a heavy, thick mane down my back. “You think I wouldn't if I could?” I laugh.

            “Eh, thought I’d ask. Any of those barriers work as umbrellas?”

            “Technically,” I reply. “And I considered it very seriously, but it would drain me.”

            Varric snaps his fingers. “Ah well.”

            I grin at him, wiping my forehead with an equally damp sleeve. “Gets right to the bone, doesn’t it?”

            Before he can reply, we reach the top of the hill and step into the Inquisition camp, and I'm glad to see it appears normal, our agents safe. Tarps have been erected overhead in many places, and I duck under one of them, shivering as I finally step out of the rain. I curse and bring my hair over my shoulder, wringing the braid out. The nearby fire helps warm my fingers, and I step closer to it with Varric, sighing in relief. Several soldiers are at a nearby talking quietly over a map. Scout Harding is at the outskirts of the camp, standing near a cliff and discussing a matter seriously with one of her scouts. I throw my braid back over my shoulder as she glances over, spotting us. She smiles and waves, walking over with her arms behind her back. 

            “Your Worship!” she greets, ducking under the tarp. She grimaces a little when she sees our soaked clothing, offering a sympathetic expression. “For what it’s worth, welcome to the Storm Coast. I would have sent word sooner, but our efforts here have been…delayed.”

            “Delayed? How so?” I wonder.

            She gestures for me to follow her. I glance back to smile at the others before following her to the edge of the camp. She leads us back into the rain briefly and then under a new tarp on the cliffs. The ledge drops steeply down a long, rocky cliffside that leads gradually to the beach below. I back away from it warily, a little dizzy from the height. 

            “There’s a group of bandits operating in the area,” Harding tells me now that we're alone. “They know the terrain, and our small party has had trouble going up against them. Some of our soldiers went to speak with their leader.” She looks at the beach below. “Haven’t heard back, though.”

            “When did they leave?”

            “Two days ago.”

            I close my eyes briefly. “I’ll do what I can to find our people.”

            “Thank you, Your Worship. That’s a relief.”

            “Do you know where they went?”

            “The soldiers didn’t have an exact location for the bandits, but they were starting their search farther down the beach. With all this fuss, we haven’t been able to conduct a proper search for the Wardens, either. I’ll begin a report to Leliana, detailing our troubles here.”

            “She'll be relieved to hear from you,” I nod. “In addition, have you seen a mercenary group near here? Someone from their company was sent to collect me. They requested a meeting.”

            Harding nods. “There has been some fighting over the last few days—off and on—down the beach a ways. My agents discovered what appeared to be Tevinter soldiers fighting against an unknown group. When we tried to intervene, the mercenary group’s leader loudly, and rather persuasively, insisted we pull back. They seemed friendly, though, so my agents have kept their distance. We’ve kept an eye on the situation.”

            “Alright, thank you for the report, Scout Harding.”

            “Of course, Your Worship. I’ll write to Leliana and be on my way.”

            “You aren’t staying on the Coast?”

            “Leliana said that when you arrived, I was to head south—place called the Fallow Mire. We’ve had some troubling reports from our agents there, as well.”

            “I’m sorry to hear that. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

            “I will, Your Worship.” She offers a smile as she turns. “Well, good luck, and enjoy the sea air. I hear it’s good for the soul.”

            Cassandra replaces Scout Harding almost immediately. “What’s the situation?”

            “You're very efficient," I muse, earning her scowl. "A group of our men has possibly been captured by a local bandit group. Iron Bull’s men are on the beach fighting Tevinter soldiers. Our soldiers take priority, of course, but the mercenary company has been fighting for days off and on, according to Scout Harding. Perhaps that’s where we’re needed most. What do you think?”

            Cassandra considers. “Perhaps we should see this Iron Bull before he and his company leave, and then we can focus solely on the missing soldiers.”

            I nod. “Let’s go, then.”

            I choose a careful path down to the beach. As we near the shore, I hear the fighting plainly. I move more briskly, and then take a second to assess the situation.

            A large, dual-horned Qunari is the most obvious person on the beach at first glance. He's easily a couple heads taller than anyone else, and he sweeps a massively war hammer that’s almost as tall as he is over his head. He slams it back down with a dragon-like roar. I look away from what it does to the Tevinter soldier unfortunate enough to be caught under it, realizing at once this must be the Iron Bull. And what an appropriate name it is. Flanking him, and spread out thickly around their leader in waves, several dozen men and women fight the uniformly clad Tevinters. Amongst them, I spot Cremisius fighting protectively alongside a fellow Dalish mage, keeping her covered carefully while her magic flits gracefully around the field. I realize her staff is expertly curved to look like a bow at first glance. She even has a quiver of arrows tied to the belt at her waist, and I can't help but admire the ruse. Were she not fighting with magic, I would have assumed she was an archer. 

            I jog forward across the rocky beach to reach the fighting. Though it's clear the company doesn't need our help, it feels wrong to just watch them fight alone. I stop at the edge of the makeshift battlefield, and Cassandra runs past me, fearlessly throwing herself into the chaos—as usual. I throw up a quick shield around her, focusing my energy on completing it before I move on. I don’t manage the barrier as flawlessly or quickly as Solas, but once it’s set, I spin my staff, focusing on my greater strength with lightning. Solas and Varric join me, and we add what we can to the fighting. It's still obvious, however, that the mercenary group had this well-handled before we arrived. I see why our agents didn’t bother joining.

            The ground is littered with several dozen bodies, all of them uniformed in Tevinter robes or armor. Several of the mercenary company's soldiers seem exhausted, but it in no way affects their fighting. Each of them continues, not even taking a moment to breathe in the wake of reinforcements, if they’ve noticed us at all.

            Iron Bull brings his hammer down on the last Tevinter warrior before calling to his men to stand down, and only then do his comrades stumble backwards or fall straight to the ground, gasping for air. All of them relax but Cremisius, who breathlessly sheathes his blade and walks through the corpses to stand near Iron Bull, his hands clasped behind his back respectfully.

            “Krem!” Iron Bull grins, out of breath. “How’d we do?”

            “Five or six wounded, Chief. No dead.”

            “That’s what I like to hear,” the Qunari rumbles, patting Cremisius’ shoulder so hard that the man smirks as he catches himself tiredly. “Let the throatcutters finish up, then break out the casks.”

            Cremisius nods at Iron Bull, turning away. As he does, he catches sight of my approach. He offers a formal nod before continuing on to his destination.

            Iron Bull looks over his men proudly, resting his war hammer on his shoulder. He spots me and shrugs the weapon off, gripping it tirelessly as he meets me off to the side, away from the bodies. I spot several black-clad men work their way through the field after speaking with Cremisius, and I realize that "throatcutters" was a very literal word to use for their job. I wince, turning my back on the scene before I overthink the realities of war. I crane my neck up at the massive Qunari in front of me instead, stepping back once to see him better.

            A rich, deep laugh rumbles good-naturedly out of his chest as he peers down at me, and he sits heavily on a boulder, resting his hand on his war hammer casually. Sitting, he’s exactly my height, though his bull-like horns raise up another foot. He appraises me with one eye, his other hidden behind a black eyepatch. Three thick scars run across his the gray skin if his forehead, disappearing behind the eyepatch, and I wince slightly at the implication of the old wound. Thick black stubble lines his jaws and chin, arcing over his mouth as he offers me a somewhat cocky smirk.

            Despite the smile, I can't help but see how intimidating he is, and not only because I just saw him crush several men to death with his massive war hammer. He wears a harness over one shoulder, but the rest of his torso and his other arm are both bear of any armor, revealing a thick, broad chest, muscles larger than my head lining his arms. The war hammer seems redundant. I'm sure he could flick someone to death just fine. Thick, milky scars from an array of weapons and claws crisscross his skin almost like tattoos, and I'm a little overwhelmed by the dozens of stories they reveal, the countless battles he's fought. 

            As the first Qunari I've officially met, the only word I can come up with is impressive. Very, very impressive. 

            “So, you’re with the Inquisition, huh?” he muses, raising his eyebrow. “Glad you could make it. Come on, have a seat. Drinks are coming.”

            I smirk at him. “Kind of you, I think I’d prefer to actually be able to see you.”

            Iron Bull laughs again, the sound bursting from him like he didn’t just spend days fighting and killing. “Fair enough. You are pretty short.”

            I scoff, resting my hands on my hips. “You’re abnormally tall. Iron Bull, I presume?” I add as he laughs.

            “Yeah, the horns usually give it away.” His second-in-command approaches again, his hands professionally folded behind his back. Iron Bull nods at him, glancing at me. “I assume you remember Cremisius Aclassi, my lieutenant.”

            “Yes,” I nod, smiling at the man. “Good to see you, Lieutenant.”

            “Krem’s fine, Your Worship,” he corrects. “It’s good to see you again, as well.” He nods politely before looking at Iron Bull. “Throatcutters are done, Chief.”

            “Already? Have ‘em check again. I don’t want any of those Tevinter bastards getting away. No offence, Krem,” he adds with a rich chuckle.

            “None taken,” Krem replies as he walks backwards a few steps. “Least a bastard knows who his mother was. Puts him one up on you Qunari, right?” He smirks, turning around.

            I purse my lips, resisting the urge to smile as Iron Bull’s laugh roars out. He looks back at me, coughing once. “So, you’ve seen us fight. We’re expensive, but we’re worth it. And I’m sure the Inquisition can afford us.”

            “How much do you cost, exactly?”

            “It wouldn’t cost you anything personally, ‘less you wanna buy drinks later.” I smirk. “Your ambassador—what’s her name…Josephine?” I frown slightly, but I suppose that’s public knowledge. I wasn’t aware. “We’d go through her and get the payments set up. Gold will take care of itself. Don’t worry about that. All that matters is it'd be money well-spent.”

            I nod in agreement. “The Chargers seem like an excellent company.”

            “They are, but you’re not just getting the boys. You’re getting me.” I raise an eyebrow, intrigued. “You need a frontline bodyguard, I’m your man.” He stands up again, towering over me. “Whatever it is—demons, dragons? The bigger the better. Now, there’s one other thing. Might be useful, might piss you off.” He gestures for me to follow him. He takes us down the shore a ways, stopping on an uneven surface that makes us more or less the same height again. “Ever hear of the Ben-Hassrath?”

            “Can’t say I have.”

            “It’s a Qunari order,” he shrugs, unsurprised. “They handle information, loyalty, security—all of it. Spies, basically. Or, well…we’re spies. The Ben-Hassrath are concerned about the Breach. Magic out of control like that could cause trouble everywhere. I’ve been ordered to join the Inquisition, get close to the people in charge, and send reports on what’s happening. But I also get reports from Ben-Hassrath agents all over Orlais. You sign me on, I’ll share them with your people.”

            I raise both eyebrows this time, impressed and even a little touched by his upfront admission. “You’re a Qunari spy and you just…told me?”

            “Whatever happened at that Conclave thing—it’s bad. Someone needs to get that Breach closed. So, whatever I am, I’m on your side.”

            “No, I didn't mean it like...I’m not judging you; I’m glad you told me. I just mean that you easily could’ve hidden what you are.”

            “From something called the Inquisition?” he chuckles. “Nah, I’d’ve been tipped sooner or later. Better you hear it from me.”

            “What would you send home in these reports you’d write?”

            “Enough to keep my superiors happy,” he replies casually. “Nothing that’ll compromise your operations. The Qunari want to know if they need to launch an invasion to stop the whole damn world from falling apart. You let me send word of what you’re doing, it’ll put some minds at easy. That’s good for everyone.”

            “And what would you be sharing with us? I feel like that’s…probably something I’m supposed to ask,” I add, glancing back at Cassandra. She watches us closely, her hand resting on her sword, as if preparing to jump in if he randomly attacks me. While that obviously won't happen, I can't lie that it's nice she has my back, regardless of her reasons. 

            Iron Bull chuckles. “Enemy movements, suspicious activity, intriguing gossip. It’s a bit of everything. Alone they’re not much, but if your spymaster’s worth a damn, she’ll put ‘em to good use.”

            I raise another eyebrow. “She?” I repeat.

            He smirks. “I did a little research. Plus, I’ve always had a weakness for redheads.”

            I laugh once, and then frown. Not only does he know she's a woman, but he's seen her, knows what she looks like. “Well. Glad you’re on my side.”

            “Basically, this is the deal. I won’t share anything with my superiors that would compromise your operations, but I also won’t give you anything that would compromise their efforts. Seem fair?”

            “More than,” I nod. “You’re in. We’d be lucky to have you and the Chargers.”

            “Excellent,” he roars with a grin, reaching out to shake my hand. He laughs again when the simple gesture jerks me forward. “Krem! Tell the men to finish drinking on the road. The Chargers just got hired!”

            “What about the casks, Chief?” Krem calls back. “We just opened them up. With axes.”

            “Find some way to seal ‘em! You’re Tevinter, right? Try blood magic.” He turns to wink at me. “We’ll meet you back at Haven, boss.”

            I smirk at him and nod. Cassandra heads over when she sees we’re done.

            “It went well, I take it?”

            “Very,” I nod. “They’re gonna head to Haven. Come on. Let’s go find those soldiers. I’ll tell you what he said on the way.”

Chapter Text

It took us a week to find the missing soldiers in the Storm Coast and settle the dispute with the local bandits, the Blades of Hessarian. It ended in a one-on-one challenge duel between me and the bandits' chief. After the I eked out a clumsy victory, my hand ached so much that I almost begged Solas to fix it in front of everyone. I managed to wait several excruciating hours until we were finally alone in camp to do it. By the time I finally reached him, I was, embarrassingly enough, in tears. We gained an alliance with the Blades, however, and I asked one of the scouts to write out a letter to Leliana the morning we left.

            We traveled all the way back down to the Hinterlands to find the Grey Warden Leliana mentioned and, hopefully, speak with the mages.

            As soon as I wake up in the Inquisition tent, I desperately want to go back to sleep. Traveling makes for uneven, uncomfortable sleeping hours, and I spent most of my night talking quietly with Solas. It was a fascinating conversation about uthenera, originally, but it somehow flitted to his knowledge on King Calenhad before ending with a discussion of the Antivan Crows.

            Even as I roll over drearily, I can’t manage regret the time I spent up well past the sunset. I smile sleepily to myself as I sit up, recalling how Solas let me play with his fingers while he spoke. At first, he seemed amused, but by the time we said good night to each other, his smile was warm and affectionate, and it made my heart hammer idiotically.

            I pull my Dalish boots on tiredly, hoping that we can manage to find Blackwall and recruit the mages without all the drama that seems to follow me around. I’d like to be back at Haven already, sleeping in my own bed. Even that isn't really my bed, but it's as close I'm going to get for a while. 

            I emerge from my tent, rubbing the sleep from my eyes drearily, and approach the decanter by the campfire. I pour a large cup of tea, praying it’s strong enough to wake me.

            “Herald,” someone calls, startling me somewhat. I turn to see one of the Inquisition's agents. “Message for you.”

            I accept the scrolls she extends with a quick thank you and a tired smile. I take my tea and the scrolls to a table where Varric is nursing his own mug. He nods at me as I fall down heavily opposite him, groaning.

            “Morning, Snow,” he mumbles.

            I grunt once in greeting. “Couldn’t sleep?” I ask, checking the scrolls. One has Clan Lavellan’s seal, one has Keeper Deshanna’s, and one bears a purple raven emblem—Leliana’s stamp.

            “Something like that,” he sighs.

            “Everyone else still sleeping?”

            “Are you kidding? Cassandra’s been up since before dawn abusing some poor training dummy.” He nudges his chin in her direction, and I wince and groan.

            “Just watching her is painful,” I complain. “What about Solas?” I ask it carefully, trying to appear indifferent. I can't say how successful I am, but if Varric notices the lilt in my voice, he ignores it. 

            “I don’t think he actually ever sleeps. I’m serious. Man’s been reading over on the cliffs since before I got up.”

            “How,” I gasp, taking a scalding sip of tea. I make a face, blinking dramatically. It wants for sugar, but I can't deny that it'll get me moving. 

            I break Leliana’s seal, unfolding the letter. It’s a report of several things we discussed at the war table—updates from her, Josephine, and Cullen. At the end, she mentions she’s forwarding two letters sent by my clan. I smile, relieved. Now I can relax and enjoy the others. I pick up Deshanna’s letter, breaking the green seal.

            Da’len,

            Andaran atish’an. It does my heart well to hear that you are safe. Our clan was visited by members of the Inquisition who spoke persuasively of the good work you are doing, as well as the fairness with which our kind have been treated by the Inquisition itself.

            You know that Clan Lavellan has little by the way of gold, but I gave the messengers some of our healing herbs, as Sylaise blessed us with abundance in our recent foraging. We would be a distraction if we came to the Inquisition itself, our hunters arguing with humans as they so easily do. Assan, of course, asked permission to go, but I have requested he remain here with us for now. I do not wish him to disrupt the good work you are doing, and he is far too much of an asset to us to allow his parting. We have already lost the heart of our clan; we can lose no more. Nevertheless, da’len, if you need aid, send word, and we are with you.

            Dareth shiral,

            Keeper Istimaethoriel Lavellan

            I smile through my tears, unfurling the next one.

            Lethallan,

            We were all very relieved to receive your letters, me most of all. I also did not sneeze at the gifts you included. Too kind, too kind. This Inquisition you wrote of sounds…intense. But I’m glad you’re happy. The people you’re working with sound kind and interesting. Of course, you and I both know that no one could possibly replace me, but I’m glad you’re not completely bored there in the middle of nowhere.

            Now, enough about you. I was hoping to tell you this in person, but seeing as how you're too busy with Herald things to come for a visit...I’m very excited to inform you that, with the keeper’s blessing, you know who and I will be allowed to marry. I was unsure if Keeper Deshanna would allow such a union, given that we will be unable to offer another little Dalish running around (obviously), but she merely congratulated us and gave us her permission (she actually SMILED, can you believe it? I didn't think she was capable). As I write this, I prepare to wed the love of my life, and I’m delighted to say you had a very large hand in that. It was all my moping about losing my very dear friend to the Chantry that resulted in many a night spent together. We quickly stopped talking about you—sorry, lethallan—and moved on to more important matters—me. So, thank you, Sul. Thank you for finally leaving.

            I, of course, kid. I miss you every single day (would you believe I actually cried this morning when we went foraging, because you and I used to go together. Get it together, Assan). I pray to the gods that they see fit to return you to us when you have finished your work in the south. Please be careful, lethallan. You mean far more to me than I could ever express. Heartsickness over your absence is one thing, but I could not bear to hear news of you getting hurt. Please be well.

            I eagerly await your response, and I pass along Lloren’s greetings, as well.

            Yours,

            Assan

            I smile and hug the letter, breathing out through the lump in my throat and the tears blurring my vision. 

            “Good news?” Varric murmurs, looking up at me.

            I wipe my eyes, nodding. “The best. I was worried my clan might suffer for my actions, but they seem to be doing alright. It’s wonderful to hear from them.”

            “I’m glad,” he replies. “It’s good to hear from family.”

            “Do you have any?”

            “Ah, no. Not by blood, anyway. My brother died a while back. Hawke’s family to me, though. Makes me happy when she bothers to remember to write.”

            I grin at his tone, tucking the letters safely inside my satchel. “Assan is like that, too, sometimes. He can be very forgetful.” My chest tightens, and I swallow thickly, realizing I need to change subjects if I intend to keep it together. Thinking of Assan is a dangerous road that more often than not leads to me crying myself to sleep from homesickness. I sip my tea, keeping away from such thoughts. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. How did you meet Cassandra? You two clearly have a past.”

            He snorts. “The Seeker had some questions about the events in Kirkwall, and I had answers.”

            “Well, that’s ominous.

            “Oh, it was, Snow. Suffice it to say…remember when you woke up in chains in some dungeon after stepping out of the Fade? Well, it was pretty much like.” I laugh. “Cassandra does enjoy her interrogations.”

            “Fen’Harel,” I cackle, leaning over. “I’m sorry—it’s not funny, but she’s just so—”

            “Theatrical? Yeah. Should’ve seen her frothing at the mouth before you woke up. I thought she might actually kill someone.”

            “They grow up so fast,” I muse, glancing at Cassandra as she thrashes the dummy. I wince, and Varric laughs. “One more question, and then I’ll leave you alone.”

            “Then it’s my turn,” he smirks.

            “I’m an open book,” I muse. “The crossbow. Bianca?”

            He nods fondly.

            “I’ve never seen one like it—her.”

            “And you never will. She’s a one-of-a-kind.”

            “Where’d you come up with the name?”

            “Oh, you know how it is. Some things name themselves.”

            “So she’s not named for someone?”

            He squints at me playfully. “Suffice it to say, that’s the one story I’ll never tell. We’ll have to leave it at that.”

            “Oh,” I muse. “A mystery. Alright, alright, fair enough, master dwarf, fair enough.”

            “My turn. Solas.”

            I peer down at my tea. “Hm?”

            He chuckles. “You like him, don’t you, Snow?”

            “What? Pff—no. I mean...He’s very—uh, smart! And he, you know, makes for a good…conversationalist when he…” I sigh, peeking up at Varric’s wildly amused expression. “Is it that obvious?” I groan, dropping my head to the table.

            Varric laughs and pats my arm. “It’s sweet, Snow.”

            I groan louder.

            He laughs again. “For what it’s worth, I think he likes you too.”

            “What? Why would you even suggest such an atrocious—”

            “Snow,” Varric laughs. “Maker’s breath.”

            “Are you finished torturing me?”

            “Yeah, yeah,” he chuckles. “Got another question for you.”

            “I’m scared.”

            “Fen’Harel—that’s one of your gods or something, right?”

            I look up, though my face still feels like a furnace. “Yeah. Or—well, he was. It’s complicated.”

            “Ooh, interesting. How so?”

            “He was one of the Evanuris, but—”

            “Who all’s the Evanuris again?”

            “Mythal is the protector and the All-Mother. She’s married to Elgar’nan, the god of vengeance and the All-Father. Then there’s Falon’Din, friend of the dead. We often invoke his name in a prayer for someone who has died or ask for his guidance into death. His twin is Dirthamen, keeper of secrets. Andruil is the goddess of the hunt, and her sister is Sylaise, the Hearthkeeper. She helps us with more domestic tasks, such as foraging for herbs. June is the god of the craft and brother to Andruil and Sylaise. He taught us how to craft weapons from the trees. Ghilan’nain is the mother of the halla.”

            “And Fen’Harel?”

            “The Dread Wolf,” I reply. “He was once a member of the pantheon. Keeper Deshanna says he’s no longer considered as such by many Dalish.”

            “Why?”

            “Well, it’s…there is a story.”

            “But you don’t believe it?” he guesses.

            I swing my head, indicating uncertainty. “Most of the time, no.”

            “Why?”

            “It says he was the trickster god, but I’ve heard other tales that paint him as the god of rebellion. Keeper Deshanna says that the gods used to be among us, and they would help us when we prayed to them. Then, according to her, the Dread Wolf tricked the gods and the Forgotten Ones into a parlay. He made them part ways, and then created the Veil, separating us from them forever. After that, we started aging, and our empire fell apart.”

            “And you don’t believe that?”

            I shrug. “A god of rebellion makes more sense to me. We have no tales of truly evil beings, and I don’t understand why Fen’Harel would be the only one.”

            “What happened to him? Did he stay with the gods after he created the Veil? In the story, I mean.”

            “No. The hahrens like to tell the story of how, afterwards, he hid in a corner of the world, ‘giggling madly to himself for thousands of years.’ But that’s…just a story.”

            “But now Dalish use him as a curse?”

            “Sure. We say things like may the Dread Wolf never hear your steps, or may the Dread Wolf take you. Stuff like that. I think it’s stupid, but…” I shrug.

            “But you do use him as a curse.”

            “Well, yeah,” I laugh, “but in the same way you say Andraste’s ass or Maker’s balls. I don’t mean it actually disrespectfully.”

            “Your people aren’t afraid that invoking his name will summon him?”

            I shrug again. “None of the gods hear us anymore. Why should he be any different?”

            Varric watches me silently, his eyes thoughtful. He appears to be on the verge of replying when Cassandra approaches us breathlessly.

            “Good, you’re awake,” she says. “Shall we find this Warden Blackwall?”

            “I’m ready,” I nod, getting up quickly. I look around, shielding my eyes as I grab my staff. “Solas!” I call when I spot him. I wave when he looks up. “We’re ready to go!”

            He nods and stands, gathering his staff and leaving his book.

            “Do you intend to go to Redcliffe today?” Cassandra wonders.

            “I do,” I nod.

            “Very well,” she sighs. “Then we shall see what these mages have to say for themselves.”

            “It’s just a conversation,” I remind her. “Like the one you tried to have with the Lord Seeker. We’ll just hear them out.”

            “As you say, Herald.”

            “Cassandra,” I groan, pinching the bridge of my nose. “You’re killing me.”

            “I will not dishonor Divine Justinia’s wishes by failing to show you the respect you deserve.”

            “I’m not Andrastian. Please, stop using the name, especially in front of others. I get where you’re coming from, but it’s like if dozens of people started calling you the Herald of Mythal, okay? Please.”

            She grimaces at me, looking away unhappily. Solas approaches us, and I sigh heavily at Cassandra, turning to Varric.

            “Where’s Blackwall supposed to be again?” I ask.

            “Should be up the hill across the lake,” he replies, running his fingers fondly over Bianca’s triggers as he checks the weapon.

            “Let’s go then,” I murmur.

            We make it to the lake within the hour, the sun beating down on us mercilessly. I find myself relieved that my Dalish robes afford more air passage than, say, Cassandra’s heavy plate. Even still, she appears more alert than I feel. Despite the sweat beading and rolling down her temples, she shows no sign of discomfort. I wish, again, that I had her constitution.

            “There,” she says, pointing across the lake.

            And her attention to detail.

            Near a house on the other side of the water, I see a man in shining silver armor. His winged helmet incontrovertibly identifies him as the Grey Warden we seek.

            We follow the lake north to a shallow stream and then cross. I watch the man as we go, realizing he doesn’t stand alone. Several other men wait with him, their clothing far less protective than his. He paces before them, sword and shield out, but he doesn’t appear to be threatening. Instead, he speaks with them carefully, earning nods and quick responses as he paces.

            We arrive at the house, and the closer we get, the better I can hear his words.

            “Remember how to carry your shields,” he instructs. “You’re not hiding; you’re holding. Otherwise it’s useless.”

            “Blackwall?” I call, moving closer to him. I stop a few inches away, admiring the griffin on his chest plate briefly. Even the Dalish have heard the legends. “Warden Blackwall?” A thrill runs through me. I’ve always wanted to meet a Warden. After hearing so much about the Hero of Ferelden when I was a girl, I find myself giddy with anticipation.

            “You’re not…How do you know my name?” he asks. “Who sent—” He glances to the left and then thrusts his shield out over me with a grunt.

            I jerk back when an arrow slams into it. “Shit!”

            A couple dozen men come charging out of the woods surrounding the house. “That’s it; help or stay back,” he tells me. “We’re dealing with these idiots first. Conscripts! Get ready!”

            Blackwall leads the charge, throwing himself into battle with the same fearlessness Cassandra always shows. She joins him, using her shield to push a man off her quickly before she follows it up with a perfectly timed stab. I throw up a quick shield around her again, well aware that she doesn’t truly need it, and I hold it carefully as it slowly forms. I grip my staff with my right hand, my left flailing a little. I've yet to adjust to fighting and casting without it.

            I’m not paying enough attention to my own surroundings, too intent on maintaining the shield around Cassandra, so I don’t see the soldier flanking me until it's too late. I try to react at the last second, but he easily dodges my instinctive swing. He tackles me to the ground, and I lose my staff in the roll, my grasp slipping. I grunt, thrusting my elbow up as hard as I can, connecting with his nose. I don't manage to do much damage, but I reach up past him to call down a bolt of lightning. Before I can complete the word, he grabs my hand and twists my wrist violently. I scream when I feel the bone snap.

            “Snow!” Varric shouts.

            I roll my hips up, throwing my shoulders and waist in one direction, reversing the tackle. I land on top of him, struggling for purchase, but the man grabs my shoulders, slamming me to the ground again. He rolls back over me, pinning me to the ground.

            “Someone get to her!”

            I reach for the dagger on my belt with my left hand, my right lolling uselessly and achingly. I grit my teeth and grab the handle, pulling it up sharply, but he anticipates that movement, too. He grips my left hand, yanking the dagger out of my grasp. With it, he rips my glove off. I reach up with my left fingers to call for lightning again, but he distracts me by bringing my dagger down with all his strength.

            “Herald!” Cassandra cries.

            I catch his arms with my own, screaming again when the weight of his thrust lands almost entirely on my broken wrist. My legs thrash against the ground under up as I try to knee him, but he sits on my thighs, pinning me down even more. I scramble to regain control of the situation. I wrap my left hand around his wrist, trying to pry him off, and I manage to grab the blade with my right hand before it can pierce my neck. I scream again, both at the cut as the blade drives deep into my fingers and at the ache of my broken wrist. He rips the dagger from my fingers suddenly, slicing them even more deeply. They burn in agony, but I don't have time to consider the pain when my life is still under threat. He raises both his hands over his head, preparing to use a force I can’t hope to compete with. I throw my hands up instinctively, but before he can bring the blade down, a powerful force crashes against us both. The man flies off me, and I roll a few feet, colliding with a tree trunk. I recover quickly and scramble to my knees, grabbing the dagger. Before he can find his footing, I crawl over to the man and drive the blade deep into the gap in his armor at his neck. He grunts, and I finish him off as quickly as I can, my hands shaking. I gasp and sink back, heaving as I press my back to a tree. 

            “Shit!” I gasp, looking at my hands. They're both drenched in blood, some of it mine, some of it the man's. My fingers look awful, and my stomach churns at how he shredded my skin with the blade. I can't move my wrist, and involuntary tears prick my eyes from the leftover panic, the thrum of pounding adrenaline, and the agonizing pain.

            But I'm alive. Thank the gods. That was close. 

            Solas and Varric run over to me immediately.

            “Thank you,” I groan, looking at Solas.

            He drops beside me. “Give me your hand,” he says urgently, extending both of his.

            I lift my right arm, grunting at the blinding pain. Sweat beads my forehead as tears chase each other down my cheeks.

            “Careful,” Varric warns, kneeling on my other side. He thrusts a hand into his satchel, pulling out several pieces of gauze. He picks up my left hand swiftly, cleaning the blood from my skin as he looks for more wounds. 

            “Is she alright?” Cassandra gasps, running over to us, her blade dripping.

            “I’m fine,” I reply hoarsely through my teeth. "You don't have to do that," I add to Varric. He ignores me. 

            Solas murmurs quickly, his hands glowing a soft blue. I sag in relief when the pain stops, my hand growing completely numb. He holds onto me tightly, looking up. “You shouldn’t feel anything anymore.”

            “I trust you,” I gasp, preparing myself.

            He tightens his grip around my hand, and I wince when he pulls my wrist out sharply to set the bone. The crack is audible and uncomfortable, but I don't feel a thing. 

            Solas murmurs quickly and quietly under his breath while Varric searches my other hand anxiously. He cleans my fingers as best he can without water, and I nod at him gratefully. 

            “Are you alright?” a new voice asks—the Grey Warden.

            I nod. “Stupid mistake. I’m fine.”

            “Who are you?” he wonders. “How do you know my name?”

            I look up from Solas’ hands, eyeing the Warden as evenly as I can from way down here. “I know your name because I’m an agent of the Inquisition. We’re investigating whether the disappearance of the Wardens has anything to do with the murder of the Divine.”

            “Maker’s balls,” he mutters. “The Wardens and the Divine? That can’t—no, you’re asking, so you don’t really know.”

            When Varric sits back, I move my left hand to Solas’ arm gratefully as he works, my fingers pressing lightly against his wrist.

            “First off,” Blackwall continues after a moment of thinking, “I didn’t know they disappeared. But we do that, right? No more Blight, job done. Wardens are the first thing forgotten. But one thing I’ll tell you: No Wardens killed the Divine. Our purpose isn’t political.”

            “I wasn’t accusing the Wardens,” I say quickly. “Not yet. I just need information. We’ve only found you. Where are the rest?”

            “I haven’t seen any Wardens for months. I travel alone, recruiting. Not much interest because the Archdemon is a decade dead, and no need to conscript because there’s no Blight coming.”

            “Who were they?” I wonder, gesturing to the men as they walk away. “They aren’t conscripts?”

            Blackwall shakes his head. “Treaties give Wardens the right to take what we need, who we need. These idiots forced this fight, so I conscripted their victims. They had to do what I said, so I told them to stand. Next time, they won’t need me.” Blackwall looks away briefly, closing his eyes. “Grey Wardens can inspire, make you better than you think you are.”

            I nod in agreement, looking down at Solas as he works. His fingers are delicate on my wrist, and then he moves his hands back, looking up at me anxiously. I test my wrist, relieved when it appears to be healed, or as healed as Solas can make it right now. Undoubtedly it will be sore for the rest of the day once the feeling returns, but it is infinitely better. He seems to relax as well, moving to my fingers. 

            “No,” I murmur softly. “You’ve done enough. You’ll drain yourself.”

            He smiles at me gently, taking my hand again anyway. His expression tightens as he looks at the cuts, a flicker of anger in his eyes. He handles my fingers with care, prying them cautiously to gain better access. I wince, expecting it to hurt, but his spell worked wonders. I wince again, though, when I see my own bone through the carnage. At his movements, blood rushes up through the wounds again, dripping off my fingers to the grass below. Varric brings up several pieces of clean gauze, handing them to me with a grimace. I look away from my fingers, my stomach roiling uncomfortably. 

            “Blackwall, do you have any idea where the other Wardens could have gone?” I ask.

            He shrugs. “Maybe they’ve returned to our stronghold at Weisshaupt? That’s in the Anderfels, a long way north. I don’t really know,” he admits after another long moment. “Can’t imagine why they’d all disappear at once.”

            Solas moves his fingers, and I see my skin bloodied but healed. “Thank you, Solas,” I murmur, my voice far softer than I meant for it to come out with everyone standing around.

            He looks up at me, his eyes searching mine briefly—concerned, I realize after a few seconds. He takes the gauze from me, cleaning my healed fingers gently. My cheeks flush at that, and I hope the others don't notice my reaction. His own hands are covered in my blood, and I grimace apologetically. Solas conjures a small blade of ice to dampen the gauze. He cleans my hands thoroughly and then his own before taking my right arm and pulling me up gently. Varric reaches down and retrieves my staff, offering it to me, his hand still on my arm. I smile at him as I take it.

            I clean my dagger and return it to its sheath. “Well, it’s been a pleasure, Warden Blackwall,” I say, nodding at the man. “An inspiration. I suppose we’ll have to continue our search for the missing Wardens elsewhere. Thank you for your time.”

            I go to step forward, and Blackwall suddenly raises his fingers to stop me. “Inquisition…agent, did you say? Hold a moment…The Divine is dead, and the sky is torn. Events like these…" He hesitates. "Thinking we’re absent is as bad as thinking we’re involved. If you’re trying to put things right, maybe you need a Warden. Maybe you need me.”

            I grin, nodding. “Warden Blackwall, the Inquisition would be honored to have you.”

            “Don’t know that I’d go that far,” he grumbles with a chuckle. “But it’s still good to hear. We both need to know what’s going on, and perhaps I’ve been keeping to myself for too long. This Warden walks with the Inquisition. I pledge to you my blade, my shield, and my life, if it comes to it.”

            “I’m honored, Warden,” I reply. “We…happen to find ourselves on the way to Redcliffe. You can feel free to join us, or you can find our Inquisition camp down the hill to the south and wait for us there. Or, of course, you can travel to Haven…lots of options, really.”

            He chuckles once. “Day’s early. Think I’ll join you for a stroll, if it’s all the same to you.”

            “Glad to have you with us,” I reply. “Thank you, Solas,” I murmur again when the others turn around and walk away.

            Solas looks at me, his eyes dancing between mine slowly, his expression still concerned. He raises his hand to my cheek, and my heart reacts wildly when he runs his thumb gently across my cheekbone. I swallow quietly, feeling my skin change colors. He repeats the small gesture before his fingers fall away. He places his hand on my back, and I walk forward unsteadily, smiling to myself as he walks close beside me. Though he eventually removes his hand, I still feel the warmth of his touch, and I look down at my feet, grinning like an idiot once again.

Chapter Text

The better part of the morning and afternoon is spent trekking out to Redcliffe. We encounter straggler templars and many bandits along the way, as well as a rift threatening a small farmstead. Ahead, Blackwall, Cassandra, and Varric get to know one another, though the Warden is less than eager to tell his life story—understandably. Solas walks alongside me thoughtfully, seeming pleased with the weather, the company, or the walk—I’m not sure which.

            The closer we get to Redcliffe, the cooler the breeze gets as it sweeps in off Lake Calenhad.

            “Have you ever been to Redcliffe?” I wonder conversationally, glancing at Solas. I hear the others bickering about something half-heartedly, but I can't make it out clearly from this distance.

            “Not physically,” Solas answers, his voice drawing me a step closer. “I dreamt here once, before all this. I saw a great deal of Redcliffe’s history.”

            “Really?” I grin, turning to look at him. “What did you see?”

            He smiles softly, parting his lips to answer. Before he can, we both look up sharply to the sounds of shouting.

            “…a constant watch on that damned thing!” the soldier hollers as she stands on the hill before us. “Sound the alarm at the first sign of demons!”

            “Shit,” I mutter, jogging ahead.

            “Watch out, traveler!” the soldier calls. “The Veil’s ripped open, and Maker-knows-what could come out!”

            “Stay back!” Cassandra warns her. "We will handle it!"

            I see the rift near the closed gates ahead. Soldiers on the wall stare down in horror as the rift suddenly vibrates and bursts open. Terror and despair demons pour out with several wisps. Behind them, a rage demon pulls himself through, fire burning and scorching the grass in its wake.

            The rage demon charges towards us. I stare, confused, as it begins to move in slow motion, its body sliding forth like a snail’s. Indeed, all the demons are moving languidly. Cassandra and Blackwall run past me, either unaware of or unconcerned by the aberration. One moment, they're running at a normal speed; the next, they, too, slow dramatically, affected by whatever strange magic is at work here. In the blink of an eye, everything changes again. They all move far more quickly than normal until their movements are an unclear flurry. I blink again, and the scene shifts a third time, slowing until their movements are at a more regular pace. 

            I turn to Solas to find his expression as perplexed, if far more composed than mine. His hesitancy lasts only a split second, and then he grips his staff, throwing up a shield around Cassandra as she charges the rage demon.

            Blackwall is at her side in an instant, his shield batting aside a wisp when it tries to attack Cassandra from behind. Solas spreads his shield to the both of them, maintaining it as skillfully as ever as he fights. A glowing green crystal forms at the end of his staff, and he launches it at a terror demon. In the blink of an eye, the demon screeches and then disappears, folding back in on itself as if forced back through the Veil to the other side. I glance at Solas again, impressed. I’ll definitely have to learn that trick.

            I pull my staff up and freeze the wisps in place, concentrating carefully on them. When they're still, I call down lightning, ridding us of their distraction. I use my staff to push a terror demon back as it reaches for Varric. The thing screams shrilly, the sound making us all cringe and hesitate. Blackwall is the first to recover, launching himself at the thing. His sword slices through one of its arms, and we suffer another angry screech. Cassandra joins him swiftly. I focus ice on the rage demon, and it roars in defiance, struggling against the wall. Its lower half becomes enveloped with molten rock when it tries to melt the water, sticking it to the earth below.

            The rift shudders and expands as more demons slip through quickly.

            “Herald!” Cassandra calls. “Close the rift! We’ll protect you!”

            “Close the—?” Blackwall's incredulous question is cut off by a demon. He catches its claws barely in time with his shield, staggering back a step before he lunges forward three more.

            I pull my glove off quickly, stepping forward. I raise my hand, and the rift shudders and vibrates again in resistance, but it doesn’t connect with me. I lower my hand and try again, reaching for it across the field. Nothing.

            Shit.

            Not close enough.

            I rush into the midst of the fight, using the blade at the end of my staff to slice through a shade when it notices me. I duck under a terror demon’s claws, forcing myself into a roll when it tries to grab me again. I move past the rage demon’s reach but fail to notice a freshly released fire wisp rushing at me until it slams into a glimmering wall. I look back hurriedly to see Solas’ focus now primarily on me, his hand holding the wall securely. I swallow quickly, turning back to the rift, well aware that he won’t be able to maintain it for too much longer. We’ve used too much of our mana today, him more than me. 

            I raise my hand to the rift, connecting with it swiftly. I look left to see Cassandra and Blackwall moving in slow motion again. Their cries and the clash of their swords reach my ears without delay, but the action of their movements is several seconds late. Needless to say, it's very disorienting. And alarming. It's as if this rift is affecting time itself. Even as I think it, the notion seems preposterous. Magic can do many things, but affect time? Alter it to the point where pockets speed up while others slow down dramatically? That's...impossible. 

            Mythal, it has to be impossible. There must be something else at play here. 

            The rift groans in protestation, the thunderous sound of roiling energy creating a deafening crescendo. Emerald fire spits and spews like lava around my fingers. As if on cue, every demon on the field turns on me at once.

            My eyes widen, and I step closer to the rift, urging it to seal more quickly, preferably before several angry demons rip me to ribbons. 

            “Cover her!” Cassandra shouts when Blackwall stares at me.

            Some idiotic part of me decides this is a good time for a joke, but before I can voice it, the rift yanks me forward several steps. Solas' barrier moves with me, the glimmering walls impossibly strong. I know he must be drained, but the wall begs to differ. 

            Blackwall jumps into action after a stunned second, chasing after the demons as they converge on me.

            I step to the side again, focusing all my energy on the rift. Sweat beads my forehead, and I feel the magic lacing across my bones, the unfortunately familiar ache returning with quite a vengeance. I close my eyes tightly, trusting Solas and the others with my life as I focus my will. I drop my staff and grip my wrist as the rift quivers and roars in defiance. Curling my hand into a fist, I feel for the edges of the Veil. It takes me several valuable seconds to find them. I feel a nagging sensation in the back of my mind and a tickle against my fingertips when I succeed. I grip the edges firmly and then rip my hand back, breaking the connection and pulling the door shut. The rift explodes in a brilliant green light, blinding me before it disappears. I gasp, my vision blurring from the sudden stab. I bend slightly at the waist, bringing my hand to my chest as a sweep of violent agony washes over me staggeringly. 

            The demons roar in anger now that their door is sealed, coming at me with renewed vigor. I pick up my staff, gripping my left hand shakily while I try to help the others deal with the last of them. Blackwall and Cassandra step in front of me, and I back far enough away that Solas drops his barrier. I turn away from them all to quickly pull on my glove. Tears flood my eyes, but I blink them away quickly, forcing the leather up my fingers. I release a shuddering breath accompanied by a weak whine when I do it too carelessly. Glass drags up my sensitive skin, adding to the impossible pain. Cassandra, Varric, and Blackwall quickly end the rest of the demons, and as soon as the last one is down, Blackwall turns to me. He lifts his winged helmet off, staring at me, and I force myself to drop my aching hand, pretending that everything is normal. 

            “Maker’s balls,” he breathes. “I-I heard the rumors, but you’re—”

            “If you say the Herald of Andraste, I think she might hit you,” Varric warns.

            “That was…” Blackwall just stares at me, his helmet clutched loosely in his fingers. “You’re…She’s…”  

            “Oh yeah,” Varric agrees. He lifts several strands of loose hair, tucking them behind his ear as he smirks at me. "That's exactly what she is. Well said."

            I swallow against the pain, forcing myself to maintain my composure. I feel my hand tremble, twitching in agony, but I do my best to ignore it. 

            “What was that?” I gasp breathlessly, my voice high from the pain. I pass it off as shock. 

            Solas looks anxiously at my hand, stepping to me, but I angle it away from him discreetly, certain that he must have used too much mana. All too familiar with how painful depleted energy is, I can't ask him to use his magic on me again today. 

            “We don’t know what these rifts can do,” Cassandra replies uncertainly. “That one…appeared to alter time around it.”

            “It felt…wrong. Different, somehow. Stronger than the others we've closed,” I admit.

            Before we can properly theorize, the guard from before runs back up the hill, a dozen men at her heels.

            “Maker have mercy!” she cries, sagging in relief. “It’s over! The Herald closed the rift. Open the gates!”

            The shriek of metal rings in the air as the gate is lifted off the ground slowly. I follow the others, staring unseeingly at the ground for a few moments. My vision blurs after a particularly strong wave, and I flinch, holding my breath until it passes.

            One of Leliana’s agents jogs up the hill towards us. He bows deeply, locating me past the others. “We’ve spread word the Inquisition was coming, but you should know that no one was expecting us.”

            “No one?” I repeat. “Not even—Grand Enchanter Fiona?” My voice wavers, and I clear my throat as Solas looks at me. A burst of anger rushes through me at my weakness. Get it together, Sul. 

            “If she was, she hasn’t told anyone,” the agent replies. “We’ve arranged use of the tavern for the negotiations.”

            My vision blurs again, and I duck my head in a nod. “Thank you.”

            “Agents of the Inquisition!”

            I glance up again to see an elven man in Circle robes rush up the hill to us, waving his hands. 

            “My apologies!” he calls breathlessly. “Magister Alexius is in charge now but hasn’t yet arrived. He’s expected shortly if—”

            “There’s a magister here?” I demand, ice flooding my veins.

            “Yes. Well—no, not quite yet. He should be here soon, though. In the meantime, you can speak with the former Grand Enchanter, if you like.”

            “The former Grand Enchanter?” Cassandra repeats.

            “Indeed. I must be going before the magister returns,” the elf says hurriedly. “Please come find us at the tavern! We’ll be waiting for you there. Fiona was intrigued to hear of your arrival!”

            “No, wait, what do you—” I don’t get to finish the thought before he runs off as quickly as he arrived. I turn to the agent. “Can you find out what’s going on here?” I ask him. “Report back to Leliana as soon as you can.”

            “Understood, Your Worship.”

            Solas looks up at the sky, his expression thoughtful. “The Veil is weaker here than in Haven,” he murmurs, “and not merely weak but altered in a way I have not seen.”

            “What do you mean?” I ask.

            “We should talk to the…former Grand Enchanter,” Cassandra replies distractedly before he can answer. “Find out what is happening here.”

            Solas glances at me, his expression worried.

            “This is…weird,” I sigh, moving forward.

            I hold my arm delicately at my side, careful to walk so it doesn’t jostle. Pain still jerks it every few seconds, my fingers spasming in the glove. It throbs the closer we get to Redcliffe, and I turn away when my eyes flood with tears. Several slip down, and I reach up to catch them, pretending to wipe the sweat from my forehead. I thought the movement was stealthy, but I realize it wasn't when Solas stops walks.

            "I need a word with the Herald," he announces. 

            The others glance back, Cassandra eyeing me. 

            “Go on to the tavern,” I tell them, pleased when my tone comes out even, if a little low. "We'll be right behind you."

            “As you say, Herald," she replies, giving us both a confused look before walking with the others. 

            I weaken when they're gone, leaning against the stone wall surrounding Redcliffe village. Solas moves closer to me at once, lifting my hand.

            I take it back, shaking my head. "No, you've used far too much of your—"

            "Give me your hand," he says gently. "Let me help you, Suledin."

            "I'm fine," I reply, aware that he knows it's a complete lie. "I don't want to drain you. It's not fair t—"

            "Please, lethallin. You needn't suffer." He holds out his hands, and I can't deny the ache in my chest, desperate for relief. 

            "Are you certain?"

            He doesn't verbally answer. He simply extends his hands out to me further, waiting. I look at him with a swell of gratitude and pull off my glove, flinching and gasping.

            Solas takes my hand gently, his fingers pressing against me carefully. Despite his tenderness, his skin feels like glass against mine, and I flinch, looking away. “Perhaps you should explain to them the pain you’re—”

            “I don’t want to worry them,” I admit quietly. “It…makes them feel hopeful or whatever that I can do this. I don’t want them thinking I can’t. Especially with the Breach still open.”

            He nods once, and I roll my head back to the stone wall, holding my breath to fight off a gasp at another wave of fire.

            “Ir abelas, lethallin,” he whispers before beginning the spell.

            Tears stream down my temples, and I shake my head angrily at myself. I open my eyes and look down at our hands.

            “It’s happening more quickly now,” I murmur, watching him as he works.

            He can’t respond as he murmurs softly under his breath, but his eyes find mine. Something in his expression, though it’s dark and sad, makes me feel comforted. I don’t know why.

            I sag in blinding relief when the spell is finished. Solas’ warm fingers stay on mine as I catch my breath, and then his hands are gone. “I’m sorry this has happened to you,” he says quietly, watching me as I put my glove back on.

            I shake my head with a sigh. “I’m sorry I keep bothering you with it,” I reply, standing.

            “You could never bother me."

            I look down. "Are you okay?" I ask. "Did the spell...take too much from you?" 

            "I'm alright, lethallin. It is a simple matter; it doesn't take much."

            I don't believe that for a moment. Magic powerful enough to override a mysterious mark? A mark that is somehow connected to a Breach that has torn the sky apart and is able to heal tears in the Veil? But I let the matter rest, thanking him softly as we turn to walk through the village. I try to enjoy my first time in Redcliffe. I try to catch brief glimpses of the blue lake through the buildings and the sight of the massive castle sitting on a hill over the water, looming strongly over the village; I try to hear the seagulls and think of the breeze tickling my skin and the sun warming my face. I try, but as we go, I hear snippets of conversations, fears shared quietly in whispers regarding the mages that have overtaken the village and the Tevinter magister whose very name sends ice shooting down my spine. 

            We arrive at the tavern far before I'm actually ready. The others are waiting near the door, and some irrational, childish part of me wants to ask Cassandra to go first. It bids me to let her lead and do the talking while I stand behind her, hiding behind her blade. Rather than act on the foolish urge, I nod at the others and press against the door, entering the dimly lit room. 

            Fiona spots us immediately and rises from her chair, stepping forward to meet us. “Welcome, agents of the Inquisition,” she greets formally, her Orlesian accent surprised.

            “Thank you for agreeing to this meeting,” I reply.

            She nods, her eyes searching mind. “What has brought you to Redcliffe?”

            I frown at her, glancing at Cassandra once. “I—is this a test? We’re here because you invited us.”

            Fiona’s confusion only grows.

            “In Val Royeaux?” I add.

            She shakes her head. “You...must be mistake. I haven’t been to Val Royeaux since…before the Conclave.”

            I hesitate. “No, it—it was definitely you. Who else could it have been?”

            “I…I don’t know,” Fiona replies, placing a hand to her head. “Now that you say it…I feel…strange.” She frowns again, shaking her head. “Whoever or…whatever…brought you here, the situation has changed. The free mages have already…pledged themselves to the service of the Tevinter Imperium.”

            My heart stops, and my eyes widen. 

            “An alliance with Tevinter?” Cassandra repeats incredulously. “Do you not fear all of Thedas turning against you?”

            “Andraste’s ass,” Varric groans. “I’m trying to think of a single worse thing you could have done, and I’ve got nothing.”

            “H-how could you do this without even speaking to us?” I demand shrilly. “Do you even realize what you’ve done?”

            Solas steps forward once to the former grand enchanter. “I understand that you are afraid, but you deserve better than slavery to Tevinter.”

            Fiona holds her head high. “As one indentured to a magister, I no longer have the authority to negotiate with you.”

            My breath rushes from me. “You—you’ve bound and chained everyone here to a-a—”

            “What choice did we have?” Fiona demands. “The templar threat was immediate. If we live, we can worry about the torn Veil.”

            “No!” I snap, glaring at her, rage coursing through me unchecked. I feel Varric and Solas look at me in open surprise. Even Cassandra seems shocked. “The Veil is the problem—you—you’ve enslaved everyone here, everyone who trusted you with their lives and their freedom—you—you—”

            The door slams behind me, and I turn to see who has interrupted. My anger whooshes out of me, and I take a step back when I see the magister enter the room, his long red robes brushing against the floor as he walks. A tapered, blood-colored cowl rests lazily over his head, his dark eyes peering out at us curiously. My heart pounds, and I swallow.

            “Welcome, my friends!” he greets, grinning widely. “I apologize for not greeting you earlier.”

            “Agents of the Inquisition,” Fiona says, “allow me to introduce Magister Gereon Alexius.”

            The magister stops before me, too close. I step back, my blood humming in my ears. Everything in me tightens, my mind throwing horrifying, unbidden images of the last magister I encountered.

            Alexius smirks at me when I don't say anything, and he moves beside Fiona. “The southern mages are under my command,” he announces dismissively. “But you are the survivor, yes? The one from the Fade?” His eyes gleam, and he stares at me intently, making my skin crawl. “Interesting.”

            I swallow again, trying to find my words, but I feel my breath coming too fast as the room closes in on me. My heart pounds erratically, and I move my foot back slowly another step towards the door.

            “You are leading the mages now?” Cassandra asks after a moment of silence. “Perhaps we can come to an arrangement. We have need of them—great need, as I’m sure you know.”

            Varric glances up at me, and I blink rapidly, struggling to maintain my composure as I part my lips to breathe. I don't dare look away from the magister, old fear keeping me on my guard.

            “It is always a pleasure to meet reasonable people,” he grins, not looking away from me, either.

            I swallow again loudly. “Then—then we can arrange—something?” I ask, my voice breathy and uncertain. 

            Varric looks at me again, as does Solas.

            “Sit with me,” the magister smiles, gesturing to a nearby table. I look at it before shooting Cassandra a wide-eyed, desperate look I know they all see. She blinks in surprise, her expression growing concerned. She moves her hand to her sword, resting it casually against the handle, ready to draw it at a moment's notice. That small gesture reminds me that I'm not alone here, and I try to calm down enough to not show my fear so plainly. “Felix, would you send for a scribe, please? Pardon my manners,” Alexius adds, looking at me. “My son Felix, friends.”

            I glance stiffly at the young man standing near us, golden robes adorning his frame. His own cowl rests absently against his back, his eyes finding mine with interest. He bows deeply at me before turning to do as he was asked.

            Alexius stares at me unnervingly, and I move past the others, sitting rigidly on the edge of the chair opposite him. “I am not surprised you’re here,” he admits. “Containing the Breach is not a feat that many could even attempt. There is no telling how many mages would be needed for such an endeavor. Ambitious, indeed.”

            I look down at the table. “Here at the Inquisition, we don’t like to think small.”

            My flat tone makes the desperate joke utterly fail, but Alexius laughs anyway. “Very good. Very good. There will have to be—”

            He turns his head sharply, and I look over to see his son stumble towards us unsteadily. I stand up swiftly as the man falls on me. I try to jerk back in surprise, panic gripping me, but he grips my wrists, and I feel something small slip discreetly against my right palm before he stands again.

            “Felix!” Alexius gasps, reaching for him.

            “My lady, I’m so sorry!” Felix says, stepping back and shaking his head. “Please forgive me.”

            I clutch the note carefully, stepping back once from Alexius.

            “Are you alright?” he asks, his voice begging as he leans over his son.

            Felix nods, moving a hand to his side with a wince. “I’m fine, Father.”

            “Come, I’ll get your powders. Please, excuse me, friends. We will have to continue this another time.” Alexius takes his son’s weight, helping him through the tavern. “Fiona, I require your assistance back at the castle.”

            “I don’t mean to trouble everyone,” Felix murmurs.

            Alexius turns, his eyes finding mine with a flicker of something I don't know how to define. “I shall send word to the Inquisition. We will conclude this business at a later date.”

            I nod belatedly, watching his departure warily.

            They leave the tavern, and I sag against the table behind me, staring at the ground before I hold up the note.

            “You alright, Snow? Looked like you saw a ghost,” Varric murmurs.        

            I wave him off, opening the letter.

            “Did he give you something?” he asks, stepping closer.

            “It just says, ‘come to the Chantry. You are in danger.’”

            “Oh, very mysterious.”

            “We’ll be careful,” I mutter, “but we should...figure out what’s going on.”

            “Are you alright, Herald?” Cassandra wonders, her fingers still clasped around her sword handle. “You’re pale.”

            “I’m fine,” I say, shaking my head as I feel their eyes on me. “Let’s go. Oh, excuse me, Warden Blackwall. I'm sorry,” I add when I thoughtlessly walk into him.

            “Apologies,” he says, quickly stepping aside.

            “My fault,” I reply distractedly. I push open the door swiftly, stepping into the warm sun. I take the stairs down two at a time, breathing in lungfuls of fresh air as I head to the Chantry, a short walk away.

            I don't see anything on my way, my mind reeling. Before I remember consciously making the decision, I push the doors of the small Chantry open, stopping when I hear the soft sound of magic and a staff hit the ground. The man is dressed in crisp white and grey robes that contrast with his dark skin. He swings his ebony staff around as we enter, knocking a demon aside before stabbing another with the blade at the end. He looks back at me, grinning as he pants.

            “Good! You’re finally here. Now, be a dear and help me close this, would you?”

            I rush forward, reaching for the rift while Cassandra and Blackwall launch into battle. It becomes apparent that the mage waiting for us favors fire spells. He works quickly, and the Chantry soon begins to feel like an inferno. Sweat dews my skin uncomfortably, and I blink in surprise as the others slow down to a snail's pace again before jerking into a blindingly fast motion. The man in white glances at me, making a face when he notices it, too. He hesitates when he looks at me, his eyes scanning my wrist as I remain tethered to the rift. He sets his staff down, letting the others do the work while he watches. 

            When the rift explodes and seals, the man nods approvingly, wiping his forehead and dusting off his clothes.

            “Fascinating,” he muses, admiring the area where the rift once stood. “How does that work, exactly?” He turns to me excitedly before laughing good-naturedly. “You don’t even know, do you? You just wiggle your fingers and boom! Rift closes!”

            Despite my very real fear earlier, his charm puts me at ease, and I find myself smirking at his tone. “Who are you?”

            “Ah, getting ahead of myself again, I see. Dorian of House Pavus,” he greets, offering a lavish bow, “most recently of Minrathous. How do you do?”

            “Another Tevinter,” Cassandra sighs impatiently. “Be cautious with this one.”

            “Suspicious friends you have here!” Dorian grins, playing with his mustache. “Magister Alexius was once my mentor, so my assistance should be valuable—as I’m sure you can imagine.”

            I frown. “And you’re betraying your mentor because…?”

            “Alexius was my mentor, meaning he’s not any longer, not for some time. Look, you must know there’s danger. That should be obvious even without the note. Let’s start with Alexius claiming the allegiance of the mage rebels out from under you—as if by magic, yes? Which is exactly right. To reach Redcliffe before the Inquisition, Alexius distorted time itself.”

            I pause, blinking slowly at the man. I open my mouth a couple times, dropping the thoughts both times. 

            “Take your time, dear,” Dorian murmurs. “It is rather shocking, isn't it?”

            “Are you—he’s distorting time?”

            “That is fascinating if true,” Solas muses. “And almost certainly dangerous.”

            Dorian nods. “The rift you closed here? You saw how it twisted time around itself, sped some things up and slowed others down? Soon, there will be more like it, and they’ll appear further and further away from Redcliffe. The magic Alexius is using is wildly unstable, and it’s unraveling the world.”

            I blank again. “You’re...you're asking me to take a lot on faith.”

            Dorian frowns at me. “I know what I’m talking about. I helped develop this magic. When I was still his apprentice, it was pure theory. Alexius could never get it to work. What I don’t understand is why he’s doing it…Ripping time to shreds just to gain a few hundred lackeys?”

            “He didn’t do it for them," someone says quietly. 

            I turn to see Felix approach Dorian from the back of the Chantry.

            “Took you long enough,” Dorian muses. “Is he getting suspicious?”

            “No, but I shouldn’t have played the illness card. Thought he’d be fussing over me all day.” Felix looks at me, stopping near Dorian. “My father’s joined a cult—Tevinter supremacists. They call themselves ‘Venatori.’ And I can tell you one thing: Whatever he’s done for them, he’s done it to get to you.”

            I make a face, my heart pounding. “Alexius did all that for me? And here I didn’t get him anything.”

            Dorian smirks. “Try one of those fruit baskets. Everyone loves those.” He plays with his mustache again, squinting at me slightly. “This is where things get more interesting. You know you’re his target. Expecting the trap is the first step in turning it to your advantage. I can’t stay in Redcliffe. Alexius doesn’t know I’m here, and I want to keep it that way for now. But whenever you’re ready to deal with him, I want to be there. I’ll be in touch.” He half-bows and strides past us, stopping and turning when he hits the door. “Oh, and Felix? Try not to get yourself killed.”

            Felix grimaces at him. “There are worse things than dying, Dorian.” He offers me a quick glance and then departs out the back of the Chantry.

            “What do we do now?” Varric wonders when we're alone.

            I raise a hand to my forehead, rubbing my temples. “We’ll...head back to the outpost. I’ll write a letter to Leliana and Cullen,” I answer. “While we wait for their response, let’s see what we can do to help the Hinterlands. Might as well make sure there’s still something left once we’ve sealed the Breach.”

***

We spend a week in the Hinterlands without any word from Haven. We close rifts and take out two bandit strongholds. Solas leads us to a cave where he thinks something can help strengthen the Veil, and we rid the Hinterlands of the last remaining hostile templars.

            This morning, I emerge from my tent, shocked to see why Leliana didn’t bother to write me back. She, Josephine, and Cullen dismount from heavy war horses, tying them up quickly.

            “Suledin,” Leliana greets, walking over to me gracefully.

            “Leliana,” I reply in surprise, “I—wasn’t sure you’d received our message.”

            “We did,” she nods. “We came to speak with you in person. Before we left, we received word from Alexius as well. We have much to discuss, when you’re ready.”

            “Aren’t you all...tired?” 

            She glances back at the others. “This is too important to wait. I’ll gather Cullen, Josie, and Cassandra. Find us when you’re ready to discuss our next course of action.”

            I nod. “Let me just get dressed,” I say, backing up quickly. “One moment!”

            I duck into my tent quickly, dressing clumsily as I try to hurry. I pull my belt on swiftly and sheathe my dagger. By the time I’ve emerged again, I see Cassandra and Cullen arguing near a table. Leliana sighs impatiently while Josephine lays down a map between them all.

            “We don’t have the manpower to take the castle!” Cullen says irritably, crossing his arms obstinately. “Either we find another way in or give up this nonsense and go and get the templars.”

            “Redcliffe is in the hands of a magister,” Cassandra replies calmly. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”

            Josephine makes a face as I arrive. “The letter from Alexius asked for the Herald of Andraste by name. It’s an obvious trap!”

            “Nice to know I haven’t been forgotten,” I mumble, glancing down at the maps. Blueprints of Redcliffe’s castle. I don't even bother asking where they got these.

            Leliana shifts her weight impatiently. “A Tevinter magister has laid claim to a castle in Ferelden, stolen the mages out from under us, and now invites us to negotiate, and some of us still want to do nothing.”

            “Not this again,” Josephine groans.

            Cullen turns on Leliana. “Redcliffe castle is one of the most defensible fortresses in Ferelden,” Cullen says slowly—not for the first time, I gather. “It has repelled thousands of assaults. If you go in there,” he says, turning to me, “you’ll die, and we’ll lose the only means we have of closing these rifts. I won’t allow it.”

            “And if we don’t even try to meet Alexius,” Leliana adds, “we lost the mages and leave a hostile foreign power on our doorstep.”

            Josephine sighs. “Even if we could assault the keep, it would be for naught! An Orlesian Inquisition’s army marching into Ferelden would provoke a war! Our hands are tied!”

            Cassandra huffs. “The magister—!”

            “Has outplayed us,” Cullen finishes grimly.

            I sigh heavily. “We can’t just give up. There has to be something we can do, some way into that castle. A side alley, a servant’s entrance, a sewer—something Alexius has overlooked. You were right, Leliana. He’s a foreign power. He doesn’t know Redcliffe like we do—like you do. There must be something.”

            “There’s nothing that I know of that would work,” Cullen replies.

            Leliana cocks her head. “Wait…” She nods, thinking, and I grin at her. “There is a secret passage into the castle, an escape route for the family.”

            “What?" Cullen says, turning to her. "I’ve looked at dozens of these maps—there’s nothing—”

            “It is not on the maps, but I've traveled through it before,” Leliana replies. “It is too narrow for our troops, but we could send agents through.”

            Cullen shakes his head. “Too risky. Those agents will be discovered well before they reach the magister.”

            “That is why we need a distraction.” Leliana glances at me. “Perhaps the envoy Alexius wants so badly?”

            Everyone looks at me, and I sigh. “Oh, okay, I see where this is going,” I mutter.

            Cullen nods. “Keep attention on Lavellan while we disable the magister’s defenses. It’s a gamble, but it might work.”

            “Fortunately, you’ll have help," someone announces grandly.

            We all turn to see Dorian striding through camp, an Inquisition agent tailing him.

            I frown. “How did you...?”

            “This man says he has information about the magister and his methods, Commander,” the agent murmurs.

            Dorian winks at me, sidling up to the war table. He plays with the maps, smirking to himself while Cullen glares at him.

            “Your spies will never get past Alexius’ magic without my help,” Dorian informs us confidently. “So, if you’re going after him, I’m coming along.”

            Cullen frowns at him and then looks at me. “The plan puts you in the most danger. We can’t, in good conscience, order you to do this. We can still go after the templars if you’d rather. You needn’t put yourself in this situation, Lavellan.”

            “We’ve been hurling ourselves headfirst into danger since I woke up in Haven. Why stop now?” I muse. “Dorian, I’d be happy to have you along. Leliana, prepare your agents. Cassandra, inform Varric and Solas of the plan. Let’s…hope this doesn't completely blow up in our faces, yeah?”

Chapter Text

I nod at the magister's guards when they open the doors at the end of the long hall. Solas, Cassandra, and Varric flank me. Cassandra's sword rings softly at her side, but she makes no effort to soften it.

            The main hall is dim, candles burning low to the nubs. I try not to let that, in itself, unsettle me. The darker it is, the better our plan will work. The large fire burning on the other side of the room provides the most amount of light, silhouetting the three figures on the dais. Posted every few feet, Tevinter guards watch our approach from all the main columns leading to where Alexius sits. His eyes are fixed on me as I walk, and I make sure to hold his gaze, though everything in me itches to look away.

            A studious man comes rushing down from dais, meeting me halfway to stop our progress. “The magister’s invitation was for Mistress Lavellan only. These others will have to remain here.”

            “Where I go, they go,” I reply casually with a shrug. “If Alexius would rather converse with himself, my companions and I will happily head to Therinfal Redoubt.”

            The man glares at me evenly, and then at Solas, Cassandra, and Varric in turn before he returns to me. “Very well,” he replies through a clenched jaw, giving one of the guards a significant look.

            “Mm, too kind,” I murmur, moving around him slowly.

            I’m careful to not look at the many Venatori lining the walls, surrounding us. Some stand hidden in the shadows, others are closer, their hands readied on their weapons as I walk to the dais. It feels like walking into a den of lions.

            On a throne flanked by mabari statues that does not belong to him, Alexius sits, his leg propped on his knee disrespectfully, almost lazily. Fiona waits on the floor below the dais, her weakened posture indicative of exactly the kind of thing I fear from Tevinter: utter defeat. Felix stands beside his father, his expression carefully neutral, but I see him watch me with great interest.

            “Love what you’ve done with the place,” I murmur, careful to keep my fear in check this time. I was taken off-guard the first time I met the magister, and I shamed myself and my clan. I will not allow a repeat of that disgrace. 

            “My Lord Magister,” the announcer calls, walking up quickly past me. “The agents of the Inquisition have arrived.”

            Only then does Alexius rise, his eyes glued to mine as he smiles. “My friend! It’s so good to see you again.” He gestures vaguely to those standing behind me. “And your associates, of course. I’m sure we can work out some arrangement that is equitable to all parties.”

            Fiona looks up sharply. “Are we mages to have no voice in decided our fate?”

            “Fiona,” Alexius tsks, “you would not have turned your followers over to my care if you did not trust me with their lives, yes?” There’s a undeniable command laced within his tone.

            “Yes,” I muse, “because you simply ooze trust. If the Grand Enchanter wishes to join these talks, then I welcome her as a guest of the Inquisition.”

            Fiona glances at me uncertainly, perhaps wary of the deliberately defiant path I'm taking. “Thank you,” she nods formally.

            I don’t miss the disdainful look Alexius quickly composes. He sits again, resting his head on his hand, as if bored. “The Inquisition needs mages to close the Breach, and I have them. So, what shall you offer in exchange?”

            “Nothing,” I reply with a shrug. “I’m just going to take the mages and leave.”

            Alexius smirks. “You are very amusing, Suledin, of clan Lavellan,” he muses slowly. My heart hesitates before speeding up, but I simply cross my arms, raising an eyebrow at the man like what he said hasn't shaken me. “How do you imagine you’ll accomplish such a feat?”

            “She knows everything, Father,” Felix sighs, turning to the magister on his stolen throne.

            Alexius turns to him, sitting upright. “Felix," he says carefully, "what have you done?”

            “I’m afraid your little trap here has failed, Alexius,” I reply indifferently. "Ah, don't be too broken up about it. It was a decent plan. In theory."

            Alexius turns to me angrily, rising again with venom. He strides forward a couple steps without leaving the dais. “You walk into my stronghold with your stolen mark,” he spits, “a gift you don’t even understand, and think you’re in control? You are nothing but a mistake.”

            “What do you mean?” I demand, stepping forward boldly. “What was supposed to happen?”

            “It was the Elder One’s,” Alexius seethes, “and you stole it!”

            “The Elder One? Who is the Elder One?”

            “Father, listen to yourself!” Felix cries, stepping to him. “Do you know what you sound like?”

            “He sounds exactly like the sort of villainous cliché everyone expects us to be,” Dorian answers, finally emerging from behind the column nearest the throne.

            “Dorian,” Alexius greets, his voice low and solemn. “I gave you a chance to be part of this. You turned me down. The Elder One has power you would not believe. He will raise the Imperium from its own ashes.”

            “So, that’s who you serve, then?” I ask. “The Elder One? Is he who killed the Divine? Is he a mage?”

            “Soon,” Alexius whispers, looking at me, “he will become a god. He will make the world bow to mages once more. We will rule from the Boeric Ocean to the Frozen Seas.”

            Silence rings through the hall in the wake of his pronouncement.

            “Well,” I murmur. “Glad to know it’s nothing crazy.”

            “You can’t involve my people in this!” Fiona exclaims, shaken from her shock.

            “Alexius,” Dorian breathes, at a loss. He steps to my side, shaking his head. His elbow brushes mine as he gestures to the magister exasperatedly. “This is exactly what you and I talked about never wanting to happen! Why would you support this?”

            Alexius turns his back on us, looking into the fire. I hear the quiet thuds behind me of the Venatori agents being disposed by Leliana’s men.

            “Stop it, Father,” Felix pleads. “Give up the Venatori. Let the southern mages fight the Breach, and let’s go home.”

            “No,” Alexius murmurs, looking at his son desperately. “It’s the only way, Felix! He can save you!”

            Felix stares at the magister, blinking once in shock. “Save me?” he repeats.    

            “There is a way,” Alexius says, his tone begging as he rushes his words. “The Elder One promised! If I undo the mistake at the Temple…”

            “I’m going to die,” Felix says firmly. “You need to accept that.”

            The magister huffs, whipping around. “Seize them, Venatori!” Alexius commands. “The Elder One demands this woman’s life!”

            No one moves. Alexius looks around the hall, horrified anger replacing his calm demeanor. I glance back, too, to see the Inquisition agents standing over Venatori bodies.

            “Your men are dead, Alexius,” I muse.

            “You,” he seethes, “are a mistake! You never should have existed!” Alexius pulls his hand to his chest, ripping off the amulet he had around his neck. He tosses it in the air, and it hovers between us as Alexius raises a hand to it, muttering quickly. Flickers of green energy flare out from it, growing larger in seconds. 

            “No!” Dorian shouts, swinging his staff through the air. The force of his magic jerks Alexius back a step. The amulet falls to the ground, and a rift tears open in the middle of the main hall. The green light blinds me, and I recoil in surprise. I raise my hand to shield my eyes, gasping at its intensity. Hands grip my waist, and then I’m falling. I cry out and land in a foot of freezing water, gasping and recoiling again in shock. I rise to my hands and knees, staring at the ground in delayed confusion. 

            I look up to see Dorian standing in front of me, his clothes equally soaked. What distracts me from his look of surprise, however, is that he’s giving it to.

            A massive spire of red, glowing crystal thicker than a tree trunk winds up from the floor, thrusting into the ceiling above. Around it, thinner spikes illuminate the murky room we stand in—which is most certainly not the throne room.

            “Displacement,” Dorian murmurs, looking around. “Interesting. It’s probably not what Alexius intended. The rift must have moved us…to what, the closest confluence of arcane energy?”

            “We were…standing in the castle hall?” I say, my words coming out as a question. I stand up quickly, flicking my hands out in a useless effort to dry them. The stone walls around me are cracked and cold, and utterly unfamiliar. My fingers ache a little from the chill, and I dry them on my robes before crossing my arms tightly. “Where are we?”

            Dorian squints at the walls. “Let’s see…if we’re still in the castle, it isn’t. Oh, of course! It’s not simply where, it’s when!”

            I blink at him, growing even more confused. “Wha…?”

            He turns to me excitedly, his eyes gleaming with understanding. “Alexius used the amulet as a focus. It moved us through time!”

            My eyes widen. “What? D-did we go forwards or backwards? How far? Is that even possible?”

            “Those are excellent questions. We’ll have to find out, won’t we? Let’s look around, see where the rift took us. Then we can figure out how to get back…if we can.”

            “What?” I say again. “Why would you say it like that?”

            “I’m sure it’s all alright. Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” he announces with a modest sigh.

            “I feel better already,” I mumble, reaching for my staff. “Shit!” I whip around, kicking the black water as I search.

            “What? What's wrong?”

            “Where is it?”

            “Where is what?”

            “My staff!”

            Dorian looks around before giving me an apologetic look. “Mm...must’ve dropped it when I grabbed onto you—sorry about that, by the way.”

            “Fenedhis! Wait, what about everyone else in the hall?” I ask quickly, looking at Dorian hurriedly. “Solas, Varric, Cassandra—where are they?”

            Dorian grimaces. “I can’t say. We need to figure out where we are first. Then we’ll try to work out whether they came through with us. It seems likely they would have appeared in the same chamber with us, though. Mm...at any rate, it's this way.”

            I sigh and follow Dorian out. My hand feels empty without my staff. I raise it to the dagger on my belt, fingering its hilt for a moment as I focus my attention on the red lyrium climbing up the walls. It looks so unnatural that it seems to force my eyes away from it before I’ve consciously decided to look elsewhere. Its energy hums in the air, offering a sickly sweet song that hurts my ears the longer I’m near it.

            “Alexius has made a dreadful mess of the place, hasn’t he?” Dorian mutters regrettably.

            “I’ve never been here before,” I admit. "Red lyrium's not the usual decor, I take it?"

            Dorian chuckles.“Definitely not. The dungeons were covered in the tackiest carvings of wolves and dogs I’d ever seen. This…is not an improvement,” he adds grimly. “Mm, well, at least I know where we are now. I believe I know the way to the throne room from here.”

            “That’s good,” I offer.

            He sighs heavily, stopping. “It would be if all the doors weren’t cut off. We’ll have to turn around.” He gestures angrily at the archway before us, which is blocked entirely by a thick trunk of red lyrium. I sigh and follow him back the way we came. He takes a flight of stairs up a level, but we still find ourselves in the dungeons. Shivers raise along my arms and back, my feet and legs freezing and damp. 

            “Careful with this one,” Dorian warns softly, reaching out for my hand. “Probably best we don’t touch it, mm? I imagine you’re hearing the same song I am?”

            "Yep. Glad to know I'm not crazy." I take his hand, letting him help me through. I think he uses me for balance just as much as I use him, and we manage to make it unscathed to the other side of the hall.

            Dorian leads us through darker part of the dungeons, and I fidget with my glove, pulling at the soft leather uncomfortably. 

            “Is someone there?”

            I jerk at the sound of Solas’ quiet voice, turning to it instinctively. I find him locked in a jail cell leaning against one of the cold walls weakly. He looks over at me, his expression flitting from curious to shocked, and I feel sick to my stomach.

            “Solas?” I whisper, stepping closer to the cell. His irises are red, glowing vividly against his pupils. My stomach tightens again when I see a thread of red lyrium twisting through his jail cell, and I realize his eyes might be the symptom of some sort of red lyrium infection. I recall Varric's fear of it at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Is this what it does to people?   

            “Suledin,” Solas gasps, reaching for the bars between us. “You’re alive! We saw you die!”

            Dorian steps closer to the us. “The spell Alexius cast displaced us in time. We just got here, so to speak.” I press my fingers to the padlock of the cell, freezing it as thickly as I can. Solas moves aside when I pull my dagger out and slam the hilt against the ice. It detaches easily, flinging loudly against the stone wall, and I wrench the door open. It takes a few good tugs, and a thrill of horror rushes through me when I realize it must not have been opened for some time. Weeks? Months?

            Solas steps out slowly, using the wall for balance. He seems weak, drained, and I realize that his frame is much slimmer than it was, his clothes hanging limply where they once hugged. I reach out to him, gripping his hand when he stumbles. His fingers are bony and thin against mine, freezing cold where he once was so warm.

            “Can you reverse the process?” he asks, his voice thin as he looks up at Dorian. “You could return and obviate the events of the last year! It may not be too late!’

            My chest tightens. The bright soul I know is not the man before me. This man is hollow, twisted, and starved, infected with some kind of red lyrium disease. His hand is weak as he steadies himself on my arm, his eyes flat when I'm so used to seeing them shine with curiosity. 

            “Solas,” I gasp. “C-can I do anything for you? L-let me help you.”

            “I am dying, but no matter.” My chest tightens more, though he says it indifferently. “If you can undo this, they can all be saved. But you know nothing of this world. It is far worse than you understand. Alexius served a master: The Elder One. He reigns now, unchallenged. His minions assassinated Empress Celene and used the chaos to invade the south—you must remember this, Suledin," he says, taking my hand as tightly as he can to emphasize its importance. "You must prevent this future. This Elder One commands an army of demons. After you stop Alexius, you must be prepared.”

            “Can you fight?” Dorian asks, glancing at him sympathetically. “We could use your help.”

            Solas nods. “If there is any hope, any way to save them, my life is yours. This world is an abomination. It must never come to pass.”

            “Solas, I’m…so sorry,” I murmur, my chest so tight it hurts to breathe.

            “It is a relief to see you live, lethallin. When you died…When I thought you'd died...” He shakes his head, his eyes finding mine sadly. “We must stop Alexius. We must prevent this future. Do you understand everything I’ve said?”

            “An army demon and Celene’s assassination,” I nod, my throat tight. “I understand.”

            “Good,” he gasps in relief, reaching for my left hand. “Are you in pain?”

            “No,” I say quickly, recoiling at the thought of him using such magic in his state. “Please, don’t—don't even think about that, Solas. I'm fine.”

            “We should hurry,” Dorian murmurs softly.

            I look at him, and he gives me such a sympathetic look that it twists the knife in me more.

            “We’ll fix this,” he promises, glancing at Solas and then me again. A flicker of understanding lights his eyes, and his expression grows even sadder. "We'll fix it," he repeats. I nod, holding his eyes for a moment before he turns around. 

            I follow him, going slow as Solas walks with difficulty. We don’t get very far down the hall before we hear a quiet humming, the song’s tune uneven and fading. I recognize the voice at once.

            “Varric?” I gasp, lunging forward to the cell.

            He looks up at me in shock, his eyes less red than Solas’ but still infected. I feel choked when I see his normally broad shoulders slim under his coat. “Andraste’s sacred knickers!” he chuckles weakly, aggravating his lungs into a hacking cough. “You’re alive?" he rasps, clearing his throat and wiping his mouth. I catch sight of a drop of blood that he tries to hide, and I weaken again. "Where were you? How did you escape?” He rises to his feet, grinning at me from behind the bars.

            Dorian gets to work opening the door. “We didn’t escape,” he replies. “Alexius sent us into the future by mistake.”

            Varric stares at me a moment before a smirk crosses his lips. “Everything that happens to you is so weird!”

            I laugh weakly, my chest constricting unbearably. “You’re telling me,” I gasp.

            “Well? What do you think of my dead man’s look?” he wonders, raising an eyebrow at me. “I think I’m pulling it off well, if I do say so myself.”

            “You’re no more dead than we are,” Dorian replies quickly, wrenching the bars open.

            “Mm, I hope not. The not-dying version of this red lyrium stuff? Way worse. Just saying. Chuckles, good to see you again.”

            Dorian gestures down the hall. “We get to Alexius, and I just might be able to send us back to our own time. Simple, really.”

            Varric shakes his head, offering another coughing laugh. “You and I have very different definitions of the word simple. You want to take on Alexius, I’m in. Let’s go.” He coughs again, bending at the waist. His lungs rattle wetly, and I wring my hands, watching him cough something up and spit it aside. "Ugh, sorry," he groans. 

            “Are you alright, Varric?” I murmur, my voice high with the idiotic question. Of course he's not alright. None of this is alright. 

            He reaches down and sweeps a dusty Bianca off the floor. “Oh yeah, Snow. I'm way better now,” he breathes, running his hands down the neck of the weapon. “I think they kept her there just to torture me. With Bianca back, I’m golden. Let’s go find that Tevinter bastard and fix all this crap.”

            I follow behind Dorian, a slow determination edging into my heart. We will fix this. We have to. This can't be our reality. 

            On the next level of jail cells, I hear someone else, someone whispering quietly, the hoarse voice barely audible.

            “‘The Light…shall lead her safely through the paths of this world and into the next…for she who trusts in the Maker…fire is her water…’”

            “Cassandra,” I breathe, kneeling next to her, the bars separating us. She's the thinnest of them all, her broad cheekbones sticking from her gaunt cheeks sharply. Her eyes find mine slowly, and I realize with dismay that she's so much sicker than the others. Her eyes glow fiercely red, and she stares at me for a moment like she doesn't recognize me. I realize the difference at once; a thick, winding trunk of red lyrium broke into her cell, its song piercing even from my distance. Her skin is sallow, and I see threads of brilliant red lyrium lining the whites of her eyes, spreading from her irises.

            Dorian moves past me, wrenching the doors open. I reach inside for her, helping her stand. Her eyes grow larger, and her jaw drops open then she truly sees me. 

            “You’ve returned to us!” she gasps, her voice thin. “Can it be? Has Andraste given us another chance? Maker forgive me,” she says hurriedly, grasping my hand as tight as she can. I weaken when her grip is a fraction of the power she once commanded. “I failed you. I failed everyone.”

            “No,” I reply firmly. "You could never, Cassandra."

            “The end must truly be upon us if the dead return to life.”

            “No, Cassandra. It is her,” Solas says quietly. “She is alive.”

            “This…cannot be,” she murmurs, her voice a question. “We...saw you die in the throne room. We saw what Alexius did to you—how could you survive?”

            “Y-you’re wounded,” I say, my voice tight as I steady her. “Let me help you—”

            “There is nothing to be done. I’ll be with Maker soon.”

            Dorian comes closer to us. “Alexius sent us forward in time. If we find him, we may be able return to the present.”

            A swell of gratitude so powerful that it brings tears to my eyes floods my chest. I look up at him, feeling admiration and respect overwhelm me. Despite not knowing any of us, he is so patient, explaining the situation three times without even a flicker of vexation. Even more, he looks at us all with sympathetic eyes when it would be so easy to disassociate himself. Dorian glances at me, seeing my expression. He looks down, his growing apologetic.

            “Go back in time?” Cassandra gasps. “Then…Can you make it so that none of this ever took place?”

            “Yes,” I reply firmly, looking at her as evenly as I can. “We will go back.”

            “Alexius’ master…after you died, we could not stop the Elder One from rising. Empress Celene was murdered. The army that swept in afterwards—demons—nothing could stop them—nothing—”

            “I-I’m so sorry, Cassandra. I should have been there for you.”

            “You’re here now,” she answers.

            “This is hardly your fault,” Dorian reminds me softly.

            I look at him desperately, wringing my hands. “I know you already said you would, but please, Dorian...please help me fix this."

            “I will,” he promises, stubborn edge in his eyes. I realize that, though I don't know him at all, though he's a mage from Tevinter who formerly worked with the madman that did this to us...I trust him. 

            “Alexius locked himself in the throne room,” Cassandra says. “That’s where we’ll find him.”

            “Good thing I know the way back,” Dorian muses in response, leading the way.

            Solas picks up his pace to walk alongside me and Dorian. “Tell me truly, Suledin, how is your hand?” he asks quietly.

            I close my eyes tightly, reaching over to take his hand. “It’s fine, Solas, it doesn't hurt...Don’t—don’t worry about that right now.”

            “If it starts to hurt, I can—”

            “No,” I reply, smiling at him, though it hurts to do so. “Save your strength.” I search his reddened eyes, realizing exactly how much I’ve grown to care for him. For all of them. It anguishes me to see them so far gone.

            I keep my hold on Solas’ hand, pulling it to my stomach as we walk. His grip is weak as he laces his fingers through mine. I cannot accept that this is a reality. This can't be a fixed future. The Elder One, a demon army, and Empress Celene's assassination. We have to prevent those things from coming to pass.

            “It’s good to see you again, Seeker,” Varric murmurs behind us.

            “And you, Varric,” she replies. “I must admit, I missed looking down and having all that chest hair thrown in my face.”

            Varric releases a strangled laugh that leads to more coughing. My chest tightens again at the sound. “Always knew you liked it.”

            Cassandra replies with her signature disgusted noise, as if she regrets saying anything, and I look at Dorian desperately, tightening my hand on Solas’. Dorian nods at me, patting my shoulder once in understanding. 

            “Curious there aren’t any guards,” he mumbles.

            “Why should there be?” Cassandra replies. “Everyone down here is dead. They will likely be with the magister.”

            Something catches my eye, and I jerk to a stop. “Fiona?” I exclaim when I recognize the woman—or what used to be a woman. I rush to her cell, but Solas pulls me away swiftly, his fingers tight on me.

            “The lyrium,” he warns, urging me another step back. 

            I stare at the grand enchanter inside. Red crystals run through Fiona’s body, trapping her against the walls around her. Her head lifts from the stone—the only part of her that she can move, the only part not encased with the foul mineral. Her skin hums with red energy, her eyes glowing orbs inside her skull.

            “That voice—” she whispers, her eyes staring blindly ahead. “I know that voice—”

            “I-I’m with the Inquisition.”

            “The Herald? You’re—alive?” she gasps. “I saw you—disappear…into the rift.”

            “Wh-what’s happened to you?” I breathe, looking at her mutilated body, twisted and warped.

            “Red lyrium…it’s a disease. The longer…you’re near it…eventually…you become this. Then they mine…your corpse for more.”

            I raise my gloved hand, covering my mouth.

            “Can you tell us the date?” Dorian asks quickly. “It’s very important.”

            “Harvestmere,” Fiona rasps. “9:42…Dragon.”

            “9:42?” Dorian repeats. “Then we’ve missed an entire year!”

            “It only took a year to do all this?” I gasp, my heart pounding.

            “We have to get back.”

            “Please,” Fiona cries. “Stop this…from happening. Alexius…serves the Elder One…more powerful than…the Maker. No one…challenges him…and lives.”

            Dorian looks at me. “Our only hope is to find the amulet that Alexius used to send us here. If it still exists, I can use it to open the rift at the exact spot we left. Maybe.”

            “Good,” Fiona rasps.

            “I said maybe. It might also turn is into paste.”

            “You…must…try. Your spymaster…Leliana…She is here. Find her. Quickly. Before the Elder One…learns you’re here.”

            “C-can I do anything, Fiona?” I whisper.

            “J-just…prevent this,” she begs. “Stop Alexius. Never...should have trusted him.”

            I nod loosely, looking at Dorian. He rubs my shoulder once and then moves forward. He looks horrified as we go, the expression deepening the more red crystals we pass.

            “If red lyrium is an infection…Maker, why is it coming out of the walls?” he demands. “Never mind,” he quickly adds. “Don’t…answer that. Here. The Barracks. We’ll be able to—”

            He stops when he opens the door, and I peer past him to see dozens of bodies strewn across the floor. So many bear the Inquisition seal that I feel sick to my stomach again. I raise my hand to my mouth, my head pounding with a migraine.

            “This can’t be happening,” I murmur.

            “It isn’t,” Dorian assures me. “We’ll—fix this. I’ll fix this. I will.”

            It alarms me how much he sounds like he’s convincing himself as well as me. I follow him up a flight of stairs. We’re rounding a corner when I hear another voice from inside a closed room.

            “Tell me how Lavellan knew about the sacrifice at the Temple.”

            “Never.”

            “Leliana!” I say urgently. I try the door, but it’s locked tight.

            “Let me, Snow,” Varric says quickly, bending to the doorknob.

            “There’s no use to this defiance, little bird,” the man within shouts.

            A loud slap followed by a low grunt makes me wring my hands. “Varric, hurry—”

            “I’m trying—”

            “There’s no one left for you to protect,” the man continues.

            “You’re wasting your breath,” Leliana spits.

            Another thud, and she cries out.

            “Talk! The Elder One demands answers.”

            Leliana laughs bitterly. “He’ll get used to disappointment.”

            He hits her again, harder than before from the sound she makes.

            “Move,” I say urgently. “Varric—move—”

            “You will break!” the man shouts.

            “I will die first,” Leliana retorts.

            I thrust my hand out, slamming it against the wood of the door. It bursts open so hard that it jerks off its hinges and lands with a crash. My eyes widen when I see Leliana—beautiful Leliana—chained to the ceiling. Her figure is bent and broken, black and blue. Her face is skin and bones, her eyes hollow and bloodshot, her vibrant hair limp and lifeless.

            She looks up at me, a ghost of her former self.

            “Or you will,” she adds with a tight smile. She lifts her legs up to her torturer when he turns around. He cries out and struggles, but she tightens her legs around his neck, jerking them to the left. He collapses to the floor heavily. 

            I run forward, tripping over him as I yank the keys off his belt.

            “You’re alive,” Leliana breathes as I reach for her wrist cuffs.

            She slumps to once side when her left hand is free. When her right falls, she nearly collapses. I catch her, and she pushes away from me gently, walking forward on her own.

            “Leliana…”

            “Do you have weapons?” she asks. I nod at her. “Good,” she replies, walking forward. She winces as she reaches for a bow on the ground. “The magister’s probably in his chambers.”

            I stare at her. “You need healing. Let me h—”

            “No.”

            “But—”

            “No.”

            “You…aren’t even curious how we got here?” Dorian asks, watching her in awe as she tests the bow string.

            “No.”

            He hesitates before telling her anyway. “Alexius…sent us into the future. This, his victory, his Elder One—it was never meant to be.”

            “I’m…so sorry,” I breathe.

            “We have to reverse his spell,” Dorian continues. “If we can get back to our present time—”

            Leliana stares at him coldly, her expression almost flat but for the flicker of anger in her eyes. “And mages always wonder why people fear them.”

            I look down, stung. 

            “No one should have this power,” she whispers.

            “It’s dangerous and unpredictable,” Dorian agrees. “Before the Breach, nothing we did—”

            “Enough!” Leliana orders with a silencing glare. “This is all pretend to you, some future you hope will never exist. I suffered. The whole world suffered. It was real.”

            I stare at her, my chest tightening again. The nightmare she was put through—her chains and wounds, her sallow skin and hollow eyes.

            Mythal, please.

            I follow Leliana numbly, everything in me tight with prayer.

            Give me a second chance, Mythal. Please. Please help me, just this once. 

            “What happened while we were away?” Dorian wonders quietly after a few moments.

            “Stop talking,” Leliana orders.

            “I’m just asking for information.”

            “No. You’re talking to fill silence. Nothing happened that you want to hear.”

            Dorian sighs. “We need to find Alexius. I’m sure he’ll be in the nicer part of the castle…if there is one.”

            “Open the gate,” Leliana replies curtly. “We have to go through the courtyard. The path ahead is blocked.”

            Dorian and I move swiftly to the gears on either end of the gate. I glance over at him, and he nods when he’s ready. I grip the wheel, forcing it to spin. It’s difficult, making me wonder how long it’s been sealed shut. Dorian shares my struggle, but we manage to wrench the wheels into place and pull the gate up enough to walk under. Leliana leads us through the cavern into the underground docks, around a staircase, and up a side passage. She reaches the door at the end and pushes it open, stepping into the courtyard. I follow her, glancing up to see the time.

            I freeze in horror, cold terror rushing over me. My lips part as my heart stops. Dorian follows my gaze, reacting similarly.

            “Holy—”

            “The Breach—” I exclaim, my voice shaking. “It’s—it’s—”

            “Everywhere,” Dorian gasps.

            Thick boulders hover impossibly in the air, pieces of the castle pulled up into the Breach. A green haze replaces the sky, the light shining a murky, swampy color over us. In the distance, I see the fabled Black City, a silhouette against the horizon. I shake my head, raising my hands to my mouth. This can't be real. 

            “The Elder One and his Venatori,” Cassandra says, unsurprised. “They are the ones who opened the Breach.”

            “The Veil is shattered,” Solas adds quietly. “There is no boundary now between the world and the Fade.”

            “This is—” I can’t finish the thought.

            “We don’t have time to stop,” Leliana says to me, her voice a touch softer.

            I look at her, my eyes wide with panic, and then I look back up at the hooded green of the sky.

            “It’s atrocious,” Dorian mumbles. “Green? How…tacky.” His joke falls flat from his fear.

            “Mythal, ma ghilana," I whisper. 

            “We’ll fix it," Dorian replies, understanding my meaning if not my words. 

            “Let’s go,” Leliana says, her voice harder with him than me. “We’re almost there.”

            “How much damage did Alexius’ spell do?” Dorian wonders. 

            Leliana glances at him. “Rifts tore apart all of southern Thedas, starting here. But whether that’s his doing or the Breach, who can say?”

            I follow her numbly. It’s horrifying to do, but I force myself to see everything, to commit it to memory.

            This is what happens if we fail.

            Ma ghilana, Mythal. Ir abelas—

            “Are you ready?” Leliana asks, turning to me.

            I look down at her to realize we stand before the castle hall door.

            I nod, and she pushes it open. She moves inside, disappearing to the right while Dorian and I march through the center. At the end, a man in magister robes stands over a lit brazier, his back to us—Alexius. Huddled on the ground at his feet sits a twitching creature, balanced on its haunches. It is twisted and gnarled, its hands curved into claws, its face hidden from sight by a long hood. For a startling second, I think it’s a despair demon, but it doesn’t attack us. It looks vaguely like the depictions of darkspawn Keeper Deshanna showed me, only it seems to shy away from us rather than try to assault. 

            I want to feel angry as I stare at Alexius’ back, but all I can summon is overwhelming grief. “How could you do this?” I demand, the heat gone from my voice.

            Alexius doesn’t reply at first, but he doesn’t seem surprised to hear us. “I knew you would appear again,” he says softly. “Not that it would be now, but I knew I hadn’t destroyed you. My final failure.”

            “Was it worth is?” Dorian asks emotionally. “Everything you did to the world? To yourself?”

            “It doesn’t matter now,” Alexius replies, looking down, his back still to us. “All we can do is wait for the end.”

            “The end?” I repeat.

            Alexius chuckles, the sound hollow and coarse. “The irony that you should appear now, of all the possibilities…All that I fought for, all that I betrayed, and what have I wrought? Ruin and death…There is nothing else. The Elder One comes,” he says slowly. “For me, for you…for us all.”

            Leliana reappears, moving up to the dais quickly. She grabs the hunched figure, pulling the creature to its feet. It cries out in alarm as she holds a blade to its throat, her dead eyes on Alexius, her expression colder and fiercer than I’ve ever seen.

            “Felix!” he cries out, reaching for the creature.

            “That’s Felix?” Dorian gasps, horrified. “Maker’s breath, Alexius, what have you done?”

            “It was the only way! He would have died! I saved him! Please!” Alexius begs Leliana, both his hands outstretched. “Don’t hurt my son! I’ll do anything—anything you ask—”         

            “Give us the amulet,” I tell him.

            “Let him go, and I swear you’ll get what you want!”

            Leliana’s expression hardens. “I want the world back.”

            She jerks her dagger across Felix’s throat. Alexius screams as his son slumps to the ground. He swings his staff, knocking Leliana off the dais. She cracks her head on the stone below, moving weakly. Alexius screams again, throwing us all back with a powerful spell. Dorian lands on me, pinning me to the ground. He tries to move, but Alexius cries out again and again, keeping the force of his magic strong and domineering. 

            “Well,” Dorian grunts, inches from my face. “This is awkward. Good to meet you, by the way.”

            “You’re crushing me,” I rasp, struggling to breathe.

            “Well, it was hardly my idea.”

            “Can’t you roll over?”

            “I happen to be shielding you from his spell—you’re welcome. And don’t you think I’ve tried?”

            “I can’t breathe—”

            Alexius screams again, and the gust of wind comes from another direction, pulling us to him. Dorian flips off me, and we skid across the floor roughly. I hit the stair first stair hard, looking up to see Dorian hanging onto a column for dear life. I kick off the stairs as powerfully as I can, reaching up to grip my own column. My fingers glance off the side of it, and I scratch as I sail past it. A hand reaches out for me, and I look up to Cassandra. She cries out, gripping a column with one arm and me with the other.

            “Alexius, stop!” Dorian shouts. “You’re breaking the room apart! You’ll kill us all!”

            The magister roars again. I look down to see a cyclone spinning wildly in the center of the room, threatening to pull us all into it. Stones break loose from the walls, pulled into its vortex. Leliana grips the railing beside her as we all dangle from one column or another. I look to see the others safe, gasping for air as the room closes in on us.

            Alexius grips his son’s body, crying as he rocks back and forth. Shame and sorrow wash over me in a second, pushing out all my anger towards him. A powerful understanding floods me, making me understand the man when I'd rather paint him as a simple villain. Everything he did—just to save his child.

            Alexius takes his son more firmly in his arms and then releases the railing.

            “Alexius, no!” Dorian shouts.

            The father and son slide off the ground, pulled up into the whirling cyclone. I look away, gasping. The winds get more powerful, the storm spinning wildly out of control. I rip my glove off with my teeth, reaching out for the storm with my left hand as green lightning strikes at the ground. My wrist aches and burns, and I reach out further as Cassandra holds onto my right arm tightly. I close my eyes, focusing all my energy on reversing the spin enough to break apart the storm.

            “Together!” Dorian calls.

            I look to see him reach for it, too. I nod firmly, breathing out slowly and calmly. I close my eyes again, concentrating hard. The words are lost in the cacophony of the room, but I feel the magic pulled from me regardless. Slowly, the winds begin to die down. As suddenly as it started, the storm dissipates. I hit the ground hard, stone biting into my hip as Cassandra grunts behind me. I grip the column, dragging myself to my feet before I help Cassandra up. Dorian walks over to Alexius’ body, strewn limply across the floor.

            “He wanted to die, didn’t he,” Dorian murmurs sadly, kneeling by the man. “All those lies he told himself, the justifications…He lost Felix long ago and didn’t even notice. Oh, Alexius…”

            “I’m sorry, Dorian,” I murmur, swallowing thickly. “This Alexius was too far gone…but we can still save the one in our time.”

            Dorian nods in response, holding up his hand. “The amulet,” he says, opening his fist. “It’s the same one he used before. I think it’s the same one we made in Minrathous. That’s a relief.” Dorian stands. “Give me an hour to work out the spell he used, and I should be able to—”

            “An hour?” Leliana repeats incredulously. “That’s impossible! You must go now!”

            The earth rumbles and shakes beneath out feet. Dorian catches my wrist when I almost fall. Leliana looks up in horror; the fear in her always stoic expression turns me to ice. A creature screeches loudly outside the castle walls. I look up at one of the holes in the roof to see something dark flash by the sky in a blink.

            “The Elder One,” Leliana breathes.

            “You cannot stay here!” Solas exclaims desperately. He looks at Cassandra, the fear in his eyes making my heart stop. Cassandra glances away before returning to him and nodding firmly. “We’ll hold the outer door,” Solas says to Leliana urgently. “When they get past us, it’ll be your turn.”

            “Hear that, Nightingale?” Varric grins. “A little competition. They won’t get past me.”

            “No!” I shout. “I won't allow that! I won’t sacrifice you—any of you!”

            “Look at us,” Leliana says, her voice soft. “We’re already dead. The only way we live is if this day never comes.”

            Solas finds my eyes, and I watch, tortured, as he, Varric, and Cassandra jog to the outer door.

            “Cast your spell,” Leliana breathes, offering a difficult smile. “You have as much time as I have arrows.”

            “Leliana—”

            “It’s okay,” she says. “You can change this.”

            She walks to the door, closing it quickly behind the others. Solas turns to me one last time, offering a soft smile that makes my vision blur.

            Leliana moves into the center of the room, readying her bow.

            “Stay close to me,” Dorian says, pulling me closer. “We only get one shot at this. When the spell begins, I don’t care what happens—do not leave my side.”

            I nod shakily, moving my hand to his arm. I grip it tightly, my breaths bursting from me strangled.

            Dorian holds the amulet out. A roar from outside startles me, and I grip his arm more tightly, my heart pounding as I hear the fighting beyond the doors. Dorian speaks swiftly, and the amulet rises in his hand, green energy swirling around it.

            Leliana holds her bow up, pulling an arrow back. “Though darkness closes, I am shielded by flame.”

            The handle rattles when something hits it. Someone cries out—Varric—

            The doors burst open suddenly. Venatori and terror demons break through. A demon throws something—a mangled body—Solas—

            Leliana’s arrows fly across the room. “Andraste guide me. Maker, take me to your side.”

            Venatori collapse by the door, and terror demons fade away into nothingness under Leliana. I watch in tortured awe, tears streaming down my cheeks as I grip Dorian’s arm too tight. He murmurs the spell faster, closing his eyes in concentration.

            An arrow flies through the open door, and Leliana cries out when it pierces her shoulder. I jerk, watching her stumble backwards. She raises her bow again, loosing arrows quickly. Another arrow flies into her stomach, and I step forward.

            Dorian pulls me back, holding my hand tightly as he begins to shout the spell. I watch in agony as Leliana fights. Solas’ body lies inert by the doors, and I see Cassandra’s just outside. Leliana’s blood runs down her legs, pooling thickly beneath her. Venatori close in on her, and my chest tightens as she shields us. She swings her bow, kicking an agent off her while strangling the other. She rolls across another’s back, landing quickly to stab two men with the same arrow, wrenching it from one’s throat to hurl it at another’s eye.

            A blackened rift opens from the amulet, growing steadily. Dorian’s words move so swiftly that I can’t understand them anymore. A terror demon screeches as another arrow flies into Leliana’s hip. She grunts, staggering forward. She breaks it off, launching herself at another Venatori quickly. A sob bursts through my chest as I watch her go. I’ve never seen anyone so strong in my life.

            She swings her bow around, pushing a Venatori to the ground and stabbing him. She staggers once, holding her chest as she gasps for air. A Venatori leans over her, and she grabs an arrow, stabbing him through the neck swiftly before taking it back out and pulling it through her bow string. It flies across the room, killing another agent. One of the Venatori lifts her from the ground, and she struggles against him, fighting to free herself. He holds her still as a terror demon rushes at her. Her eyes narrow, and she growls, struggling defiantly as the rift grows before us. I stare in horror as the terror demon lifts his clawed fingers, bringing them down swiftly to—

            Dorian grips my hand tighter, pulling me with him, and then we’re falling.

            I hit the ground hard on my back, gasping. Dorian releases my hand, sitting up as he pants. He looks at me, and I meet his eyes for a moment before I look around. Relief brings blinding tears to my eyes, and I choke back a sob. Solas, Cassandra, and Varric look at us in confusion, glancing to where we must have been standing a second ago.

            I scramble up off the floor, rushing to them. Perhaps ill-advisedly, I launch myself at Solas, relief outweighing any sense of decency or leadership stoicism.

            He has to step back once when I run into him too hard, and his hand appears uncertainly on my back. “Suledin?”

            I hug him tightly, squeezing him probably painfully. I turn to Cassandra, pulling her to me quickly.

            “Uh…Herald?”

            I grin through my tears, turning to Varric, enveloping him in an equally tight hug.

            “Snow?”

            “You’ll have to do better than that, Alexius,” Dorian mutters.

            I turn, wiping my eyes to see Alexius fall to his knees. I return to Dorian, clearing my throat. “Thank you,” I murmur, all logic fleeing me again. Before I can stop myself, I hug him, too, earning an amused huff. He wraps an arm around my back, patting my shoulder, and then I step aside to look at Alexius.

            I clear my throat a second time, trying to regain my composure. “Gereon Alexius, by the order of the Inquisition, I demand that you set aside all claim to Redcliffe and the freed mages."

            “You've won,” Alexius says quietly, his eyes on the floor. “There is no point extending this charade.” He looks at his son, tortured. “Felix,” he whispers.

            His son kneels beside him. “It’s going to be alright, Father.”

            “You’ll die,” Alexius cries.

            “Everyone dies.”

            Alexius hangs his head as Inquisition agents approach him. He doesn’t fight them. I watch grimly as he stands, allowing them to cuff him. Tears slip down his cheeks and then mine, and he closes his eyes, walking with them from the castle hall. Felix remains beside him, moving his hand to his father’s shoulder.

            “Well,” Dorian sighs. “Glad that’s over with.”

            The doors at the end of the hall burst open, and two columns of armed and armored soldiers march in, bearing the sigil of some royal house.

            “Or not.”

            A blond man walks in, his hands clasped behind his back as he moves quickly between the soldiers. Right beside him, an elegant woman folds her hands before her, approaching us with a displeased expression.

            “Grand Enchanter,” the man greets unhappily. “We’d like to discuss your abuse of our hospitality.”

            “Your…Majesties,” Fiona murmurs shakily, stepping forward.

            I glance at Dorian questioningly. “King Alistair and Queen Anora,” he whispers to me.

            “Oh,” I muse. “Oh…oh no…”

            “Exactly,” Dorian sighs. “This…probably won’t be good.”

            Queen Anora glances at the Grand Enchanter. “When we offered the mages sanctuary,” she says, her voice reverberating off the walls powerfully, “we did not give them the right to drive our people from their homes.”

            “King Alistair, Queen Anora,” Fiona says weakly, “I assure you we never intended—”

            The queen silences her with a look. “In light of your actions, good intentions are no longer enough.”

            The king nods in agreement. “You and your followers have worn out your welcome. Leave Ferelden, or we’ll be forced to make you leave.”

            Dorian hums. “Harsh,” he whispers.

            “But…” Fiona weakens. “We have hundreds who need protection! Where will we go?”

            I clear my throat softly. “Perhaps I should point out, we did come here for mages…Might be…useful information to everyone here…”

            Dorian smirks at me.

            “And what are the terms of this arrangement?” Fiona demands, still finding the energy to glare at me warily.

            I scoff, offended. “Uh, better than you got with Alexius and better than being exiled.”

            “I suggest conscripting them,” Cassandra says quickly. “They’ve proven what they’ll do, given too much freedom.”

            “Cassandra,” I groan.

            “I’ve known a lot of mages,” Varric mumbles. “They can be loyal friends if you let them. Friends who make bad decisions…but still loyal.”

            Solas looks at me, and I meet his eyes, realizing I value his opinion more than I care to admit. “They have lost all possible supporters,” he murmurs. “The Inquisition is their only remaining chance for freedom.” It confirms my own opinion, and I look back at the grand enchanter.

            Fiona sighs. “It seems we have little choice but to accept whatever you offer.”

            I fold my hands behind my back, completely prepared for Cassandra’s response. “Grand Enchanter, we would be honored to have you and your people fight as allies at the Inquisition’s side.”

            Cassandra turns on me, her expression exasperated and angry. “We will discuss this later.”

            Fiona gives me a surprised look. “I’ll…pray that the rest of the Inquisition honors your promise, Herald.”

            “The Breach threatens all of Thedas,” I remind everyone, glancing at Cassandra. “We cannot afford to be divided now.” I look at Fiona imploringly. “We can’t fight it without you. Any chance of success requires your full support.”

            “It’s a generous offer,” King Alistair agrees. “I doubt you’re going to get a better one from us.”

            Fiona’s eyes grow heartbroken as she regards the king. She bows her head, looking at me. “We accept. It would be madness not to. I will gather my people and ready them for the journey to Haven.”

            “Inquisition agents will escort you through the Hinterlands,” I add. “To ensure your safety against remaining templars and bandits.”

            Fiona bows. “Thank you, my lady. The Breach will be closed.” She smiles at me weakly. “You will not regret giving us this chance.”

            “Herald,” King Alister greets formally.

            “Uh—” My eyes widen. “Y-your—Kingliness? Is that...right? My lord? Your Highness?”

            He smirks. “You know, you remind me of a very dear friend.” He nods his head again. “We’ll be in touch.”

            “Your…Grace?” I nod, bowing my head. “Your Grace,” I add, bowing to Queen Anora, too.

            She gives me a mildly amused smile, nodding to me in turn. The couple move back the way they came, the soldiers following and surrounding them.

            I relax, frowning at my idiotic comments. Never met a king or queen before. And now we know why. “To Haven, then,” I murmur, glancing at Solas. Relief sweeps through me again at seeing them all alive and unharmed. I admire the color of his eyes, glad to see them clear of the sickly red glow.

            “We’d better get moving,” Cassandra adds.

            “I’ve never been so happy to see you so mad at me, Cassandra,” I murmur.

            She makes a disgusted noise, stalking out.

            “Dorian?” I murmur.

            “May as well come along. To get you to Haven, at least.”

            I grin and nod. “Excellent. Come along, then. I need a drink."

Chapter Text

That night, we make a rather conspicuous camp on the cliffs. Hundreds of mages have joined us, some merely children caught up in this war. Their eyes are frightened and far too old for their ages. I regret what they’ve undoubtedly seen, the hate and fear they’ve faced for something so wildly out of their control. I try to make them laugh when we all have dinner together. Some laugh and giggle at my stories and jokes. Others stare soulfully into the fire, their food going untouched.

            When everyone begins heading off to bed, I walk through the camp, searching for Solas. I find him near the edge of camp, overlooking the valley below us. His eyes are on the Breach, his hands folded behind his back. He meets my eyes, angling towards me when I stop close beside him.

            “So, we have gained the mages,” Solas murmurs. “Excellent. They should be able to seal the Breach.”

            I nod, letting my arm brush against his as I fold them across my chest.

            “You are certain you experienced time travel?” he wonders, looking at me. I realize he and Dorian must have discussed it already. “Could it have been an illusion? A trick of the Fade?”

            “As…crazy as it seems,” I chuckle weakly, “yes, I’m certain.”

            Solas shakes his head, his eyes distant. “What an amazing gift. It is vital the Inquisition succeed, to avoid the future you witnessed.”

            I frown. “How much did Dorian tell you?”

            “A great deal.”

            I chew the inside of my cheek, appraising Solas. “I’m surprised you’re not more alarmed. Most people would have trouble wrapping their mind around the concept.”

            Solas smirks. “I am not most people.”

            “You most certainly are not,” I agree with a smile.

            He glances down at me, his expression amused. “If you wish me to speak of Orlesian fashion, I may be at a loss—”

            I laugh too loudly, covering my mouth to muffle the sound.

            Solas grins at me. “Magical surprises, I can handle.”

            I laugh again, moving closer to him. In a brazen moment, I reach out to hug his arm, my heart pounding at the move. I glance up nervously to see Solas smile softly at the valley, and I take it as a good sign.

            My smile fades slowly. “How much, exactly, did Dorian tell you?”

            “He was rather forthcoming.”

            “You all…died…for me,” I whisper.

            “And I’m sure we would all do it again,” he murmurs without hesitation.

            “I don’t want that. I don’t want you to,” I reply quickly.

            Solas looks down at me, and I can’t bring myself to meet his eyes. “You are…” He hesitates, breathing out softly rather than finish the thought.

            I don’t press him to continue. I simply tighten my arms around his and rest my head against his shoulder. When he doesn’t shift away, I close my eyes, breathing in slowly.

            “You should ready yourself,” he murmurs softly.

            “For?”

            “This…Elder One. You have now interfered with his plans twice, once at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and now again at Redcliffe. A being who aspires to godhood is unlikely to ignore such an affront.”

            I swallow thickly. “Guess I better start practicing my dance moves.”

            “I’m serious,” Solas murmurs, his head turning towards mine.

            “I know,” I sigh.

            “I would…rather not see you hurt.”

            I close my eyes again, breathing out steadily. “I’ll be ready. We’ll close the Breach, and then we’ll deal with this old guy.”

            Solas breathes out a soft laugh. “Can you take anything seriously?”

            “I tried once,” I murmur. “It felt weird.”

            Solas chuckles softly again, moving his free hand up to mine. I glance down at the jawbone necklace he wears and then close my eyes once more. They jerk open when I recall that horrible future, and I sigh quietly, focusing on the almost inaudible sound of his breathing and the gentle sweep of his thumb against my fingers.

***

Hours after we return to Haven, I head into the Chantry to find Cassandra, Cullen, and Josephine arguing. I sigh heavily, rolling my eyes. Gee, I wonder what this is about. 

            “…not a matter for debate,” Cullen says. “There will be abominations among the mages, and we must be prepared!”

            Josephine frowns at him. “If we rescind the offer of an alliance, it makes the Inquisition appear incompetent at best, tyrannical at worst!”

            “What were you thinking,” Cullen demands, turning his glare on me, “turning the mages loose with no oversight? The Veil is torn open!”

            “Okay, uh, first of all,” I mutter, “hey, it’s good to see you, too, Cullen; thanks, I’m glad I didn’t die, either. Secondly, we need them to close the Breach. Putting aside our obviously different opinions about the forced imprisonment of my fellow mages, it’s not going to work if we make enemies of them.”

            Cullen sighs. “I know we need them for the Breach…but they could do as much damage as the demons themselves!”

            I breathe out slowly. “I respect your experience as a templar, I do, Cullen, which is why I’m hoping you can respect my experience as a mage. They have lost everything; all they need is a chance to prove themselves. More than that, mages are far more likely to resort to blood magic and demons if they feel trapped. If we lock them in cages and throw away the key until Breach day comes, they don’t help us, and we’ll wind up with a bigger mess on our hands. I offered them the alliance because it was the right thing to do. Moreover, because we cannot afford to alienate the very people we need to help us.”

            “This is—a very complicated issue,” Cullen frowns. “And I do respect you, Herald. All I’m saying is that it should have been discussed with us first before you made the decision yourself. You were there, Seeker. Why didn’t you intervene?”

            Cassandra sighs and glances at me. “While I may not completely agree with the decision…I support it.”

            I blink in surprise, turning to face her. 

            “The sole point of the Herald’s mission was to gain the mages’ aid, and that was accomplished.”

            “The voice of pragmatism speaks!” I turn to see Dorian, grinning as he leans against a wall casually. “And here I was just starting to enjoy the circular arguments.”

            Cassandra glances at him and then returns to Cullen. “Closing the Breach is all that matters.”

            I nod. “I’ve seen what happens if we fail…Let’s make sure we don’t.”

            “Agreed.”

            Leliana moves through the open war room door, approaching us as she reads over a document. “We should look into the things you saw in this dark future you—”

            I cut her off by launching myself at her, hugging her tightly. She makes a startled noise, giving a surprised laugh.

            I pull back, looking at her. “Leliana, you are the most badass person I have ever known in my entire life.”

            She frowns, laughing confusedly. “Thank you?”

            “You are a warrior. Sorry. Continue.”

            She gives me an amused smile, her eyebrows twitching. “Ah, yes—we—need to look into what you experienced in this dark future. The assassination of Empress Celene? A demon army?”

            Dorian snorts. “Sounds like something a Tevinter cult might do. Orlais falls, the Imperium rises! Chaos for everyone!”

            “One battle at a time,” Cullen says. “It’s going to take time to organize our troops and the mage recruits. Let us take this to the war room.” Cullen looks at me, his expression softening. “Join us,” he murmurs. “None of this means anything without your mark, after all.”

            Warmth floods my chest, and I smile. “Well, there goes my nap.”

            He smirks.

            “Meet us there when you’re ready,” Josephine nods, grinning at me as she goes.

            “I’ll skip the war council,” Dorian decides, “but I would like to see this Breach up close…if you don’t mind.”

            I smile widely. “Then you’re…staying?”

            “Oh, didn’t I mention? The South is so charming and rustic. I adore it to little pieces.”

            My grin spreads, and he seems pleased by my reaction. “There’s no one I’d rather be stranded in time with—future or present.”

            Dorian laughs. “Excellent choice,” he agrees with a bow. “But let’s not get stranded again anytime soon, yes?”

            I chuckle and nod. Dorian gives me a winsome smile in return.

            “I’ll begin preparations to march on the summit,” Cullen informs us. “Maker willing, the mages will be enough to grant us victory.”

Chapter Text

We spend days planning. Soldiers erect trebuchets outside the walls of Haven in case of a demon invasion. Mages prepare for the upcoming feat, sharing lyrium warily with the former templars already in our ranks. Cullen, Cassandra, Josephine, Leliana, and I fall into the habit of taking our meals in the war room. Everyone bickers about the best way to handle the situation. Leliana always offers subtle approaches while Cullen tries to convince everyone head-on attacks are far more effective. Josephine, ever the diplomat, suggests counter-solutions to their arguments, struggling to find common ground. Cassandra looms over us heatedly, trying to force everyone into agreeing through sheer willpower alone. I spend most of the time quietly watching—oftentimes, I’m amused by the circular arguments. The other half, my mind splits into a migraine until I force my voice to be heard above the others, demanding a break for the night.

            When we do break from the war council, everyone separates to their own activities. Cassandra continues training by herself; Cullen seeks out the soldiers, the templar in him on guard when he passes by our mages, to my vexation. Josephine retreats to her office, always writing some letter while Leliana retires to her own tent, dropping the curtains for a few moments of peace. Through the light of her lantern, I can see her always hard at work at her desk, pouring over scrolls. With my scarce free time, I usually seek out one of the others. Most frequently, it’s Solas—we sit together in his cabin or sometimes by the lake, talking quietly. One of my fonder nights in Haven was spent with him studying the stars; he knew countless constellations, and each of their stories, and I played with his fingers, listening intently with an ever-present smile. Sometimes, I find Varric, and we drink with Sera, Iron Bull, and Blackwall in the tavern until I’m too emotionally drained to think of anything other than whether I should have another ale or just go to bed.

            Slowly, the plan comes together until we know for certain that we’re ready.

            The morning we begin the march to the Breach, the snow eases off, providing us with a clear path. It still takes us hours to travel. When we walk through the remains of the Temple, a hushed silence falls over the mages. Everyone looks around at the destruction. Though the bodies have been removed and burned or buried, the crater is still a horrifying reminder of why we’re all here.

            The Breach is another matter entirely. Thought it’s stopped spewing poisonous energies, it still affects the world around it. Clouds hug its perimeter, forming an unnatural barrier between its green haze and the rest of the sky. Rocks hover in the air, the magic around the Breach continuing to affect gravity. The closer we get, the more my hand begins to hurt. Solas and Cassandra walk close by my side, both solemn, both admiring the horrifying beauty of the tear in the Veil.

            I gasp when my hand spasms, jerking me forward a bit, and I glance up at the sky. My glove glows a brilliant green, reacting strongly to the Breach’s proximity. I take the glove off, tucking it into my belt.

            Solas looks at me, his expression so worried and sympathetic that I realize, with a slow dread, that this is will most likely hurt more than anything has yet. I grit my teeth, staring ahead as I tighten my fingers into a fist. The mages walk behind us, their footsteps unifying in an orderly march that gives me strength. They surround the perimeter, spreading out evenly around the Breach in rows. Their expressions turn to shock as they see it for the first time up close. I head down into the crater with Solas and Cassandra. Cullen and Leliana stay above, directing the mages. Several come down to stand behind us in the crater, amongst them Dorian and Vivienne. I look at Dorian, and he offers me an encouraging wink and smile that I return shakily.

            I turn back to the Breach, my heart pounding and my hand aching while the others prepare themselves.

            Lyrium is passed around to hundreds of hands, and I close my eyes, feeling the air resonate with their combined power.

            “Are you alright?” Solas murmurs softly, standing directly beside me.

            “Is it weird that I’m nervous? I’ll look like an idiot if this doesn’t work.”

            Solas offers a small smile. “You can do this, lethallin.”

            I breathe out slowly. “If you say so.”

            “Are you ready?”

            I take another deep breath. “Now or never, I suppose.”

            Solas turns and nods at Cassandra. He touches my shoulder once, his fingers brushing against my skin through the slits in my armor, offering more encouragement. I nod again as he steps away towards Cassandra.

            “Mages!” she shouts to get their attention.

            “Focus past the Herald!” Solas calls. “Let her will draw from you!”

            I breathe unevenly, my heart pounding erratically. I step forward once, feeling the Breach’s energy try to push me back like it knows exactly when I intend to do. I plant my feet stubbornly with each step, forcing it to accept me.

            The Breach flares, green energy spewing out, writhing in the air in protestation. I raise my hand, feeling the magic singe and crack along my bones. My fingers shake as I move forward again, my skin turning to glass. The Breach bursts open suddenly, knocking me back at step. I hear Solas call to the mages, instructing them. His voice calms me, and I move forward again. I hear hundreds of staffs hit the ground, and I glance to see them all kneel in unison, bowing their heads in concentration. I close my eyes as I feel their energy converge and surge through me, mixing and intertwining with mine. I breathe out steadily, focusing on its soft song. It feels strange, having so many people's mana join my own, like swimming in a sea with hundreds of different currents, pushing and pulling me gently. They guide me in the the same direction, but I feel each one tugging at me; some of the connections are perfect, combining and swelling with my own magic flawlessly, harmonies in perfect sync. Others are more aggressive, urging me forward faster than I'm ready. I push ahead, each step bringing me closer.

            The Breach groans and flares wildly until I’m bathed in its green light. I stop when I feel I’m close enough, taking another steadying breath. I thrust my hand up in the air, my fingers shaking as they flash an even more brilliant green. The pain blurs my vision and makes my hand shake more as I connect with the Breach. I grab my wrist with my right hand, keeping it in place when the Breach tries to push me back again.

            Magic flows in me, past me, and through me, swirling around me ceaselessly. I close my eyes, focusing intently on its song. I grit my teeth, accepting the flow as I concentrate on the Breach instead of the pain. The whine of the tear in the Veil hurts my ears. The sound builds so loud than it shakes the ground beneath my feet and deafens me. A sound is pulled from my lips, lost in the cacophony. The green light grows brighter and brighter until I’m blinded and deafened. I try to feel for the edges, like I have with the rifts, but the Breach is so much more massive that it takes me a long time to find the walls. I picture them as carefully as I can, recalling Solas' words on how intent will matter more here than with the others. He instructed me to picture the edges, to imagine gripping them, to see the so-called doorway close, and then to yank it shut, though he worded it much more eloquently. I try to follow his advice, my arm quaking with the effort. Finally, I find the edges. I take hold of them as tightly as I can, and then I rip my hand away, gasping in agony. A small scream bursts through me before I can catch it, but it's enveloped by the Breach. There's a moment of pure, eerie silence, a single moment of weightlessness, and then the Breach explodes. The force whips me back several feet. I hit the ground hard and roll a few times before catching myself.

            Hundreds of startled cries emanate around the ruins of the Temple, and I glance over to see everyone flattened by the explosion. I gasp as my hand sears. I get to my knees, holding my wrist, and I tighten it into a shaking fist. I look up to see Cassandra rise quickly, pushing through the mages to me. She helps me to my feet, turning her gaze to the sky.

            “Maker,” she breathes, a wide smile spreading across her face. “You did it.”

            I look up, too. Relief surges through me so powerfully that it staggers me, making me briefly forget about the pain. My eyes flood, and I wipe them quickly to see the sky free from the Breach. It's sealed, thank the gods; the only remainder is a faint green glimmer scarring the sky in its absence. The clouds maintain a tint of green, but even that is quickly fading.

            The mages behind us suddenly erupt in a waterfall of cheers. I turn to see them, spinning in a slow circle. I grin through my tears and laugh giddily in their excitement as they shout and laugh and hug each other. I stagger forward once, and Solas steadies me, gripping my left hand carefully. I nod senselessly, laughing through my tears.

            “Well done, lethallin,” he smiles.

            “Fenedhis,” I chuckle. 

            Wordlessly, Solas takes my hand more securely, murmuring his spell as I watch the mages. Their shouts begin to take shape, focusing on a name—my name, I realize with shock and awe. Mixtures of Herald and Lavellan threaten to deafen me, and Cassandra turns to me with another broad smile. She touches my shoulder, and tears continue to leak down my cheeks in greater volume as I quickly become overwhelmed by it all. The excitement of the crowd is contagious, and I find myself clutching Solas’ arm as he works, my heart pounding erratically.

            “It’s over,” Cassandra breathes.

            I close my eyes, grinning so wide it hurts. I find Solas’ eyes again and hug him suddenly when he’s finished with the spell. He hesitates, but then his arms wind around me, and I laugh giddily against him. I pull back and then hug Cassandra, too, amused when she pats my back like she’s not sure how to respond to hugs. I look over at Dorian, and he grins at me, nodding once as the mages jostle him in their celebration.

            I look up once more, staring at the faint green glimmer in the sky. “Thank you, Mythal,” I whisper, grinning from ear to ear.

***

We return to Haven to find the village bright with their own celebration. Campfires have turned into bonfires with people singing and dancing and drinking around their edges. Varric grins at me as we walk through the front gates. He pats my shoulder roughly as Bull thrusts a mug into my hand. I laugh at them and allow them to pull me along. I share a drink with them, and then disentangle myself from the festivities. The same people who, just three days ago, were arguing and fighting hang on each other and offer drinks with wide grins.

            I stand apart from it, watching with a quiet smile. Varric is down with the others, talking loudly over the music. Whatever story he’s telling has everyone doubled over with laughter. Sera is drinking three dwarves under a table while Josephine watches with a mildly horrified expression. Leliana whispers something to her that makes her laugh and throw her head back with a clap. Iron Bull and Krem sit with the rest of the Chargers, grinning and laughing, too. As I watch, Sera plops down beside Blackwall, spilling her own drink, which makes her giggle loudly enough for me to hear from here. Cullen stands near the front gates, his hands resting on his pommel while he talks with several guards seriously, gesturing to the gates and a couple of the trebuchets beyond them. I suppose the commander finds his own ways to celebrate a job well done. I search for Solas, but I don’t spot him anywhere. I’m looking for Cassandra when I hear her walk up behind me.

            I glance to her as she stops beside me, folding her hands behind her back. “Solas confirms the heavens are scarred but calm,” she murmurs, pleased. “The Breach is sealed.”

            I close my eyes briefly with a small smile. “I may need you to repeat that a couple times a day for the next, oh I don't know, month or two?”

            She smirks at me. “We’ve reports of lingering rifts and many questions remain, but this was a victory. Word of your heroism has spread.”

            I roll my eyes, crossing my arms over my stomach. “It was hardly just me.”

            “True,” she allows, “but that won’t stop everyone who was there from telling the tale of who single-handedly sealed the Breach.”

            “It wouldn’t have been possible—”

            “Just enjoy the moment,” she insists. “You are worse with praise than I am.”

            That makes me laugh. “Okay, okay, I give up.”

            “You did well,” she adds. “When we first met, I could not have known how much we would come to—” She frowns, stepping forward.

            “What?” I say, following her gaze to the mountains far from Haven. In the darkness, it looks like the trees are moving down the hill, slipping slowly down the bank.

            My stomach sinks. Not the trees.

            Alarms sound out across Haven from the walls, bells chiming so loudly that they shake the ground beneath our feet.

            “Forces approaching!” Cullen shouts. “To arms!”

            Several people scream as a quick panic rumbles across the village. Refugees run, retreating back to the Chantry, stumbling and tripping over each other. Cullen yells out orders at the Inquisition soldiers who rally near him. Cassandra grips her sword, pulling it out with a ring of steel.

            “What is—we must get to the gates!” she exclaims, jumping down off the ledge.

            I reach for my staff, following her down the steep edge. We jog over to where several of the others are waiting around the commander.

            “Cullen?” Cassandra says, stopping before him.

            “One watch guard reporting,” Cullen responds quickly. “It’s a massive force, the bulk over the mountain.”

            “Under what banner?” Josephine asks.

            “None.”

            “None?” she repeats incredulously.

            Something slams against the doors to Haven, jostling them. Feet disappear from under the gap, and then fire flares beyond the door again, though the flames don't touch it.

            “I can’t come in unless you open!” a soft voice exclaims from the other side.

            I frown, marching down the few steps to the doors. Cullen and Cassandra follow me quickly. The Inquisition agent by the door sees me and pulls it open swiftly. Countless bodies lie strewn across the path. A Venatori agent stalks towards me confidently. Before I can react, a knife jolts through his armor. He gasps, fingers flailing around the protruding blade before he falls. Behind him is a thin, pale boy no more than twenty. He looks up at me from under a large, long hat that obstructs most his face, but I see his eyes enough to recognize his urgency.

            “I’m Cole!” the boy says quickly. “I came to warn you, to help!” He steps closer to me, extending a hand imploringly. Cullen steps forward to stop him, and I grip his arm quickly, admiring him when he listens. “People are coming to hurt you!” Cole continues, and then he glances sideways uncomfortably. “You…probably already know that—”

            “What is this?” I ask quickly. “Who’s coming?”

            “The templars come to kill you.”

            I look at Cullen, appalled.

            “The templars?” he repeats, looking at me, too. “Is this the Order’s response to our alliance with the mages? Attacking blindly?”

            “The red templars went to the Elder One,” Cole says, and I whip my head to him again. “You know him,” he continues. “He knows you. You took his mages. There—” He points across the mountains. It’s too dark for me to see, but I catch a glimpse of something far too tall to be even a Qunari looming over hundreds of soldiers.

            “The Elder One,” Cullen mutters.

            “He’s very angry that you took his mages,” Cole murmurs, his tone sending a shiver down my spine.

            "Red templars?" I repeat, swallowing thickly. "W-what is a red templar?"

            Cullen shakes his head, uncertain. 

            "They sound wrong," Cole answers. "A different kind of lyrium."

            My jaw drops as my eyes widen. "I...are you saying th-they use red lyrium?" I demand. 

            "They are very strong and very wrong."

            “Cullen,” I say quickly, turning to the commander again. “Give me a plan—anything.”

            “Haven is no fortress,” he replies, his eyes locked on the horde fast approaching. “If we are to withstand this monster, we must control the battle. Get out there and hit that force. Use everything you can.” He looks at me once, and I nod firmly. He turns back to Haven, to the soldiers and the crowds gathering near the gates. “Mages!” he shouts, rallying them as he raises his sword. “You have sanction to engage them. They will not make it easy! Inquisition, with the Herald! For your lives, for all of us!”

            The soldiers and mages call back a response as Varric, Cassandra, Blackwall, Solas, and Dorian push through the scrambling crowd. Solas comes to me first, moving a hand to my back as he looks over the horde. His eyes find the abnormally tall figure in the distance, and his expression tightens. 

            “What do we do?” Cassandra asks breathlessly.

            I look back at her. “We need to keep the trebuchets clear so the men can fire. Cullen says we need to control the battle.” My heart hammers at the words. I've never fought in a battle. I suppose there's a...first time for everything, as they say. 

            “We’re with you, Herald.”

            I nod quickly, glancing at Solas briefly before I turn and lead us to the closest trebuchet. Already, the first waves of these 'red templars' are trying to dismantle it. They turn when we arrive, and I hesitate, horrified. Red lyrium stabs through their breastplates, lacing their arms as their eyes glow through the slits their helmets. I don’t have the time to consider the possibilities as I stop and cast a protection spell over Cassandra. She rushes past me, launching into battle as readily as always with Blackwall a step behind her. 

            I hear Cullen shouting for the gates to be closed. Through the chaos, I hear Bull and Krem, too, calling calmly to the refugees and villagers to shepherd them to the Chantry. I glance back briefly to see Cullen lead a platoon of soldiers out of Haven, waving them to various weak points around the walls. Looking at them, I see what I've never noticed before, noting every flaw in the hastily built fortifications. Haven isn't ready for this; we didn't expect this.

            Cullen shouts orders quickly, rallying the men again before he plants himself before Haven’s doors with several guards. I see up on the hill several dozen men, women, and children scrambling into the Chantry for shelter, sisters and mothers waving them in before sealing the doors. Bull and Krem organize their Chargers, setting up around the Chantry to keep it guarded—a last line of defense.

            Dorian and Solas flank me, and Varric moves around the edge of the trebuchet, keeping good pressure on the templars. Cassandra and Blackwall work together, clearing the path with a clash of shields and swords to make way for the Inquisition soldiers. Dorian’s fire spells ward off anyone from approaching us. He raises twin fire walls on the thickest paths, blocking templars from coming any closer. I spin my staff quickly, keeping my left hand well away as I focus on electricity to stun and take down our attackers. Solas works beside me, casting protections and raising shields faster than ever.

            Sweat beads my forehead despite the cold weather as we fight, heat rolling off the fire walls thickly enough to melt the snow down to the dirt. Anger at the templars’ audacity to do this—tonight of all times—offers me strength, fueling my magic powerfully.

            We clear one trebuchet and move on to the next, Cassandra and Blackwall fighting tirelessly side by side. With each trebuchet we clear, more Inquisition soldiers pour into the field to arm and ready them. They release projectiles at the approaching army, but it simply isn’t enough. There are far too many on their way. Soon, we’ll be overrun.

            The last trebuchet is abandoned. Inquisition soldiers lay dead in the wake of a red templar attack. The bastards are still standing over their bodies. Cassandra and Blackwall charge forward once more while the others set up a good perimeter. I glance at Solas and Dorian quickly before running through the fighting. I drop my staff to turn the trebuchet, angling it at a mountainside near the marching army. That will at least give us a chance.

            I grip the handle, forcing the trebuchet to spin slowly on its axis. Gods, it's heavier than I thought. The others cover me deftly. As they cut down the last man, I pant, pleased with the trebuchet’s trajectory.

            “Hit the switch!” Varric calls, pointing to it when I fumble to find it.

            I hope down off the stairs and kick it quickly, watching the arm swing up and over, hurling a massive boulder away from us quickly.

            Varric runs up beside me breathlessly, watching as it collides with the mountainside with a loud crash. The boulder slides back down the snow, gaining momentum. An avalanche chases it, snow shaken loose as it rushes down the slope as fast as a roaring river. I watch, panting, as the snow crashes into the army beneath, burying a decent portion of it. The other half gets trapped on the other side, and I bend over, resting my hands on my knees as I breathe.

            Varric pats my shoulder and grins as the Inquisition soldiers roar behind us in victory.

            “Shit, that was—”

            “Herald!” Cassandra exclaims. 

            Blackwall collides with me, tackling me to the ground. We roll off the ledge, falling in a heap as Varric lands beside us. Seconds later, the trebuchet above us bursts into flames, and I stare up in horror at the dragon that caused the explosion. Unnatural grey skin covers ripped, damaged wings that are so tattered they shouldn't be able to fly. Glowing red eyes stare down at us as it soars overhead, blotting out the moon in its path.

            Crushing helplessness paralyzes me for several seconds as I stare, breathless.

            I stand up quickly, pulling Varric and Blackwall to their feet. “Everyone to the gates!” I call. “Fall back!”

            Cassandra turns and shouts my order again, louder. Soldiers abandon their posts at the trebuchets, racing back to Haven quickly. Cullen stands at the gates, waving them all in. I fall back, checking quickly to see everyone made it before I follow them. Cullen slams the doors closed behind me.

            “We need everyone back to the Chantry!” he orders. “It’s the only building that might hold against that…that beast!” He turns back to me. “At this point…just make them work for it.”

            He jogs up the steps, diverting to grab a wounded soldier. Bull comes down past him, waving me over. "Boss, we got villagers trapped in some of these buildings." I look around to see that the dragon hit more than just the trebuchet. Dozens of homes are ablaze, the telltale sound of wood cracking and collapsing. "Several of my men are out looking, but we have t—"

            "Wait, wait, hear that?" Varric says, holding up a hand. 

            I hesitate, detecting a man’s dull cry for help. It’s faint, muffled through the—

            “I’ve got ‘im!” Blackwall calls, charging the house. He kicks the door in, and I watch as he enters. The roof collapses as a fire spreads across the walls, and I jerk forward a step before I see him emerge again, supporting the weight of a coughing man. The man groans and nods, thanking him before staggering off to the Chantry.

            “Do a lap,” I call quickly, backing up. “Make sure everyone’s safe! Spread out! Check everywhere! Go to the Chantry when you’re finished!”

            Everyone breaks up, calling for survivors and checking houses. I burst through the flaming door of the tavern to find Krem trying to free an elven waitress and the tavern owner out from under a pillar. I jam my staff under it, helping Krem lift it up quickly. The owner helps the elven servant out carefully, and they both thank me before running to the Chantry. I send Krem with them, and he keeps his shield at the ready, escorting them swiftly. 

            “Hey, Sul!” Dorian shouts. “Little help!”

            I rush up the steps beside the tavern to Solas’ cabin. I see Dorian hovering over a woman near an out-of-control fire.

            “They’re gonna blow,” he warns, and I see dozens of barrels of oil right in the path of the fire.

            “Oh shit—”

            “Help me with a shield!”

            I race to him, falling on my knees in time to expand his shield to include the unconscious apothecary owner by the woman. The explosion deafens me, taking Solas’ cabin with it. The shield rebukes the fire, and I gasp under its weight, pushing it up higher when I worry I’ll weaken. When the flames die down enough, we drop the shield. Dorian throws the man over his shoulder, and I help the woman to her feet.

            “Take them,” I call, urging the woman to move with Dorian. “Now!” I add when he hesitates.

            I turn around looking for everyone else. Cassandra comes running up the hill with a soldier slumped over her shoulder, moving past me quickly. Varric helps a child and a woman across the courtyard, ushering them inside. I wave him to safety quickly when he hesitates. Bull runs up with a couple shaken, ashen kids in one arm and their unconscious mother slung over his other shoulder.

            Roderick joins me, waving in a couple soldiers as they make for the Chantry. “Move! Keep going! The Chantry is your shelter!” he gasps. I turn to see him clutching his stomach, blood slipping through his fingers at an alarming rate.

            “Are you alright?” I ask quickly, reaching for him.

            He nods, waving me off as he leans against the door frame.

            “That’s everyone!” Cullen shouts.

            “What about Blackwall?” I call, searching.

            “Already in.”

            “Solas?”

            “Got here just before you! They’re all safe, come in!”

            I turn quickly with a last glance around Haven. Cullen slams the door behind me, locking it swiftly. Everyone is packed into the Chantry, huddled in groups. Solas, Varric, Cassandra, Dorian, and Blackwall stand nearby. Bull and Krem lean over the unconscious mother, Krem tipping her head back and breathing air into her lungs. Vivienne rushes over, moving him back. She drops to her knees, pressing against the mother's chest. Her fingers give a soft, pale glow, and then the mother coughs and opens her eyes. She sits up swiftly, grabbing at her two wailing children and hugging them close. At the back, I see Leliana directing a few soldiers. Josephine watches in horror, her eyes wide. Roderick stumbles forward, and Cole catches him quickly, guiding him to a chair.

            I come closer, kneeling down and wincing at the blood rushing through his fingers.

            “He tried to stop a templar,” Cole explains. “The blade went deep, but there's nothing you can do. He’s going to die.”

            “What a…charming boy,” Roderick rasps.

            “Herald,” Cullen calls softly, jogging to me. I stand up to face him. “Our position is not good.” Solas comes to my side, moving his hand to my back almost thoughtlessly. Cassandra and Varric move to my other side. Cullen keeps his attention on me and Cassandra. “That dragon stole back any time you might have earned us.”

            I close my eyes briefly, giving a long sigh.

            “I’ve seen an archdemon,” Cole murmurs. “I was in the Fade, but it looked like that.”

            “I don’t care what it looks like,” Cullen replies quickly. “It’s cut a path for that army. They’ll kill everyone in Haven.”

            “The Elder One doesn’t care about the village,” Cole says, his childlike tone indicating that the concept is ridiculous. “He only wants the Herald.”

            I frown. “What? Why?”

            “He wants to kill you. No one else matters, but he’ll kill them anyway. I don’t like him,” Cole adds with a sigh.

            Cullen gapes at him. “You don’t like—” He shakes his head, dropping that. “Herald, there are no tactics to make this survivable. The only thing that slowed them was the avalanche. We could turn the remaining trebuchet, cause one last slide.”

            “We’re overrun,” I reply. “To hit the enemy, we’d bury Haven.”

            Cullen gives me a quiet look. “We’re dying,” he admits. “But we can decide how. Many don’t get that choice.”

            I release a quiet breath, looking at Solas, Cassandra, Varric—my friends.

            Cole twists around, looking down the hall. “Yes, that,” he whispers to Roderick who stares at him blankly. “Chancellor Roderick can help. He wants to say it before he dies.”

            “There is a path,” Roderick whispers hoarsely through bloodied teeth. “You wouldn’t know it unless you’ve made the Summer Pilgrimage, as I have…The people can escape,” he says, standing with a groan. “She must have shown me…Andraste must have shown me so I could—tell you—”

            “What do you mean, Roderick?” I ask.

            “It was whim that I walked the path,” he gasps. “I did not mean to start; it was overgrown. Now, with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one who remembers…I don’t know, Herald…If this simple memory can save us, this could be more than mere accident. You could be more…”

            “What about it, Cullen?” I wonder hurriedly. “Will it work?”

            “Possibly,” Cullen nods. “If he can show us the path.”

            “Good. Then take everyone and go. I’ll distract the dragon. I’m good at distracting dragons.”

            “What of your escape?”

            I miss a beat before I grin. “I always come up with something. Improvisation is my specialty.”

            Cullen’s expression darkens. “Perhaps you will surprise it,” he offers quietly. “Find a way. We’ll set off an arrow once we’re clear. Hold them off until you see that, and then bring that mountain down.” He turns to everyone else. “Inquisition! Follow Chancellor Roderick! We have a path! The Herald will buy us time!”

            Cole takes the chancellor’s arm, supporting his weight.

            “Herald,” Roderick gasps quickly, reaching for me. I offer my hand, gripping his carefully. “If you were meant for this, if the Inquisition was meant for this...oh, I pray for you.”

            I nod at him solemnly, and Cole drags him forward.

            I close my eyes briefly before turning around. The hard part.

            “Go with Cullen,” I tell them firmly.

            “Not gonna happen, Snow,” Varric says immediately.

            “Not a chance,” Dorian agrees.

            Solas looks at me softly, his answer clear in his eyes as his hand remains on my back.

            “Please,” I say. “I don’t want you out there with me. It’s too dangerous. Please, go with Cullen, get to safe—”

            “Here I though you knew us all better than that by now,” Varric chides, raising an eyebrow.

            “Cassandra,” I implore. “They’ll need—”

            “They’ll need their Herald,” she finishes. “And we’ll make sure they have her.”

            I close my eyes. “There’s no point in all of us dying out there—”

            “Then let’s make sure we don’t,” Dorian muses. “I, for one, still need to try your southern wine. I hear it’s disgusting.”

            “You don’t have to do this,” I say, looking at them all.

            “What, so you can get all the credit?” Varric snorts. “Not on your life.”

            My vision blurs, and I nod. Solas takes my hand, and I squeeze it tightly. “Okay,” I breathe. “Let’s go make some noise.”

Chapter Text

We burst through the Chantry doors, slamming them closed behind us. I pull my staff up, casting a quick protection spell on Cassandra as she rushes past me, like she always does. She gives a great battle cry, her sword crashing against a red templar's helmet. He falls to his knees, and she quickly kills him, raising her shield to block an arrow. Inspired, I move forward, planting my feet as the others flank me. Cassandra is a powerhouse, calling enemies to her and running them through like they’re her practice dummies.

            Red templars are everywhere, and we do everything we can to get their attention. I thrust a fireball into the air that explodes loudly, drawing more towards us. If they realize what we're doing, they don't let on. We fight forward, moving slowly and thoroughly to give the others plenty of time to organize an escape. The templars mercifully ignore the Chantry and focus on us. I guess Cole was right; I'm the target. 

            We get stuck on the stairs. Enemies pour in from the gates and through a hole they blew, surrounding us quickly. Sweat clings to my skin as I whip my staff around and slam it to the ground hard. The earth rumbles beneath our feet, creating a small fissure. It’s not enough to threaten the integrity of Haven, but it is enough to knock the templars off balance. Cassandra strikes quickly, her blade thrusting into one templar while her shield knocks another down. She kicks a third when he gets close to me, bringing him to his knees before her dripping blade finds the weakness in his armor. 

            A hand suddenly grips my arm, pulling me back several steps. I glance at Dorian in time to see a barrage of arrows clatter against the stairs where I was mere seconds ago.

            “Thanks,” I gasp.

            He smirks as he refocuses on the battlefield. We continue working slowly, fighting out way forward through the mass of templars. I don’t see the dragon anymore, but I figure it can’t have gone far. I don't particularly look forward to that reunion. By the time we make it to the only remaining trebuchet, I'm exhausted and drained and covered in someone else's blood. 

            “We’ll cover you!” Cassandra calls to me. “Turn it around!”

            I race ahead, dropping my staff carelessly as I run up the steps to free my hands. I grip the wheel, jerking it with a grunt when it sticks. I move as quickly as I can, but it's once again heavier than I expected. A shimmering wall envelopes me, and I glance back as I pull the wheel to see Solas’ hand holding it while his staff works ceaselessly. I pick up my speed, turning the trebuchet as fast as I can. The wood groans in quiet protest, rotating unwillingly on its iron hinges. Red templars pour through the field, surrounding the others, but Dorian swings his staff, and a large fire wall suddenly cuts them off from the other templars. Varric shoots through the flames, killing several of them instantly. Cassandra dives through the fire, using her shield to create a door for herself, and then I hear her battle cry again as she crashes against several templars, knocking them all back. 

            I breathe out a weighted sigh of relief when the trebuchet is aimed at the mountain over Haven. I look up in time to see a black flash blot out the moon again. I step backwards, running off the steps. I tense immediately, realizing we have to get it away from the trebuchet before it destroys our only chance. 

            “Move!” I shout, waving my hands at the others. “Get back! Go! I’m right behind you!”

            I wait to make sure they're leaving, that they won't notice, and then I stop. Someone has to pull the trebuchet. I watch them run, praying to Mythal that they won't turn around until it's too late. Dragon fire cuts me off from them, sealing my fate with a large wall roaring between us. Please, Mythal. I watch through the flames as they disappear around the gates, but the gods are not with me today. Solas glances back to me, and then he jerks to a stop, his wide eyes finding mine. The others do, too, and my chest tightens when they all look back at me, horror filling their expressions. I watch them a moment, waving for them to keep going, but they don't. They talk quickly with each other, trying to figure a way to me, I think. Cassandra marches forward a few steps before Varric pulls her back roughly, pointing above me. It's all the warning I get. 

            The dragon roars again, and the next blast knocks me off my feet. My head slams against the stone below me. I gasp as my vision swims dizzyingly. Something catches my eye, and I look blearily to my left to see a figure walk through the flames. Fire licks up the creature's cloak, but it doesn’t catch. I frown languidly, uncertain I can trust my eyes as the figure grows closer.

            I sit up, trying to focus, though my mind reels. My eyes widen when I see the creature's chest past his cloak. If he was once a man, he isn't any longer. Skin is spread thinly, broken across a myriad of ribs that contain a bloody red mass I can only assume is the creature’s heart. His eyes find me, his lips curled into a permanent snarl by the Blight consuming his charred skin. The infection spreads through him evenly, and it has turned him into a monster, a twisted and cursed darkspawn. Half a cowl drapes down his face while red lyrium stabs through the other side of his head unnaturally, gleaming a glowing red in the firelight.

            I rise to my feet as he marches towards me, backing up a step. His dragon lands behind me, shaking the ground beneath my feet. I catch myself before I fall. The dragon roars, extending its wings out terrifyingly.

            Enough.

            I start dramatically and grit my teeth when the creature's voice worms its way through my thoughts; I recognize it as the same voice from the Temple. The creature's mouth doesn't move, but I hear him perfectly, the low, crackling sound of his voice burrowing into my mind and curling uncomfortably through my chest. 

            The dragon brings down its wings, shifting its weight to block me in as it waits patiently. I turn to the darkspawn warily, waiting as well. I walk slowly around the edge of the flames, as if searching for a way to escape. In reality, I want to keep him here as long as possible. He mirrors me, staying opposite me. He moves jerkily, but I can't even see his feet touch the ground past his ebony robes. I move until my back is to the trebuchet and then watch the creature, peripherally looking for the arrow to let me know the others are safe. 

            Pretender. You toy with forces beyond your ken, no more.

            I swallow loudly, alarmed and on edge as his voice continues to invade my thoughts, its deep tone unnatural and terrifying. My heart pounds erratically, but I make an honest effort to not reveal how scared I am. I just need to hold out a little longer. 

            “Who are you?” I demand. “Why are you doing this?”

            Mortals beg for truth they cannot have. It is beyond what you are, what I was. Know me. Know what you have pretended to be. Exalt the Elder One, the will that is Corypheus. He points at me, extending a clawed hand. You will kneel.

            I remember Leliana’s strength, and I stand upright. “I don't think so,” I reply evenly.

            You will resist. You will always resist. It matters not. The darkspawn holds up his left hand, revealing an object. I frown at it, seeing intricate tracings and indentations; it appears far too elegant for such a creature. It vibrates in his hand, flaring with red energy. I am here for the Anchor. The process of removing it begins now.

            He extends his right hand to me as his orb glows more brightly. My hand flares suddenly, and I’m jerked forward to my knees. I cry out as my hand vibrates and shakes, green energy spewing from it as angrily as the Breach. I grasp my wrist, tears flooding my eyes as the pain wracks up and down my arm. My bones burn, and I feel an invisible blade slip between my skin and muscle, as though he were flaying my hand. I search for the wounds I feel, but I see nothing physical to explain the agony. 

            It is your fault, ‘Herald.’ You interrupted a ritual years in the planning, and instead of dying, you stole its purpose.         

            He steps closer, tightening his magical hold on my hand.

            A scream is ripped from me before I can bite it back. Tears stream down my cheeks, and I turn my head up to glare at the creature, gripping my wrist. He tightens his hold again, making my vision swim with agony.

            I do not know how you survived, but what marks you as touched, what you flail at rifts, I crafted to assault the very heavens.

            He balls his clawed hand into a fist, and I scream again. My hand explodes in light, mixtures of red and green swirling around my fingers blindingly. I grit my teeth as the pain lances up my arm to my shoulder. I jerk my right hand away from my wrist when my fingers feel like they’re carving into my skin with daggers.

            And you used the Anchor to undo my work. The gall.

            “What is this thing meant to do?” I demand through my teeth, my voice wavering. 

            It is meant to bring certainty where there is none. For you, the certainty that I would always come for it.

            He marches forward, grabbing my wrist. He yanks me up off the ground, pulling me by my aching hand up to his height, my boots dangling half a dozen feet off the earth. I scream at the pain, gripping my arm as I clench my jaw. He stares at my hand, studying it. Up close, he's even more horrifying. His skin is stretched abhorrently over his cheekbones, ripped in some places where the skin grew too thin. His eyelids appear to have melted away, his eyeballs reddened and angry as he stares at my hand. His jawbone pokes through his skin, white and charred in some places as his voice continues to effortlessly find its way into my thoughts. 

            I once breached the Fade in the name of another, to serve the Old Gods of the empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption—dead whispers. For a thousand years, I was confused—no more. I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own, to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world. Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty.

            His eyes flare angrily, and he throws me across the field. I slam against the trebuchet, crying out when I feel something in my chest crack. I collapse to the ground in a heap, gasping as I cling to my throbbing side. My vision swims with the new pain, and my breaths are pulled from me in tight gasps. Broken—gods, I think he broke my rib.

            The Anchor is permanent. You have spoiled it with your stumbling.

            I lunge forward, flailing at the wooden stairs for a sword I see through my hazy vision. I stand unevenly, gasping as I hold my side. I hold the blade up uselessly, waiting—waiting and watching. Please, Mythal—please, come on—

            The creature and his dragon step forward to me.

            So be it. I will begin again, find another way to give this world the nation and god it requires.

            Over the creature's shoulder, against the light from the moon, I see it, just a tiny flicker.

            Relief rushes through me so powerfully that I almost collapse at once. The fire arrow arcs across the sky so far away that it's difficult to make out. I close my eyes, tears leaking down my cheeks. They made it. They're safe. 

            And you. I will not suffer even an unknowing rival. You must die.

            I see the lever out of the corner of my eye, and I smile at the creature. “Your arrogance blinds you. Good to know. If I’m dying, it’s not today.”

            I reach out and kick the lever as hard as I can. The trebuchet winds up and tosses a boulder out across Haven. I start running as soon as it’s gone, and I hear it collide with the mountain above. I glance back to see an avalanche rush down the mountainside. The creature watches me angrily and silently. The dragon sweeps its wings around the darkspawn, and he disappears as the dragon takes flight quickly. Red templars try to escape Haven, but I glance back to see them quickly buried in the avalanche.

            Snow chases my feet, and I glance to the left, seeing a poor option that I latch onto desperately. I throw myself sideways, colliding with the broken wooden paneling that once blocked the entrance to the lower tunnels under Haven. As soon as I go crashing through it, I see why. It’s a straight drop down. I slam into a wooden beam, screaming as my ribs crack a second time in protest. The air whooshes out of me, and I slip before I can grab the beam. I fall into another, my spine bruising before I fall again. I try to reach out to grab the next pillar, and my elbow crashes against it blindingly. I scream again, feeling and hearing my bone shatter against the wood as I fall. I land on my back, a broken heap on the ground. Sobs rattle weakly through me as I roll stiffly onto my side.

            Tears stream urgently as I gasp for air. Panic lopes through me when I can’t take a breath, and I scramble at the ground, my nails dragging against stone as I move onto my knees, struggling for a moment. My spine cries out in protest, aching low on my back from where I hit one of the beams. I gasp and cry out when air fills my lungs again, and I spend several long seconds just breathing and shaking violently.

            I take another wheezing breath as I try to figure out just how much damage my last-ditch effort did. My left hand aches and throbs from the magic he forcibly tried to remove. It glows brilliantly, its green light vibrant and pulsing in the dark cavern. My right arm is definitely broken; I see the bone protruding unnaturally inside my skin, and I look away, horrified. My ankle hurts, but I don’t think I broke it. I should still be able to walk. My spine concerns me, and I move my legs to ensure that I didn't do anything more than bruise it. Even the bruise feels like a broken bone, though, and I gasp shallowly through my tears. My ribs, however, are in agony. I know I broke at least three. My breaths wheeze out of me, affirming the idea as I clutch at my side with my left hand. I try to take as deep a breath as I can, and my chest cries out in protest. I cough the air out, praying to Mythal that none of the dislodged bones have pierced my lungs. 

            Could be better, but it could be a whole lot worse, too. I could be dead or a paralyzed heap on the ground. I thank Mythal for my good fortune as I look up at the cave I landed in. Icy stalactites hang down, threatening to run me through at any moment. I glance up, groaning when I see how far I fell and how many beams I broke along the way. I suspect those beams may have saved my life, though, stopping my momentum before I hit the ground. I send another prayer to Mythal in gratitude for her protection. 

            I see the etchings along the walls, carvings and archaic portraits of a woman who can only be Andraste, and I wonder if these tunnels lead to the Temple of Sacred Ashes.

            I gasp and groan, hanging my head before I lean back against my heels, wincing. I cry when I realize I can’t even heal my broken arm or fix my own ribs. I can’t trust my left hand to perform the spell without bringing the cave ceiling down on my head, and I can't move my right arm enough to place my hand on my ribs. 

            I give myself a couple of gasping moments, sobbing weakly in fear before I bring myself to my feet, take a shallow breath, and start walking.

***

I walk for hours before I see the light at the end of the tunnel—a literal one, not the death kind, though I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if I did see that one, for all the pain I'm in. At this point, it would probably feel like a blessing from the gods. 

            I tried to use my right hand to heal my ankle, but it hurt too much to try to summon the magic, and my mana was too low to force it, so I gave up. Whatever that creature did trying to remove the mark drained me.

            I stumble forward, my left hand sliding along the walls. I wince when I feel a rock slice into my fingers shallowly. I glance at them to see blood pooling and beading, and I bring my hand down, careful to not add infection to my long list of problems today.

            When I emerge from the cave, the wind knocks me down to my knees in greeting. I raise my hands to shield my eyes from the gusts as snow slaps against me like rain. A chill spreads through me as flakes from the blizzard slip into my clothes and melt against my skin. My chin trembles after mere moments in the snow, and I pull myself up weakly, groaning loudly, since no one’s here to hear it.

            My heart drops when I realize I can’t see anything. I don’t even know which direction I’m facing, because the morning light refracts through the snow, coming at me from all sides. I gasp, unable to cross my arms over myself in the chill. I squint in the snow, seeing something inert on the ground dozens of feet from me. I glance back at the cave, but I’m certain I’ll die if I stay, so I move—perhaps ill-advisedly.

            With no better options, I step into the snow. My Dalish boots provide little protection from the snow, and I wish I’d put on something sturdier when I'd dressed. 

            I release a strangled sigh when I hit the packed snow, forcing my damaged ankle through the mounds slowly. As I walk, I realize my teeth are clattering, and I try to force them to be still. The wind bites into my skin, and all I can think about is my long conversations with Solas well into the night. I think of Varric’s laugh and Cassandra’s disgusted noise. Even Dorian’s grin comes to mind. After knowing him such a short time, I realize he counts among my friends with his quick smiles and impassioned loyalty for a Dalish elf he barely knew.

            When I get closer to the object, I realize it’s just a wagon. I sag a little, unsure what I expected. Because of the snow, I can’t tell how long it’s been here or which direction it was originally going before it toppled onto its side. I hesitate, looking around, dismayed when I realize I don’t know which way to go. I turn around to see my tracks covered, so I can’t evenly confidently get back to cave. I realize with a flash of anger that I should have stayed in the cave long enough for the blasted blizzard to at least slow down. 

            I look around, struggling to see through the snow, hoping to catch a glimpse of something to head towards, but there's nothing. As I try to orient myself with the light of the sun unsuccessfully, I hear the loud howls of wolves nearby. I gasp and stumble backwards clumsily, landing in the snow like one of those idiot girls in the cautionary stories the hahrens told us. The wolves seem close, perhaps only dozens of feet from me. The roaring wind shatters their voices, making them come at me from several sides. I pull myself up to my feet raggedly and turn around away from them, walking quickly through the packed snow. Their presence decides my direction for me, and I walk as briskly as I can to escape their jaws. 

            Everything in me aches. My lungs can’t properly expand; all I can manage is short, shallow breaths that leave me lightheaded, and even those pull at my protesting ribs. My right arm throbs, and my left hand feels like it’s been crushed under a boulder and then set on fire and then run over by a horse that was also on fire.

            A laugh slips hysterically through my chattering teeth, and I frown at myself. Too soon to go crazy. I think if I wasn’t so drained, I’d probably be crying, so I’m at least grateful for the exhaustion, though it does make the trek difficult.

            By midday, I’m so foolishly starving that my stomach becomes another dull ache. I still hear the wolves calling after me, urging me on more quickly than I’d like to go. I can’t see them when I turn around, but the blizzard makes it impossible to see anything more than a few feet away.

            By early evening, the wind picks up even more, and by nightfall, the blizzard is so strong that whispered sobs break through my chest. My toes are like ice, and my fingers have long-since gone blue. I stumble forward, falling to my knees. I rest my left hand against the snow, breathing out painfully. I sit back on my heels, and I consider staying here until I hear the wolves again. They sound closer, so I pick myself back up and continue forward.

            I'm going to die out here.

            I'll be mauled by wolves, or maybe I'll just fall asleep and never wake up again. Maybe I'll make it through this blizzard, but lost and alone in the barren Frostback Mountains, I will die.

            The realization barely registers at first, and then I realize I’m too tired to even acknowledge it. When I hear the wolves again, I almost wish they’d just get it over with already.

            I trip and hit the snow, gasping at the pain in my left hand when I catch myself, grateful beyond measure that I didn’t reach out instinctively with my right. I sigh heavily, hanging my head. I don’t know why it feels like such a betrayal to give up.

            Endure.

            Oh, that’s why. Thank you for that, Keeper Deshanna. I recall Solas' words about the burden my name has placed on my shoulders; it didn't truly feel like one until today.

            I force myself back up, my knees shaking as I walk. The moon is barely bright enough to light the path, and the snow reflects that, too, making it difficult to tell which direction the true light comes from. My path is dictated solely by the predators I hear occasionally behind me. Sometimes they fall silent for so long that I'm sure they've given up on my trail. Right when I'm about to collapse, though, they howl out loudly, reminding me why I was walking in the first place. My path is slow and winding, and I fall many times along the way. When I reach an uphill part of my path, I almost consider turning around or just falling over. Instead, I force myself up, my sore muscles and aching bones screaming in protest, bringing tears to my eyes once more.

            It’s dawn again when I finally reach the top of the summit. I gasp in relief when I realize I’ve escaped the harshest of the blizzard winds. I look behind me to see the snow raging down below still, the valley a blanket of white mist. There’s little wind up here, and I fall to my knees, crawling achingly with my left hand to a tree.

            I just need a minute. Just a small moment to rest, and then I'll keep going. 

            I slide against the tree, falling against it. I’m drifting to an uncomfortable sleep when I hear the wolves howl again desperately, their voices so much closer that it startles me awake. I half-expect to see them before me, waiting to chew me into pieces, but instead, there’s only the summit ledge and the morning sun. I hang my head, crying weakly, because I’m exhausted and drained, and all I want is five minutes to rest.

            The wolves howl again, closer, and I drag myself to my feet, wiping my eyes with my frozen left forearm. I glance up at the sun to see which direction I’m heading, but I don’t both letting that determine my path. The wolves behind me are the only thing I can hope to avoid at this point. Maybe I’ll get lucky and freeze to death before they catch up with me. If they do catch me, I just hope they don't toy with me. A swift death is the only thing I can hope for at this point. 

            The serious thought brings another hysterical laugh, and I frown at myself again. Get it together.

            I pass a campfire whose embers have long-since gone cold. Another day passes over me as I walk, and by evening, I’m just too exhausted to continue. My knees give out, and I land heavily, panting shallowly before I fall into the snow face first. I curl up on my side, praying to Mythal for just a moment’s rest. I feel dizzy and lightheaded from my weak breaths, and I just want to sleep—just for a few minutes.

            The wolves howl behind me, but this time I don’t respond, in far too much pain to rise again. I invite Fen’Harel to do his worst and let my body relax into the snow. It's almost warm against my numb skin, like a blanket. The howling grows closer and more insistent, and after a moment, I start crying again, because despite everything, I can’t sleep to the noise; it's far too loud, the howling too desperate and demanding. I crawl forward a few inches, dragging myself up to my feet with a pitiful groan. Can't they just let me die in peace? Haven't I suffered enough? 

            Another day passes me slowly as I walk, my toes frozen in the snow. I don’t dare look down, afraid of what shade they might be after so much cold. My throat is dry and raspy, and it takes me a long time to realize I'm dehydrated. I reach out for some snow with my left hand weakly, bringing it to my lips. They're so cold that I don't even feel how freezing it is anymore. The ice doesn't melt properly in my mouth, but I swallow it down anyway. It hits my empty stomach, and I shiver violently. My breaths wheeze from me weakly, my ribs refusing to give me leeway to breathe. I realize I’m hoping I’ll just pass out after a while. At least then I could rest, and it wouldn't feel like it was my fault or like I gave up. The wolves continue to track me, and I imagine my smell must be easy to find. I do wonder why they haven’t caught up yet, though. Wolves are excellent hunters. They should have found me that first day. I frown numbly, stumbling forward as another dawn slowly approaches. 

            The sun at least warms me a bit as I continue, and the snow grows a little shallower, my toes meeting solid rock after a while. By the next night, I’m contemplating the likelihood of me accidently stumbling off a mountain, which seems like a possibility for how little I’m paying attention to my surroundings.

            There is no moon tonight, and I can barely see. My glowing hand provides the only real light, and even that is weak after so many days spent wandering lost. I would stop if not for the insistent wolves. I pass through a narrow canyon between two mountains and look up to realize I've begun to hallucinate. Ahead, I see a massive orange glow across the snow far ahead, flickering almost like that of a hundreds campfires. I frown, confused, because I thought mirages only happened in the desert. Perhaps I'm more dehydrated than I thought. An alarming thought, but one that doesn't properly register. 

            I stumble forward weakly, relieved to find more solid ground under my feet. The wolves raise their volume, and if I had the strength to, I’d tell them to pipe down. Instead, I stagger against the side of the canyon, my arm scraping against it as I continue slowly.

            My vision catches on something else ahead, but I can’t make it out clearly. Whatever it is approaches me slowly, something orange glowing in its hand. A torch? Well, this hallucination is escalating. 

            I frown, blinking rapidly when I recognize the lion’s armor. My frown deepens. Odd that I should conjure him of all people to appear in this vision. Am I close to dying then? 

            "Maker," Cullen breathes, lunging forward. 

            I blink in confusion, and then I fall to my knees, crying when I realize it isn’t a hallucination.

            “She's here! Maker, I found her!” Cullen shouts, and I cry harder, so drained that I can’t restrain it. “It’s her! Sound the signal!”

            A second later, a whining, loud horn startles me and echoes across the mountains deafeningly.

            I gasp, bending forward weakly as Cullen runs over to me, Cassandra on his heels. Both of them are follow by three Inquisition agents, and I try to compose myself, but I can’t. I didn’t think I’d find them.

            “Thank the Maker!” Cassandra cries. "Is she alright?!"

            Cullen and Cassandra kneel before me.

            “Herald,” Cassandra says, reaching for me. I fall forward against her, exhaustion weighing heavily on me. I don’t mean to, but a sob slips through my teeth as everything floods through me powerfully. “Your arm—! Maker, Cullen, she's freezing. We need to get her to the healers, quickly—”

            Cullen switches places with her, and I fall against him, too. “It’s alright now,” he says reassuringly as he lifts me up. I cry harder when my right arm falls, dangling painfully. Cullen stands, carrying me swiftly as the snow starts falling again. My left hand gleams against his breastplate, blinding me. Cassandra marches ahead of him, shouting orders.

            “Find Solas!” she calls. “He left with Varric and Dorian. Bring him to the infirmary tent, and get the healers! She needs healing immediately. Blow the signal again—bring them all back! Now, hurry!”

            The horn whines shrilly again, startling me once more.

            “I can walk,” I urge. It hurts to speak, my voice hoarse in my own ears.  

            “Don’t talk,” Cullen replies. “We’re almost there. It’s alright.”      

            “You did it, Herald,” Cassandra agrees, turning to me worriedly. “You saved us. Everyone made it out. Maker...we thought you were dead.”

            "Almost," I reply weakly. "Not quite." The joke falls a little flat.

            Cullen carries me through the massive encampment, and a myriad of gasps travels along those we pass by. 

            “Make way!” Cassandra orders. “She’s badly wounded. Get the healers ready!”

            I'm beginning to wonder just how large this camp is when Cullen ducks into a tent, and suddenly we're inside. My skin warms from the many candles deposited around us, and a wheezing breath is pulled from me in relief. I'm only just beginning to realize how cold I was.

            “Maker, is that...Put her here,” a woman says quickly. “I need to set her arm.”

            A cot meets my back as Cullen sets me down, and then he and Cassandra surround the bed, watching me anxiously.

            “When did you break it?” the healer asks, and I look over at her wearily. Her brown eyes find mine, but I'm having trouble focusing. 

            I blink, struggling to remember her question. “What?”

            “Your arm," she says. "No, keep looking at me." She pats my cheeks, and my eyes flutter open again. "How long ago was it, Herald? I need you to try to stay awake. When did you break your arm?"

            “Oh...days ago. I...fell in Haven...the tunnels below the...the village,” I murmur tiredly, frowning faintly.

            “Stay with us, Herald,” she says gruffly. “Don’t go to sleep. I need you to bite down on this.”

            “What?” I gasp, recoiling from the leather belt, suddenly wide awake. “Why?”

            “Commander,” the woman says, looking up at him. 

            Cullen comes around behind me, holding my shoulders down with a grim expression.

            “What are you doing?” I ask, panicked. 

            “I have to set the bone before it heals in the wrong place,” the healer says. "I need you to bite down on this."

            “N-no, wait, what about—”

            “Bite down on this,” she repeats.

            “Cassandra!” I exclaim, looking at her desperately. She meets my eyes, looking at healer uncertainly. 

            Before she can speak, the healer pulls the belt through my teeth, forcing me to bite down.

            “Her legs, Seeker,” she adds. "Keep her down; this won't be pleasant."

            My eyes widen, and I pant shallowly through my nose. I try to say something, but my words come out muffled as Cassandra grips my ankles.

            “Herald, I won’t lie to you; this is gonna hurt,” the healer warns. 

            “Wait, wait—” I try to say, my words muffled. She grips my hand, pressing her fingers to my arm where the bone threatens to break through skin. “Wait—wait—wai—” The healer swiftly pulls my arm up and out, and I scream louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life. Blinding pain shoots up my arm like fire as the bone is jerked back into place forcibly. I buck wildly against Cullen’s hands, tears flooding my eyes as I wail against the belt. My jaw grows sore when my teeth clench against the leather.

            “What are you doing?” someone demands angrily, his normally reserved voice raised in furious shock.

            I wail loudly and hoarsely, my arm on fire as he storms into the tent.

            “We need to set her arm,” the healer says unapologetically. "It's already been too long. It'll heal wrong, and we'd have to rebreak it if we waited."

            “This is needlessly barbaric.” He pushes past the healer, coming to my side as I sob loudly against the belt. I look over, barely making Solas out through my tears. “Lethallin,” he says softly. He reaches for my forehead, his fingers gentle against my sweating skin. I cry his name against the belt, and I hear quiet words murmured swiftly under his breath. My head grows heavy, and I blink rapidly, my cries dying down until they become weak, shallow breaths. “Sleep, lethallin,” he murmurs as the pain fades away. I mumble something against the belt, my vision blurring unsteadily as my eyelids fall heavily. “Sleep. You are safe now.”

Chapter Text

When I first wake, I’m able to stay conscious long enough to give Cassandra a slightly delirious account of what happened. Solas sits close beside me, his hand clasped firmly around mine. Parts of me feel stronger than they did before, my pain well moderated. My high fever makes me a little nonsensical, but Cassandra seems to understand what I’m saying. Solas listens quietly, his expression serious and, at times, angry. Cassandra asks a hundred questions, and I pass out before I manage to answer a quarter of them. I manage to provide all the most pressing information, hitting all the best highlights—giant darkspawn, glowing orb, Anchor manipulation, godhood declaration—all that good stuff.

            The next time I wake, the sun is in a new position, and Solas and Varric try to convince me to eat. I manage a little stew, but my fever has turned my stomach, and I push it away disinterestedly. I drink enough water to placate them both, but I'm too drained to manage anything better. Varric watches me worriedly, his eyes concerned as he glances at Solas, and I think I start to say something about being fine before I pass out again.

            The third and official time I wake from my stupor, it isn’t due to the sun or the wind or any other countless natural things. It’s the sound of Cullen, Josephine, Leliana, and Cassandra arguing heatedly. At first, it’s a welcome symbol of being home. It makes me feel oddly secure and safe, despite the fury in each of their tones. The longer it drags on, though, the heavier it weighs on me. I open my eyes to see I’m alone with Mother Giselle, who sits beside me, her legs crossed. Her foot sways as she knits a thick scarf idly, glancing up at the others periodically. I close my eyes again and try to fall back asleep.

            When I can’t, I take stock of how I feel. My ribs have been mostly healed. At least I can breathe normally again. My arm is bandaged to my side to keep it from moving as I sleep; it's sore, but the ache is gone. My spine is infinitely better, and my ankle doesn’t hurt at all anymore. Solas must have fixed my left hand, because it feels fuzzy and dulled, the throbbing sensation gone. I open my eyes again, staring up at the ceiling. The sun sets, casting warm shadows over the tent walls as I lie there. Evening approaching swiftly, and the others’ voices carry over to me ceaselessly as their argument drags on.

            “What would you have me tell them?” Cullen demands angrily. “This isn’t what we asked them to do!”

            “We cannot simply ignore this!” Cassandra argues. “We must find a way!”

            “And who put you in charge? We need a consensus, or we have nothing!”

            I sit up with difficulty, balancing on my left elbow.

            “Please, we must use reason!” Josephine intervenes. “Without the infrastructure of the Inquisition—”

            “It can’t come from nowhere!” Cullen exclaims.

            “She didn’t say it could!” Leliana shouts, coming to Josephine’s aid.

            “Enough!” Cassandra yells, throwing her hands up into the air. “This is getting us nowhere!”

            “Well, we’re agreed on that much!” Cullen huffs.

            Mother Giselle glances at me and sets her knitting aside. “Shh,” she murmurs, leaning towards me. “You need rest.”

            "How long have I been...?"

            "The commander and the Seeker brought you in eight days ago."

            My eyes widen in shock. "I thought...it'd only been a day or two."

            Mother Giselle gives me a small smile. "You certainly kept us on our toes. Your fever was stubborn and did not break for many days. Many of the healers said you would not live." I blink in surprise. "But Solas was not so convinced. He reminded us you are strong. He watched over you the whole time, refusing to leave," she adds, something of a mischievous smile spreading when my cheeks flush. "I finally had to kick him out myself. He is stubborn, but I am more so. The others sat with you, too. Varric and the Tevinter mage, especially, though they all visited. The Seeker paced around you so quickly for so many hours that it made me dizzy."

            I look down, uncertain how to respond. Warmth floods my chest, and I swallow thickly. 

            "How do you feel?" she asks.

            "Much better," I reply. "I...I'm not cold anymore, so that's good."

            Mother Giselle surprises me with a quiet laugh. "That is good to hear. And your wounds? Solas and the healers did what they could."

            "I feel much better. Exhausted and starving, but better."

            "Here," she says, handing me some bread and water. "The stew is not yet finished, but I took these for you in case you woke."

            "Thank you, Mother Giselle," I murmur, sitting up stiffly. I take a sip of water that I intend to be short, but I soon drain the mug. Mother Giselle watches me with a smile, standing to refill the mug when I've drained it. "Thank you," I say again, accepting the mug greedily. I drink more before she stops me, wisely urging me to slow down. I switch to the bread, suddenly ravenous. 

            I glance over to see Cullen and Cassandra arguing again. Their words don't reach me as easily, but their posture is unmistakably tense.

            “They’ve been at it for hours,” I murmur as I finish the bread. 

            “They have that luxury, thanks to you," Mother Giselle says softly. "The enemy could not follow, and with time to doubt, we turn to blame. Infighting may threaten as much as this Corypheus.”

            I close my eyes, sighing out as I look at the ground. “Do we know where we and his charming friends are?”

            Mother Giselle grimaces. “We are not sure where we are, which may be why, despite the numbers he still commands, there is no sign of him. That, or you are believed dead. Without Haven, we are thought helpless...or he girds for another attack. I cannot claim to know the mind of that creature, only his effect on us.”

            I sigh again, glancing at the others briefly. “If they’re arguing about what we do next, I need to be there.”

            Mother Giselle shakes her head, catching me and making me sit when I try to stand. “Another heated voice won’t help, even yours. Perhaps especially yours. Our leaders struggle because of what we survivors witnessed. We saw our defender stand…and fall. And now, we have seen her return. The more the enemy is beyond us, the more miraculous your actions appear, and the more our trials seem ordained. That is hard to accept, no?” she asks, seeing my reaction. “What we have been called to endure, what we, perhaps, must come to believe.”

            “Mother Giselle,” I sigh, setting my empty mug aside, “I just…don’t see how what I believe matters. Lies or not, Corypheus is a real, physical threat. We can’t match that with hope alone.”

            The mother stares at me, and I look down. I rise stiffly off the cot, walking forward a few steps. I only manage to make it far enough to lean against the tent’s pole tiredly. I look across at the others. Josephine sits on a bench, rubbing the back of her neck tiredly as she stares into the fire below her. Leliana sits close beside her on the ground, hugging her legs to her chest as she, too, gazes into the flames. Cullen stands over a table, flattening and re-flattening the same corner of the map. Cassandra stands next to him, cutting tense glances at him.

            I breathe out slowly. Mother Giselle comes to stand beside me, pressing her hand to my shoulder. She parts her lips, breathing out slowly, and I look over at her when she begins to softly sing. Her quiet voice moves into the pretty melody, her words carrying over the campfire. She steps away from me to the center of the camp, and dozens of pairs of eyes turn to her in unison. I find the ground, listening to the lyrics quietly. 

            "Shadows fall, and hope has fled.

            Steel your heart, the dawn will come.

            The night is long, and the path is dark.

            Look to the sky, for one day soon,

            The dawn will come."

            Leliana looks up at the song, her eyes shining in recognition. She waits a moment before joining in, her voice prettily combining with the mother's. One by one, other voices add to the song until it feels like nearly the whole camp is raised in song. My cheeks flame, and I look down again, crossing my left arm over my stomach. The words fill my mind, and I wonder how they all know it so well. 

            "The shepherd’s lost, and his home is far.

            Keep to the stars, the dawn will come.

            The night is long, and the path is dark.

            Look to the sky, for one day soon,

            The dawn will come."

            Members of the Inquisition—soldiers and refugees, mages and templars—come to stand before me. I push up off the pole, watching them uncertainly. My eyes flood when they kneel before me, and I shift my stance, dropping my eyes again, somehow honored and uncomfortable at the same time. 

            "Bare your blade and raise it high.

            Stand your ground, the dawn will come.

            The night is long, and the path is dark.

            Look to the sky, for one day soon,

            The dawn will come."

            The final words of the song linger in the air, perfect silence ringing in my ears. The Inquisition rises, bowing their heads to me as they disperse. I quickly run my fingers over my cheeks, pretending to scratch an itch as I breathe in sharply, moved more than I care to admit. 

            Mother Giselle returns to me. “An army needs more than an enemy,” she murmurs. “It needs a cause.”

            She steps away from me again, moving towards the others. Several of them actually smile, talking quietly as they carry bowls of stew to each other.

            I drop my eyes to the ground, a breath falling from me uncertainly.

            Someone comes up behind me. I turn to see Solas. “A word, lethallin?” he murmurs, moving past me just as quickly.

            I follow him, crossing my left arm over my stomach again. He guides me through the camp and then away from it to a small brazier. He lights it swiftly, taming the flame before it flares too high.

            He turns to me, his hands folded behind his back. His eyes appraise me, relief evident in his expression, though he doesn't comment on it further. “The humans have not raised one of our people so high for ages beyond counting,” he muses. “The faith is hard won, lethallin, worthy of pride…save one detail.”

            I cock my head softly.

            “The threat Corypheus wields? The orb you described?" Solas watches me closely. "It is ours.”

            I hesitate, blinking as my lips part. “What?” I breathe.

            “Corypheus used the orb to open the Breach. Unlocking it must have caused the explosion that destroyed the Conclave. We must find out how he survived…and we must prepare for their reaction when they learn the orb is of our people.”

            I release the breath I’m holding. “What…what is it? How do you know about it?”

            Solas looks at me evenly. “Such things were foci, said to channel power from elven gods. Some were dedicated to specific members of the pantheon. All that remains are references in ruin and faint visions of memory in the Fade, echoes of a dead empire. But however Corypheus came to it, the orb is elven, and with it, he threatens the heart of human faith.”

            I close my eyes, shaking my head before I gaze over the mountains past the lit brazier. “It seems like no matter what we do, the Chantry always find some way to blame elves.”

            “That is true,” Solas says quietly.

            “I suppose it doesn’t really matter if we can’t get out of these mountains.”

            “That is the immediate problem,” he agrees, “and it offers a solution that may secure your place in their hearts. You saved them at Haven. Perhaps you can again." I look up at him, cocking my head again. "By attacking the Inquisition, Corypheus has changed it, changed you. Scout to the north. Be their guide.”

            “Where will we go?” I murmur. 

            He smiles softly, his eyes sad. “There is a place that waits for a force to hold it. There is a place where the Inquisition can build…grow.”

***

We spend a two months moving north through the mountains, our pilgrimage slow and hard-going. Food grows scarce in some of the more barren areas. Elk are difficult to track down this high in the mountains, but Leliana sends our stealthiest scouts out to hunt regularly. In our desperate escape from Haven, the Inquisition wound up nestled deep in the mountains, far from any marked paths. It takes weeks to find the old roads, but when we do, we manage to move more quickly. 

            Not all of us make it. Chancellor Roderick was the first to die, hours after he got everyone through the path from the Chantry in Haven. He lived just long enough to save us. Once we begin our pilgrimage, one of the older mothers from the Chantry dies in her sleep, and then one of our soldiers dies from infection from a wound no one knew he had. When the children start getting sick, I join the healers, working tirelessly to keep their fevers away. One of them comes close to dying, but I refuse to allow it, staying up with her all night until her fever finally breaks. 

            Despite our hardships, we persevere, the Inquisition proving itself an indefatigable and unbroken organization, moving me more than words can say. Solas remains by my side, guiding me. We move ahead of the convoy, finding a path suitable for the rest.

            On what becomes the last day of our pilgrimage, Solas convinces me to climb up a steep cliff with him. I follow slowly, using my staff for balance as we climb higher and higher. He turns when he reaches the top, holding his hand out to me. I don't question him, though I am curious as what we brought me up here for. He pulls me to the summit, and I look at him with a raised eyebrow. He smiles softly, his eyes searching mine for a long moment before he turns and gestures through the mountains. 

            I follow his gaze, and my lips part in awe.

            “Skyhold,” Solas murmurs quietly beside me.

            I step forward once, unable to believe my eyes. The massive stone fortress sits atop a mountain, so strong in its design that I feel a burst of pride and hope at the thought that it will be ours. The first thing I notice is how utterly defensible it is, and I realize just how deeply Haven's destruction has settled in my chest. That won't happen to us here, that much is clear. It isn't possible to overrun this fortress. The battlements raise up so high and so thick that I can barely see more than the tallest towers, and there is so little room between the walls and the drop off the mountain that no army could possibly find the leverage to break through. A massive stone bridge crosses a gorge from the fortress to an adjacent peak, but I see at least three distinct gates before the walls, capable of keeping unwanted guests from even reaching the bridge itself. The path from the bridge winds thickly through the mountains to the west, large enough that our few wagons will have no trouble traversing the space. Skyhold is beautiful and enormous. It's large enough to house all of us—strong enough to defend all of us. Nestled in these mountains, we will be safe from Corypheus, safe from his red templars, perhaps safe even from his dragon. 

            My eyes flood, and I look at Solas breathlessly. He admires the fortress with a solemnity that gives me pause, a look that he composes when he feels my gaze. He smiles gently at my reaction, though the expression doesn't quite meet his eyes before he looks back at Skyhold. I want to ask him so many things, my mind racing with a thousand possibilities and a thousand questions as I return to the fortress as well. 

            “Solas,” I gasp. “How did you...where...I...This is...” I give up on speech after a few tries, shaking my head in awe. 

            He turns to me, the solemn look still unshakably clouding his expression. I hesitate, searching him for an answer, but he smiles again, extending his hand to me. 

            “Come,” he murmurs. “Let me know you the path.”

            I take his hand, glancing back one last time at the fortress that will soon become the Inquisition’s home and harbor.

Chapter Text

We spend weeks properly setting up in Skyhold. The fortress is even more majestic than I'd imagined. Its previous owners left it in some disarray, but scaffolding was quickly placed along the weakest points, and stone is brought in by the wagon-ful to fix the damage, curtesy of Josephine’s ambassador connections.

            Most everyone has found their home here during the last few weeks. I can almost always find Solas in the atrium just off the main hall—a large circular room that I’ve begun to think of simply as Solas’ study and where I’ve spent a great deal of my time since moving in. Above the study is the Skyhold's extensive library where, more often than not, Dorian is pouring over some book, shaking his head in dismay at whatever plot he’s reading. In the rookery, Leliana’s ravens caw loudly as she works at her own desk, her agents scattered about waiting for orders or bringing news.

            At the other end of the main hall, grand doors lead to the gardens where I can generally find Mother Giselle. We spent half a day discussing things amidst the peace of the gardens when we first arrived, and I found myself admiring her the more I spoke with her. Down the main hall, across from the undercroft is the door to my quarters. It’s a long flight of stairs, but the view from my room—higher than any other spot in the fortress—is breathtaking.

            The lower courtyard has been taken over by the healers, whose tents have been scattered thickly to service those wounded from Haven or from their journeys to Skyhold. The upper courtyard, at around six o’clock in the morning, is a dangerous place to be if you aren't in the mood for sparring. Cassandra and Cullen have taken to training soldiers there, shouting out orders until everyone is breathless. Even just watching them is exhausting.

            The tavern, which the others have taken to calling Herald’s Rest, is where most of the others hang out. More often than not, Bull sits in a back corner, eyeing the place smoothly. Krem flanks him, sitting in a chair that is his one blind spot—whether he was told to sit there, or he just knew that was the best place for him, I’m not sure. Though the atmosphere of the tavern is deliberately relaxed, I can see the Ben-Hassrath training in Bull taking over sometimes. When we first got here, he spent hours with Cullen, Leliana, and our quartermaster, going over all the weaknesses he saw in Skyhold. I fortunately wasn't present for the meeting, but I saw the guard rotations change after that. Ever since, the walls have been manned more earnestly, the soldiers organized more thoroughly than ever.

            Sera lives on the second floor of the tavern. She quickly claimed the only room, making it her own with colors as bright and energetic as she is. She keeps the windows open at all hours of the day, with exception to Cassandra and Cullen's training hours, and I often see her sitting on the roof late into the night eating cookies—from what I can discern. Cole sometimes spends his time on the rarely-used third floor, though he appears and disappears as he pleases around the fortress. I imagine one of these days someone will have a talk with me about it, but I enjoy his easy nature. He spends a lot of his time with the healers, though I have yet to see what he does to help them myself.

            Varric can almost always be found in the main hall or the tavern. Blackwall has evidently moved into the second level of the stables, far removed from everyone else. Cullen’s office, as I understand it, has a room just above it that he’s claimed. Josephine’s office is on the way to the war room, the latter of which was the first thing we set up properly. Before beds and quarters were assigned, Cullen and the others established which room was best for our planning. There has so far been plenty of room for all our soldiers and mages, towers filled to the brim with cots and beds and people, though I’ve heard no complaints about the conditions. This fortress was, evidently, designed to hold thousands. Should the barracks and towers fill up, there's an entire wing of the fortress under the main hall that we've allocated for more cots. 

            This morning, I’ve spent almost all my time in one of the towers just off the lower courtyard. The healers have been making it suitable for a medical center, but there is a lot of stuff left behind from the previous owners to go through first—and a great deal of spiderwebs that I avoid religiously. 

            I step outside into the courtyard for some fresh air, wiping my fingers off on a rag kindly provided to me. Across from me near the stairs to the upper courtyard, Cullen, Cassandra, Leliana, and Josephine are talking quietly, their expressions excited and eager for once, which is a good plus. I’m ready to leave them to it when Cassandra spots me and waves me over. Her smile throws me, and I look suspiciously at the others to see them all smiling at me.

            Odd.

            I toss the rag over the edge of the railing and move down the few steps to the grass. As I approach, Cassandra folds her hands behind her back, and the others depart, all moving in separate directions with glances at me. Leliana takes the stairs to the upper courtyard as the other two disappear into the barracks.

            I glance at them suspiciously again, chuckling as I move closer.

            Cassandra nudges her chin to the gates of Skyhold, pleased. I glance over to see a massive wagon being led into the lower courtyard. Refugees take down their cowls, admiring Skyhold with openly awed expressions. “They arrive daily from every settlement in the region. Skyhold is becoming a pilgrimage.” I smile at that, and Cassandra glances at me, walking backwards so I’ll follow her. We reach the stairs to the upper courtyard, going slowly. “If word as reached these people it,” she continues, “it will have reached the Elder One. We have the walls and numbers to put up a fight here, but this threat is far beyond the war we anticipated. But we now know what allowed us to stand against Corypheus, what drew him to you.”

            She pauses at the second courtyard, turning to me when I make a face. “Yes, he came for this,” I answer, raising my left hand slightly. “And now it’s useless to him, so he wants me dead. Charming.”

            Cassandra raises an eyebrow at me. “The Anchor has power, but it’s not why you’re still standing here.” She continues walking, taking us around to the second flight of stairs that leads from the upper courtyard to the main hall. “Your decisions let us heal the sky. Your determination brought us out of Haven. You are the creature’s rival because of what you did.” She stops on the landing. “And we know it. All of us.”

            “Yeah,” I mutter, “that and a…big…old...” I trail off, staring at Leliana confusedly. She stands before us with a great sword outstretched in her arms. She gives me an almost playful smile, stepping forward once.

            “The Inquisition requires a leader,” Cassandra says. “The one who has already been leading it.”

            I blink in shock, my mind slow to process what they’re saying. I part my lips to say something, but nothing comes out. Leliana glances pointedly at the lower courtyard below us, and I look down to see the crowd gathered. Hundreds of people have congregated to stare up at us, grinning broadly, and more are on their way—soldiers and scouts, mages and templars, refugees and Chantry mothers. Amongst their already staggering number, I see Bull and Krem grinning against a wall. Varric and Dorian are smirking at me in the middle of the crowd, the latter cocking an eyebrow amusedly when I find him. Solas watches me with warm eyes, his hands folded behind his back as he stands apart from the others. Cullen and Josephine are at the front of the crowd. The commander is smirking, and the ambassador's hands are clasped under her chin as she grins excitedly. 

            “You,” Cassandra finishes, bringing my attention back to her.

            “I—” My eyes widen at her, and she offers a very small smile. “I…don’t…” I clear my throat. “I don’t know what to say…obviously…”

            “Say that you won’t make me regret this,” she jokes drily—at least, I think she’s joking.

            “Why?” I wonder quietly, looking at her seriously. “Why are you choosing me, of all people? Why not…you or Cullen or Leliana or—”

            “Because I believe this is what was meant to be,” she answers, “that without you, there would be no Inquisition.” She waves her hand, urging me to walk forward to Leliana. I do, hesitantly. The sword is enormous. Suddenly, I’m terrified I won’t even be able to lift it. That would certainly be embarrassing… “What it means for the future,” Cassandra continues, “how you lead us…that is entirely up to you.”

            I reach forward hesitantly to brush my fingers against the golden dragon spread across the sword handle, its fiery breath giving way to the long, thick blade.

            “Wish I’d…worn something nicer,” I mumble distractedly.

            Leliana chuckles softly, offering the sword again.

            I take it from her carefully, gripping the handle as tightly as I can. It is very heavy, and I have to use both hands to raise it up off Leliana's hands gently. I balance the blade on my fingers, staring down at it, all too aware of what this means.

            “Corypheus will never let us live in peace,” I murmur. “He made that clear. He intends to be a god, to rule over us all. He must be stopped.”

            “Wherever you lead us,” Cassandra nods approvingly, "the Inquisition will stand behind you." She steps to the edge of the landing, looking down to the others. “Have our people been told?” she calls.

            “They have!” Josephine replies with an eager smile. “And soon, the world!”

            “Commander, will they follow?”

            Cullen walks before the crowd, raising his hands. “Inquisition! Will you follow?” The courtyard suddenly erupts with a cacophony of cheers, eager exclamations affirming their support. “Will you fight?” The rumbling turns into a roar, the fortress echoing with their unified voices. “Will we triumph?” The thunder grows impossibly louder as Cullen turns back to us, grinning widely. He pulls his sword free, raising it to point at me. “Your leader! Your Herald! Your Inquisitor!”

            My heart soars, and the crowd deafens me. I mimic Cullen’s posture, raising the blade up. The crowd grows even louder, their cheers drowning out anything else. My eyes flood at their acceptance, their allegiance—to me, a Dalish mage, of all people.

            I glance down to see Cullen and Josephine exchange a pleased look. Solas smiles softly, his expression warm and appraising. Dorian and Varric whoop and applaud. Dorian bows lavishly when I look at him, and I grin, a chuckle bursting from me giddily as I lower the heavy blade. Bull and Krem clap loudly, Bull’s rumbling roar reaching me from all the way across the courtyard.

            Looking at them, it hits me that not only is this an honor and a privilege but a responsibility. It settles deep in my chest; these people have entrusted their lives to me. Cassandra, Leliana, Cullen, Josephine...they trust me with this duty, and I will not make them regret it. I know I will do whatever I can to see them through this war. Corypheus thought he destroyed us at Haven, but I realize with startling clarity that he's only made us stronger.

***

Cullen and Cassandra push open the doors to the main hall briskly, letting them stay open as they go. I follow them through, Leliana and Josephine close behind me.

            “So, this is where it begins,” Cullen murmurs, giving the hall a long once-over.

            “It began in the courtyard,” Leliana corrects. “This is where we turn that promise into action.”

            “But what do we do?” Josephine wonders. “We know nothing about this Corypheus except that he wanted your mark.”

            I chew my cheek, turning to them as we stop in the middle of the hall. “Well, good thing we know the future,” I mumble.

            “We do have that one advantage,” Leliana agrees. “We know what Corypheus intends to do next. In that strange future you experienced, Empress Celene had been assassinated.”

            “Imagine the chaos her death would cause,” Josephine breathes. “With his army—”

            “An army he’s growing with demons,” Cullen adds.

            “Corypheus could conquer the entire south of Thedas, god or no god.”      

            Leliana sighs. “I’d feel better if we knew more about what we were dealing with.”

            “I know someone who can help with that.” We turn in unison to find Varric walking towards us. “Everyone acting all inspirational jogged my memory, so I sent a message to an old friend. She’s crossed paths with Corypheus before and may know more about what he’s doing. She can help.”

            “Ooh,” I muse. “A mysterious friend. I’m game. Who is she? When can I meet her?”

            Varric grimaces. “Parading around might…cause a fuss. It’s better for you to meet privately. She should be here soon. I’ll…let you know when I've heard back from her. Trust me…it’s... complicated.” He turns back, making his way to the courtyard again. 

            “Well, then…” Josephine says slowly. “Uh…We stand ready to move on both of these concerns.”

            “On your order, Inquisitor,” Cullen adds with a crooked smile.

            I grin. “Gonna have to get used to that one.”

            “I know one thing,” Leliana muses thoughtfully. “If Varric has brought who I think he has…Cassandra is going to kill him.”

***

“Now, Inquisitor,” Josephine says, gesturing for me to follow her through the main hall again. “There is one more part of your duties that we have not gone over.”

            I see where she's heading, and I make an uncomfortable face, playing with my sleeve. “Are you sure?” I muse. “I feel like we’ve covered it all. I’m good. Are you good? I think we’re all good.”

            She smirks. “I know we have been going over it all for hours, but this one last thing, and then you’re free to go.” She stops in front of the dais at the end of the long hall, looking at the throne above us.

            “It’s a nice chair,” I offer, hoping she doesn't say that I think she's going to say.

            “It is not a chair,” she says, amused with me. “It is a duty.”

            Shit. “Looks like a chair…”

            “This is where we will show the rest of the world how we intend to guide the Inquisition. The prisoners we capture will need to be sentenced, depending on the severity of their crimes. As we exist outside of Ferelden or Orlesian law, it stands to you to make these decisions.”

            “Me?” I repeat, shocked. “Not…Cullen or—”

            “You are our leader. You represent everything the Inquisition is, everything it stands for. The role of Inquisitor is more than just ceremonial. It is of the utmost importance that you give the sentence, and, if need be, that you swing the sword.”

            I grimace at the chair. “Charming.”

            “We have our first prisoner awaiting a sentencing in the dungeons below. The guards are bringing him up as we speak.”

            “What? Who?” I wonder.

            “The magister from Redcliffe.”

            "But...Redcliffe is Ferelden territory. Why are we judging him? We should give him to the king and queen."

            "It was the king and queen who wrote to us, granting us the authority to handle this manner as you see fit, given that it was your life the magister tried to end, and your mages he tried to hold for ransom."

            "How...considerate of them." I sigh. “We’re doing this now?” Even as I say it, I see the others moving into the main hall, talking quietly. “Is there anyone you didn’t invite?”

            “It is important that we show you have a firm hand and a confident power.”

            “So…no jokes.”

            Josephine grimaces. “No jokes.”

            “Best behavior then…”

            “Take the throne, Inquisitor," Josephine replies with a disgruntled sigh. 

            I glance uncertainly at the others. Solas watches as he leans against the doorway to his study. Bull and Varric and everyone else piles in amidst several dozen soldiers.

            I swallow thickly, almost choking like an idiot, and then move up to the dais. I sit uncomfortably, forcing myself to ease back into the chair. The doors to the dungeon open, and the guards come out with Alexius between them. He watches the ground as he walks, and I recall, once again, the version of the man from the future so distraught at losing his son. It saddens me to wonder where Felix is now, if he still lives.

            I watch warily as Alexius approaches. Josephine clears her throat, and the room falls silent. When she speaks, her voice rings out powerfully. “You recall Gereon Alexius of Tevinter. Ferelden has given him to us as acknowledgement of your aid. The formal charges are apostasy, attempted enslavement, and attempted assassination—on your own life, no less.”

            The guards push Alexius forward. He stumbles a few times, standing weakly at the foot of the dais, his eyes staring unseeingly into the stone below my feet. Dorian pushes through the crowd gently, watching intently, as do Fiona and several mages.

            “Tevinter has disowned and stripped him of his rank,” Josephine continues. “You may judge the former magister as you see fit, Inquisitor Lavellan.”

            I resist the urge to make light of the situation. My usual defense mechanism won't be excused so readily in this matter. “Those are grave charges,” I murmur solemnly. “Do you have anything to say, Alexius?”

            “I couldn’t save my son,” he says quietly, staring at the floor. “Do you think my fate matters to me?” I look down at that, closing my eyes briefly. 

            “Will you offer nothing more in your defense?” Josephine wonders.

            “You’ve won nothing,” the former magister mutters. “The people you saved, the acclaim you’ve gathered—you’ll lose it all in the storm to come. Render your judgement, Inquisitor.”

            I watch him a moment, deciding carefully. The court waits in silence until I finally sigh out, folding my hands. “Your magic was theoretically impossible, Alexius. We could use people like you.” Several heads look up at me, including his. “Your sentence is to serve, under guard, as a researcher on all things magical for the Inquisition.”

            Dorian looks away, smiling softly at the ground.

            “No execution?” Alexius asks. He sighs, looking at the stone again. “Very well.”

            The guards take Alexius’ arms again and escort him out. A quiet round of whispering goes through the hall, but the soldiers depart as well, returning to their duties.

            “Very good, Inquisitor,” Josephine muses, smiling at me.

            I get up from the chair as quickly as I can. “Gah, I don’t like doing that.”

            She grins at me. “It didn’t show," she replies earnestly. "You did very well.”

            “Okay. I’m gonna go…drink something. I think. Maybe water. Probably not.”

            Josephine laughs. “Very good, Inquisitor,” she repeats. "Thank you for indulging me today. If you have any more questions, please feel free to come find me." With that, she curtsies to me and heads to her office. 

            I resist the urge to run away from the dais and its chair, instead walking as normally through the hall as I can. Dorian meets me halfway, turning to walk with me. 

            “Research was what always made him happiest,” he murmurs. “A bold decision,” he adds lightly. “Fair warning, if he suggests anything about time altering magic, don’t listen.”

            I laugh quietly. “Good advice.”

            “Drinks?”

            “You read my mind.”

Chapter Text

I poke my head into Solas’ study to find him bent over his desk, taking rigorous notes. He reaches for another book, flipping through the pages slowly to find the right one before taking notes again.

            I edge into the room slowly, leaning against the back wall casually. He glances up at me, smiling.

            “Are you busy?” I whisper loudly. Obviously he is, but that doesn't seem to deter me. 

            His smile turns into an amused smirk as he sets his quill down. “No,” he replies in a silky voice. “Come in.”

            I push off the wall, clasping my hands behind my back. “I like what you’ve done with the place,” I add, looking around. His desk sits in the middle, papers and books scattered across it. A couch and another small desk are against the back wall. A beautiful rug lines the stone below the main desk, reds vibrant against the gray rock beneath it.

            “Thank you,” he murmurs, closing the books he was referencing.

            “Sorry, did I interrupt?”

            “Never.”

            “Never?” I muse. “Hm…I’ll remember that the next time you’re in the middle of a spell or something.”

            His lips purse into a smile that he fights. “Did you need anything?” he wonders, his voice warmer than I think he intends. 

            “Need?” I repeat. “No…no, no, no, I don’t need anything. I was just wondering…well…thinking…” His expression grows more amused, and I clear my throat. “I was thinking about what you told me, about yourself and your studies. I was wondering if you have some time, perhaps? I’d love to hear more.”

            Solas’ expression softens. “You continue to surprise me,” he murmurs, his voice entrancing me once again. Does he do it on purpose? “Alright, let us talk.”

            “Excellent,” I grin.

            “Preferably somewhere more interesting than this.”

            I grin again. “Lead the way, hahren.”

            He chuckles at the title, shaking his head lightly.

            I turn away with him and then blink, shielding my eyes from the sun. Solas leads us down the wide path through Haven, past the many tents and cabins. I should feel colder, but I don’t, despite the snow slowly drifting towards us. Solas guides me to the Chantry.

            “Why here?” I wonder.

            “Haven is familiar,” Solas replies. “It will always be important to you.”

            I frown, chuckling once. “We talked about that already.”

            He smiles at me warmly, leading me to the Chantry. I walk beside him, and he pushes open the main doors to the prison cell where I woke up so many months ago.

            Solas stares down at the floor before meeting my eyes. “I sat beside you while you slept, studying the Anchor.”

            I laugh quietly. “Mm. That must have been quick. How long can it take to look at a mark on my hand?”

            Solas smirks, amused. “A magical mark of unknown origin, tied to a unique breach in the Veil? Longer than you might think.”

            I chuckle again, folding my hands behind my back to mimic his posture.

            “I ran every test I could imagine, searched the Fade, yet found nothing. Cassandra suspected duplicity. She threatened to have me executed as an apostate if I didn’t produce results.”

            I grimace. “Well…Cassandra’s like that with everyone.”

            Solas laughs, the sound bursting from him. My heart picks up, and I revel in the fact that I made him do it. “Yes,” he chuckles. I grin, suddenly wishing I was able to always pull such free laughter from him. He leads me back through the doors and into Haven’s courtyard. “You were never going to wake up. How could you, a mortal sent physically through the Fade? I was frustrated, frightened. The spirits I might have consulted had been driven away from the Breach. Although I wished to help, I had no faith in Cassandra, nor she in me. I was ready to flee.”

            I cock my head curiously. “The Breach threatened the whole world. Where did you plan to go?”

            “Someplace far away where I might research a way to repair the Breach before its effects reached me…I never said it was a good plan,” he adds when he sees my reaction. Amusement freckles his eyes as he smiles again. He glances up at the Breach, watching it pulse brilliantly in the sky. “I told myself, one more attempt to seal the rifts. I tried and failed. No ordinary magic would affect them. I watched the rifts expand and grow, resigned myself to flee, and then…” He looks back at me, and I suddenly recall our first meeting—him taking my hand and holding it up to the rift, sealing it while I stood there, gaping like an idiot. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation,” he murmurs, echoing his first words to me.

            I smile at him, shifting my weight.

            “You had sealed it with a gesture…and then, I felt the whole world change.”

            My smile spreads idiotically. “Felt the whole world change, mm?”

            Solas’ expression softens again. “A figure of speech.”

            “Oh, I’m aware of the metaphor,” I murmur, pursing my lips into a coy smile.

            Solas searches my eyes, his own warm and mesmerizing. “You change…everything,” he murmurs.

            My cheeks flame, and I look down sheepishly. I move my hand to his, lacing our fingers together before I pull him a step closer. Before I can talk myself out of it or second guess the decision, I move up to my toes and press my lips again his, raising my other fingers to his jaw. He hesitates, surprised, and I pull back, terrified I’ve offended him or misread something. My heart leaps in my throat, and I worry I've made the biggest mistake of my idiot life. 

            Solas suddenly offers a playful smirk, his eyes a little dark, and he pulls me back to him. His hand grazes my cheek as his other arm winds around my back. I smile, raising my fingers to his arm when he kisses me. His lips move against mine slowly at first, and I feel my heart hammer erratically, thudding in my ears. Heat pools in my stomach, and I part my lips, sighing when his tongue delves into my mouth. I gasp in surprise, smiling softly. I tighten my grip on his arm, leaning into him. His kiss becomes searing, his fingers gentle on my cheek. His other hand presses to the small of my back, pulling me to him as closely as he can. I arch forward, raising my hands to his jaw. After a long, breathless moment, Solas pulls back, his eyes warm and bright. My breaths fall wildly as he admires me, and my cheeks flush again. He shakes his head softly, grinning. His eyes fall to my lips, and I smile as he leans into me again. His lips meld with mine gently, and I tighten my fingers on him, kissing him back fervently. He swiftly pulls away a second time, as if fighting with himself, and he presses his forehead to mine as our breaths race.

            “We shouldn’t,” he murmurs, swallowing quietly. The sound makes my cheeks flush more, and I smile faintly. “It isn’t right…not even here.”

            I open my eyes languidly. “Even here?” I repeat, my voice high and breathy. 

            Solas lifts his head from mine, his thumb brushing against my cheek before he drops his hand. He steps back, appraising me again. “Where did you think we were?” he smirks, his eyes bright.

            I blink, taken aback. Haven—no, Haven was buried—the Breach—how did I not—

            “This isn’t real,” I realize slowly.

            Solas’ smirk grows mischievous. “That is a matter debate…probably best discussed after you wake up.”

            I gasp, jerking upright. I’m disoriented for a several long seconds before I recognize the balcony past the open doors of my room. The moon bathes my bed in a soft light. Back in Skyhold—no, not back—I never left.

            My heart suddenly jolts in my chest, and I grin to myself idiotically.

            Did I just—

            Did we just—

            I fall back against my bed as an idiotic, girlish giggle slips through me embarrassingly. I roll over, pressing my face to the pillow and laugh again, my chest soaring. Gods, I just kissed Solas. I just kissed Solas. In the Fade. That was real, right? Gods, I hope that wasn't just a dream. Was it a dream? 

            I grin into my pillow, suddenly overcome with the insane desire to go find Solas in his study, throw whatever book he’s probably studying aside, and kiss him until my lungs burst.

            I fall asleep with every intention of doing just that, and I dream of far less enamoring things.

***

In the morning, I skip breakfast, far more interested in seeing Solas again. Perhaps that shouldn’t be the case, but after last night—which I’ve begun to worry really was just a dream—I have to see him. Well…don’t have to…

            I walk through the main hall sheepishly, deciding that if the door is closed, I’ll leave him be.

            It’s standing wide open.

            I see him leaning over his desk again, jotting something down. I watch him a moment from the hall, playing with my fingers before I roll my eyes at myself. I buck up my courage and giddily go in, desperate to play it utterly cool and totally nonchalant.

            Solas glances up from his work when he hears me trip over the rug. I pretend like it didn’t happen, and his lips curl into a maddeningly crooked smile.

            “Sleep well?” he murmurs with so much mischief that I’m certain it was real.

            “Had some…interesting dreams,” I reply, trying to be coy and failing. I give up on the charade and grin. “I’ve never done anything like that before…on a number of levels.”

            Solas offers one of his rare, quiet laughs, and I grin at the sound. He grows serious, bowing his head once. “I apologize,” he murmurs. “The kiss was impulsive and ill-considered, and I should not have encouraged it.”

            My heart drops, and I look down, shame burning my cheeks. Gods, I’m such an ass!

            “S-Solas, I’m so sorry—Gods, I-I thought you were interested—if I misread—I never meant to make you uncomfortable or—”

            "No, Suledin,” Solas says quickly, his eyes softening. He rounds his desk, stopping inches away. He raises his hand to my cheek, his thumb arcing across my skin softly. “You have no need to apologize, I…” He runs his thumb across my cheek again and then drops his hand with a quiet sigh, his eyes conflicted. “It had been a long time…and things have always been…easier for me in the Fade.” His expression weakens, his eyes tightening a little as he looks down away from me. “I am not certain this is the best idea. It…could lead to trouble.”

            I smile hesitantly. “I’m willing to take that chance if you are.”

            “I…may be…yes…” He frowns, glancing up at me briefly. I’ve never seen him uncertain before. “If I could take a little time to think. There are…considerations.”

            I try to stop my grin from spreading. “Take all the time you need.”

            “Thank you,” he sighs in evident relief. He smiles up at me almost sheepishly. “I am not often thrown by things that happen in dreams.”

            I smirk at him, chuckling delightedly as an odd sort of pride rushes through me.

            His eyes fall to my smile, his own spreading softly. “But I am reasonably certain we are awake now, and if you wish to discuss anything, I would enjoy talking.”

            I nod, grinning. “May I…” I gesture to the couch.

            He closes his eyes briefly, his smile turning apologetic. “Of course. Forgive me.”

            I walk the few steps to it and sit down, watching him do the same. It warms my chest when he sits close beside me.

            “I was hoping to hear more about your time in the Fade,” I admit, pulling one of my legs up to face him. I lean against the arm of the couch behind me, folding my hands in my lap.         

            “I would be happy to share it,” he murmurs, facing me in a similar way. "What would you like to know?"

            “What about…” Solas smiles as I decide. “Tell me about a ruin you explored. Please,” I add with a broad smile that makes him chuckle softly.

            Solas’ expression grows thoughtful, his eyes falling to trace my fingers as I play with them. He looks up at me again when he’s ready, his eyes trapping mine as he speaks. “I found the ruin of Barindur, a lost Tevinter city buried deep beneath a dead and barren wasteland. Volcanic ash had sealed it tight. In one dark moment, every living creature in the city sealed and smothered. They were statues in the ashes, like a mold made to recall the lost.”

            I blink slowly, the weight of that discovery pressing down on me. “That’s…very sad…but incredible.”

            “Indeed,” he murmurs. “I spent many hours there, reflecting.”

            “What did you think about?” I wonder quietly.

            He offers a thin smile. “The usual things one thinks about when confronted with a city encased in ash for all time.”

            I chuckle, despite the dark situation. “Fair enough,” I allow. “You were in Tevinter?”

            “For a short time. I was passing through.”

            “I remember hearing about a traveler who tried to find Barindur—Brother...Genitivi, I believe he was called? He said he hadn’t found anything.”

            “I, too, thought the city was gone, destroyed to the point where nothing remained. I walked the barren earth, searching for any sign of its existence. It was only when I slept that I saw the city buried deep beneath the molten rock.”

            “Wow,” I breathe, smiling softly. “You’re probably the only person who knows that,” I realize.

            He smiles at my hands. “Not anymore.”

            My cheeks flame again, and I grin. “What about a spirit you’ve met? You’ve befriended so many.”

            His expression turns thoughtful again before he smiles at me. “You may enjoy this one. I once met a friendly spirit who observed the dreams of village girls as love first blossomed in their adolescence. With subtlety, she steered them all to village boys with gentle hearts who would return their love with gentle kindness. The Matchmaker, so I called her. That small village never knew its luck.”

            I make an involuntary sound of adoration, and then I sigh. I shake my head, looking away as my expression falls.

            “What's wrong, lethallin?”

            “It’s just so…wrong. We hear only of pride demons, envy demons—rage or hunger or fear. We learn to…despise the Fade and fear its residents.” I shake my head again, my eyes tracing the fabric of the couch in shame. “Until I met you, I was afraid of it, too.”

            “You are different,” Solas says factually.

            “How?” I sigh. “I didn’t know any of this.”

            “No,” he allows, “but you thought to ask. You are…curious about the world around you. You accept what you don’t know. Rather than write them off, as so many have…you wish to learn of these kind and gentle spirits.”

            “I wish more people knew this. I wish keepers and the Chantry and Circles, if they must exist, taught this instead of fear, instead of hate.”

            “Perhaps one day,” Solas murmurs softly. “Perhaps there will come a time when true understanding is universal, where spirits are not unknown entities to fear but curious beings we seek out for knowledge and friendship.”

            I sigh again, looking at Solas. “I’ve never known anyone like you. You’re so…bright and curious and contemplative. You make friends with those who are shunned by others. You accept their knowledge and their form without judgement.” I shake my head, laughing weakly. “I am feeling very insignificant,” I add, “and honored to know you, Solas. Thank you for sharing this with me.”

            Solas searches my eyes. “Thank you for asking. So few do.” He reaches forward, hesitating briefly before he takes my hand. “And you are the furthest thing from insignificant.”

            I smirk, my cheeks flaming. “You’re just saying that because they gave me a new fancy title.”

            Solas chuckles softly, tightening his fingers on mine. “Would you like to know anything else?”

            “You mentioned there were memories you found, too?”

            Solas nods, thinking for a moment as he plays with my hand. His thumb traces along my dark skin, and I admire the contrast between his fingers and mine. He brushes over a small freckle near my pinky absently, his eyes far away. “I saw a savage human horde go marching toward the battlefront. They sang a soldier’s hymn to keep formation. The primal music shook the ground. These savage, unwashed warriors carried harmonies no Chantry choir has mastered. Though their cause was all but hopeless, they sang songs that made the spirits weep.”

            My eyes fall to our hands. I let the beauty of his words, the melody of his voice as well as the weight of the memory, settle heavily on me. 

            “Solas…”

            “Yes?”

            “Do you…”

            “What is it, lethallin?” he murmurs when I hesitate.

            I blush a little, feeling almost foolish for the request. “Do you...think you could…maybe teach me?” I peek up at him nervously. 

            He cocks his head. “Teach you…to do what, lethallin?”

            “To…fall asleep in the middle of ancient ruins. To walk the Fade with a clear mind, and to...” I smirk, recalling his words with startling clarity, “to see the dreams of lost civilizations."

            I peek up at Solas again to see his expression change. His eyes look—sad, I realize with concern. He tightens his fingers on mine. “You are…” He closes his eyes briefly, breathing out as he looks away from me.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “Nothing,” he says. He looks back at me and forces a smile. “You are…unlike anyone I’ve known in a…a long time. Of course I will teach you.”

            “Really?” I grin.

            “Yes,” he replies. His eyes tighten, and he releases my hand, hesitating before he stands.

            “Do you think we could try it here?” I ask, standing, too. “This place must have a long history.”

            He looks over at me. “I—no, I think we should find a place less…familiar. Skyhold is becoming your home. The next time we find ourselves near a suitable ruin, I will let you know, and we will enter the Fade together.”

            I grin wider. “Really, really?”

            He smiles again, but it looks tight. “Yes. Please forgive me, lethallin. I have…several things to do. But we shall certainly discuss this more later, if you wish.”

            “Thank you, Solas.”

            He nods.

            “Did I…say something?” I wonder hesitantly. “Did I do something wrong?”

            “Of course not, lethallin,” he murmurs, his voice and eyes burning with sincerity. “I am—I have a great many things to—consider. You have…changed things.”

            I frown slightly, growing more concerned.

            He smiles. “No matter. I will see you tonight. You’ve done nothing wrong,” he adds when he sees my expression. He reaches forward hesitantly, letting his thumb brush against my cheek. “You’ve—merely shown me something I had not…considered,” he murmurs so softly that I wonder if he’s talking to me at all.

            “What do you mean?” I whisper.

            “Forgive me. My mind is rather…unfocused right now. I will see you tonight, lethallin.” He smiles at me tightly, moving to the door that leads to the courtyard. I watch him go worriedly.

            “He’s certainly an odd little duck, isn't he?” a voice muses disinterestedly.

            I look up to see Dorian leaning against the railing, a book in his hand. “Spying?” I murmur teasingly.

            Dorian gapes and then scoffs. “I would hardly call it spying! This is my spot to read, as you well now. Come up here. I want to speak with you.”

            “How...how much of that did you hear?” I ask, suddenly blushing.

            Dorian flips a page. “Eh, nothing of note, just that you’re madly in love with him, he wants to think it over, and you want to walk the Fade the way he does.”

            "Dorian!" I scoff. I should be angry, I suppose, or embarrassed, but something in his demeanor makes me laugh instead. “Gods, I will never live this down.”

            “I should think not. Come, come, we can’t be shouting like this all day. We’ll wake the ravens! And then where will we be?”

            I smirk and shake my head. I glance back at the door Solas left through and take the stairs up to the library. I find Dorian has moved to stand back by a bookshelf, perusing the titles, his fingers running along the spines.   

            “Good of you to come all the way up here,” he muses. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”

            “Mm?”

            “One moment, you’re trying to restore order in a world gone mad—that should be enough for anyone to handle, yes? Then, out of nowhere, an archdemon appears and kicks you in the head! ‘What?’ ‘You thought this would be easy?’” I cover my laugh with my hand quickly. “‘No, I was just hoping you wouldn’t crush our village like an anthill.’ ‘Sorry about that! Archdemons like to crush, you know. Can’t be helped.’" He whips around to me, raising an eyebrow. "Am I speaking too quickly for you?”

            I smirk. “No, I think I can keep up.”

            “Yes, you are rather sharp, aren’t you?”

            “What’s this about, Dorian?” I chuckle.

            He sighs heavily. “I always assumed the Elder One behind the Venatori was a magister, but this—is something else completely. In Tevinter, they say the Chantry’s tales of magisters starting the Blight are just that—tales. But here we are. One of those very magisters—a darkspawn.”

            “And you sound disturbed.”

            “Disturbed?” he repeats, disdainfully at first. He tries the word again, tasting it. “Disturbed. Yes. Perhaps I am. He broke open the Fade.”

            “Alright, but then why are you angry?”

            His expression grows solemn. “Because…the Imperium is my home. I knew what I was taught couldn’t be the whole truth, but I assumed there had to be a kernel of it. Somewhere. But no. It was us all along. We destroyed the world.” He looks away, his expression dark.

            I frown at him, stepping closer. “You didn’t do anything. Those men did. A thousand years ago.”

            He sighs. “True…except that one of them is up and walking around right now. And he nearly killed you—nearly killed us all. Not to mention, I have idiot countrymen who would happily follow him down that path again.” He frowns, looking up at me. “No one will thank me, whatever happens. No one will thank you, either. You know that, yes?”

            “That’s not why I’m doing this,” I murmur.

            “I knew there was something clever about you." He offers another sigh. "All I know is this—Corypheus needs to be stopped. Men like him ruined my homeland. I won’t stand by and let him ruin the world.” Dorian moves past me determinedly. He turns around, walking backwards. “Oh! And, congratulations on the whole leading the Inquisition thing.”

            I grin at him, shaking my head. He smirks and winks, taking the stairs two at a time down to Solas’ study.

            “Inquisitor Lavellan?”

            I poke my head over the railing, looking down into the atrium.

            “Inquisitor—ah, there you are,” the agent says, spotting me. “They’re waiting for you in the war room.”

            “What? Oh shit—er, I mean, thank you, agent. I didn’t forget.”

            I take the stairs two at a time as well, offering the man an amused smile when he tries to hide his laugh. I walk briskly through the hall, nodding at two dignitaries who were sent to meet with us in our new home. They talk quietly to each other, nodding at me in return.

            I speed up to an all-our run when I reach the vacant hallway, stopping when I reach the doors to the war room. I gasp for air and then push the doors open casually.

            “Inquisitor Lavellan!” Josephine greets warmly, bowing at the waist. “How are you finding Skyhold?”

            “It’s magnificent,” I reply, still a little winded. “The idea that this place was just abandoned baffles me.”

            “It does feel rather more than just fortuitous.”

            “Inquisitor,” Cullen nods.

            I realize I like the ring of the new title. “Cullen, how are you?”

            “Very well. Our warm room has certainly experienced an upgrade.”

            “Far more fitting for top secret conversations,” I agree lightly. “Where’s Cassandra? Wait, did I beat her here?”

            Cullen smirks as Leliana answers. “She said, and I quote, ‘I suppose she can handle it now.’”

            “Aw…that’s so…sweet…? They grow up so fast.”

            Cullen and Josephine chuckle. “Oh, Inquisitor,” the ambassador adds. “I’ve made some inquiries into the Imperial Court. The sooner we deal with the threat to the Empress, the better. The political situation in the empire is dangerously unstable. It will complicate matters.”

            “Everything in the empire complicates matters,” Cullen sighs. “It’s the Orlesian national pastime.”

            I cough to cover my laugh.

            “Turn your nose up at the Grand Game if you like, Commander,” Leliana replies curtly, “but we play for the highest stakes and to the death.”

            Josephine glances between them. “The court’s disapproval can be as great a threat as the Venatori. We must be vigilant to avert disaster.”

            “What did you mean about the political situation being dangerously unstable?” I ask. “How is it more dangerous than usual?”

            “The empress is in the middle of a civil war. Her cousin, Grand Duke Gaspard, seeks to take her throne by force. Leliana reports that a group of elves has been sabotaging both armies, drawing out the hostilities. Orlais holds Tevinter at bay. All of Thedas could be lost if the empire falls to Corypheus. Celene is holding peace talks under the auspices of a Grand Masquerade. Every power in Orlais will be there. It’s the perfect place for an assassin to hide.”

            “A Grand Masquerade, mm?” I sigh. “And here I am with nothing to wear.”

            Cullen snorts. “I’ll arrange for an invitation at your discretion, Inquisitor,” Josephine replies.

            “Additionally, Inquisitor,” Leliana murmurs. “Several prospective opportunities have come to our attention. A great many people across Ferelden and Orlais require our aid. We’ve received dozens of letters from King Alistair, several nobles, and a few guardsmen scattered through Ferelden, as well as a letter from your clan.”

            “My clan?”

            “Yes,” she answers, pulling a sealed scroll from her robes. She checks the stamp before offering it to me.

            I open it quickly, scanning it.

            Da’len,

            I would not trouble you normally. You have enough on your shoulders fighting ancient Tevinter magisters while representing your people. Know that we are incredibly proud of you and your accomplishments. Yes, word reached us of your appointment to Inquisitor. The trust is hard earned, I’m certain. Unfortunately, the rifts that plague this land have spread chaos and fear along with them, and many seek to take advantage of it.

            Bandits are attacking Clan Lavellan. The raiders are well-armed and heavily armored, and they come in numbers our hunters cannot match. We have settled in a small unclaimed valley not far from Wycome, a safe place with few rifts—but these bandits may force us to seek a new home. If your Inquisition can help, you might save our clan much hardship.

            Dareth shiral,

            Keeper Istimaethoriel Lavellan

            Fear grips me in an instant, and I look up to the others.

            “What has happened?” Josephine asks worriedly.

            “My—” I blink, clearing my throat. “My clan is under attack. Bandits…the fact that Keeper Deshanna is even informing me of this means that it’s…serious.”

            Cullen looks at me concernedly. “We can send troops to give your clan much-needed support. They should arrive within a few weeks.”

            Leliana shakes her head. “A few weeks? No, my skirmishers can arrive there in half the time and harass their flanks, giving the clan enough time to retreat while I uncover the truth behind the bandits’ attacks. Targeting the Inquisitor's clan is likely no mistake.”

            “You said they are near Wycome, Inquisitor?” Josephine asks. “I know the man who rules over Wycome. He is a decent and honorable sort. I can send him a letter. It would arrive faster than either Leliana’s agents or Cullen’s troops, and he can dispatch his own men to help your clan. Time is, of course, of the essence.”

            I look between them, fear tightening my chest. If Keeper Deshanna is writing, that must mean the attacks have been going on for some time. I know she wouldn't voluntarily involve me in this; she always has been stubborn in admitting defeat. They may not have a few weeks to spare. “Josephine,” I decide, my voice hoarse. “Please—they’re all I have, my family.”

            “I understand completely,” Josephine nods firmly. “I will write the letter at once and send it off. Excuse me.” She bows and departs the war room briskly.

            I stare at the map below my fingers for a moment, composing myself. "What...what does King Alistair say?” I ask.

            Leliana hands another letter to me.

            Inquisitor,

            First things first: an apology. I offered the rebel mages safe harbor in Ferelden only to have them drive my uncle out of his town, so I’ll admit I wasn’t in the best of moods when I first met you. I just wanted everyone out of Redcliffe and didn’t care who was responsible for what. Now I wish I’d done otherwise. Isn’t that always the way? These cultists…Venatori, I think they’re called? We have them in the royal palace, or so I’m told. Like rats—but with magic and nasty sneers. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I need to find them and drive them out. Since the Inquisition knows all about them, I’m hoping you’ll help. Something something grateful something.

            Wait…did you just write that? You scribes do this on purpose, don’t you?

            King Alistair Theirin

            I smile faintly at the end of the letter. “You both have ideas?”

            “I have just the agent in mind for this,” Leliana nods. “Allow me to send her to Denerim to quietly hunt down the Venatori spies.”

            Cullen shakes his head. “We should send forces in. They can capture and stop the Venatori while also demonstrating a force of will and power for everyone to see.”

            “Yes,” Leliana muses sardonically, “including the Venatori. We should keep our armies to ourselves until we need a show of force. Marching in there will only play our hand.”

            “And if your agent loses track of the Venatori, we have nothing to go on. We need to have this done right.”

            “My agents are trained far more rigorously than your soldiers, Commander,” Leliana replies curtly.

            “We can use the spies to find out more about the Venatori when they’re captured—”

            “Oh,” she scoffs, “and you think your warriors will ensure they remain alive? My agent is precisely trained for this kind of infiltration and—”

            “Unless they manage to let them slip through the cracks, and then we have to start from—”

            “Okay, okay!” I snap loudly. “Leliana, send your agent. Cullen—” I say quickly, raising a hand when he tries to argue. “There’s another matter for your soldiers. Here,” I say pointing at the map. “I’ve been told this path is completely blocked by a cave-in, yes? We’ve been forced to divert around the mountain, losing days to travel. If your soldiers can clear the mountain pass, we can move troops and agents far more easily. If we set up a checkpoint, we’ll also have the only quick access to Skyhold sealed, protected, and watched. With a bell tower, we can be warned of anyone's approach well before they reach Skyhold.”

            Cullen nods. “As you say, Inquisitor.”

            “What else?”

            “You recall Krem from the Iron Bull’s Chargers?” Leliana wonders.

            “Of course.”

            “He and his men have offered to return to Haven and…recover our people—give them proper burials. Would you like to send them?”

            I look down, closing my eyes briefly. “That’s…very kind of him. Yes. Please. Thank Krem for me, if you see him first.”

            “Of course, Inquisitor,” Leliana replies quietly.

            “Additionally,” Cullen says after a quiet moment. “Leliana received word from Scout Harding. She has been dealing with something in the Fallow Mire for months now. She’s requesting backup for an incident that she did not explain completely. We can send troops.”

            “I’ll go,” I reply, shaking my head. “In the morning, I’ll gather the others and find her. She and I briefly discussed a matter concerning missing soldiers. I’ve been waiting to hear back from her.”

            “Are you certain, Inquisitor? We have more than enough—”

            “I’m certain. These people are my responsibility,” I say. “If there's something going on, I don’t want to risk more soldiers. No, I’ll handle this myself.”

            “Another thing, Inquisitor,” Leliana adds. “This was a matter Josephine wanted to discuss with you. We need to extend our reach, begin establishing settlements and camps. With the Venatori spreading, we must ensure the safety of those caught in the crossfire. My agents can scout ahead and make those settlements. You merely need to point them in the right direction.”

            I look at the map. “Where’s the highest activity?”

            Leliana spends several minutes pointing out several places and describing their problems in great detail.

            “Alright,” I murmur. “Send agents first to the Exalted Plains, Crestwood, Emprise du Lion, and the Hissing Wastes.”

            “As you say,” Leliana nods. “now there is one more matter to discuss. It may take some time.”

            I rest against the table, nodding up at her. “Let’s get to it, then.”

Chapter Text

I have a quiet lunch by myself on the battlements, admiring the beauty of the Frostbacks. Tomorrow we’ll begin travel to the Fallow Mire, so I have every intention of making today as lazy as possible.

            When I’m finished eating, I head down to the lower courtyard and spot Cole sitting in the grass by himself. He bends over it, searching the dirt for something. When I reach the bottom of the stairs, his fingers still, and I see a worm wriggling in the freshly turned earth. Cole's eyes widen under his hat, and he quickly covers it again, moving to dig in another spot. I smile at that, and then I see Vivienne, Cassandra, and Solas arguing a dozen or so feet away from Cole. I'm ready to leave them to it when I hear Vivienne’s snide comment. I frown and march over, crossing my arms angrily. 

            “That thing is not a stray puppy you can make into a pet,” she says condescendingly, offering Solas a supercilious look. “It has no business being here.”

            “Wouldn’t you say the same of an apostate?” Solas wonders calmly, his hands folded behind his back with his usual casual grace.

            I resist the urge to smirk as I stop beside him. Vivienne offers him a cold stare in response.

            “What’s this then?” I demand.

            “Inquisitor,” Cassandra greets, sounding somewhat drained. “I wondered if Cole was perhaps a mage, given his unusual abilities.” She sounds like she regrets bringing it up at all.

            “He can cause people to forget him,” Solas responds, “or even fail entirely to notice him. These are not the abilities of a mage. It seems,” he adds, glancing at me, “that Cole is a spirit.”

            My eyes widen, and I turn to look at the boy as he plays with a butterfly. He smiles when it lands on his finger. He brings it close to his eyes, admiring it carefully. When it flies over him, he watches it go in awe, catching his hat when it nearly falls off.

            “It is a demon,” Vivienne says coldly.

            I glare at her.

            “If you prefer,” Solas replies, “although the truth is somewhat more complex.”

            I nod in agreement. “Cole warned us about the attack on Haven. More than that, he encouraged Roderick to show you all the path out. Without his help, so many more would have died. All of us, in fact.”

            “And what will its aid cost us, I wonder,” Vivienne replies, casting her cool stare at me. “Making deals with demons is a swift path to an early grave.”

            “Does he really look like a demon to you?” I demand, gesturing to the boy as he now picks dandelions from the grass.

            Vivienne narrows her eyes at me. “A demon’s greatest trick is convincing the world he isn’t one. Demons appear in all shapes and sizes, my dear, or did your keeper fail to mention? Had you received a less experimental education, perhaps you would know that,” she offers flippantly.

            I scoff angrily, preparing to snap back.

            “In fact,” Solas says firmly before I can, “Cole’s nature is not so easily defined.”

            “Speak plainly, Solas,” Cassandra implores tiredly. “What are we dealing with?”

            “Demons normally enter this world by possessing something. In their true form, they look bizarre, even monstrous.”

            “But Cole looks like a young man. Is it possession?”

            “No,” Solas answers definitively. “He has possessed nothing and no one, and yet he appears human in all respects.” Solas looks at me. “Cole is unique, Inquisitor. More than that, he wishes to help. I suggest we allow him to do so.”

            I nod in agreement. “Absolutely. He saved our lives,” I add, looking at Vivienne.

            “And when he demands something in return?” she asks.

            I breathe out angrily, shaking my head. I turn to find the boy, but he’s gone.

            “Where did he go?” Cassandra says suddenly. “He was right…”

            I look over Solas’ shoulder to see Cole approach the medical tents. I press my hand to Solas’ arm thoughtlessly as I move past him, and he joins me.

            “Haven,” Cole murmurs softly when he sees us. “So many soldiers fought to protect the pilgrims so they could escape.” He closes his eyes. “Choking fear, can’t think from the medicine, but the cuts wrack me with every heartbeat. Hot white pain. Everything burns. I can’t, I can’t, I’m going to—I’m dying, I’m—” A soldier across the campfire falls limp against his bedroll. “Dead.”

            I hesitate, looking at Solas before returning to Cole. “Are—you alright, Cole?”

            He nods, walking forward. Solas and I follow. “Every breath slower, like lying in a warm bath. Sliding away. Smell of my daughter’s hair when I kiss her goodnight.” Cole looks down at a soldier on a cot. The man’s eyes slide closed. “Gone.” Cole bows his head and then looks at another warrior, walking to her. “Cracked, brown pain. Dry, scraping. Thirsty.” Cole kneels down. “Here,” he murmurs, offering a canteen.

            The soldier takes it, sipping weakly. “Thank…you.”

            Cole looks up at me. “It’s alright. She won’t remember me.”

            “What…” I cock my head at him curiously, softening my tone. “What are you?”

            “I used to think I was a ghost. I didn’t know. I made mistakes…but I made friends, too. Then a templar proved I wasn’t real. I lost my friends. I lost everything. I learned how to be more like what I am. It made me different but…stronger. I can feel more. I can help.”

            I step closer to him, trying to get him to meet my eye. He peeks at me and looks away. I smile softly, stepping back. “If you’re willing, the Inquisition could use your help.”

            “Yes. Helping. I help the hurt, the helpless. There’s someone…” He steps around several soldiers, coming to a man curled on the ground. “Hurts. It hurts. It hurts. Someone, make it stop hurting. Maker, please—” Cole pulls a dagger from his belt. He looks down, his hat shielding his face. “The healers have done all they can. It will take him hours to die. Every moment will be agony. He wants mercy. Help.”

            I open my mouth to speak, looking down at the man on the ground, at the tears pooling on the bridge of his nose as he curls in on himself weakly. “Alright,” I whisper. “Help him.”

            Cole kneels down. “It’s alright,” he murmurs softly. I look down as he offers the man a swift, merciful death and then stands. “I want to stay…”

            I blink and he disappears. Movement on the upper courtyard catches my eye, and I see him moving up the stairs to the battlements.

            Solas turns to me, offering a radiant smile. “Thank you, lethallin,” he murmurs, bowing his head softly. He turns and walks away.

            I glance over to see Vivienne glare at me before she, too, departs.

            I sigh heavily, heading towards the stairs before I spot Cullen giving orders to a few soldiers. I fold my hands behind my back and head over to him.

            “…men to scout the area. We need to know what’s out there,” he says.

            “Yes, sir,” one of the soldiers replies. The woman departs with two of the others quickly.

            “Commander,” a new soldier calls, arriving before me. “New recruits have been assigned temporary quarters.”

            “Very good,” Cullen nods, leaning over to a document someone else holds out to him. He scans the words, speaking as he reads. “I’ll need an update on the armory as well.” He signs the paper, looking up to see the soldier still waiting. “Now,” he adds.

            The man jerks. “Right! Yes, of course, now.”

            Cullen's eyes meet mine, and he glances at the others. “Give us a moment,” he says to them, leaning back against the stone railing. They move away from us, and Cullen sighs, speaking to me now. “We set up as best we could at Haven, but we could never prepare for an archdemon—or whatever it was. With some warning, we might have…” He shakes his head, looking away. 

            “Do you ever sleep?” I wonder.

            Cullen chuckles softly, sweeping a hand over his eyes tiredly. He runs his fingers through his thick hair, sighing before he rests both hands on his sword pommel. “I don’t think so.” He sighs once more. “If Corypheus strikes again, we may not be able to withdraw…and I wouldn’t want to. We must be ready. Work on Skyhold is well underway. Guard rotations have been established; Iron Bull offered some advice in that area. We should have everything on course within the week. We will not run from here, Inquisitor,” he promises, looking at me seriously. 

            I look down. “How many were lost?” I murmur quietly. I lean against the railing beside him, my arm brushing against his.

            “Most of our people made it to Skyhold,” he answers softly. “It could have been worse…Moral was low, but…has improved greatly since you accepted the role of Inquisitor.”

            I give a humorless chuckle. “Inquisitor Lavellan…it sounds strange, doesn’t it?”

            “Not at all,” Cullen replies, looking down at me. “It suits you. You’re a good leader.”

            I snort quietly.

            “I’m serious. You do the most important thing a leader can do.”

            “Boost morale with witty banter?”

            Cullen smirks, rolling his eyes. “Inspire,” he corrects.

            “Well, you’re the superstar here. You responded so quickly to the attack at Haven. You didn’t even hesitate. Without that, so many more would have died. You’re an excellent commander. I’m honored to have your help and guidance, and I won’t take it for granted.”

            “Thank you, Inquisitor,” Cullen says, glancing down at me again. “I appreciate that.” He stands, looking at me seriously. “I will do everything I can to ensure the security of our people. You have my word.”

            “I’ve never doubted that. What does concern me...do I also have your word that you’ll take a break every once in a while, kick your feet up, have a meal?”

            Cullen chuckles. “That, I can’t promise.”

            I sigh theatrically, pushing off the railing. “Well,” I muse, patting his shoulder as I pass, “at least you’re honest. Try not to throttle anyone when you get too tense.”

            I glance back as I climb the stairs to see Cullen snort and roll his eyes, waving the soldiers back over with one hand.

            I grin and move to the upper courtyard. I see Krem and Iron Bull practicing at the other end. Cassandra watches them, calling the occasional suggestion.

            Sera comes up beside me, skipping lightly. “So, Inquisitor,” she hums. “It is Inquisitor now, right? Remember that war we talked about stopping? Full of little baddies I can stick with little arrows? Yeah?” She grips my arm, pulling me to a hard stop. “Well that’s not a frigging archdemon now, is it?” she exclaims.

            “Whoa,” I say, devoting my attention to her.

            “Andraste, what’d I step in?” she mutters.

            “C’mon,” I say, nudging her. “We didn’t know about the dragon, but you knew how I got the job, right? This is a weird one. Corypheus is a surprise, but—”

            “No, a surprise would be, ‘oh, I stepped in dog shite.’ No one says, ‘oh, a magical god monster, I’m surprised.’ Impossible things aren’t surprising. ‘N yeah, I knew what everyone said!” she exclaims. I grow serious when I see her eyes are genuinely afraid. “But people believe all sorts of shite when they’re scared! Swear at a farmer, ‘n you’ve cursed his crops. Spill the salt, ‘n you’re dead by dawn! Dance through town in a goat’s head, ‘n children people never had go missin’!”

            “Sera, Sera, slow down—what’s wrong?”

            She sighs heavily, her shoulders slumping. “It’s got to be nonsense, doesn’t it? We’re kind’a screwed if it isn’t! I mean, that Coryphy-thing—a magister, right? Story is, he cracked the Golden City…but that’s a hazy dream, right? If not, then the seat of the Maker? Real thing. A seat needs a butt, so the Maker—real thing. Fairy stories about the start and end of the world—real things. It’s too much! Isn’t it? I just want to forget all this so I can go back to shootin’ arrows ‘n kickin’ nobles!”

            I put my hands on her shoulders. “Breathe, Sera.”

            She sags again, frowning at the ground under her lopsided bangs. “What I want is to get everything back to business as usual. A nice, simple system with simple problems. It’s ridiculous, right? It can’t be true.”

            “Keep calling it nonsense,” I offer. “That perspective will keep the Inquisition grounded.”

            “Oh, I can do that,” she smirks. “Sure could use a few more people shoutin’ no. We fight, the bad things go away, everyone calms down, and everything goes back to normal. A nice, well-paid normal…”

            “You know, you’re starting to not sound completely crazy,” I tease.

            “I know, right!” she giggles, relaxing. “Scary, innit?” she breaths out heavily, nodding. “Thanks for…Inquisiting. I’ll see you later, yeah?”

            “Yes,” I nod with a smile.

            She nods and breathes out again, heading for the tavern. I watch her go a moment and then turn to head into the main hall. I don’t get far before Vivienne stops me. I sigh impatiently, already full-up on her condescension for the day.

            “It was a mistake to use Haven as a base of operations,” she says, gazing at me evenly. “The town was completely indefensible.”

            I glare at her. “A lot of our people just died, you know. You can throw blame at me later.”

            I try to push past her, but she swivels her hips, shifting to stand before me again. I sigh heavily, glaring at the battlements across from us. “Now is always the time, my dear. The past cannot be changed, and tomorrow may never come. You left yourself vulnerable to attack. It was a miscalculation, one I’m sure you won’t repeat. But the enemy struck a serious blow against you and the Inquisition. We must recognize that. You must.”

            “I’m not going to forgive or forget what happened at Haven. Corypheus will answer for what he’s done.”

            “You’re angry,” Vivienne notes. “Good. Anger can save you when everything else is gone. Just make sure you put it to good use. Our enemy advances, Inquisitor. We must not sit idly by,” she adds, disdain coloring her voice. “Act first and teach them to fear us. You can become the leader the faithful require. But you must do it soon.” She turns to leave and glances back. “And…do try to be more serious when in the company of your soldiers. We wouldn’t want them to think you were a jester, now would we, my dear?”

            I scoff as she leaves. Blackwall makes a face as he passes. He stops and watches Vivienne go. “She’s literally one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen,” I complain, “and she’s always so mean! Gah!”

            Blackwall nods with a sigh. “She’s a tough nut. Come,” he murmurs. “Let’s walk the ramparts. I want to examine our fortifications.”

            I turn and follow him. He mounts the stairs quickly, chuckling when he turns back to see me several stairs below him.

            “Fenedhis—was your—primary training—with the Grey Wardens—spent climbing—every stair—in Thedas?”

            He laughs again but doesn’t reply as we reach the top. He leans against the stone wall overlooking the frozen lake below, and I move beside him, glancing down warily before I back up a step.

            “Long way down,” I muse, clasping my hands behind my back.

            “We’ll be able to see Corypheus coming from miles away.”

            “He thinks he’s beaten us,” I murmur. “By the time he finds us, we’ll be legion.”

            “I know soldiers,” Blackwall replies. “I know our soldiers. Corypheus made a hundred enemies when he kicked down our door. Let him come. I swear I’ll take the twisted bastard down, even if I have to die to do it.”

            “I’m grateful for your support. Not too keen on the whole dying thing, but the loyalty part is—” I offer a thumbs up.

            “It’s my job, isn’t it?” Blackwall smirks. “Killing darkspawn.” He looks down, his expression softening. “Look, in spite of it all, there is hope. The people flock to your banner. They believe in you.” He turns, walking a few steps before he stops. “Tell me honestly,” he says. “Are you what they say you are? Andraste’s chosen?”

            “No,” I murmur. “I’m not her Herald, and I can't speak for her.”

            “Does it even matter?” he wonders, looking back at me. “Don’t you see what you are to them? Without you, they’d be consumed by despair. We all would. They need you to be Andraste’s messenger. It gives them hope. The truth doesn’t matter.” His expression darkens somewhat, and he sighs. “Oh, listen to me talk,” he grumbles. “Your time is valuable, and I’ve wasted enough of it. We’ll talk later.”

            With that, Blackwall turns and heads back down the stairs, taking them with annoying ease.

            I sigh and walk the battlements, moving through Cullen’s empty office and down the bridge to the library. Inside, I wave to Dorian and head up to the rookery. I hesitate when I reach the wooden floor, realizing I've interrupted. 

            Cullen hands something to Leliana. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, her voice thick with the apology.

            “So am I,” he replies softly. He turns and passes me, nodding somewhat vacantly.

            “The names of those we lost,” Leliana explains, pocketing the scroll. She turns to her window, overlooking the mountains. “You must blame me for this.”

            “We all saw who attacked us. We know exactly who to blame.”

            Leliana shakes her head, closing her eyes briefly. I walk the few steps to her side. “I keep wondering if I could have done something different. When the first of my lookouts went missing, I pulled the rest back, awaiting more information. If they’d stayed in the field, they could’ve bought us more time.”

            “With their lives,” I say, shaking my head.

            “I was afraid to lose my agents, and instead, we lost Haven.”

            “More likely, they would have stayed in the field, died, and we would have lost Haven anyway.”

            “You don’t know that,” Leliana argues heatedly.

            “Neither do you,” I reply quietly.

            “Their lives could have bought Haven a small chance! My people know their duty. They know the risks. They understand that the Inquisition may call upon them to give their lives.”

            “Our men are not disposable,” I say firmly. “Your instincts were right. Their lives matter.”

            Leliana looks at me, her eyes lost. She turns back to the mountains. “I…I need to think.”

            “You can talk to me,” I murmur. “Anytime.”

            “Thank you, Inquisitor,” she replies flatly.

            I hesitate a moment, uncertain. I step back, moving the way I came slowly.

            I spend an hour walking the battlements, considering Leliana’s words and hoping she doesn’t mean them. 

            By the time I find myself heading back into the main hall, evening is falling. I pass Varric at a table near a fire, writing quickly. Immediately, I want to hit my head against a wall.

            “Shit,” I sigh. “Varric, I’m sorry, I completely forgot about meeting your friend. This morning, Cullen told me about something in the Fallow Mire, and I told them I’d go check it out.”

            “No worries, Snow,” he replies, waving a hand. “My friend’s been delayed. It’ll be a few weeks yet, possibly more or less. She's never very specific," he adds with a disgruntled yet fond sigh. "We should have plenty of time to go and come back before she arrives.”

            “We?” I muse, smiling.

            “Surely, you’re not leaving your trusty dwarf behind to fall into the perils of paperwork?”

            “Would I be so cruel?” I laugh.

            “I hope not.”

            “Bright and early, then.”

            “Bianca and I will be there.”

            I grin at him and move into Solas’ study.

            I spent the evening with him, eating dinner slowly. We talk for so long that the hall is empty and our food is cold before I realize the late hour. I reluctantly part ways with him, eager to hear more of his stories. He gives me a warm smile, his thumb brushing against my cheek before he departs. I watch him go, sighing quietly, and then I turn and push through the door to my tower, smiling the whole way up.

Chapter Text

We spend days riding out to the Fallow Mire. Master Dennett offered us the pick of the lot, and by us, I mean me. Dennett recommended war horses for Cassandra and Blackwall and a purebred for Varric. He gave me a long list of reasons as to why, but I honestly lost track of what he was saying when I caught sight of a pair of beautiful red harts. He admitted they were gifted to the Inquisition "by some noblewoman" and that he had been planning to sell them to a specialist unless I wanted them. Naturally, I accepted, offering one to Solas. He appeared to enjoy the animal, patting it often as we traveled.

            The ride is the only enjoyable part of the Fallow Mire. We spend a long, never-ending night tracking down the missing scouts weighted down by humidity and the inescapable stench of death. The latter of which, I was informed upon arrival, was the result of a plague. Harding informs us of a hostage situation with a chief’s son from the local Avvar tribe. We run into so many rifts along the way to the Avvar settlement that my hand is throbbing in agony to the point where I nearly ask Solas to fix it in front of everyone. I only barely manage to hold on, grimacing often with a very short fuse.

            We track down the agents—relieved to find them alive—only to be challenged again to a one-on-one duel. I irritably accept, due to the swords at our soldier’s throats. The chief’s son wields a hammer bigger than my entire body. I’m rewarded with a crushed hand, a twisted ankle, and the lives of every single Inquisition soldier imprisoned—all of whom stumble and carry each other, alive and thankfully unharmed.

            By the time we’re back on the road, I’ve resolved myself to never set foot in a bog again, something with which I imagine my travel companions agree wholeheartedly. Considering Varric’s occasional complaint as he pulls mud off his jacket and Cassandra’s foul mood, I think it’s safe to say no one will miss the swamp.

            The day after we return to Skyhold, Varric informs me that his friend has sent another letter, indicating another delay. I can tell he wants to be annoyed, but there's an amused glint in his eye that makes me insanely curious to meet this mysterious friend. Clearly, whoever she is, she's important to him. 

            In the morning, I'm on my to the war room to check in with the others when Leliana catches me first.

            “Inquisitor,” she calls in the main hall, her voice drawing several noblemen's eyes. I pull my hand back from Josephine's office door and turn around. “While you were gone, Cullen and I arranged passage for a woman who believes she can be of use to the Inquisition.”

            “Oh?” I muse, leaning against the stone column beside me. 

            “An Arcanist named Dagna. My agents are escorting her here now. She should arrive within the week.”

            “I look forward to meeting her.”

            “Were you on your way to the war room?”

            “I…was?”

            “Josie is still awaiting word on several matters, and Cullen is training in the yard. Perhaps we can meet later?”

            “Of course,” I nod.

            “How was the Fallow Mire?”

            “Terrible. I’ll never set foot there again.”

            Leliana offers a quiet chuckle. “Scout Harding was very relieved and pleased with your work. She sent a very complementary report. Thank you for everything you did.”

            “Of course,” I reply. “I was happy to do it.”

            She smirks. “Perhaps not happy, but I am relieved, nonetheless. We shall reconvene later, when we have more to report.” She adds the last part as she walks away, and I'm left to wave and holler after her.

            “Okay, bye, Leliana!”

            I snap my fingers, deciding what to do when I shrug and choose my favorite pastime. I head into Solas’ study, stopping short when I enter. My breath catches as I stare at the walls around the atrium.

            Solas finishes the last touch on a piece, stepping back to admire his work.

            “Solas,” I breathe.

            He looks back at me. “Lethallin,” he greets, a smile in his voice. 

            “Gods,” I say, marveling. “It’s—” A dozen words compete for the privilege. “Amazing! Did you—do this?” I gasp stupidly. Obviously, he did.

            “To mark your accomplishments,” he nods, looking up at the murals adorning the walls with me. “A record of everything you’ve done.”

            I step closer to the first one that caught my eye. The Inquisition’s sword takes up the background, colors vibrant and piercing, the fresco’s style unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Wolves sit around the blade, howling up at the sky, their depictions so honest that I can almost hear them. They remind me of the wolves that shepherded me to the Inquisition when I was lost, and I smile breathlessly.

            In another, a figure stands tall against two distinct backgrounds. On the man’s right shoulder, a long snake crawls—the Tevinter sigil. Behind it, a thin bridge connects the land to a castle on a cliff, but the background is red—foreboding and bloody. Over the left shoulder, the bridge is a brilliant green, the castle black against a pale blue sky.

            “Recruiting the mages,” I realize in awe, grinning. Solas watches me as I start over at the first panel, walking to it as if in a daze.

            The pattern is triangular, diamond-shaped, and red. In the sky, a red orb sits. Artfully painted eyes plaster the sky around the orb, flowing delicately up to the ceiling. Something white stabs up into the orb, exploding on impact. Stars seem to rain down from the orb as the light grows impossibly more brilliant at the ground. It phases and blends perfectly into the next, the sword with the wolves. That, too, moves flawlessly into the one beside it, depicting our experiences with Alexius. The next mural reveals a dark figure rising, an orb painted near its center. The figure's face is obscured, but I recognize him immediately. The mountains beyond reveal a reddened sky—a reminder of what’s at stake. Below the figure, a silhouette of a structure on fire—Haven. The paint is still wet in places as I stare.

            “Solas,” I gasp. “It’s—how—I—Solas—”

            “Do you like it?” he murmurs, coming to stand beside me as he considers the portraits from this perspective.

            “I—I love it! It’s—remarkable! I don’t even—Solas!”

            He smiles softly, his eyes scanning the art.

            “How did you—I didn’t even know you were so—” I can’t pick a sentence to stick with, so I give up. I walk around the murals, admiring them up close and from afar, finding new details each time I pass. When I’m satisfied, I stop beside Solas again, unable to stop grinning. “This is…exceptional. Thank you,” I murmur, looking up at him.

            His eyes find mine, his expression soft and beautiful. He doesn't reply, but his smile makes my fingers itch to reach out to him. 

            I break from his eyes with difficulty, returning once more to the murals. I shake my head, marveling again. “Guess I’d better be careful to not screw up. I’d hate to disappoint the paintings.”

            Solas laughs suddenly, the sound tumbling from him quietly but enchantingly. I grin, realizing he sometimes sounds so vaguely surprised when he laughs, like he didn’t expect the joke. We’ll certainly have to change that.

            I breathe out heavily, shaking my head again as my eyes scan the works, transfixed. “This is truly…I don’t even know what to say. It’s beautiful.”

            “I’m glad you like them,” he murmurs, his voice soft with his smile.

            I turn to him, resisting—with all my willpower—the urge to hug him. I settle for reaching out hesitantly. He looks at my hand, his smile growing as he accepts it. He intertwines our fingers and pulls me gently with him to the couch. I sit down, turning slightly to admire the mural behind us.

            “See, now, this is gonna become a problem,” I muse. “I’m gonna come in here to talk tactics and strategy, and then I'll look up and get all distracted.”

            Solas laughs again softly, his eyes admiring me briefly before he glances down at our fingers. His thumb brushes gently against my knuckles, his caress warm enough to make me think of our moment in the Fade.

            I make an honest effort to distract myself. “Where did you learn to do this? When did you learn to do this?”

            He smiles. “I was much younger when I learned,” he answers vaguely.

            “Who taught you?”

            “I taught myself.”

            “What?” I demand, pretending to be angry. “That is unacceptable. I tried to paint once with three—three—hahrens guiding me, and it turned into a jumbled, angry mass of brown.”

            Solas chuckles, his eyes trapping mine with a warmth that makes me lightheaded.

            “I hope you’re prepared for me to sit and stare at you the next time you do a mural. You’ll be trying to concentrate, and I’ll just be hovering on top of you, getting in your way, studying every brushstr—”

            Solas’ laugh and my joke are cut off by someone entering the door to the study. I glance up to see Leliana.

            “Inquisitor,” she says quietly.

            I smile. “Hey, Leliana, look at what—” I stop, my heart pounding when I see the expression on her face. “What—what’s wrong?”

            “May I speak with you?”

            “Y-yes?” I glance up to see Dorian leaning over the railing, his book forgotten as he looks down curiously. “What’s—”

            “Where is she?” Josephine asks from the main hall.

            Leliana turns around sharply. “Josie, not now—”

            “Inquisitor Lavellan,” the ambassador says, approaching me.

            I stand jerkily from the couch when I see her tears, releasing Solas’ hand as fear grips me. Solas stands beside me. “What’s—going on?” I ask, my voice tight. “What happened?”

            “Inquisitor,” Josephine pleads, her voice high. “I tried—I’m so sorry, Inquisitor—I thought I could—Please—”

            “Josie,” Leliana snaps loudly, pulling her back. “Wait outside.” Josephine refuses, standing beside her, her hands shaking.

            “Leliana,” I ask, my voice turning into a frightened whimper. “What has happened—what is this? Please just tell me. What's going on?”

            I glance up at Dorian again; the concern dotting his eyes does nothing to alleviate my growing anxiety. I raise my hand to Solas’ arm, terrified.

            “May we speak in private?” Leliana asks.

            My hands shake more. “What is it,” I breathe. Terrified tears brim my eyes, and my heart clenches in fear. I know what she's going to say suddenly, and I pray that I'm wrong. 

            Leliana hesitates, glancing at Solas, Dorian, and Josephine before she looks at me directly. “A raven came,” she says quietly, her voice firm. “The nobleman from Wycome arrived too late.” My heart stops. “His men discovered what was left of the camp.” Everything stops. “I’m so sorry, Inquisitor.” My ears ring.

            “No,” I say, almost scoffing at the notion even as tears slip down my cheeks. “No, that’s—that's absurd. You...you got it wrong—that’s—no,” I say again firmly as Solas looks at me.

            Leliana extends something, and I look down to see the scroll unsealed, its stamp missing.

            I reach for it, unfurling it. The handwriting is scrawling and imperfect, rushed and almost unintelligible. So unlike her. 

            Da’len,

            I have little time. Assan has joined the Creators. Many have. Our brothers and sisters. I know you did your best. You are the last of clan Lavellan. Our strength runs through you. Mala suledin nadas. Never again shall we submit.

            A strangled breath escapes me. Assan—no. No, no, no.

            I shake my head, a groan slipping from me as tears flood my vision. No—my brother, my best friend—no, this is—a dream—this isn’t—he just got married—Keeper Deshanna is training a new First, a young girl named—no—no, no—this can’t be—

            I look up, zeroing in on Josephine in the corner. Anger suddenly blinds me, and I cling to it, terrified to allow anything else. “You,” I gasp, unable to catch my breath, “you—you told me you would save them!” I shout, my own voice scaring me. “You said you would help them! trusted you! I trusted you with their lives!”

            Leliana catches me when I lunge at the ambassador—I don’t know what I intended to do.

            “It isn’t her fault,” Leliana says. “She tried.”

            Josephine raises her hands to her face, crying.

            “I trusted you!” I scream. “How could you—” My chest tightens. Assan—“How could you do this?” I scream nonsensically, grief blinding me. “You promised you’d help!”

            “Inquisitor,” Leliana says loudly.

            I push off her, backing away. I cover my face with my hands, the realization sinking in.

            “Suledin,” Solas whispers, stepping to me.   

            “No,” I whisper, my chest constricting. “No, no, no—” I can’t be the only one. I look up at Josephine, horrified. “I trusted you,” I cry. “You’ve killed them all.”

            Josephine leaves the room hurriedly, her cries marking her departure.

            I feel sick. Weak. I'm shaking, and I regret my words, but I won't take them back, because it has to be her. It has to be her fault—if it isn’t, it can only be—

            “No,” I whimper, pressing my hands to my eyes. “No, no, no—”

            “Suledin,” Solas breathes.

            I start to turn away, to march right out the front gates of Skyhold and never come back, but sobs are pulled from me, and my knees give out. Solas catches me, letting us slide to the floor. His arms encircle me, and my own cries deafen me.

            Images of Assan race through my mind, the last hopeful words of his latest message. My brother, my friend—my people. My family—Mythal, how could you let this happen

            I don’t know how long Leliana stayed there. I don’t know what Dorian did. I don’t even hear Solas’ words as he whispers them to me. Sobs wrack through me, echoing loudly back to my ears.

            Everyone I’d ever know—my family—my clan—my people—all of them—

            This can't be happening. This can't be real. 

            My mind races with memories; they spin and swirl in my mind, disorganized, clawing at my chest with knives. 

            Assan's letters—his wedding, his teasing words—Keeper Deshanna's voice when she tucked me into bed, the stories she told when I was scared or sad—the look on her face when I got my vallaslin, the pride in her eyes—her hands carefully branding my skin with the honor of my people—Assan's crooked smile, his sly grin when he got into trouble—his long red hair, sharp green eyes, always smiling, always teasing—The child Keeper Deshanna intended to make her First, a girl of only ten—Lloren and his carefully crafted bows, Assan watching him from afar with that dreamy look in his eye—his letter that said he fought with the keeper, demanding to be allowed to come to see me—the flower he sent, my favorite that only blooms in the winter—his laughter in my ears, his fingers tugging on my sleeve—me, begging him to ask Keeper Deshanna for one more plate of her dessert; she wouldn't give it to anyone else, but she would if he asked—his hand shoving me a step playfully when I tease him—the tears in his eyes when his mother died and the way he laughed when he thought Lloren might notice—

            I cry until my breaths are ragged, until my eyes hurt and my brain throbs and my hands are damp, and then I cry some more.

            Solas’ arms never weaken. He holds me to him, kneeling around me to keep me close. I must stain his clothes and hurt his ears, but he never releases me, and his hand never stops moving soothingly against my back. Hours must pass, but he doesn't falters.

            When my cries finally die down, I lean against Solas wearily, tears slipping down my cheeks silently. My throat is too raw and my head aches too much for anything more. I wipe my face and sit up, pressing my hand to my lips. I reach for the letter I dropped. I feel so drained and exhausted as I can barely see it. With shaking fingers, I curl the letter back up and press it to my chest. I breathe against my fingers, looking up at Solas blearily. His hands move down my arms, his expression tight with sympathy and pain—so tight that it makes me want to cry all over again. I close my eyes, my forehead aching from where it’s been pinched.       

            “Snow,” Varric murmurs. I look up to see him standing in the doorway, his expression similar to Solas’.

            “Ir abelas, lethallin,” Solas whispers softly.

            I hang my head in my hands, crumpling again. I breathe as evenly as I can, pinching my nose as I part my lips for more air.

            “They were my whole world,” I cry, my voice a shrill whine. “My family…Everyone is gone…They're all...I have nothing left.” I sob again, falling forward.         

            "Suledin,” Solas says, his voice strained as he catches me. “I’m so sorry, Suledin. I’m so sorry.”

            Whispered cries break through me, my head pounding so hard I can't see, and I cling to Solas’ arms, my chest so tight that I can't breathe.

***

I stare out over the icy mountains across from me between the posts in the railing. The wind rustles at my clothes, pulling at my hair. My eyes are swollen, and my throat aches. The moon shines brightly in the snow, reflected back in small glints. The slope of the mountain curves down past the ledge of my balcony until I can’t see it from where I sit against the stone wall. I look up at the stars, admiring the way they scatter again the navy of the sky. The lights behind me blot some of the constellations out, but they are still magnificent.

            I hear footsteps in the room behind me, but I don’t move.

            “Suledin?” Solas calls softly. “Forgive me. I knocked, but—Suledin!”

            I turn my head up to him when he emerges on the balcony. He disappears and reappears quickly with a blanket. He kneels beside me, pulling it around my shoulders swiftly.

            “What are you doing out here?" he demands, his voice alarmed. "It’s freezing!”

            I blink slowly. “Oh—I’m sorry,” I mumble. “I didn’t realize.”

            “Suledin, come inside.” He pulls me to my feet gently, wrapping the blanket around me more. He rubs my arms and pauses to close the doors to the balcony before he leads me to the fire. I sit on the floor willingly, staring into the small flames. Solas lights a flame with his fingers and tosses it into the woodpile, and the fire explodes, its heat washing over me instantly. Shivers break out across my arms and back in reaction, hurting faintly under the blanket. 

            Solas sits beside me, rubbing my arms. He pulls another blanket off the couch, throwing it over my lap. “What were you doing?”

            “I was just…looking at the stars," I reply, my voice quiet. "It’s okay. I’m not cold.”

            He checks my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “You’re freezing,” he disagrees unhappily, pulling the blanket tighter around my shoulders.

            I frown faintly again. “Oh. Sorry.”

            Solas looks up at me, but I can’t manage to look away from the flame. “Will you talk to me?”

            “About what?” I whisper.

            “What would you do, if you could travel to the Free Marches?”

            I look down, recalling his venomous words when we first met. Perhaps we should plant a tree.

            “It’s okay, Solas,” I murmur softly, looking at the fire again. “You don't have to do that. I know you don’t want to hear Dalish rites.”

            Solas lowers his head before lifting his hand to my chin. He gently makes me face him, looking at me so softly that my eyes flood and my chin trembles. I close my eyes, feeling the tears slip down my cheeks before I look at him again. “Ir abelas, lethallin,” he whispers. “For your loss, for your pain. And for what I said about the Dalish. They are your people. They were your home.”

            I close my eyes again, shaking.

            “I would like to hear about how you would honor them. I know you cannot go. I’m so sorry for that, too.”

            I part my lips to breathe shakily and open my eyes. Solas’ thumb catches several tears before he lowers his hand. I wipe my nose, moving closer to him clumsily. He shifts, and I lean against him, letting my head fall exhaustedly to his shoulder. He moves the blanket around me tightly, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. His other hand comes to take mine. When he feels how freezing my fingers must be, he takes my hand more firmly. He murmurs something, and I close my eyes when his hands warm against mine, magic pulling the ice from my body.

            “You already know what we do,” I whisper.

            “Tell me anyway.”

            I breathe in sharply, wiping my eyes with my free hand. “Our…” I swallow, licking my lips numbly. “Our burial rites are sacred…the ground the dead rest in is hallowed. Keeper Deshanna…” My throat closes, and Solas’ hand on mine tightens as I struggle to find my voice. “Keeper Deshanna…once explained that, to the Dalish, death is…not something to grieve. It’s…” I close my eyes, tears slipping down my cheeks more evenly. “She said it’s…a natural part of life. I know it didn’t use to be,” I add, remembering Solas’ words. “But…it is now. And…when someone dies, we…Sorry,” I gasp, lifting a hand to my mouth. The lump in my throat swells painfully, and I take a moment to collect myself. “We find the outfit they worse most often, the one that represents them.

            “For Assan…” I choke on his name, breathing with difficulty. “I would have chosen his hunter’s armor, because he…always joked that he wanted…wanted to be buried in it, but more...more importantly because he was so...so proud the day h-he became a hunter." My throat tightens, and a small whine escapes me. I duck my head, struggling to breathe as I continue. "It’s supposed to represent them, honor who they were…Keeper Deshanna would wear her keeper’s robes, the same ones she wore every day. After they’re dressed, we…bury them with an oak staff to help them find their path, offering a p-prayer…to Falon’Din and a cedar branch to—” I close my eyes, shaking as I try to catch my breath. “…to ward off the ravens Fear and Deceit…K-Keeper Deshanna once told me—because I asked…that they were once servants of Dirthamen…but that they were corrupted…Aft—after we bury them, we plant a tree,” I whisper thickly. “We plant a tree so—death may give new life…a forest would grow where my clan fell,” I gasp, bending slightly to breathe.

            “Lethallin,” Solas whispers.

            “I’m tired,” I breathe. “I’m so tired.”

            “Do you want me to go?”

            “No…I don’t want to be alone.”

            “I’m not going anywhere,” he whispers.

            I nod against him. He wraps his arm around me, pulling me over his leg gently until I’m closer to him. He lifts his leg behind me, giving me something to lean against as I move my head to his shoulder, resting my forehead to his neck. He traps me, his arms hugging me to him tightly.

            “It’s my fault,” I whisper.

            “No,” Solas replies firmly.

            “I should have been there.”

            “Then the world may have lost you as well.”

            I close my eyes, crying again. “I thought the nobleman would get there faster. I should have sent Leliana’s agents. Cullen’s troops. I should have chosen someone else. I should have—”

            “You could not have known,” Solas whispers. “You did your best.”

            “That’s the worst part,” I cry quietly. “If I can’t protect my own clan…if I can’t keep my own people safe…how can I ever look at our soldiers again? How can I ask you or Varric or Cassandra to trust me with your lives when I failed my own clan?”

            “You aren’t responsible for our lives. You are our hope, our light. The Inquisition follows you because we believe in you—you have already shown how hard you will fight to save them. You have shown your determination, your refusal to stand aside—that in the face of devastation, you would sacrifice your life first.”

            “Clan Lavellan is gone,” I whisper, the words aching as I test them. “I’m all alone.”

            Solas hugs me tightly. "You're not alone,” he breathes.

            I close my eyes before opening them again to stare at the fire. The room fills with the crack of the wood. When the fire begins to die, Solas moves his hand barely an inch, and it roars back to life.

            “Tell me about them,” Solas murmurs softly. “Tell me something you remember.”

            I lift a hand to my face, wiping my nose and eyes. “Keeper Deshanna raised me. I was her First, but it was more than that. She knew my parents, of course. After my father died…she took me in. I grew up to be the next Keeper, so I never did much hunting, but—Assan…” I smile faintly, feeling my chest tighten. I groan quietly, the sound slipping from me as I try to catch my breath. “Assan…was always a troublemaker. We knew he’d be a hunter since we were all kids. He wanted to go out and ex-explore the world.” My eyes grow hot with more tears. “When we were eight, he somehow convinced Keeper Deshanna to let us go to a nearby waterfall. She never budged when she made a decision, and she had already forbidden it, but she favored him. We all knew it—we’d often use him to get something we wanted. Most of the time, he succeeded. I think she knew what we were doing, but she—she never called us on it. He was the greatest hunter our clan had ever known, or so Keeper Deshanna always said. He fought for us and brought back enough to feed the entire clan for days.

            “I…” I close my eyes. “I recall I once got lost in the woods. I can’t remember what I was doing out there, but I got lost and I couldn’t remember how to get back to the camp. I remember we’d recently settled somewhere, because the woods were unfamiliar. We moved so often back then and on such short notice that I was terrified the clan might leave without me. I was only gone for a couple of hours, but it felt like a lifetime. Assan found me…he made a joke about it—I don’t even remember what it was, but it made me laugh so hard I was crying…” I raise the blanket to my nose, pinching the fluids there away. I hide the blanket against my chest, breathing as evenly as I can.

            I open my eyes, desperate to distract myself. My eyes fall to the necklace Solas always wears, the jawbone resting against his chest as he slowly breathes. I run my fingers across it delicately.

            “What is this?” I whisper.

            Solas’ head shifts a little as he glances down. “It is a reminder,” he offers after a long time.

            “A reminder of what?”

            Solas doesn’t reply this time. I trace the bone, admiring the curve of the jaw.

            “Is it a wolf’s?”

            “Yes,” he whispers.

            I look up at him, pulling my head off his shoulder. He looks back at me, his eyes softening and searching mine.

            “It makes you sad,” I whisper back.

            A crease forms between his eyebrows. He starts to say something but thinks better of it.

            “I’m sorry,” I murmur.

            Solas raises his hand to my cheek, his thumb arcing gently over my cheekbone. “You will never have cause to apologize to me, lethallin.”

            Solas leans forward, his lips brushing against my forehead gently. I close my eyes, fresh tears like sandpaper against my irises. Solas keeps his lips against my skin for a long moment, and I quietly breathe him in, feeling my chest loosen enough for me to breathe more evenly. When he pulls back slowly, I lean against his chest again, watching the flames tiredly. I feel his chin rest against my hair, his arms holding me tight. My eyelids slowly, gradually fall until I can no longer pry them open. I fall asleep listening to the quiet, steady rhythm of his heart.

Chapter Text

When I wake, I find myself in my bed with no memory of how I got there. My belt digs sharply into my stomach, and I realize I never dressed down for bed, which leaves me sore. My eyes are swollen and my throat raw. I roll over onto my side, pull the belt off as well as I can without moving and then go back to sleep.

            I don’t manage to stay in bed for long. When I'm officially awake, I wrap the blanket around myself and head out to the balcony. I sit back where I was last night, watching the sun rise and shift over the mountains, glinting off the snow as it goes. It’s well after noon when I hear someone enter my room.

            Solas comes out onto the balcony, carrying with him a platter of soup and bread. The sight of it makes my eyes flood, and I look down.

            “You should eat,” Solas murmurs quietly.

            I nod slowly, sitting up. I take the bread, picking it apart into small bites. It’s warm and fluffy, as though it was just pulled from the ovens, but it feels wrong to enjoy it.

            “I should get dressed,” I say, my voice hoarse and flat to my own ears. “I have to check in with Cullen about the mountain pass and find Leliana—I need to apologize t-to Josephine and—”

            “That can all wait, lethallin.”

            I pick up the soup, closing my eyes when its heat slips down my throat. “Thank you,” I whisper, leaning back against the stone wall with another sip.

            Solas sits with me in silence for a long time. I know he has a thousand other things to do, but he rests with me while I stare out over the mountains numbly. When the temperature drops in the evening, he brings me inside near the fire. At dinnertime, he departs long enough to bring us both something to eat.

            I fall asleep in his embrace by the fire, and in the morning I wake to find myself in bed once again, the blanket wrapped around me securely.

            I sit up slowly, and I watch the sun through the windows. I stay there for a long time, staring unblinkingly before I finally get up. I bathe and change slowly, feeling too hollow to really think about what I’m doing. I comb my hair pack, pulling it away enough to keep my face clear. I take the stairs down very slowly, distracted. When I reach the bottom, I stare at the door handle for several seconds, as if I can’t remember how it works.

            The great hall is full of people when I enter. Shame washes over me so strongly that it staggers me when I see Josephine’s back. She talks with someone quietly, her clipboard low under her arm, and I bite my tongue when I feel tears threaten to spill over. She moves into her office without seeing me. I close my eyes briefly and swallow thickly, walking after her. Several people fall silent as I pass, and I do my best to ignore the way they turn to stare at me.

            Josephine’s door is closed as usual—the noise from the hall disrupts her concentration. I press my forehead against it, feeling weak for a moment before I knock.

            “Come in,” she calls quietly.

            I hesitate and then open the door slowly, looking inside. Josephine glances up from her papers and stands abruptly, jostling her desk when she sees me. 

            She comes around the edge, walking halfway towards me. “Inquisitor Lavellan,” she murmurs, outstretching her hand. “I—I wanted to—”

            “Wait,” I whisper, clearing my throat. “Please.” I close the door, turning to her. “Josephine, I am…ashamed of what I said to you. I’m so…so sorry.” Tears flood my eyes, and I look down. “I know you did your best. I’m horrified by my behavior.”

            Josephine shakes her head. “Inquisitor, please do not apologize. It was my—”

            “It wasn’t,” I reply, looking up at her with difficulty. “It was mine. They were my responsibility, and this—this is my fault. You did as I asked. I know you did what you could—everything you could. I’m so sorry I blamed you, Josephine. That was unworthy and unfair. I’ll never forgive myself for hurting you. I said those things because I…I didn’t want to accept that it was my fault,” I say quietly. “But it was.”

            “Inquisitor, I—”

            “Please forgive me, Josephine.”

            “There—is nothing to forgive, Inquisitor,” she replies softly. “It was I that failed you.”

            “No,” I say with a shake of my head. “You did your best.” I wipe my eyes. "I’m sorry, Josephine. Thank you for trying.”

            She stares at me, her expression distraught as she wrings her hands. I move out of her room, heading into the small chamber between her room and the great hall. I cross my arms and press my forehead against the stone, gasping for air. My chest aches, and I force myself to swallow it all back down.

            “Stop,” I whisper, tapping my head against the wall lightly. "Please stop."

            The lump in my throat hurts. I wipe my eyes again, breathing in sharply to clear my nose. I move into the great hall, heading for Cullen’s office when Varric stops me.

            “Hey, Snow,” he says quietly, reaching out to me. “How…how are you?”

            I look up at him to answer, and he waves his hand.

            “Don’t…answer that. Stupid question. I-I hate to—”

            “Lethallin,” Solas murmurs, emerging from his study.

            I look up at him, forgetting to smile. “Hi, Solas. Thank you for…everything,” I finish lamely.

            He doesn’t respond to that, other than to come to my side. His hand moves to my back, his eyes concerned.

            “What were you saying, Varric?” I ask quietly, looking back at him.

            Varric stares at me a moment before waving his hand. “Nothing, it’s—it can wait.”

            “No, what is it?”

            “Honestly, it’s—”

            “Go on, Varric; it's okay.”

            He looks up at me, sighing quietly. “I just—my friend…came early. She got here yesterday.”

            “Now is not the time,” Solas says firmly, turning to frown at Varric.

            “Agreed, one hundred percent,” he replies. “I can tell her to—”

            “No, it’s alright,” I say. “Let’s go see her.”

            Varric glances at me. “Honestly, no, it can wait. You—”

            “We need to get back on track. Take me to her.”

            “Lethallin,” Solas says, looking at me.

            “I’m fine,” I reply. “We don’t have time to waste. Corypheus is…we can’t afford to be a step behind. I won’t fail again.”

            “Lethallin,” he repeats, his voice a hoarse whisper.

            “Varric,” I murmur. “Where is she?”

            He looks between us unhappily. “She’s, uh…she’s this way, Snow…This really can wait.”

            “I don’t need to be coddled,” I reply softly. “I need to get back to work.”

            Varric nods slowly, not believing me. “Alright. This way, then. Chuckles, if you wouldn’t mind…”

            I follow Varric, glancing back at Solas once to see him watching me sadly. I look back at the ground. Varric leads us outside. Soldiers stop in their paths and cross their arms over their chests, bowing their heads. I frown, fighting against tears once more as I nod vacantly at them.

            “Shit, sorry, Krem,” Varric suddenly says. I look up to see them nearly run into each other.

            “Your Worship,” Krem says seriously, standing straighter. “We—heard about what happened. I’m very sorry, Your Worship.”

            I nod, looking at his shirt. “Thank you, Krem,” I murmur hollowly.

            “If there’s anything I can do—Dalish and I were talking. The Chief's given us permission to go to the Free Marches in your stead if you’d like us to…bury them. Dalish knows the rites.”

            I raise to hand to my forehead, rubbing the bridge of my nose when my eyes flood. It takes me several long seconds to find my voice. “That’s—very kind,” I say, my voice strangled. It raises and lowers octaves at will. “I appreciate the offer, but you don’t have to go all—”

            “It’s really no trouble, Your Worship,” Krem says softly. “Dalish explained to me…I know it’s important.”

            I look up at him with so much difficulty that it hurts. My fingers shake as I try to regain control. “I…can’t ask you to do that.”

            “You aren’t. We would be honored to do this for you. We know you can’t go yourself.”

            I close my eyes tightly, breathing raggedly. “Are you…certain?”

            “Yes, Your Worship. A few of us will go. The Chief already gave us leave. We’ll perform the rites and be back in a few weeks.”

            I cover my face, struggling harder to maintain control. My hands shake, and I feel Varric’s hand on my shoulder. “Thank you, Krem,” I manage to say thickly. “I…don’t know what to say.”

            “We’ll see you in a few weeks, Your Worship. Thank you for trusting us with this. Your clan with have a proper burial.”

            I look up at him with blurry vision, nodding once. My throat throbs, and I feel like curling up on the ground.  “Thank you.”

            Krem nods and departs, moving into the tavern. I stand there a moment, shaking.

            “Snow,” Varric whispers. “Let’s—do this another day.”

            I press my hand to my chest, feeling it ache. “I’m alright,” I breathe. “Let’s keep going.”

            “Snow…”

            “I’m fine, Varric.”

            “No, I’m calling it. Snow, you need some...some time just to...process.”

            “I need to get back to work.”

            “This is ridiculous, Snow. You just lost...Take a couple days.”

            I close my eyes. “I’m fine. Everyday we wait is another day Corypheus has to prepare. You said she can’t stay here long. Let’s go meet her.”

            He stares at me a moment.

            I meet his eyes with so much difficulty that his expression weakens again. I try to be stronger. “Please, Varric. I can’t just—sit in my room all day.”

            He sighs heavily. “Fine,” he mumbles. “This way.”

            He turns around unhappily and leads me up to the battlements. He takes me to a deserted corner of the ramparts, and I glance up to see a woman leaning over the edge, looking down as she stands on her toes.

            “Hawke!” Varric complains, reaching forward to pull her back when she topples. “Don’t do that!”

            “It’s fine,” she insists. “It’s like the balconies back at the estate. Sort of. A little.”

            “It’s…a much longer drop.” He pulls her around to face me. “Inquisitor, meet Hawke. The Champion of Kirkwall.”

            She smirks, moving a strand of raven black hair away from her vividly blue eyes. “Though, I don’t use that title much anymore. It doesn’t offer the discounts it once did,” she adds with a sacrificial sigh.

            I chuckle with difficulty after I realize it’s a joke. It sounds so fake that I look up at her apologetically.

            “Hawke,” Varric says, “this is Inquisitor Lavellan. I figured you might have some friendly advice for her about Corypheus. You and I did fight him, after all.”

            Hawke snorts, leaning against the battlements while she appraises me. “You’ve already dropped half a mountain on the bastard,” she points out. “I’m sure anything I can tell you pales in comparison.”

            “C’mon, Hawke,” Varric nudges her. “You did save a city from a horde of rampaging Qunari.”

            She laughs. “I don’t see how that really applies…or is there a horde of rampaging Qunari I don’t know about?”

            “There’s a Qunari,” Varric muses. “But, he’s on our side.”

            “So then, what can I tell you?” Hawke hums, looking over at me.

            “You fought Corypheus before?” I wonder.

            “Fought and killed,” she replies. I frown. “The Grey Wardens were holding him, and he somehow used his connections to the darkspawn to influence them.”

            Varric nods. “Corypheus got into their heads. Messed with their minds. Turned them against each other.”

            “If the Wardens have disappeared,” Hawke continues, “they could have fallen under his control again.”

            I sigh. “So…Corypheus has the Venatori, the red templars, and now possibly the Wardens as well? Great.” I raise my fingers to my forehead, pushing back a migraine.

            Hawke gives me a sympathetic look. “Oh, come now, I didn’t come all this way just to give you bad news. I’ve got a friend in the Wardens. He was investigating something unrelated for me. His name’s Stroud. The last time we spoke, he was worried about corruption in the Warden ranks. Since then, nothing.”

            Varric sighs. “Corypheus would certainly qualify as corruption in the ranks. Did your friend disappear with the rest of them?”

            “No,” Hawke replies. “He told me he’d be hiding in an old smuggler’s cave near Crestwood.”

            “We’ll head out there soon,” I say distractedly.

            “Glad to hear it. I’ll do what I can to help—whatever it takes. Corypheus is my responsibility. I thought I’d killed him before. This time, I’ll make sure of it.”

            “Thank you for coming, Hawke,” I murmur. “We really appreciate this help.”

            “Oh, stop it,” Hawke gasps. “You’ll make me blush.”

            The joke takes a second to land, and I smile belatedly. “Will you be here long?”

            “Oh no,” Varric answers for her. “We’re getting her out of here as soon as you’re done.”

            “He doesn’t want me to embarrass him in front of his new friends,” Hawke explains.

            “We’ve more than pushed our luck already,” Varric says, glancing over the battlements nervously. “Pull your hood up. Let’s get you out of here before someone notices.”

            Hawke sighs theatrically. “Over a decade of friendship, and he can’t wait to get rid of me.”

            I offer a tight smile.

            “I’ll be in the great hall later, Snow, if you…want to talk later.”

            “He’s got an excellent ear,” Hawke nods.

            “It was a pleasure to meet you, Hawke,” I murmur.

            “I agree,” she hums. “I have been sensational.”

            I smile weakly. I bow my head towards her and move down the battlements. I rub my head and eyes, breathing in sharply.

            “You are very sad.”

            I look up to see Cole sitting on the ledge of the battlements. I glance around and then sit beside him on the ground, leaning against the stone wall. After a moment, he slips down beside me, his knee brushing mine as he folds his legs up.

            “I can help,” he offers.

            “How?” I wonder quietly.

            “I can make you forget.”

            “Forget?”

            “I can make you forget the pain. Make it go away. I don’t like seeing people sad. It makes me sad, too. I want to help.”

            I look at him under his big hat. “I’m sorry I’m making you sad.”

            “No, I don’t mean…” He frowns. “I mean I can help.”

            I look down. “Thank you, Cole. But I don’t want to forget.”

            “But…it hurts?”

            “Yes,” I whisper.

            “I can make it go away.”

            “I want to remember them.”

            “Why?”

            “Because…you said you had friends before you came here, right?”

            “Yes.”

            “And then a templar made them go away?”

            “Yes…”

            “You don’t want to forget them, do you?”

            “No.”

            “Even though it makes you a little sad.”

            Cole sighs.

            “It’s like that, then. They were…my family. My whole world, once.”

            “That is very sad.”

            I nod quietly.

            “Hurting, harming, wounds that won’t heal—my fault.”

            I close my eyes. “Cole.”

            “Yes?”

            “Please...please don't do that. I...appreciate what you're trying to do, but...please.”

            “Sorry…” There’s a long silence between us. “Roderick was sorry, too, before he died.”

            I look over at Cole. “What?”

            “Blood everywhere. Monsters. Madness. Dying—we’re all dying. The Herald stands against it and heads turn. Desperate and simple. Pure. Voices in the Chantry. Years since I’d heard sung the song and felt it flowing through me, but this is real, this is real. So long since I’d felt it. Falling. Flying. Faith. And I fought her. Maker forgive me. I hope I did enough.”

            “I…” I look down. “Thank you for…telling me that.”

            “He likes you, you know.”

            “Roderick?”

            “No,” Cole laughs. “Solas.”

            I look across the battlements. “I like him, too.”

            “I know.”

            “Why do mention it?”

            “Because you were doubting.”

            I frown softly, looking down and away. “Can I ask you something?”

            “Yes.”

            “Can you explain how your mind works?”

            “Yes.”

            “How do you help someone?”

            “I start by…listening. I hear hurt, feel it feeling. Some you can solve by giving something—food, a blanket, sleep. Some are intangible. Terrible tangles that catch on a crack, fixed, festering, and a person makes a pearl of pain. I shake it loose. No pearl. No pain. They can hope. They can heal.”

            I consider that. “Sometimes, I’ve heard you say things quietly that seem to relate to other members of the Inquisition. You say them when you think no one’s listening.”

            “They remember me,” he smiles. “Their eyes stick, some more. They want me to be. Varric is quiet inside. He pulls me more to here. Makes me a person. Calls me kid,” he chuckles with a fond smile. “A friend. Solas. All new, faded for her. He is bright and sad, observes and accepts. Spirit self, seeing the soul, soulless, but somehow sorrows…”

            I close my eyes. I suppose that’s what I—

            “That’s what you like about him.”

            I nod numbly.

            “He accepts. He sees and understand. He doesn’t judge, doesn’t reject...Do you know what he likes about you?”

            I frown.

            “She sees, gentle and pure, accepts what she doesn’t know, asks to understand—humor to light the darkness, compassion to show the way—she is an old soul—soft but strong—not a halla. A wolf.”

            I look at Cole. “I…” I hesitate. “What do you sense when you look at me?”

            He picks up a rock off the ground, squinting at it as he runs his fingers against it. “You’re…too bright, like counting birds against the sun. The mark makes you more, but…past it…pain and sorrow, but you bring light by being it—you help like me, but in another way. Laughter to calm constant quarrels and collisions. You see and hope and try to be more. And past that, the weight of all on you. All the hopes you carry, fears you fight…You are theirs. It must be very hard…I hope I help.”

            “You do,” I murmur. “I like talking with you.”

            “I like talking with you, too.”

            “It must be sad feeling everyone’s pain all the time.”

            “Why?” he wonders.

            “Isn’t it?”

            “No, I help. I find wounds and heal them. I salve, soothe, save. I see pain and make it better. How could I not be happy?” he smiles.

            “I’m glad.”

            Cole sits with me for a long time. We don’t talk anymore but being near him does make me feel a littler better. I half-wonder if it's just his effect or if he's doing something on purpose, but I don't question it. 

            When we part ways, he heads off to the medical tents. I move to the main hall, stopped by Cassandra and Sera as they separately offer their condolences. I thank them quietly, moving into Solas’ study. He looks up from his papers, and I walk to his couch and sit down heavily. He moves beside me, lifting his hand to my back.

            When I tell him about what Krem said, I cry again quietly. I try to leave, but Solas keeps me with him, murmuring comfortingly. He manages to convince me to eat, and when I head upstairs, I fall asleep quickly, too drained to think of anything else.

            In the morning, I walk the battlements for hours before I decide to go call a war room meeting. I pick the shortest way down to the courtyard. As soon as I pull open the door to the armory, I see Cassandra pin Varric up against the wall angrily.

            “You knew where she was all along!” Cassandra shouts.

            Varric pushes her off with a glare. “You’re damned right I did!”

            “You conniving little shit!” Cassandra swings at him.

            He ducks, scuffling away to put a table between them. “You kidnapped me!” he scoffs. “You interrogated me! What did you expect?”

            Cassandra lunges at him again.

            “Hey!” I shout, getting between them. “Enough!”

            “You’re taking his side?” Cassandra demands.

            “I said enough!”

            “We needed someone to lead this Inquisition,” she says, glaring at Varric past me. “First, Leliana and I searched for the Hero of Ferelden, but she had vanished. Then, we looked for Hawke, but she was gone, too. We thought it all connected, but no. It was just you. You kept her from us.”

            “The Inquisition has a leader!” Varric exclaims, gesturing wildly at me.

            “Hawke would have been at the Conclave! If anyone could have saved the Most Holy—”

            “Varric’s not responsible for what happened,” I say quickly.

            “I was protecting my friend!” Varric shouts.

            “Varric is a liar, Inquisitor,” Cassandra seethes. “A snake. Even after the Conclave, when we needed Hawke most, Varric kept her secret.”

            “She’s with us now,” Varric retorts. “We’re on the same side!”

            “We all know who’s side you’re on, Varric. It will never be the Inquisition’s.”

            “That’s unworthy, Cassandra,” I snap.

            Her expression falls, and she sighs, stepping back. She turns around, crossing her arms. “I must not think of what could have been. We have so much at stake…Go, Varric…just…go.”

            Varric looks at her and then me, his expression tight. He turns to leave, stopping when he reaches the top of the stairs. “Know what I think? If Hawke had been at the Temple, she’d be dead, too. You people have done enough to her.”

            Cassandra hangs her head, and silence follows Varric's departure. “I…believed him. He spun his story for me, and I swallowed it. If I’d just explained what was at stake…if I’d just made him understand…But I didn’t, did I?” She walks to a chair and sits heavily, defeated. “I didn’t explain why we needed Hawke. I’m such a fool.”

            I go to her, kneeling before her to get her to look at me. “You’re too hard on yourself, Cassandra.”

            “Not hard enough, I think.”

            “You can’t mean that. Besides, have you looked around lately?” I wonder, adopting a lighter tone. “We’re all fools here.”

            She chokes on a laugh. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

            “More at home, really.”

            “I want you to know,” she gasps, looking at me with a certain desperation in her eyes. “I have no regrets. Maybe if we’d found Hawke or the Hero of Ferelden, the Maker wouldn’t have needed to send you. But He did. You’re…not what I’d pictured. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I know less than nothing.”

            “That’s the spirit,” I whisper. “Come on. Let’s go…throttle some dummies.”

            Cassandra huffs a quiet laugh, nodding slowly. “Thank you, Inquisitor.”

            “You’re alright, Cassandra.”

            She snorts, rolling her eyes. “Thank you for that assessment."

            "Come on," I murmur, standing. "Those dummies won't hit themselves."

Chapter Text

A week passes resting at Skyhold. We await word from several matters to determine where to go first. After she left, Hawke wrote to Varric and told us Stroud was delayed and wouldn’t be at Crestwood for a week, maybe two. Josephine is still working on the invitation, trying to find the right person to schmooze, I suppose. I spent my time primarily with Cole, Dorian, Solas, or Cassandra. In the mornings, Dorian and I have breakfast and walk the battlements. He talks briskly of a variety of different subjects, mostly historical or fictional, and I pounce on his enthusiasm, asking a thousand questions, to his supreme delight. In the afternoons, I help Cole in the medical tents, providing healing where I can, and then I train with Cassandra for a couple hours. Bull sometimes joins us. The first time I see him, I thank him as evenly as I can for what Krem and some of his Chargers left to go do for me.

            The training sessions are brutal. As I already well-knew, I am excessively out of shape. Bull is amused by my constant breathlessness, but Cassandra is less entertained. She is a tough trainer, but I find myself getting steadier even after just a few sessions. The days after, however, always see me hobbling downstairs with sore muscles and a litany of curses. Bull is great to train with, because his height is so damn intimidating. The first time he notices my hesitation, he sits down with me on the grass, going over countless strategies to use someone else's height against them and my height to my advantage. I nod and eagerly absorb everything, and when we spar again, I feel several degrees more confident. 

            In the evenings, I eat with Solas in his study, and then we walk to my room and sit on the balcony to watch the stars. Solas, on those occasions, tells me all the stories he knows about the constellations, and I grin widely, pointing out the only two I previously knew before him. That seems to amuse him, and he proceeds to tell me not only those recognized in elven culture but in Orlesian, Ferelden, Tevinter, and Nevarran cultures, as well. I fall asleep listening to his smooth voice beside me, and when I wake, I always find myself in my bed with no memory of how I got there. During those times, I always sigh to myself, wishing I’d changed before falling asleep. The belt digging into my hip or my leggings twisted tightly around my knees is getting old, but I do adore Solas for moving me so carefully and considerately. 

            This morning, I head into Solas’ study, breaking my slowly developing pattern to see what he’s up to.

            He sits at his desk, staring at a book almost anxiously. I can tell he's trying to read, but I also see him gaze at the page longer than he normally does. He lifts a steaming cup of tea to his lips, and I realize I’ve never seen him drink it before. When he grimaces and recoils, swallowing with difficulty, I realize why. I watch him in amusement as he glances into the cup, perhaps searching for an accidental drop of poison to explain the foul taste.

            “Something wrong with your tea?” I muse, fighting an affectionate laugh.

            He glances up at me. “It is tea. I detest the stuff.”

            “Then why are you drinking it?” I chuckle, perching on the edge of his desk.

            “This morning, I need to shake the dreams from my mind. I may also need a favor.”

            “Name it,” I reply without missing a beat.

            Solas stands, moving a few paces away anxiously. “One of my oldest friends has been captured by mages.” I push off the desk, my humor forgotten as I walk to him. “Forced into slavery. I heard the cry for help as I slept.”

            “My gods—Solas—I...when you friend was captured, how did he…she…”

            “It.”

            I cock my head. “It?”

            “My friend is a spirit of wisdom,” he explains. “Unlike the spirits clamoring to enter our world through rifts, it was dwelling quite happily in the Fade. It was summoned against its will and wants my help to gain its freedom and return to the Fade.”

            “Come on,” I say urgently, waving him forward with me. “Explain on the way. Let’s go.”

            “Truly?” Solas gasps in relief, following me.

            “Yes, come on—how far is it?”

            “Not far,” he answers, walking briskly beside me. "I got a sense of my friend's location nearby." 

            “I’ll get the harts from Dennett and meet you by the gates.”

            “Suledin,” he says, taking my arm gently. I look at him, stopping on the stairs. His eyes hold mine, his sincerity weakening me. “Thank you.”       

            I reach up to caress his cheek thoughtlessly and then turn around and take the stairs quickly.

            I jog to the stables and retrieve the harts. Dennett helps me saddle them quickly. The man is so used to our random departures that he doesn’t even question it. Blackwall watches curiously from the barn as I lead the harts briskly to the gates where Solas waits. We mount up, and I wave to the soldiers. The gates lift, and Solas and I trot onto the bridge.

            “I thought spirits wanted to find their way into this world,” I say as we go, looking over at him.

            “Some do, certainly,” Solas replies, “just as many Orlesian peasants wish they could journey to exotic Rivain. But not everyone wants to go to Rivain. My friend is an explorer, seeking lost wisdom and reflecting it. It would happily discuss philosophy with you,” he adds with a fond smile that quickly fades, “but it had no wish to come here physically.”

            “Do you have any idea what the mages want with your friend?”

            “No,” he says worriedly. “It knows a great deal of lore and history, but a mage could learn that simply by speaking to it in the Fade. It is possible that they seek information it does not wish to give and intend to torture it.”

            I nudge my hart forward. “Lead the way.”

            Solas moves into a fast gallop, patting his hart's neck soothingly when she sounds anxious. We move down the winding path safely but briskly, passing through tunnels and canyons. Our harts' hooves clatter against the stone intermittently, digging into the earth with soft thuds when we reach easier paths. I murmur softly to my hart, clinging to her reigns tightly. We travel for a couple hours, maybe more, before something catches my eye. 

            “There,” I pant, pointing to the spot. The earth is charred in several places, soot coating the nearby snow thickly. 

            “Scorch marks?” Solas says, frowning briefly. 

            Something changes in his expression, and he moves faster. Another mile down the road, we find a body strewn against the rocky edges of a mountain, burned black. Claws rake down his chest, ripping into his torso. The man's weapons are strewn across the ground, a couple daggers and a bow, all shoddily crafted. His battered helmet covers his face well, but I recognize the armor. This poorly-clad in the middle of a mountain pass? He must be a bandit. 

            I swallow, a terrible realization turning my stomach. A demon did this.

            “No,” Solas whispers. “No, no, no—” He suddenly pulls hard on his reins, jerking to a stop as he stares in horror over my shoulder. “My friend,” he gasps.

            I turn quickly to see a summoning circle cast lazily across the snowy bank near a frozen pond, its rocky pillars misshapen. In its center, a massive pride demon pants, bent down on one knee. Its purple skin vibrates softly with its roaring breaths, its claws sunk deep into the earth. The circle keeps it bound, trapped, and the process is obviously painful to the demon.

            I stare at it in grief as Solas dismounts and jogs closer. I follow him quickly, tying our harts to a tree.

            Solas stops, staring in disbelieving anguish at his friend. Hatred suddenly washes over his features, and he releases an angry growl, glaring ahead. 

            “They turned your friend into a demon,” I whisper, dismayed.

            Solas looks down at his hands bitterly. “Yes.”

            “You…said it was a spirit of wisdom, not a fighter,” I say softly.

            “A spirit becomes a demon when denied its original purpose.”

            “So…they summoned it for something so opposed to its own nature that it was corrupted—fighting…” I close my eyes briefly before looking at Solas.

            Something rustles in the bushes, and a mage comes out of hiding, his hands held up.

            “Let us ask them,” Solas says angrily.

            “Mages!” the man gasps in relief. “You’re not with the bandits? Do you have any lyrium potions? Most of us are exhausted! We’ve been fighting that demon f—”

            “You summoned that demon!” Solas shouts. The hate in his voice shocks me—I’ve never seen him so hurt. “Except it was a spirit of wisdom at the time. You made it kill! You twisted it against its purpose!”

            “I-I-I understand how it might be confusing to someone who has not studied demons, but after you help us, I can—”

            “We are not here to help you!” Solas seethes.

            “Word of advice,” I murmur to the man, “I’d hold off on explaining how demons work to my friend here. He's something of an expert.” 

            “Listen to me!” the man implores. “I was one of the foremost experts in the Kirkwall Cir—”         

            “Shut—up,” Solas commands quietly. Somehow his voice lowered in anger is even more painful to me, and I find myself wishing he'd return to yelling. “You summoned it—to protect you from the bandits.”

            “I—yes…”

            “You bound it to obedience, then commanded it to kill. That is when it turned.”

            The idea of it makes me sick. I raise a hand to my stomach, the horrifying ordeal this spirit went through settling over me heavily. 

            “The summoning circle,” Solas says urgently, turning to me. “We break it, we break the binding. No orders to kill, no conflict with its nature, no demon.”

            “What?” the man gasps. “The binding is the only thing keeping the demon from killing us! Whatever it was before, it is a monster now—”

            “Suledin, please,” Solas begs.

            “Of course,” I reply immediately. “I’ve studied rituals like this. I should be able to help you safely disrupt the circle.” 

            “Thank you,” Solas breathes, weakening in relief.

            The demon pulls itself to its feet and roars. It thrusts a hand out, slamming it to the ground hard enough to crack the ice in the pond. 

            “We must hurry!” Solas exclaims.

            “Go right,” I reply as the Circle mage disappears into the bushes again. “I’ll go left!”

            I run over to the first pillar, breathing in deeply. The demon watches me, roaring angrily. I press both hands to the pillar at first before yanking my left hand back, afraid of what it might do with such a complex spell. I close my eyes and breathe out my words slowly, focusing my energy on the binding and not the demon rearing to kill us.

            Solas’ pain and anger twists inside me—a man so accustomed to peace or dry humor, even when irritated, has turned to rage and shouting. 

            The pillar breaks apart under my fingers, crumbling to the ground. I rip my eyes open, watching the demon. It slams its fist against the ground, and I take off.

            I slip in the snow when I get to the next pillar, sliding clumsily over to the crooked stone. I don’t bother getting up before I slam my hand to it, breathing out as quickly as I can to form the words. I concentrate carefully, wary of saying the wrong word by accident. 

            The demon charges for me, but it immediately seems to get stuck on something. I look up to see Solas gripping the air with both hands, holding the demon in place. My eyes widen; I’ve never seen someone with the power necessary to perform such a task. It must take so much energy.

            I speak more quickly, the words pulled from me at an increased volume. The pillar breaks apart, and I run to the next. Three more to go.

            The demon's angry voice sends spikes of adrenaline rushing through me, the sound deafening and terrifying. I work as fast as I can, closing me eyes when I get too distracted. The pillar breaks easily, and I run to the next, tripping over my own feet as I rush. I slide my fingers along the mountainside as I catch myself roughly, wincing without stopping. The second to last pillar slices through my fingers when I carelessly run into it, but I don't hesitate, calling my words loudly. The demon roars and breaks free from Solas’ grasp. I stare at it as it runs towards me, but I don’t stop chanting. Solas tries to catch it, but it must have taken too much of his energy to attempt the spell again so soon. The demon slams a hand into the mountainside above me. Rocks hail down over me, clattering noisily to the ground. Solas runs towards me, but I wave him back as the pillar breaks. I run to the last one as the demon turns around, charging towards me once more. 

            Solas joins me, picking my words up halfway through the spell flawlessly, and the pillar shatters as the demon gets within feet of us. It roars and then collapses to its knees. Solas watches in agony as the demon whines and folds in on itself. The body dissipates, leaving behind a small, bright figure that gasps and wheezes. As I watch, its formless flame burns low, and Solas steps forward slowly. I realize with a rush of grief that the spirit is dying, its brilliant light fading even more. The spirit faces us, settling close to the ground as Solas kneels before it.

            “Lethallin,” he whispers. “Ir abelas.”

            “Tel’abelas,” the spirit replies quietly. “Ir tel’him. Ma melava halani. Mala suledin nadas. Ma ghilana mir din’an.”

            My eyes flood, and I look down briefly as the spirit's final request echoes in my mind. 

            Solas turns his head away from the spirit, his eyes closed. He breathes out slowly before looking at his friend again. “Ma nuvenin,” he murmurs hollowly.

            Solas raises his hands to the spirit. It weakens, its color fading. He turns his palms inward, gently moving his hands towards himself, guiding the spirit away. Its flame fades until it's gone.

            “Dareth shiral,” he whispers, hanging his head.

            Tears slip down my cheeks, and I swallow thickly. “I heard what it said,” I whisper. “It was right. You did help it.”

            Solas takes a quiet breath. “Now…I must endure.”

            “Let me know if I can help,” I say softly.

            Solas stands, turning to me. His eyes make my chest tighten in pain as he offers a sad smile. “You already have,” he murmurs, his eyes searching mine. He sees something over my shoulder, and then his anger returns. His features change, hatred burning away his sorrow in an instant. “All that remains now is them,” he adds coldly.

            The mages stumble forward—three of them, all with tattered Circle robes cinched around their waists. “Thank you,” one of them says. “We would not have risked a summoning, but the roads are too dangerous to travel unprotect—”

            “You—tortured and killed my friend,” Solas seethes, moving past me.

            I fold my arms across my chest, looking at where the spirit faded away.

            “We didn’t know it was just a spirit! Th-the book said it could help us!”

            I hear something explode behind me. It startles me slightly, and I look down. I slowly turn around to see Solas standing angrily, his eyes unseeing as he glares over the mages’ bodies.

            “Damn them all,” Solas mutters. He takes a moment before turning around to me. “I…need some time alone. I will meet you back at Skyhold.”

            “Alright,” I murmur softly. He moves past me slowly, kneeling in the snow where his friend died. I turn to the road, closing my eyes as I wipe my cheeks. I want to stay, but I understand the need for space. I walk back to my hart and mount up, glancing one last time at Solas as I disappear around the edge of the path.

***

I shift my hips on the couch, frowning as I wake at the crick in my neck. I sigh quietly, folding my arm up under my head. I open my eyes to see Solas’ study still dim and quiet. The door stands ajar, exactly the way I left it. I shift my hips again, leaning against the back of the couch to get more comfortable, and close my eyes. Night fell hours ago. I was hoping he’d be back. Concern floods me until I remember he’s a powerful mage used to traveling alone.

            That doesn’t completely silence the worry, but it does stifle it a little.

            I relax into the couch, sighing quietly. I’ve almost fallen asleep again when I hear the door open softly.

            I open my eyes to see Solas close the door behind himself. I sit up on the couch, wincing when my back and neck protest. Solas crosses the room slowly and sits close beside me. He looks drained. I hesitantly reach over, pick his hand up, and pull it over to my lap. When he doesn’t resist, I interlace our fingers tightly, looking over at him.

            “How are you?” I whisper.

            “It hurts,” he admits, his voice hoarse. I close my eyes, feeling my chest tighten. “It always does, but I will survive.”

            “I’m sorry, Solas,” I whisper more softly. “Thank you for coming back.”

            He looks at me, his eyes searching mine in the low light. “You were a true friend. You did everything you could to help. I could hardly abandon you now.”

            I move slowly, waiting for him to resist if he wants me to stop, but he doesn’t. I shift my hips and lean against his shoulder, hugging his arm. I tighten my fingers on his, and he breathes out quietly, relaxing a little against me.

            “Where did you go?” I wonder quietly.

            “I found a quiet spot and went to sleep. I visited the place in the Fade where my friend used to be. It’s empty…but there are stirrings of energy in the Void. Someday, something new may grow there.”

            “Can I ask you something?”

            “Of course,” he murmurs.

            “What…happens when a spirit...dies?”

            “It isn’t the same for mortals,” he replies softly. “The energy of spirits returns to the Fade. If the idea giving the spirit form is strong, or if the memory has shaped other spirits, it may someday rise again.”

            I pick my head up to look at him. “You mean your friend might come back?”

            “No,” he answers, looking down. “Not really. A spirit’s natural state is peaceful semi-existence. It is rare to be able to reflect reality.” I tighten my fingers on his, looking down, too. “Something similar may reform one day, but it might have a different personality. It would likely not remember me. It would not be the friend I knew.”

            “I’m so sorry, Solas,” I whisper. “I…hope there isn’t a next time, but if you ever have to mourn again…you don’t need to be alone.”

            “It’s been so long since I could trust someone,” he whispers.

            “I know.”

            “I’ll work on it,” he promises quietly. He looks at me, sincerity burning his eyes again. “And thank you.” His thumb arcs across the back of my hand tenderly, and he leans back into the couch more. I rest my head on his shoulder, feeling him move his head to mine.

            I don’t know how long we sit there like that. Solas doesn’t disentangle himself to go to bed when I expect him to, and it makes me hope that I’m capable of comforting him the way he did for me. It's quiet for so long that when Cole appears before us and speaks, it startles me badly.

            “I am—”

            I jerk against Solas in surprise. “Cole,” I gasp, relaxing and raising my free hand to my hammering heart.

            “Sorry,” he murmurs, wringing his hands. “I did not mean to scare you. I just wanted to say…I am sorry your friend died, Solas.” The boy sits down below us on the ground, folding his legs up and looking at us from under his hat.

            “Thank you, Cole,” Solas replies quietly.

            “I didn’t know there were spirits of wisdom…”

            “There are few,” Solas nods. “Spirits form as a reflection of this world and its passions. We will never lack for spirits of rage or hunger or desire. The world gives them plenty to mirror. The gentler spirits are far more rare. We can ill-afford the loss of even one spirit of wisdom or faith…or compassion.”

            Cole looks up. “I will try not to die,” he promises solemnly.

            “Do that, please,” Solas murmurs.

            Silence falls over us again. Cole stays, playing with threads on the rug beneath him. I watch his hands work idly while Solas tightens his fingers against mine.

            Cole doesn’t look up, but he begins murmuring softly. “Bright and brilliant, he wanders the ways, walking unwaking, searching for wisdom—”

            “I do not need you to do that, Cole,” Solas says softly.

            “Your friend wanted you to be happy, even though she knew you wouldn’t be.”

            Solas sighs softly, and the sound is enough to tighten my chest again. “Could you…if you would remember her, could you do it as I would?”

            “Yes…He comes to me as though the Fade were just another wooded path to walk without a care in search of wisdom.” Solas closes his eyes, bowing his head. I tighten my grip on him, watching him in anguish before I lower my head to his shoulder again, squeezing his fingers. “We share the ancient mysteries, the feelings lost, forgotten dreams, unseen for ages, now beheld in wonder.” Tears flood my eyes and slip down my temple and the bridge of my nose—a soul so rare—both Solas and the spirit of wisdom. “In his own way, he knew wisdom, as no man or spirit had before.”

            Solas breathes out quietly, the sound so pained that it twists in me again. I close my eyes, biting my lip as more tears slip down my nose and temple. “Thank you,” Solas whispers. I move my arm to enclose his hand in both of mine. Solas leans his head against mine, and I relax, breathing out quietly. I try to think of something to say, but nothing sounds right. As the room falls silent around the three of us, it begins to feel like maybe this is enough. 

Chapter Text

“Inquisitor!”

            I glance back to see Leliana jogging to catch up to me. “Leliana?” I reply, stopping in the middle of the main hall. 

            “Inquisitor,” she repeats. “Remember I mentioned the Arcanist? She’s here.”

            “Oh?”

            “She’s in the undercroft with the blacksmith. She’s…very eager to meet you.”

            “Oh…thanks, Leliana. I’ll go see her.”

            I turn around and head back the way I came, turning to the undercroft. I take the stairs down quickly, and the blacksmith turns when he hears my arrival.

            “Inquisitor,” he murmurs, seemingly unhappy.

            “Hi, Harritt. The Arcanist has arrived?”

            “See for yourself,” he sighs, gesturing to his workshop.      

            More accurately, what was his workshop. Along his usual benches and tools, an array of mysterious new fixtures has been added. I venture further into the undercroft, admiring the additions as I pass them. I don't even know what they are, much less how they work. Judging from Harritt's unhappy grimace, he doesn't seem to think they're necessary. 

            “Hello there!”

            I turn around to see the Arcanist, greatly surprised to find a dwarf standing before me.

            She grins and waves. “Well don't just stand there slack-jawed!” she giggles. “Let’s figure out what you need!”

            “Forgive me,” I say quickly, my cheeks flushing. “I—you’re the magical advisor?”

            “Oooh, you’re her,” she gasps. “The Inquisitor! I’m Dagna! Arcanist Dagna,” she adds with a wide grin. It’s an honor, Your Worship!” Her eyes fall to my side, and she steps closer to me. “Is that it? The hand-Anchor-mark? It’s pretty!”

            I glance down to see a faint green glow through my glove.

            “The Breach was pretty, too,” she murmurs. “In a ‘destroy everything’ sort of way.” She laughs again.

            “You’re the first dwarven Arcanist I’ve ever met.” They’re usually stuffy old men, from my understanding. And most pressingly, always mages. 

            “I’m the only one!” she grins. “When you do things everyone says you can’t, you get to be the first!” She giggles. “I don’t need to tell you that. I’ve looked at Harritt’s devices. The precision is fantastic, but typical, mundane—old thinking!”

            “You what?” the blacksmith says, offended. 

            “No disrespect meant to the classical trades!” she adds quickly, turning to wave at him. “But you need a new perspective,” she says to me. “I’ve made adjustments. As long as I keep making them, you can craft just about anything! Almost safely!”

            I laugh at that. “You seemed impressed with the Anchor. I’m curious—what does it look like to you?”

            “May I?” she asks, gesturing. I pull my glove off, holding my hand out to her. “I heard what everyone said about what you heard Corypheus say. That’s a long chain of who-said-whats.” She takes my hand, turning it over. Her eyes scan it studiously. “To me, it says ‘key.’ But keys do lots of things! Open, lock, switch. Some open one thing, some open…everything. It sounds like Corypheus made it to open, but it looks like you can use it to close. It may be that simple.”

            I stare at her. “Wait—are you—”

            “What?” she smiles, looking up at me.

            “You mean...I’m changing its purpose?”

            “Well, yeah!” she grins. “You’ve redesigned it, so to speak!”

            Something rushes through me dizzyingly, an emotion I don’t know how to identify. Excitement, perhaps. Realization. Adrenaline. I don't know. I blink rapidly. “Wait, so…it’s…like I’m twisting it against its purpose.”

            “Sure,” Dagna offers, confused. “Oh! You’re having one of those epiphany things, aren’t you? That’s so exciting! What are you thinking?”

            Gods—

            “Dagna, I think—can you come with me? I just—had an idea, and I want to—can you come with me?”

            “Yes! Field trip! Let’s go!”

            I walk far more briskly than I mean to. I run up the stairs, bursting into the main hall loudly enough to startle several people.

            “Sorry!” I say, waving and grinning. “Sorry.”

            I jog down the hall. Finally an answer!

            Dagna laughs giddily from behind, running after me.

            “Solas!” I grin, speaking too loudly as I burst into his study.

            He looks up, startled. “Suledin?”

            “Solas, I—oh, this is Dagna, our Arcanist,” I say quickly, closing the door and locking it behind her.

            “Hi!” she smiles.

            “Hello,” he greets confusedly, rising from his chair.

            “Sorry! Were you busy? So sorry—I just—we were talking, and I had a thought, and I wanted to tell you immediately—Dagna, come here.”

            I glance up at the library, spotting Dorian reading in his chair. He doesn’t appear to hear us, and I make an effort to lower my voice.

            “Dagna, what I’m about to tell you—”

            “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited,” she gasps.

            I laugh and then put on a serious face. “It’s something only Solas and I know, and I’d really rather keep this between us. Please.”

            “Yes! I am great with secrets!”

            “Okay…” I glance at Solas. He watches me curiously. “My hand,” I say to Dagna. “The mark. It hurts.” Her face falls. “Not right now, but every rift I close, it gets worse. Every time I use it—it feels like…fire and like my bones are being crushed. It’s—like the magic is trying to pull my hand clean off. Solas knows how to negate the feeling temporarily, and it’s helped—unbelievably. But at night or right after a rift, it’s like…I can’t even describe it.”

            “I’m—so sorry,” Dagna offers.

            I wave my hand dismissively. “Even worse, it’s affected my magic. I won’t demonstrate here, because the effects are wildly uncontrolled, but spells I try to use completely misfire. Ice turns to electricity, fire to rock—but never consistently. I can’t use my left hand at all for magic, which has…staggered me. But what you just said—I—I think that’s it,” I laugh.

            “What’d I say?” Dagna grins, shifting excitedly.

            “Solas, tell me if this sounds right. She was musing about the Anchor’s purpose. She said that it sounded like the Anchor was a key, and Corypheus meant for it to open, but I use it to close. I—I—” I laugh again, my heart thudding in my ears. “I’m twisting it—denying it its true, original purpose.”

            Solas’ expression clears with the realization. He leans back against his desk, crossing his arms thoughtfully. “That would explain the distortion between your abilities and the execution...as well as the pain that it causes…”

            “I’m not following,” Dagna says.

            “If I’m using it against its original purpose,” I say eagerly, “then it’s…it’s resisting me. It doesn’t want to close rifts, because that isn’t what it was designed to do! The mark was meant to open, not close. It’s fighting me!”

            “Which is why it hurts,” Dagna murmurs. “It’s doesn't like what you’re using it for, what you're making it do! Oh! That is—brilliant! Of course it would! I mean, I’m sorry, but wow!”

            “Dagna, you are an Arcanist?” Solas replies thoughtfully.

            “Yes!”

            Solas remains quiet for a long time, thinking. “I, of course, have no such experience. You would know more than anyone. Could we craft something—a glove for the Inquisitor that she could wear that would essentially ease the process of changing its purpose? Something that could, in theory, negate its side effects to allow the Inquisitor to seal rifts without so much pain?”

            Dagna’s jaw drops. “This—is—the greatest—day—of my life! Yes! I accept!”

            “What?” I gasp, looking between them.

            “I think I can do that! I-I have to do so much research! I have to study your hand! I need to take samples and watch how it reacts and see what it does when it’s—your ambassador! I need books—lots of books! Arcane books and magical books—all the books! I’ll set her up with a list to get started! This might just work!”

            I whip around to Solas. “You’re—a genius!”

            He smiles softly, waving a hand. “Dagna is the expert.”

            “You’re a genius! You’re both geniuses!” Unthinkingly, I grab Solas’ hand and kiss the back of it, too delighted to even find the grace to be embarrassed.

            “I’ll get started immediately!” Dagna enthuses. “Let’s go back to the undercroft, Inquisitor! Tests! I have to run tests! I need sample and questions and answers! Let’s go! Oh, I knew this would be the best job ever!”

            “Thank you, Solas!” I call as Dagna drags me out. “Thank you for being a complete genius and amazing and incredible—I’ll find you later!” I'm pulled around the corner before I can finish. 

            I grin, following Dagna, a blossom of hope giddily bursting inside me that the problem may finally be solved.

***

I stumble through Solas’ door ungracefully, falling on his couch heavily. My head hits the wall, and I frown, pulling my legs up under me with a sigh.

            His lips curl into an amused smile. “Long day?”

            “Dagna ran hundreds of tests,” I reply. “I’m exhausted but delighted. Mostly exhausted.”

            “Does your hand hurt?”

            “A little, but it’s okay—that’s not why I came here. I just wanted to collapse and to see you.”

            Solas rises from his desk. He walks over and kneels before me. I look down at him, my heart reacting idiotically. He takes my hand delicately, his fingers warm against mine. His eyes dance slowly between mine as I watch dazedly, his words pulled from his tongue so naturally that I’d think he invented them himself. His hands glow softly as he works, but I can’t find it in me to look away from him to admire the blue hue, as I so often do.

            “Thank you,” I whisper when he’s finished.

            He doesn’t release my hand. He looks up at me for a long moment before rising and sitting beside me, resting our hands on his leg as he faces me.

            “Tell me more,” I murmur.

            “More?”

            “More of your journeys, the things you’ve seen. I—I like listening to your voice,” I admit with a blush.

            He gives me a beautifully soft smile, thinking briefly. He looks down at our hands, his expression growing solemn. “I found an ancient dwarven thaig no longer sheltered by the stone. An earthquake had exposed it all to daylight. A thousand dwarven corpses lay, the victims of a darkspawn horde, their last stand marked by one great ring of armor. In the middle, one small body, clutching tightly to a small stuffed toy.”

            I swallow quietly, the weight of the image settling on me.

            Something occurs to me suddenly. I look up at Solas, my eyebrows pulling together at the upsetting thought. I wait to confirm it, hoping what I see is coincidence.

            “Tell me about a spirit you’ve met,” I whisper.

            Solas looks at our hands thoughtfully. “The Alamarri crossed the Frostback Mountains to escape a beast they called the shadow goddess in their stories. I met the spirit they fled. She walks the Fade along the southern tundra, weeping, lonely, and forgotten. Great Ferelden formed because a lonely spirit drove her prey away.”

            The weight gets heavier on me. I admire Solas’ eyes, seeing it deep within him. Perhaps I’ve always seen it. “A memory?” I breathe softly.

            He offers another small smile. “I saw a dwarf emerge into the light of day and shield his eyes against the sun, the first time he had seen it. The tears were streaming from his eyes. I thought them from the blazing light until I saw the rock he held so tightly. Then he laid the rock down gently, and he left it as he walked away.”

            I close my eyes.

            “What is it?” he wonders quietly.

            “You…told me once that to find interesting places, one must be interested, that the Fade reflects the world around it.”

            Solas nods.

            “It reflects the emotions of those who have died.”

            He nods again, his expression growing confused.

            “It reflects the emotions of the dreamer.”

            “Of course,” he murmurs, frowning softly.

            I swallow. “The places you find…a broken spirit, a dwarf leaving his home behind...populations destroyed in mass, cities that fell in a single moment, the result of some cataclysmic event—an attack or a volcanic eruption or an earthquake…”

            Solas freezes, his expression carefully neutral.   

            “To find those places…to see those memories specifically…what you must be feeling…”

            Solas swallows quietly, looking away from me.

            “I’m sorry you feel that way when you dream, Solas.”

            He tightens his hand on mine, offering a quiet, somewhat strangled laugh. “You are a constant surprise.”

            “What do you mean?” I whisper.

            “You see…a great deal more than anyone has before.”

            I shift my hand, interlacing our fingers. “I know things are hard for you,” I murmur. “I didn’t want to…” I sigh. “I just want you to know that…I’m here. If there’s anything you ever want to discuss, anything that troubles you or…haunts you. I’m here. Whatever it is. You don’t have to bear it alone anymore.”

            Solas looks at me, his eyes so conflicted, revealing so much sadness that it tightens my chest. “Thank you,” he murmurs quietly. “I…do not wish to burden you.”

            “You could never burden me.”

            His eyes fall. “Thank you, lethallin. It is a kind offer.”

            “I care about you, Solas,” I say softly. “I don’t…like seeing you so…unhappy.”

            Solas gazes at the rug. He sits back, clinging to my hand tightly. I watch him sadly, scooting closer to rest my head against his shoulder. He relaxes slowly, and I close my eyes, wishing I knew the right things to say. I look down to his hand, admiring the sharp contrast between our skintones once again.

            “Can I ask you something else?”

            “Of course, lethallin.”

            “It’s…changing subjects…pretty drastically. It’s…” I hesitate. “It’s about…Corypheus.”

            “What about him?”

            “You know…you know when people don’t understand something, and it scares them? Well, let’s just—pretend that that’s me. Can you…maybe help me come up with some answers?”

            Solas’ hand tightens on mine. “Yes. I claim no secret wisdom, of course, but I will guess as best I can.”

            “His orb…”

            I feel Solas nod softly. “It must have been the means by which he created the Breach. I suspect the blast that destroyed the Conclave was more accident than anything…the result of unlocking power that had sought release for ages. What I cannot understand is how he managed to survive such an explosion.”

            “And it’s ours?”

            “I never would have believed a Tevinter mage could unlock such a powerful relic,” he murmurs. “It clearly enhances his abilities, giving him access to power he should never have known.”

            “Is that how he controls the Archdemon?”

            “Indirectly, one assumes. Nothing in any lore connects my people to the Old God dragons who became Archdemons.”

            I digest that. “What do you think he’ll do next?”

            “You shamed him when you destroyed Haven. It spoiled his glorious victory. It would be worse to acknowledge that you had done so. He must continue on his course or show weakness. He will return to his plans to throw Orlais into chaos and then conquer it for Tevinter.”

            “You’re certain?”

            “As certain as is possible, assuming I can plausibly predict a man who seeks to rise to godhood.”

            “Can you?” I grin, chuckling softly.

            Solas runs his thumb across the back of my hand. “The key is understanding this: no real god need prove himself. Anyone who tries is mad or lying. His deception will undo him,” he promises, “as it has done countless fools before.”

            I chew the inside of my cheek thoughtfully for a long moment. “What do you think is the source of Corypheus’ power?”

            “According to the lore, the ancient magisters of Tevinter received guidance from the Old Gods. Corypheus commands a false Archdemon—a corrupted Old God. This suggests he no longer sees himself as their minion. Some of his unique power comes from the corruption of the Blight. The rest may come from the orb he carries.”

            I wait a long moment before asking the next question. “Do you think he’ll find Skyhold?”

            Solas doesn’t answer at first. “I…think we are safe here. If he does, we’ll be ready.”

            “What if we aren’t? What if his orb destroys us all, brings the fortress down on us?" A terrible thought grips me. "What if he can control the mark from far away?”

            Solas feels my tension, lifting his free hand to my wrist. He encircles it, his thumb brushing lightly against my skin. “I do not think that is how it works.”

            “But we don’t know.”

            “No,” Solas allows, “but if he could control you, he would not have lost at Haven. You are something he did not predict, and your devotion to your cause and your strength makes you a formidable enemy.”

            I laugh once, relaxing again. “Are you saying that a fifteen-foot darkspawn would-be god is afraid of me?”

            “He would be a bigger fool than he appears if he were not.”

            I grin, blushing. “Hmm.” I sigh quietly. “Okay. You’re making me feel better,” I chuckle softly. “Could you…tell me about another ruin you found?”

            Solas is quiet for a moment, his thumb arcing across my skin as he thinks. “I found in the Korcari Wilds a humble cottage far removed from any of the simple Chasind tribesman. The trees and weeds had not reclaimed the home, nor did the Chasind dare to come and steal the trinkets still remaining. It was empty, long abandoned—but the world feared that she might return.”

            My eyes widen and I grin. Creepy. “Wow,” I breathe. “Keep talking.”

            “Mm…I found an ancient spirit who had once been undisputed king of almost every land I had discovered. Like pride or rage, it was the Fade’s reflection of a feeling. When I asked which one it was, the spirit faltered. ‘They’ve forgotten,’ said the spirit. ‘There remains no word for what I was.’”

            I blink slowly at our hands, letting that one settle in. It takes me a long time to find my voice. “Tell me more.”

            “I saw a young Qunari working in a simple kitchen, baking bread as she was ordered every morning. In every loaf, she broke the rules. She’d take a pinch of sugar and fold it to the center, like a secret. And this act of small rebellion brought a shining smile across her face.”

            I grin at the smile in his own voice. “I like her.”

            Solas laughs once quietly. “Are you tired?” he murmurs, hearing the heaviness in my voice.

            I nod loosely, unable to open my eyes. “I don’t want to get up,” I admit, chuckling once. “Can we stay a little longer?”

            Solas moves his thumb across my skin again. “We can stay as long as you like.”

            "Mm...Tell me more."

***

I spend the morning with Dorian and Varric, who is pretending to hide from Cassandra. Or maybe not pretending, now that I really think about it. I'd probably be hiding, too, if she were mad at me. After lunch, Dagna brings me to the undercroft to run more tests. She excitedly chats with me, making me laugh and smile as she works. She’s, quite frankly, adorable, and I enjoy spending time with her. An agent interrupts our session and summons me to a war council meeting. I find Leliana, Josephine, and Cullen discussing something that makes them all laugh when I enter. It’s such a rare sight that I smile and hang back a moment before approaching them.

            We spend the better part of an hour going over several issues and wrapping up a dozen more. Josephine informs us all that we’ve received our invitation to the Grand Masquerade, which is set to be held in three months’ time. With that looming over us, the rest of the meeting is rather more subdued. Leliana receives a message while we’re in the war room, and she departs quickly to take care of the matter. Afterwards, the three of us finish a few topics, and then Cullen and Josephine depart. I follow them out, heading to the courtyard. 

            I pass Solas on the way, and he calls me over quietly.

            “Suledin, I was…do you have a moment?”

            “Of course,” I smile.

            “Perhaps…we could speak in private?”

            “Certainly,” I reply, motioning for him to come with me. “Is everything alright?” I wonder as we reach the stairs to my room.

            “Yes,” he answers simply, following me quietly.

            When we reach the top, I move across to the balcony, leading Solas out into the sunlight.

            He rests a hand against the railing, angling towards me, though his eyes scan the snowy mountains beyond us. “What were you like?” he wonders. “Before the Anchor.”

            “Insufferable.”

            He chuckles nervously. “I mean…Has it affected you? Changed you in any way? Your mind—your morals, your…spirit?”

            I smile, my eyebrows twitching in confusion. “No? I don’t think so…if it had, would I have noticed?”

            Solas suddenly smiles, relaxing a little. “No. That’s an excellent point.”

            “Why?” I wonder.      

            His eyes trap mine. “You show a wisdom I have not seen since…since my deepest journeys into the ancient memories of the Fade. You are not what I expected.”

            “Sorry to disappoint,” I tease.

            “It’s not disappointing, it’s…” He sighs. “Most people are predictable. You have shown subtlety in your actions, a wisdom that goes against everything I expected. If the Dalish could raise someone with a spirit like yours…have I misjudged them?”

            I look down briefly. “I don’t hold the Dalish up as perfect,” I murmur, “but we have something worth honoring. A…memory of the ancient ways.”

            “Perhaps that is it,” Solas muses. “I suppose it must be. Most people act with so little understanding of the world. But not you. You go out of your way to learn, to understand. You…you are unique.”

            “So…what does this mean, Solas?” I wonder.

            He offers a small smile. “It means I have not forgotten the kiss.”

            My heart stops and then picks up double time. I smile and step forward once, playing with his hand on the balcony.

            “Good,” I muse.

            I pull my arms behind my back. He gives me a maddeningly enticing smirk as he recognizes that I'm mimicking his usual posture. I angle my head playfully, raising an eyebrow slightly, as if challenging him. He smiles, but it slowly fades. His eyes sadden as they fall to the railing. He closes them, shaking his head once. He turns to go, hesitancy turning him to doubt.

            I catch his arm. “Don’t go,” I breathe.

            “It would be kinder in the long run,” he says quietly, his back to me. “But…losing you would—”

            He turns to me suddenly, surprising me when his lips press against mine. I gasp quietly, reaching up to his arms. His hand falls to my cheek, and a wild heat rushes through me as his lips move against mine steadily. I melt against him, my fingers pressing into his arms. He winds one of them around my back, pulling me the rest of the way to him. I give a quiet sound that makes my cheeks flame, kissing him back fervently. His lips dance with mine for a long moment, stealing my breath.

            He pulls back, his eyes adoring and affectionate. “Ar lath ma, vhenan,” he breathes.

            Warmth spreads through me thickly, and I grin like a fucking idiot. “Ar lath ma,” I repeat. “Solas—”

            Before I can even attempt to add any of the million things I want to say, Solas presses his lips to mine once again. He smiles against the kiss, the gesture driving me crazy. I sigh quietly, lifting my hand to his jaw. My breath races out of me as I cling to him, wrapping one of my arms around his back. My fingertips press into his shoulders as he leans over to kiss me ardently. I part my lips, giving another embarrassing sound when his tongue delves into my mouth, exploring me. Giddy lightheadedness washes over me powerfully, and I forget every sense that isn’t immediately connected to the way he tastes and smells and feels until he’s all I can breathe or think or understand.

            He moves his head back swiftly to come at me from the left, and I grin against him, moving back against the railing. He moves with me, stepping closer. My heart races erratically as he pulls me to him, his hand drifting to the small of my back. I throw my arms over his shoulders, bunching his shirt between my fingers as I feel his wolf’s jawbone necklace press against my stomach. I breathe his name when he pulls away briefly and am rewarded with another searing kiss that steals my breath. His fingers tighten on my back, lighting a fire under my skin. I move my leg, shifting my stance to press my thigh against his. He moves his hand from my back to my knee, pulling my leg up. I gasp and another breathy sound escapes me when he hitches my leg high on his waist.

            He wraps his arm around my back again, lifting me gently off the ground. He turns us slowly, pressing me more safely against the wall beside the doors. The cold stone against my back makes me shiver in response, and I smile against his lips as he pulls my knee up higher on his waist, pressing against me. His breath moves as swiftly as mine, and the sound lights another fire under my skin, conflicting jarringly with the cool air and the bite of the stone behind me.

            Solas lowers my leg, lifting his hands to my cheeks. His left thumb arcs over my skin affectionately. He pulls his lips from mine gently, kissing me once more tenderly. He presses his forehead to mine, and I grin madly, panting through my lips. I keep my eyes closed, breathing him in as I swallow and try in vain to catch my breath. His is warm and sweet on my lips, and I open my eyes to look up at him, adoring the way he looks. My eyes fall to his chest, to the  necklace he wears, and I see my fingers bunching his shirt. A small flicker catches my attention, and I look up to see his lips spreading into an enchanting smile. He moves one of his hands lower on my cheek, letting his thumb brush against and then trace my lower lip. He pulls back to look at me, his eyes dancing between mine slowly with wide pupils.

            I can’t help the idiotic grin as it spreads. I feel lightheaded and giddy, and I bunch his shirt more, swallowing again.

            He leans down and tenderly presses his lips to mine once more. The kiss is soft and pure, his lips warm against mine. He kisses my nose and then my forehead before stepping back from me gently. He takes my hand as it falls from his shirt and intertwines our fingers, bringing it up high enough to kiss the back of it. I watch, breathing raggedly. He looks up at me, his eyes drawing me in.

            “Ma vhenan,” he murmurs quietly, making my blush again. His thumb arcs over my cheek, and he releases me softly. His fingers trail down my cheek to my jaw before they disappear, and then he steps through the door.

            I glance back to see him move down the stairs slowly. He looks back at me once, offering a beautiful smile. When he’s gone, I grin broadly at the mountains, a delighted and idiotic giggle escaping my lips. I waltz back into the room and sigh happily as I collapse on my bed with weak knees. I grab my pillow and hug it, grinning madly at the ceiling. I laugh again, delight bubbling in my chest. I close my eyes, committing to memory the softness his kiss and the tenderness of his words.

Chapter Text

It takes us a few days to get to Crestwood and find the right cave. The first day we spend here is consumed with undead, rifts, bandits, a bandit fort, retaking said bandit fort, and draining a lake—all manner of unpleasantries. I manage to wear myself out too much to make it to the smuggler’s cave by casting an ambitious fire storm when we tried to close a massive rift. That, coupled with the act of actually closing the rift, renders me rather useless, and we set camp for the night. Solas helps me with my hand, informing me that he spoke with Dagna before we left and she was optimistic about the prospect of crafting a glove. He stays with me in my tent until I fall asleep, reading aloud softly in his silky voice. 

            This morning, we leave the horses and harts tied up at camp. We leave Dorian behind, too, when it becomes apparent that he caught something miserable in the rain yesterday.

            I know we’ve reached the right smuggler’s cave when I spot Hawke waiting for us. Varric breaks out in a grin when he sees her whittling a small piece of wood with one of her elegant daggers.

            “Care you don’t take off a finger,” Varric warns lightly.

            “Had to do something while I waited,” she smirks, sheathing her blade and tossing him the wood-carved object—a hand with the middle finger pointing up that Varric grins at and pockets. “I’ve been here all of…what…two hours? Long time to sit around.”

            Varric snorts. “You’ve only been here a couple hours? I’d’a figured you’d beat us here by days.”       

            Hawke shrugs indifferently, offering a winsome smile. “Had to see an elf about a horse along the way.” Varric rolls his eyes. “Inquisitor, it’s good to see you again.”

            “And you, Hawke.”

            “My contact should be at the back of the cave. Fair warning, he’s a little, uh…wary of newcomers.”

            “Mm, thanks for the heads up.”

            “In fact, for this first meeting, it might be best if it’s a couple of us. I’ll join you, of course. Not because it will ease his tension, mind you; I’m just nosy.” I laugh, interrupting her. “Perhaps the rest of your companions can wait outside?”

            “Blackwall is a Grey Warden, too,” I muse. “Would it help seeing a familiar face?”

            “I’ve never met this Warden Stroud,” Blackwall corrects quickly. “Don’t know how comforting my presence would be anyway, seeing as how the Wardens are hunting them down.”

            “Fair point. Varric?”

            “I’ll keep the other miscreants in line,” he says, jabbing his thumb at Solas and Cassandra in particular.

            I laugh and nod. “Good luck with that. After you, then, Hawke.”

            “Oh, if you insist,” Hawk replies airily and regally.

            I grin, walking alongside her.

            “So, you’re Dalish, mm?”

            “Vallaslin give me away?”

            “Actually, it was the way you wear your hair. Very Dalish.”

            I laugh, shaking my head. “Yes, my clan is—was—from the Free Marches.”

            “Oh? Not Keeper Marethari’s clan?” she checks.

            “No, uh—Keeper Deshanna.”

            “What a coincidence that would have been. Merrill’s from Marethari’s clan. We found her when we—well, I guess it’s a long story.” Hawke laughs. “Tell me something. I’ve been curious about this for years. Are you familiar with someone called Asha’bellanar?”

            “Uh—no, I can’t say I am. I know what it means, of course.”

            “Really? What does it mean? No one would tell me. Though…to be fair, it wasn’t really the right ‘time’ for 'inane questions,' I guess.” She sighs.

            “It's elven for ‘the Woman of Many Years.’”

            “Oooh,” Hawke hums. “Very interesting. Very interesting indeed.”

            “How did you come upon the name?”

            “Oh, you know how it is. A dragon saves you from rampaging darkspawn, turns into a woman, offers you a deal, you take her amulet to a Dalish clan, she pops out of it after some magical words—usual stuff, really.”

            “Mm, boring,” I agree.

            “Very mundane.”

            “Okay, so, I’ll admit to reading Varric’s book on you. Naturally, it didn't mention any of this, but...”

            “Fascinating read,” she nods agreeably.

            “You read it?”

            “Of course! It’s about how great I am.”

            I smirk at her. “Can I ask you something?”

            “I’ve been waiting for this. Yes, I will sign it for you.”

            Another laugh tumbles out of me. “Fenris—he wasn’t Dalish?”

            “Ah, no. He was a slave.”

            “Oh.”

            “He ran from his slaver—a magister named Danarius. Varric didn’t add this in the book at my request. We found the magister and killed him. We’ve been tracking down other slavers since all that business in Kirkwall, for the most part.”

            “Where is he now?”

            “Right now? Probably sleeping. He is rather lazy.”

            I laugh loudly.

            “When I left him, he was in Jader.”

            “Oh, close by, then.”

            She nods with a fond smile. “He insisted on traveling with me, the sap.”

            I grin.

            “Though I suppose it’s good he didn’t make it to Skyhold with me. I doubt very much he’d get on with your friend Dorian.”

            I grimace. “I know, but Dorian is very different. I…have my own problems with magisters, and then there was the one at Redcliffe—”

            “Heard about that ordeal. Varric was rather colorful.”

            “It was a…colorful experience,” I laugh. “But Dorian is…I’ve spoken with him at length. While he has his faults—we’re certainly at odds on a few issues—he’s a good man.”

            “I don’t think that would stop Fenris from trying to rip his heart out. He’s very fond of ripping hearts out.”

            I laugh again as we come to a door. I glance at Hawke, and she lavishly gestures me forward, making me grin. I push it open and step inside.

            The place is lit with a variety of braziers, candles, and torches, the light reflecting off the damp walls and puddled floors. A cluttered desk stands at the back surrounded by a thick cluster of stalagmites.

            I walk a few more steps before I hear the all-too-familiar ring of a sword against its sheath. I turn around to see a man in a Warden uniform brandishing his weapon uncomfortably close to my neck.

            “Nice to meet you, too,” I say quietly.

            “Stroud, Stroud, Stroud,” Hawke tsks with a sigh. “How will you ever make any friends? It’s me, Hawke, your newest and bestest friend in the world. That fine lady you’re pointing your sword at is the Inquisitor? Herald of Andraste? Closer of the Breach? Sparkly hand? Punched Corypheus in the balls at Haven? Anything?”

            “Inquisitor,” Stroud says, lowering his sword before Hawke has finished her list. “Forgive me,” he adds in a thick Orlesian accent. “My name is Stroud; I am at your service.”

            “Pleased to meet you,” I offer lightly. “Just—quick note…I’m mildly obsessed with Grey Wardens. I won’t be weird, I promise.” I clear my throat, earning a winsome smirk from Hawke. “I very much appreciate you meeting with me. I know the Wardens have their own troubles. Not to be too blunt, but…do those troubles have anything to do with Corypheus?”

            “I fear it is so,” Stroud nods solemnly. “When my friend Hawke slew Corypheus, Weisshaupt was happy to put the matter to rest. But an Archdemon can survive wounds that seem fatal, and I feared Corypheus might possess the same power. My investigation uncovered clues but no proof. Then, not long after, every Warden in Orlais began to hear the Calling.”

            “The Calling?” I repeat.

            “Oh,” Hawke murmurs. “That’s…not good.”

            “The Calling?”

            “Why didn’t you tell me?” she wonders.

            “It was a Grey Warden matter,” Stroud answers her. “I was bound by an oath of secrecy.”

            “The Calling?” I repeat.

            Stroud sighs. “I may as well tell you now…The Calling tells a Warden that the Blight will soon claim him. Starts with dreams. Then come whispers in his head. The Warden says his farewells and goes to the Deep Roads to meet his death in combat.”

            Hawke sighs. “And every Grey Warden in Orlais is hearing that right now? They think they’re dying?”

            “Yes,” Stroud nods. “Likely because of Corypheus.”

            “Well,” Hawke hums. “This just…gets better and better.”  

            “If the Wardens fall, who will stand against the next Blight? It is our greatest fear.”

            “And now mine, thanks very much,” Hawke mumbles. “You kicked spiders out of the top position. Impressive.”

            “So…” I frown. “Let me get this straight. Corypheus isn’t controlling them. He’s bluffing them into thinking they’re dying, and they’re falling for it?”

            “I am afraid so,” Stroud replies.

            “How—is that even possible? How can he make them hear the Calling simultaneously?”

            “I cannot say. We know little about him, save that he is dangerous. He is a magister as well as a darkspawn—and speaks with the voice of the Blight. That lets him affect the minds of Wardens, since we are tied to the Blight ourselves.”

            I frown again. “How are you connected to the Blight?”

            “I cannot divulge every Warden secret. Even telling you this much is breaking my oath.”

            “Alright,” I sigh. “You said they’re all hearing the Calling. Does that include you?”

            “Sadly, yes. It lurks like a wolf in the shadows around a campfire. The creature that makes this music has never known the love of the Maker, but…at times, I almost understand it. We must uncover what Corypheus has done and end it. This cannot stand.”

            “So, the Wardens disappeared to, what...make some last, desperate attack against the darkspawn?”

            “We are the only ones who can slay the Archdemon. Without us, the next Blight will consume the world.” Stroud sighs. “Warden-Commander Clarel spoke of a blood magic ritual to prevent future Blights before we all perished—”

            “Wait, wait, wait,” I say, waving my hands. “She what? How could she think that would help?”

            “I honestly do not know. When I protested the plan as madness, my own comrades turned on me. Grey Wardens are gathering here,” Stroud says, pointing to a ruin on the map beside us. “It is an ancient Tevinter ritual tower in the Western Approach. Meet me there, and we will find answers.” He turns on his heel without further ado and marches out of the cave. 

            “Thank you, best friend,” Hawke calls after him.

            “Thank you!” I add.

            Hawke makes a face at me. “Well…that was…fun.”

            “Little…disappointing,” I reply. “I thought the Grey Wardens were…smarter than...blood magic rituals.”

            “They’re a, uh, cheerful bunch. Very optimistic. Not prone to fatalism at all.”

            I sigh heavily, and we make our way back through the cave silently, both lost in our own worlds.

            Varric pushes himself off a wall when we emerge. “Well, he looked upbeat,” he mutters. “What’d he say?”

            “Apparently all Grey Wardens have gone mad,” Hawke muses, “which is always good. And uh, something about a blood magic ritual in the Western Approach? Which definitely sounds…awesome…I really love blood magic. It makes me really happy. I’m just—very excited we get to do blood magic all over again. I really missed it, you know?”

            Varric gives Hawke a quiet look that speaks of another tragedy in her life I don't know. When Hawke glances away, I suppose I understand the gist. 

            I cross my arms loosely. “We need to pack up and…start making our way there. Hawke?”

            “You’re stuck with me forever.”

            “Glad to hear it.”

            “I knew you would be.”

            Everyone turns around, and I glance at Solas as we walk. His expression is tight, clearly displeased with the Warden development. I walk beside him and offer my hand hesitantly. Solas smiles sweetly at me as he takes it. Though I hoped he would, I didn't expect him to take me up on it. Warmth floods my chest in a shocking rush, heat climbing up my cheeks at the subtle admission, though I doubt the others would be surprised—or even care, really. I grin at him and then tighten my fingers, turning to smile at the horizon as we go.”

***

“Dorian, stop arguing with me,” I order.

            “No,” he rasps, coughing. “I won’t hear of it.”

            “You’re obviously sick.”

            “Sick,” he permits, “not decrepit.”

            “You can’t stop coughing, you can barely talk, and you’ve sneezed at least three times in the last minute.”

            “Yes, all symptoms of a mere cold, not death.”

            “You’re gonna get us all sick, Sparkles,” Varric complains.

            “I’m not being sent home like some kind of wayward—”

            “Dorian,” I sigh. “First off, I need this letter to be taken to Leliana. Do you see any ravens around here? I could go out of my way to track down an agent, or you could just do it for me. Secondly, we’re traveling to the Western Approach, which, last time I checked, isn’t exactly close. Thirdly, we’re going to be fighting all along the way like we always do, and when we there, we’re gonna fight a whole lot more. Do you seriously want to sit there like that and tell me you have the energy for all that?”

            “I—” Dorian coughs, and I raise an eyebrow at him. “Oh, alright,” he sighs, falling back against the log behind him. “Fine. I’ll deliver your message.”

            “Thank you,” I reply, tossing the letter to him. I clear my throat and glance at Blackwall awkwardly.

            “Uh oh,” Varric smirks.

            “What?” Blackwall says, looking between us. “Oh no—no, no, no, you’re not sending me back.”

            “Dorian needs an escort.”

            “No I don’t,” Dorian scoffs at the same time Blackwall says, “Then ask someone else.”

            I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Blackwall, Stroud said the Wardens all across Orlais were hearing the Calling.”

            “Well, we’re not in Orlais.”

            “I don’t really think geography is the point. I gather the Calling is just a terrible, really annoying thing to have buzzing around in your head, so—”

            “I’m fit to fight. I already told you I’m not hearing anything. I’m fine.”

            “And I believe you, which is why I’m asking you to make sure Dorian gets to Skyhold safely. I—”

            “No,” he argues.

            “Fen’Harel, did I suddenly bump my head? Am I not the Inquisitor here?” I demand, looking at Varric. He gives me a sympathetic shrug. “Let me finish, Blackwall, please. I’m asking Leliana to get Cullen’s troops together. I don’t think this Warden thing will end peacefully, and I'd feel safer with our soldiers on their way. After you get Dorian and the letter to Skyhold, by all means, come back with Leliana and Cullen to the Western Approach. But I need to know Dorian’s safe, and I don’t have time to divert to Skyhold just to do it myself. Gods help me, I would have saved myself this headache if I could have.”

            “I can take care of myself,” Dorian retorts coughing before and after the statement.

            “Noted,” I sigh impatiently. “I know you can. We all can. But the country isn’t safe. Rifts, bandits, red templars, Venatori—who the fuck knows what else? I’m asking you both to stop acting like children and listen to what I’m telling you to do—ordering you to do, or am I not the gods-damned Inquisitor here?”

            “Look what you did, kids,” Varric smirks. “You made her angry. I’ve never seen her angry.”

            “Alright,” Blackwall huffs. “Fine.”

            “Fine,” Dorian agrees.

            “Thank you!” I sigh, leaning back heavily against the log behind me. Solas gives me an amused smile from my side, his eyes bright in the firelight. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll keep traveling together, but when we reach the path to Orzammar, we separate—got it?”

            “Yes,” they both sigh in unison.

            “Great. Thank you for being so agreeable.”

            “Now that that’s settled,” Varric hums. “I think we need some entertainment.”

            Dorian shakes his head. “I’m far too sick for your brand of entertainment.”

            “Oh, now you’re sick. Well, grab a handkerchief, because we’re playing a fine little game that I invented—”

            “He didn’t invent it,” Hawke says.

            “You don’t even know what I’m talking about yet.”

            “You’ve got a bunch of people sitting around a campfire. I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I know exactly how they’re all gonna react.”

            “Don’t try to stop me—”

            “Oh, no, I want to watch this collision. This will be my entertainment.”

            Varric snorts. “Look at us all! We barely know each other!”

            “We’ve been together for months,” Cassandra says with a disapproving frown.

            “Traveling and fighting and giving inspirational speeches. But what’s my favorite color, hm? Or my middle name? Or my greatest fear?”

            “Red, Percival, and being dragged to the Deep Roads again,” Hawke says without missing a beat.

            Varric rewards her with a smirk. “That’s…not my middle name, Hawke.”

            “It should be.”

            “Two out of three's not bad. Come on, people. How much time have we spent together, just relaxing and enjoying each other’s company, huh, Seeker?”

            Cassandra makes a disgusted noise, rolling her eyes.

            “What’s the game?” I wonder, folding my hands across my stomach. I throw my legs out over Solas’, avoiding the fire. He seems amused by the motion.

            “Well, it’s not so much a game as a conversation, I suppose. We go around and tell everyone about the worst thing that’s ever happened to us—”

            “What?”

            “No.”

            “I’m not doing that.”

            “Absolutely not.”

            Hawke laughs loudly, clapping her hands.

            “Would you all calm down?” Varric says quickly. “It’s therapeutic; more than that, it gives the Tevinter and the Dalish, the Seeker and the mage a chance to see that, when it all comes down to it, we’re just people. People with fears and regrets and all that shit.”

            “I think we all know we’re people without the depressing monologues, thank you,” Dorian mutters.

            “Come on, Sparkles. Who wants to go first?”

            “No one, I think,” Hawke muses. “Any hands? No. Hm. Sad Varric.”

            “Thank you for volunteering, Hawke.”

            “Oh, so many good ones,” she muses. “Which one, which one…the worst day of my life…was meeting Sebastian.”

            Varric throws his head back with a laugh, and Hawke's eyes gleam as she watches him. “Damn it, you stole mine.”

            Hawke grins. "That's me done then. Good game."

            “Fine, I’ll go first," Varric muses. "The worst experience of my life…one of them, anyway…Hm…I suppose it was the day I got Bianca.”

            “Your crossbow?” Blackwall frowns.

            “Yep.”

            “Why? You love that thing.”

            “It officially signified the end of something else.”

            “Well that’s cryptic.”

            “I never said you couldn’t be.”

            “Cheater.”

            “Hosts make their own rules.”

            Blackwall snorts and laughs. “Fair enough, master dwarf.”

            “Alright, come on. Someone top me.”

            Dorian gives a wildly amused smirk. “Very interesting choice of works.”

            “Andraste’s sacred knickers—thank you for volunteering.”

            “Fine,” Dorian sighs. “I’m sick enough to not care. Mine was when I left Minrathous. My father—the charming Magister Pavus—tried to force me to be something I’m not. He…well, suffice it to say, he hurt me. Leaving home was…the hardest decision of my life.”

            “I’m sorry, Dorian,” I offer quietly.

            “Oh, it's not all bad; I got the chance to see Skyhold's dismal library and discover that one of the oldest mistakes of my homeland is alive and walking around, so.”

            I grimace. "Who wouldn't want that?" 

            “Who else?” Varric wonders. “Come on, volunteer or I’ll enlist you.”

            “Fine, fine, fine,” Hawke sighs. “I’ll play your twisted game. The worst day of my life was…” Hawke cocks her head, chewing her lip thoughtfully. Varric watches her protectively, despite this being his idea. “I believe the one that takes the cake is the day my mother was murdered by a charming man using a perverse blood magic spell. When we fled Lothering, back when the Blight was a thing, my brother died. Years later, I…foolishly brought my little sister to the Deep Roads where she died. My mother was all I had left, and then she was gone, too. I was officially the last Hawke…But meeting Sebastian was a close second,” she adds quickly.

            Varric looks down and away. “Seeker?”

            Cassandra stares into the fire. “I…my brother…Anthony. He was older than I…a dragon hunter who showed what a Pentaghast could truly be. I idolized him,” she murmurs, her voice light and warm. “I wanted to hunt dragons as he did, even though our uncle forbade it. Anthony promised to train me in secret. We would hunt together one day, brother and sister vanquishing the beasts of old.” She smiles softly, but it fades away as she continues to stare at the flames. “And then he died on me…A group of apostates wanted dragon blood and wanted Anthony to get it for them. He refused, and they killed him for it. In front of me.”

            “Shit,” Varric murmurs. “Is that why you became a Seeker?”

            “I begged the Chantry to let me become a templar. Instead, they sent me to the Seekers. It took many years to let go of my drive for vengeance. At times I could not breathe. The rage nearly choked me. I sometimes wonder how different my life would be if Anthony was still alive. Would I be a dragon hunter? Married to some noble fool, a mother of three? I cannot say. I take solace in believing the Maker has a plan, but…He is not always kind.”

            “I’m so sorry, Cassandra,” I murmur quietly. She nods slowly.

            “Blackwall?” Varric asks.

            “No. I don’t want to play.”

            “Come on, we’re all—”

            “No.”

            Varric sighs. “Fine. Only because you scare me. Chuckles?”

            Solas stares into the fire. It doesn't look like he's going to participate, either, but his eyes are filled with a pain so old that I realize I’m terrified to know.

            “I’ll go,” I offer, glancing at Varric briefly. My clan is still too fresh; I can't think about it or I'll break down, so I choose something else. “Okay…uh.” I sit up, folding my legs under me. “I rarely left my clan. My keeper asking me to attend the Conclave was a wildly unusual request, but…Basically a group of us was sent to have negotiations with another Dalish clan—which was also unusual. I was sent as part of the attaché, I guess you could call it, because I am—was my keeper’s First—”

            “What’s a First?” Dorian wonders. “Sorry for interrupting.”

            “It’s—” I look down clearing my throat. “Basically meant I was supposed to take over as Keeper for my clan.”

            “Oh…”

            “Anyway,” I say quickly, shaking my head to rid myself of those thoughts, “as her First, I was sent with several hunters. The Dalish we were going to negotiate with…not all Dalish are the same—some are…less peaceful than my clan. This clan in particular was causing some trouble, and we—well, it doesn’t really matter. My—friends and I went to the Dalish clan to talk with them, but—” I chew my cheek. “It was a massacre when we got there. The men were already dead, and the female hunters were being pinned to the ground. Many of them died fighting. Children were—being beaten and chained, dragged through the camp kicking and screaming…” I stare into the fire unseeingly. “Magister Arari Anodatus, I later learned. My clansmen and I began to fight his mages as they took slaves. Our hunters are trained to defend our people if needed, but we’ve never…had a reason to prepare for an actual battle—against mages of all things. They—all died. I almost did. The magister—captured me. Chained me, gagged me. I was—dragged through the blood of my people in cuffs that negated my magic.”

            “How—how did you escape?” Dorian asks, horrified.

            I sigh heavily. “A group of humans, actually. Templars—of all things, on their way to Ostwick, I imagine. My keeper had always taught me to be wary of the templars, but I screamed out to them for help, terrified at…well, you know. They subdued the mages’ mana, capturing most of them. One of the mages set himself on fire. Two of them used blood magic and...turned into abominations. The magister threw his men to the templars so he could escape. And he did. When the templars freed me, I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I just ran—ran for days back to my clan, bloodied and terrified. Keeper Deshanna moved our camp after we recovered the bodies of our hunters. We left that area and never went back.” I realize everyone’s staring at me, and I glance down. 

            “Maker’s balls, Snow.”

            Dorian looks away. “I—for what it’s worth…I don’t…I’m sorry, Sul. I—I don’t know if this would…” He looks at me. “Magister Anodatus—I knew him. Not personally, of course, but everyone was talking about it back then. He was killed by his…servants…if that’s of any…consolation.”

            “What happened to them?” I ask.

            Dorian looks down.

            I nod quietly, staring at the fire.

            Solas’ hand falls to my knee. I glance over at him to see him stare vacantly at the fire, his expression far away.

            “Does this game of yours have an upbeat conclusion?” I wonder, smirking at Varric. “Or are we supposed to go to bed depressed as shit?”

            “What? Oh…yeah, yeah, of course…Yeah, we, uh…We go around and say something good—a better memory.”

            “Oh, that’s me—I got this one,” Hawke says quickly. “Called it. Dibs.”

            Everyone but Solas looks at her gratefully. He finds my hand, and I look over at him, interlacing our fingers. His grip is so tight that I pull my other hand over to it as I find Hawke again.

            “Varric, don’t say a word,” she orders. “You know the story, so not a peep.”

            He holds his hands up defensively. “I wouldn’t dare.”

            “Alright, so we have this friend Aveline—”

            Varric cracks up, throwing his head back.

            “Shh,” Hawke laughs loudly. “Shh—not a word. So, we have this friend Aveline. She’s guard-captain now in Kirkwall. If you ever meet her, please, please tell her I told you this. Alright, so, back then, she was new to the office. Now, for the record, she’s a tough, no-nonsense, intolerable, rule-following, by-the-book sort of woman, but she had fallen madly in love with one of her guardsmen, a charming man named Donnic.” Varric raises a hand to his mouth, stifling a laugh. “So, she comes to me for help. She’d been married before, but she’s somehow still terrible at this. So, she comes to me, convinces me—Maker knows why I agreed—to invite Donnic out to drinks after his shift. It’s supposed to be so she can talk to him, but she never shows, so it’s just me and Donnic sitting there like a couple’a jackasses at the Hanged Man.

            “He thinks I’m interested in him, and he keeps trying to politely leave, but I keep making him stay, because I’m hoping Aveline will show at any moment. I haven’t given up on her, Maker help me. After hours of painful conversation with a man as interesting as a plank of wood, Aveline finally shows and then runs right back out the door—a woman who, mind you, fought and killed darkspawn and kicked her previous, corrupt captain out of office without flinching—fled from the scene of the date. Donnic finally had enough and left, more confused than when he’d arrived.

            “So, a week passes, and Aveline puts herself and Donnic on patrol together—a nice stroll through the outer perimeter of Kirkwall, right? She makes me go ahead of them to clear the path of any danger so she can speak with Donnic. Well, there we are—” Hawke nudges Varric. “—like a bunch of jackasses clearing the bandits so those two hopeless idiots get just get it on already. When we finally reach the end of the route, we wait hours for them to come up the road, and we’re all making bets about what state they’ll be in when they do.”

            Most everyone laughs, and Hawke grins, shoving Varric.

            “This one’s sure they’ll be adjusting armor and brushing their hair back like nothing happened, Fenris says they won’t do anything, and I’m convinced that they won’t arrive at all to meet us. So, when they finally do come up the road, I just die. I completely lose it. Both of those idiots are just awkwardly looking away from each other, and I realize that Aveline didn’t say a word to him the whole time.” Most everyone laughs again, Blackwall loudest of all. “So, when they finally stop before us, Donnic is a little confused to see us all waiting. Aveline is giving me this eyes-screaming look, begging me not to say anything, but how could I not?” she laughs. I glance at Solas, hoping he’s enjoying the story, but he's staring at the fire while everyone laughs in anticipation.

            “So,” Hawke continues, “then Fenris—now, I know this might not mean anything, because you don’t know him, but trust me, for him of all people—brooding as he is—to say this, I just died, and I’ve never seen anyone resemble a tomato more than poor Aveline. Donnic asks what’s going on, and Fenris, without missing a beat, just says, so disinterestedly, ‘she wants you. It is pathetic…and admirable.’”

            Varric throws his head back, cackling at Hawke’s deep-voiced impersonation.

            Hawke’s laughter rings out like bells, and most everyone joins her. I raise my free hand to my lips, shaking with my own laugh as I watch her closely.

            “I honestly thought Aveline would gut him right there. And then Donnic looks at her, panicked, and she just gives this weak little laugh. And then Varric is like, ‘will you two just get it over with already? We’ve been here for hours.’” Hawke laughs too hard to speak, and Blackwall’s laughter roars over all of us. “Poor Aveline looks ready to die—”

            “Wait, wait, Maker,” Varric gasps, “you’re forgetting what you did. It’s the best part of this whole thing.”

            “What’d I do?” 

            Varric turns to us. “Hawke just looks at them both for a moment and then goes, ‘you…and you…hmm?’ For a really long time—”

            Blackwall cackles loudly, and Hawke throws her head back, clapping once.

            “Maker, I forgot I did that! I thought she’d never forgive me!”

            “What happened?” I laugh. “Did they ever—”

            “Oh, yeah,” Hawke laughs, nodding. “They got married, the idiots—finally. Every once in a while, Aveline just sends me a message with something like, ‘thank you for humiliating me.’”

            Blackwall laughs again. “Good for them.”

            “Maker’s balls,” Varric gasps, wiping his eyes. “I miss those guys.”

            “Those were the good ol’ days,” Hawke agrees. “Oddly enough. I mean, everyone wanted to kill us and there was always some new archenemy, but we had fun.”

            “Yeah we did,” Varric chuckles. “You know what else?”

            “Mm?”

            “I don’t think I’ve ever felt more threatened in my life than when I beat Fenris at Wicked Grace.”

            Hawke cackles loudly. “I thought he was going to flip the table!”

            “I think he did,” Varric replies. “Snow, we have to get a game going when we’re all back at Skyhold. Hawke is a legend.”

            “Deal,” I grin.

            “Just don’t expect to walk away with any money left in your pockets.”

            That cracks me up again. “I’m looking forward to it.”

            “Yes!” Hawke celebrates. “No one will play with me anymore.”

            “You’re too good,” Varric replies.

            “No, no, no,” she says, smiling innocently at us. “I’ve never played before. Wicked—Mace, you say?”

            I grin and laugh.

            “Everybody in?” Varric asks. “Good. Wicked Grace. Herald’s Rest, after all this Warden shit is handled. We’ll all get pommeled by Hawke.”

            “Just as it should be,” Hawke grins. “We’ll get Fenris to come, too.”

            “Yes,” Varric nods. “I want to see his face when you beat him again. Just, make sure to hide the wine bottles. He has a proclivity for throwing them.”

            Hawke laughs loudly. “It’s true. Fun fact, by the way, Wicked Grace was actually named after me.”

            Varric snorts and elbows her.

            I grin. “Alright, you've all outlasted me. I think I’m gonna head to bed.”

            “Yes, me too,” Varric says, yawning. “Thanks, Hawke, and everyone. That was fun. Well, the second part was fun.”

            I smirk at him, standing up. Solas rises with me, his expression distant. I glance to see that the others aren't paying attention before I pull him slowly into my tent, sitting on the bedrolls.

            “Are you alright?” I murmur as he kneels before me. 

            “Yes,” Solas replies quietly, playing with my fingers. “Ir abelas, vhenan. Everything you’ve…endured...”

            “Come here,” I whisper, pulling him down with me. I lay on my side, and he moves onto his back, staring at the top of the tent. I scoot over to him, throwing my arm over his chest and my leg over one of his, trying to drag him from his thoughts. “I hope you’ve no intention of leaving, because I’m very comfortable.”

            Solas moves his hand to my hair, brushing it absently.

            “Good night, Solas,” I whisper.

            “Good night, vhenan.”

            I smile at the name and close my eyes, hoping that he’ll still be here when I wake up.

Chapter Text

It takes us a solid three weeks to make it to the Western Approach from Crestwood. The mountains around Orzammar delay us with packed, thick snow, and then the heat starts to get to us all when we finally move into the deserts of western Orlais. By the time we arrive at the Inquisition camp in the Approach, we’re all a little ornery. Hawke separates from us to go find Stroud near the tower. While the heat has demolished my patience entirely, it seems to have had no effect whatsoever on Scout Harding’s optimism.

            “Inquisitor!” she calls when we arrive. “Welcome to the Western Approach. I hope your travels went smoothly. We’ve sighted Warden activity to the southwest, but no one’s been close enough to figure out what they’re doing. Leliana received your message and sent us ahead, obviously,” she adds with a smile. “Between the sandstorms and the vicious wildlife, we haven’t made it far out here yet. One of my men got too close to a poison hot spring and gave me a…slightly delirious report of a high dragon flying overhead. In short: this might just be the worst place in the entire world.”

            That makes me laugh, despite the heat. “And here I thought it couldn’t get any worse than the Fallow Mire.”

            “Inquisition likes to keep you on your toes,” she grins. “Well, be careful out there. Try not to die. I don’t want to have to deliver that report to Skyhold. We intercepted a Venatori messenger and…persuaded him to give up the orders he was carrying. We have them here. This entire place…it just feels like something’s not right. Be careful, alright?”

            “You, too, Scout Harding.”

            “Leliana also asked me to inform you that she, Cullen, the Chargers, and a whole legion of Inquisition soldiers are on their way to back you up. Should be just a day or so out. Blackwall, on the other hand..." She gestures to the side, and I smile when I see him. He approaches Cassandra with a smirk, saying something that makes her roll her eyes impatiently. "He traveled ahead to meet you here before you went to the tower."

            “That man," I sigh, smirking. "Thank you, Scout Harding.”

            “Your Worship,” she nods, smiling as she passes.

            I sigh heavily as I stare across the desert. Miles and miles of endless sand, all shimmering in the wild heat. This is going to fucking suck.

***

Several hot, miserable hours later, we find ourselves nearing the Tevinter ritual tower. I wipe my forehead irritably, pulling as much of my hair off my neck as I can. I’ve half a mind to chop it off right now—gods-damned heat. We encountered several rifts along the way, as well as poisonous beasts, winged creatures larger than a draft horse, and the high dragon. It ignored us, swooping overhead while I watched in awe.

            The wildlife was bad enough, but the rifts took a great deal from us all. My hand is aching, but I refuse to let Solas heal it. I know his mana must be even more strained than mine at the moment. When he offers to help me, I vaguely wave my hand to stop him, too drained from the piercing heat to even decline politely. Sweat clings to my skin, sticking my hair to my neck and face. I don’t know how Cassandra appears to be alright, I honestly don’t, because I’m dying in my Dalish robes; she must be overheated in her armor, but she never complains. The only thing that betrays her discomfort is the steady roll of sweat down her temples and the ruddy tint to her skin.  

            I reach up again, angrily pulling my hair into a messy bun, tying it off quickly. Strands of it still fall to my neck along my temples, but it is significantly better.

            “Snow,” Varric gasps. “We’ve—been a lot of places—but this one is by far the worst place. I see now—why Hawke went ahead of us—”

            “To avoid the fights?” I muse.

            “She’s probably—in the shade right now. We should’ve brought the horses.”

            “Too hot for them,” I reply, wiping my forehead. “They’d just be miserable.”

            “Fair enough,” he sighs.

            “Hey, I think that’s it," I say, pointing ahead. "Unless it’s a mirage. Please don't be a mirage.”

            Blackwall chuckles. “No mirage. It’s the tower.”

            “Thank the gods,” I gasp, reaching for my water sack. I take a small sip, though everything in me is demanding I drain the whole thing. “Everyone good on water?” I ask, glancing behind me.

            “Yep,” Blackwall nods, patting his canteen.

            “Varric?”

            “I’m good, Snow.”

            “Cassandra?”

            “I’m fine, Inquisitor.”

            “Solas?”         

            He meets my eyes and smiles kindly, indicating he's alright.

            I take another small sip and force myself to put my water away.

            When we arrive at the entrance to the lower—a large stone wall that’s crumbled and falling apart around the edges—I see Hawke sitting against a wall, miserable in the shade. Stroud stands beside her, his arms folded behind his back respectfully.

            “Thank the Maker,” Hawke complains, pulling herself to her feet. “Thought I might die from dehydration before you arrived.”

            “I’m glad you made it, Inquisitor,” Stroud nods. “I fear they’ve already started the ritual.”

            “You take point,” Hawke says. “I’ll guard your backs and complain under my breath.”

            Varric pats her arm as we pass, and I follow Stroud down the long bridge. I glance over the edge at the canyon below. It’s so far down that I can’t even see the bottom. Dizziness washes over me, and I jerk back into Solas accidently.

            “For the love of all that is green, no one look down there,” I mutter when he catches me.

            We move closer to the tower, and I feel sick to my stomach when I see Warden bodies strewn bloodily along the edges. I clench my jaw and see several people above us at the tower. Several demons sit peacefully alongside an even number of Wardens. Two men fight in the middle, one of them holding his hands up defensively while the other tries to slash at him.

            “Wait, no!” the defensive man pleads.

            Behind him, on an elevated platform above a flight of stairs, a man with dark hair watches, entertained before he intervenes. “Warden-Commander Clarel’s orders were clear,” he sighs impatiently.

            “This is wrong!”

            “Remember your oath,” he says disinterestedly. “In war, victory—in peace, vigilance—in death…”

            The second Warden approaches the first, thrusting the dagger into his back.

            “Sacrifice.”

            A rift flutters and flares, forming long enough to allow a demon through. It hesitates and then dulls, blending into the background. It remains open, as if waiting.            

            “Good,” the leader calls. “Now, bind it, just as I showed you.”

            The Warden raises his hand as the rage demon watches angrily. Green energy spikes, connecting the two briefly, and then the demon sags. The leader waves his hand, red energy clinging to his glove. The Warden’s eyes glow with the same bloody color, and then both Warden and demon move to the side of the tower, their expressions blank, their bodies no longer their own.

            I feel sicker, the heat and the horror of this reality getting to me.            

            The leader looks up, spotting us as we arrive at the tower. “Inquisitor,” he calls, “what an unexpected pleasure. Lord Livius Erimond of Vyrantium, at your service.” He bows lavishly, his arms both sweeping low.

            “You are no Warden,” Stroud spits.

            “Ah, Ser Stroud,” the man greets. “I see you found the Inquisitor and came to stop me. Shall we see how that goes?”

            “Wardens,” Blackwall calls. “He’s deceiving you—Corypheus has—”

            “Oh,” Erimond interrupts, “were you hoping to garner sympathy? Maybe make the Wardens feel a bit of remorse? Wardens, hands up!” They all raise their hands in unison, mindlessly staring ahead. I feel even sicker, and I glare at the man on the platform. “Hands down.” Their hands drop in unison again.

            “Corypheus has taken their minds,” Stroud says angrily. “He has poisoned them.”

            “Yes,” Erimond sighs. “And since it was my master who put the Calling into their little heads, we in the Venatori were prepared. I went to Clarel full of sympathy, and together, we came up with a plan—raise a demon army, march into the Deep Roads, and kill the Old Gods before they wake.”

            “That’s—madness!” Blackwall roars.

            “I was wondering when the demon army would pop up,” I add lightly, trying to maintain control over my horror.

            “You…knew about that, did you? Well, then…here you are. Sadly for the Wardens, the binding ritual I taught their mages has a side effect. They’re now my master’s slaves.” He smirks. “Your people are familiar with how slavery works, yes? They have to do what I say, when I say it.”

            I clench my jaw, glaring at him. My right hand clenches my staff so hard it hurts.

            “This was a test. Once the rest of the Wardens complete the ritual, the army will conquer Thedas.”

            “Thanks for the heads up,” I reply, summoning my mana.

            The fireball lunges off my staff readily. In a move I’ve never seen before, Erimond sweeps his own staff through the air, redirecting it almost lazily. The fireball flies away from him into the sky before disappearing.     

            “Please, elf girl,” Erimond scoffs. He reaches forward, his hand glowing with the same red energy as—

            A scream is yanked from me as my left hand is jerked up from my side. Pain explodes inside it, roaring angrily as green and red energy swirl around my gloved fingers. I fall to my knees hard, screaming again without meaning to as my eyes flood.

            “Suledin!” Solas falls beside me.

            I grip my wrist, crying out again as I bend forward, groaning at the white-hot pain.

            “The Elder One showed me how to deal with you,” Erimond smiles, “in the event you were foolish enough to interfere again.” I look up at him dizzily, gasping and groaning. The rift between us glimmers. He closed it, but he couldn’t seal it. My mind races and reels at the pain as I try to summon enough energy to open the rift again. “That mark you bear? The Anchor that lets you pass safely through the Veil?” I blink in surprise. That information is new. “You stole that from my master. He’s been forced to seek other ways to access the Fade.”

            I choke out a sobbing laugh, pulling myself up to my feet. My hand throbs and shakes violently. Solas rises with me tensely, his hand gripping my arm. I raise my left hand to Erimond, stumbling forward once as my body shakes in rejection.

            “When I bring him your hand, his gratitude will be—”

            He cries out in surprise when the rift bursts open. I scream again, my hand aching, fire licking along my skin. A grunting sob is pulled from me, and I turn it into a laugh as Erimond flies backwards.

            “What was that you were saying?” I gasp.

            “Kill them!” Erimond orders, sagging over. I try to catch his foot in ice, but I miss dizzily, stumbling forward. He runs off before I can try again.

            I pick up my staff, unable to see through my tears. Solas raises a barrier over me, holding it tightly while the others charge forward. I gasp, looking at my hand briefly to see it still tinged with red and green, light flaring thickly and angrily.

            “Fuck,” I groan, shaking violently. I thrust my staff forward, watching a fireball consume a Warden as he runs at me. Solas stands right beside me, maintaining the barrier seemingly without effort. His staff moves fluidly, defending us. A rage demon slides close, and I freeze it in place dizzily, groaning.

            I raise my quaking hand up to the rift again, my fingers twitching sporadically. I make a claw with my hand, searching for the edges of the rift. My mind reels, and I can’t focus or see or think. I stumble forward, weak and unsteady. My fingers jerk open, and I scream again. Suddenly, the rift explodes inward. Wardens hit the ground, heavy plate armor screeching against the stone. They flip over, scratching against the ground with gauntleted fingers as they’re pulled into the rift. Demons and Wardens tumble through, and then the rift closes, sealing like it was never there.

            Everyone turns to me in shock. I don’t know what I did, and I’m in too much pain to think about it.

            “Snow! That was awesome! How did—”

            I fall to the ground, clutching my hand with a sobbing scream. Red energy still corrupts the green, and my fingers jerk wildly. I rip my glove off, rocking a little. “Solas—Solas—” I cry.

            He drops in front of me.

            “What’s happening?” Cassandra asks with a panicked voice, kneeling beside me. She moves her hand to my shoulder. “What has he done to you?”

            “Snow—you alright?”

            “Solas, please—” I sob, tightening my fingers against my wrist. “Please—make it stop—please—” I want to beg Blackwall or Cassandra to just cut my arm off to spare me the pain, but I bite my tongue, keeping those thoughts to myself. 

            Solas frantically grabs my hand, moving my other hand out of the way. He grips my fingers tightly, murmuring as his hands glow a brilliant blue that clashes with the green and red.

            “Inquisitor?” Cassandra breathes.

            “Please—” I beg. 

            Solas’ words move more swiftly, his eyes on mine. I sob again, squeezing my eyes shut as tears stream down my cheeks.

            “It’s not—it’s not working—Solas—” I groan, gripping his wrist with my right hand too tightly.

            Solas closes his eyes, trying to concentrate while I panic. He speaks his words more clearly as he starts over, as if afraid he misspoke the first time.

            “What did he do to her?” Varric whispers.

            “Inquisitor,” Cassandra murmurs, squeezing my shoulder worriedly.

            “Solas,” I cry, shaking when his spell is nearly finished again. “It isn’t working, it—”

            Solas' eyes meet mine with open panic. He looks around, searching for a solution before his expression tightens. He glances at me again with determination and then closes his eyes, tightening his grip. He brings my hand to his chest, and I feel his heart hammering as he takes a steadying breath.

            “Please,” I beg, crying and shaking even more violently. His fingers become glass on my skin, my blood boiling. Cracks race up my bones, creating long crevices that paralyze me. “Solas, what did he do—please—Mythal, please—”

            Solas frowns in concentration as I babble incoherently. His words change. The spell wraps around my hand, the words archaic and unfamiliar. I choke out a strangled sob, hanging my head.

            Cassandra’s hand tightens on me. “What can we do? Inquisitor, can we do anything?”

            I shake my head, gasping and groaning. Sweat beads my forehead, rolling down my temples as I shake and cry, unable to withhold the pained and panicked sobs. I writhe against Solas’ fingers, my hand spasming so much that it jerks him a little. He holds onto me tightly, his other fingers pressing agonizingly against my wrist. 

            I force my lips to seal when I realize I'm begging him again. I bite my tongue, trying to soften my sounds unsuccessfully. 

            Solas’ brow furrows in concentration, his grip growing painfully tight. 

            Finally, finally, the pain begins to ease off. Its strain lightens only a fraction, but it makes a world of difference. I groan, tears chasing sweat as they roll down off my chin.

            “Yes,” I gasp. “Yes—yes—that’s working—Solas—”

            Solas’ fingers grip me so firmly that they would hurt if they didn't bring such relief. He concentrates harder, his ancient words rolling smoothly off his tongue. I feel the melody of elven, but I've never heard this dialect before; the words swirl around me with a familiarity that itches in the back of my mind and warms my chest. 

            Slowly, the pain fades, and then I collapse against the stone wall beside me, crying in relief now. “Thank you,” I whimper, drained. “Thank you—”

            I force myself to sit upright again. Solas sways slightly, his breaths growing shallow as he works. My hand feels numb between his and cold—so cold. I embrace it compared with the fire.

            Solas opens his eyes, his words moving quietly as he finishes. He searches my eyes, his expression tight. Beyond that, I see a wave of exhaustion in him that brings a flood of guilt to me. I nod, gasping as my head grows heavy.

            “I’m sorry,” I pant. “I’m so sorry—” I release Solas’ wrist, seeing the long, angry red lines my fingers left. He loosens his grip on me slowly until his hands disappear. I rub my right hand over my face, breathing raggedly. I pick up my glove and pull it on delicately, my skin a little sensitive still. I grip Solas’ arm weakly, and he helps me to my feet. I lean against the wall, holding onto him weakly.

            “Inquisitor,” Cassandra says anxiously. “Are you alright?”

            “Yes,” I pant. “I’m sorry.”

            “What just happened?”

            “Nothing, it’s fine, it’s just—the mark hurts sometimes, and whatever Erimond did…It’s alright now. Solas fixed it.”

            Cassandra gapes at me, her expression a little broken. “The Anchor hurts you?” she breathes.

            I look down at the ground, wiping my cheeks again. “I’m sorry.”

            “I did not—you never—”

            “I didn’t want to—concern everyone needlessly. It’s fine. The Anchor still works just fine, Cassandra; don't worry, it hasn't affected by abilities. It can still close the—”

            “It’s not about the Anchor,” Varric argues. “It’s—we didn’t know that it was—this much of a—that it hurts you like this.”

            “It doesn’t,” I reply shakily, my voice wavering as I grip Solas’ arm more tightly for balance. My head fills unfocused and dizzy. “That was—it was whatever—whatever Corypheus taught Erimond. Dagna is working on a solution.”

            “Dagna knew about this?” Cassandra demands, looking hurt now. “She’s been at Skyhold for five minutes.”

            “She’s our Arcanist.”

            “Alright,” Blackwall says loudly and gruffly. “Quit grillin’ her. Point is, she’s still our Inquisitor, and she’s alright. We need to focus on what we do next.”

            I nod weakly in reply, gesturing to him.

            “Right…Well…” Hawke murmurs. “As far as…blood rituals go, that was particularly horrifying.”

            “You were correct,” Stroud says to her. “Through their ritual, the Warden mages are slaves to Corypheus.”

            Hawke shakes her head. “What a waste.”

            “I can’t believe they’d do this,” I say hoarsely. “Wardens are…supposed to be heroes. How could they…”

            “Exactly,” Hawke says angrily. “It’s past time we stop this madness. To perform blood rituals to attack Old Gods?”

            “The Wardens were wrong, Hawke,” Stroud allows, “but they had their reasons.”

            Hawke glares at him. “Sure. Everyone has a little story they tell themselves to justify bad decisions—and it never matters. In the end, you are always alone with your actions, with your decisions. I’ve more than paid for my mistakes. It’s time they pay for theirs.”

            Stroud sighs as Varric looks up at Hawke sadly. “I believe I know where the Wardens are headed, Your Worship,” Stroud says to me. “Erimond fled in that direction.” He points across the canyon to the south. “There’s an abandoned Warden fortress that way. Adamant.”

            I nod slowly, unable to focus on his face. “Good thinking.” I swallow thickly, my vision doubling and blurring as I look down.

            “The Champion and I will scout out Adamant and confirm that the other Wardens are there.”

            I nod, my knees uncomfortably wobbly. “Cullen and Leliana are on their way with soldiers. Meet us back at our camp northeast of here when you’re finished. We’ll come up with a plan."

            “As you say, Your Worship,” Stroud nods.

            “Take some time to rest,” Hawke suggests, giving me a worried tone. “We’ll see you soon.”

            I watch them go and then turn to Cassandra. “You and Blackwall go on ahead with Varric. I need to speak with Solas.”

            “Are you alright, Snow?” Varric asks quietly.

            “Yes,” I nod loosely. “I’m alright. I’m sorry. I’ll be back at camp soon. Be careful on the way back,” I add when they turn around.

            “Yes, Inquisitor,” Cassandra murmurs, glancing concernedly at me before they depart.

            I wait, watching them cross the bridge. When they’re out of sight, I release a strangled breath, sliding to the ground. Solas kneels beside me, taking my hand.

            “How did he do that?” I whisper, panicked tears streaking down my cheeks.

            Solas catches them, his expression worried. “I don’t know,” he admits.

            I raise one of my knees and rest my elbow on it, bringing my fingers up to cover my eyes. I breathe out as evenly through my lips as I can, struggling to maintain control.

            “I’m sorry,” I murmur. “I panicked. I didn’t mean to—”

            “Never apologize to me,” Solas replies quietly. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

            “I didn’t mean to panic like that. Shit,” I sigh, wiping my wet eyes. I lean my head back against the wall, closing them as I attempt to catch my breath.

            Solas brings my hand to his chest, holding it firmly. “Ir abelas, vhenan,” he whispers.

            “It’s not your fault,” I breathe. “It’s so fucking hot,” I add with a strangled laugh. Solas brings his fingers to my cheek, his skin cold. “Don’t,” I whisper reluctantly. “Save your mana.”

            He doesn’t reply, his fingers growing colder in the unforgiving sun.

            “Thank you,” I murmur. “You’re…so good to me.” I wince at how weird that comes out. “That sounded less idiotic in my head,” I add. I sigh heavily, looking down. “Well, I guess they’ll have a few questions when we get back.”

            “They worry for you because they care.”

            “I forgot to swear them to secrecy under pain of death,” I joke weakly.

            “I don’t think they would do anything to hurt you.”

            I nod, warmth spreading in my chest when I slowly realize that’s true. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

            “When?”

            “When I meet Corypheus again.” I close my eyes, fear gripping me. “If he can incapacitate me like that with a wave of his hand—” I shake my head. “I-I don’t—I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know how to protect myself from that. I didn’t know he could…do that, much less teach others to do it.”

            Solas’ expression grows tight and far away. “I’m so sorry, vhenan,” he whispers.

            I close my eyes, breathing out heavily. Fear makes my heart pound in my chest, and I feel too weak to stand. My hand is calm for now, but the truth of my words haunts me. I can’t defend myself against that kind of attack, and I don’t know what I’ll do if it happens again. I'll become a liability. 

            I tighten my fingers on Solas’ weakly, wiping at my tears when I feel them tickle my cheek. First things first, I suppose. We have to deal with Erimond. I don’t imagine for a second that will be easy.

Chapter Text

I emerge from my tent, shielding my eyes from the bright afternoon light, to find Varric and Hawke talking quietly near where Leliana, Josephine, and Cullen are waiting at the camp's war table. The outpost has more than quadrupled in size, tents scattered thickly across the sand to accommodate all our soldiers. I see Bull and a few of his Chargers running drills out in the blazing sun; Cassandra, too, is preparing herself, sparring with Blackwall. Considering the sweat already dewing my brow and sticking my hair to my skin, I think I would probably die in their places. I'll never know where they find their stamina.

            I turn away, moving towards the others slowly. 

            Hawke smiles at me as I arrive. “I told them what we found at Adamant. Your war council’s discussing options now. Also, kudos on the war council.”

            I smirk at her. “Thanks, Hawke.”

            “Great,” Varric sighs, glancing at me. “Now would you please order her to go back to Jader before Broody removes my heart from my chest?”

            Hawke snorts. “No, I’m seeing this through. Fenris will understand that.”

            Varric stares at her. "Wait, he doesn't already know you're here?" 

            Hawke looks away. "Mm? What?"

            "Marion!"

            Hawke cringes. "Maker, the first name. I've really done it now."

            "Why wouldn't you tell him you're doing this?! I-I thought you were writing him!"

            "I started to!" she defends herself. "I just...lost the paper. I didn't want him getting all worried! And I definitely didn't want him involved. If he heard about this, he'd come marching across Thedas, you know he would. I fight better knowing he's safe."

            Varric gapes at her. "The man has glowing veins and rips people's hearts out."

            Hawke grins, feigning a dreamy look. "He does, doesn't he?" 

            "Where does he think you are right now?" 

            "Helping the Inquisitor."

            "Where, Hawke?"

            She looks down, brushing off the wooden table she's leaning again. "Mm? May have...said I'd be in...Skyhold..." 

            "Maker's breath, Hawke."

            "Oh, come now, Varric. Just you and me! Once more, for old time's sake!" 

            Varric stares at her for a long moment. “You’ve already done your part, Hawke,” he replies seriously.

            “Aw, he’s worried about me.”

            “Of course I am!” Varric exclaims, his humor gone. “We’ve seen what these people will do to each other! You’ve already done your job. Your story’s over.”

            Hawke laughs. “Oh, Varric, 'n here I thought you knew me better than that.”

            “Yeah,” he sighs heavily. “I do. Which is why I brought this.” He reaches down and pulls up a gold and silver, intricately designed dagger. An inscription is written along the blade, carved deep into the metal.

            “You found it?!” Hawke gasps, snatching it happily. "I thought I'd lost it!"

            Varric just sighs again, watching her tuck it reverently into her sheath.

            “Oh, baby, I’ve missed you,” she murmurs, brushing its pommel affectionately.

            “You can an uncomfortable relationship with that dagger.”

            “I learned it from watching you.”

            Varric smirks, nudging Hawke with his elbow. She nudges him back.

            I smile and look down, moving past them to Leliana, Josephine, and Cullen.

            “Inquisitor,” the spymaster greets, turning to me. “As I was saying to Commander Cullen, Adamant Fortress has stood against the darkspawn since the time of the Second Blight.”

            “Fortunately for us,” Cullen says, “that means it was built before the age of modern siege equipment. A good trebuchet would do for those ancient walls, and thanks to our lady ambassador…”

            Josephine grins. “Lady Seryl of Jader was pleased to lend the Inquisition her sappers. They’ve already delivered the trebuchets. Once we got word of your intentions, we thought it might be prudent.”

            “That is the good news,” Leliana says.

            “And now for my favorite part,” I mumble.

            “Erimond called the ritual you saw a test. He may already be raising his army of demons in the fortress.”

            Cullen glances at her. “Inquisition forces can breach the gate. We have hundreds with us already and more on the way. But if the Wardens already have their demons…” He sighs, resting his hands on his sword pommel.

            Leliana folds her hands behind her back. "I found records of Adamant’s construction. There are choke points we can use to limit the field of battle.”

            “That’s good,” Cullen nods, looking at me. “We may not be able to defeat them outright, but if we can cut off reinforcements, we can carve you a path to Warden-Commander Clarel.”

            I sigh heavily, leaning against the war table. “Is there no other way?" I wonder. "A way that would…limit loss of life?”

            “Our soldiers know the risks, Inquisitor,” Josephine replies. “And they know what they’re fighting for.”

            “It’ll be hard-fought,” Cullen admits. “No way around it. But we’ll get that gate open.”

            “It’s also possible that some Wardens may be sympathetic to our cause.”

            Leliana grimaces. “The warriors may be willing to listen to reason, though I doubt they will turn against Clarel directly. The mages, however, are slaves to Corypheus. They will fight to the death.”

            Cullen look at me. “Our forces are building the siege engines now, and we’re readying our forces, Inquisitor. Give the word, and we march on Adamant.”

            “How far are the reinforcements?”

            “A few hours at most. They sent word ahead.”

            “Alright,” I murmur. “Give me some time to prepare.”

            “Of course, Inquisitor.”

            “Thank you,” I nod formally, backing away.

            Varric and Hawke are laughing quietly with each other, murmuring back and forth.

            I walk through the busy camp, dodging soldiers as they move briskly around. There’s a hushed silence over the outpost, broken only by the clatter of armor and the quiet sounds of murmured questions.

            I'm nearing the edge of camp when I see Solas and Cole talking quietly. I smile broadly; I wasn't aware he was coming. Solas is leaning against wooden table behind him, his arms and ankles crossed loosely. I shouldn't find it such a distracting stance, but I do. I force my thoughts elsewhere. 

            “Cole,” I greet happily. “I’m glad you’re here.”

            “I want to help,” he murmurs. “You are worried.”

            I laugh quietly. “Naturally. Battles are a little worrisome.”

            “No. More. What do I do if he comes again? What if he controls me? Mythal—what if something happens to Solas? What will I—”

            “Yep, that’s probably a good place to stop, Cole, thank you for that,” I mutter, blushing.

            Solas smiles at me, rising. He takes my hand, his other fingers lifting to my cheek. “Ar lath ma, vhenan.”

            My cheeks burn even more. “You’re just saying that because Cole—”

            Solas silences me with a kiss, and I slowly relax, tightening my fingers against him. His thumb arcs over my cheek as he pulls back, and he presses his forehead to mine.

            “Thank you for being here with me,” I breathe.

            “My place is by your side, vhenan.”

            I give another idiotic smile, my heart pounding now for an entirely different reason. I look up at Solas, and he moves back far enough to see me, his eyes affectionate. His thumb moves across my skin gently, and then he sits down again, pulling me with him. I sit beside him, sighing quietly as I cling to his hand. 

            “Cole,” I say softly. “Do you know how the soldiers are feeling?”

            “Scared,” he admits. “But hopeful. Proud. They are ready.”

            I glance to the side. “Would you mind finding Cassandra and Blackwall? Tell them we’re getting ready to move—don’t just appear in front of them, though,” I say when he moves. “You know that startles them.”

            “Oh, yes. I will not startle them.” Cole walks away deliberately slowly, and I grin as I watch him.

            “Are you ready?” Solas murmurs.

            “No,” I reply, standing. He rises with me.

            I glance around at the others to see them all occupied, hurrying quickly to gather their necessary gear. I turn to Solas, searching his eyes. His expression is warm and tender, and my heart stutters again. I rise to my toes and press my lips to his. He smiles against the kiss, wrapping his arm around my waist. He brings me the rest of the way to him, holding me firmly. It steals my breath, and I kiss him quietly for a long, beautiful moment before I reluctantly pull back. I press my forehead to his, breathing quickly. My chest is tight, and I frown faintly. Please, Mythal. Please keep him safe.  

            “I’ll go tell Cullen we’re ready,” I mumble.

            “Vhenan,” Solas murmurs softly, his arm still tight around my waist, bending me to him.

            The word brings another blush to my cheeks. I smile and kiss him again. My fingers grow tight, and I continue to plead with Mythal, praying that she keep us all safe tonight. 

***

The sound of the trebuchets deafening; the roar of our soldiers is even louder. Flaming boulders slam into the walls of Adamant Fortress, taking countless with them when they catapult over the battlements or break through the stone. I force myself to remember this is necessary, but the loss of life is staggering.

            My team and I wait on the far side of the battle with Cullen for the gates to be breached far ahead. Blackwall and Varric watch grimly, both of them with their arms crossed. Blackwall looks lost as he stares at the Wardens defending the keep ahead of us, though he does his best to hide it. Cassandra and Cullen talk over the sounds of battle, but their words don’t reach my ears, despite their close proximity. Cole stands on one side of me, staring ahead, dismayed. I imagine he must be hearing so much. I wish I could shield him from it. Solas is on my other side, watching gravely, though his expression reveals that this is not the first battle he’s witnessed.

            Our soldiers march in unison towards the fortress, some with the honorary position of carrying our banner while others hold up long shields. They call to each other to keep formation, their battle chant keeping their rhythm. Ladders are hoisted up all the ground, and I watch with a clenched jaw as our men rise with them. Some are shot down with arrows before they can even reach the walls, their bodies falling the long way back down to the ground. My chest tightens, and I try to steel myself to the influx of emotions. We have a long night ahead of us; I can't afford to lose my strength before we've even truly begun. I breathe out a sigh of quiet relief when the ladders land and dozens of our men mount the walls, forcing the Grey Wardens back.

            This feels so horribly wrong—perverse, even. The legendary heroes of old, champions against the Blight, are being slaughtered within their walls. Seeing the blue and grey flags—proud griffins in flight—makes it difficult to remember that it was Corypheus, not us, who began this war, that it was he who turned their duty into fear and twisted their sense of honor.

            It doesn’t make it any easier to see our soldiers cut down fabled heroes in silver armor or to see winged helmets shining in the mud, trampled under the feet of our men as they march forward.

            A conflicting sense of pride overtakes me as I watch how admirably and honorably our men fight. Cullen has trained them well. They fall into an easy rhythm, very few of our soldiers caught unawares. They appear firm and confident on the battlefield, their movements precise, their wills unbending. 

            Several warriors escort our battering ram to the gates, their shields raised over the ones pushing the wooden machine. I watch anxiously as the Grey Wardens throw large rocks over the edge in a last-ditch effort to eliminate those who will soon break down their doors.

            I realize I’m holding too tightly to Solas’ hand as I watch, but I don’t dare release it. His fingers wind around mine securely, tethering and calming me while we wait.

            Cullen waits until the battering ram is in place before he waves us forward. “Alright, to the gates, everyone. Soldiers, to the Inquisitor!”

            Solas pulls me ahead of him protectively under the canopy of shields, releasing my hand.

            “Inquisitor,” Blackwall murmurs. “If you’re ready.”

            I nod. He lifts his broad shield over our heads, and I walk close beside him. The others follow us, covered by the soldiers. We make our way quickly through the lines with Cullen leading us. We pass by the Chargers and Bull in the field, and I hear him shout several orders in a calm, experienced tone. In response, several of the Chargers break away from the main group, tailing after our convoy. As we reach the gates, the battering ram bursts through the doors. Our men lunge inside, making quick work of the Wardens trying to hold them. Blackwall gets me inside, and I follow Cullen, lifting my staff up off the ground.

            As the others join us one at a time, I jolt into action. Grey Wardens lunge at us, trying to push us back through the gates, but Cullen is a seasoned warrior, and his men are undeniably skilled. My magic flits around the field easily; I'm careful to not give too much too fast, but I rain down lightning on our enemies, striking as precisely as I can. A warrior runs at me, and Cullen whips around to stop him, but I catch the Warden with the blade at the end of my staff, switching places with him smoothly. When he stumbles, I pull my dagger from my waist and jam it into the soft plating at his neck. Cullen looks so impressed that I'm mildly offended, and I frown at him as I sheath my dagger again. I swing my staff around swiftly, stopping an array of arrows in midair before they can find their targets. 

            The doors at the back of the lower bailey burst open, and the mages make their appearance. Rage demons race ahead of them, moving to us with an alarming eagerness. Cullen calls his men forward, and I jerk to the side, picking a spot atop a dune where I can see the field well. I cast a protection spell over Cullen, using my staff to freeze demons before their claws can catch on our men. I lay a paralysis glyph at the base of the stairs for the reinforcements. Several fall into it, stilling so swiftly that they're caught mid-step. Inquisition swords make short work of the demons, the clash of steel against steel ringing shrilly in the air from the Wardens.

            Solas and Varric move near me as Cassandra and Blackwall join Cullen in battle. Cole zips around the field, and I understand perfectly why he once thought himself as a ghost. I also see how much he restrains himself at Skyhold. He appears behind one soldier, catching a sword before it can land and in an instant moves across the field to take down a Warden near the doors of the bailey. In another blink, he's on top of the battlements, disarming archers before appearing at Cullen's side to kill a Warden who tries to flank the commander. 

            “Get the mages!” someone shouts, and I’m not sure if it’s our side or theirs.

            As second later, I get my answer. Wardens burst through the door beside me. I force a gust of wind through the bailey, knocking them off balance. One of them dodges out of the way. Before I can react or even properly register his intention, he lunges at me, tackling me around the middle. We tumble clumsily down the small dune, and I hit the stone ground hard, my elbow cracking against it painfully. I jerk my legs up as I hear both Varric and Solas shout for me. I twist to get out of the man’s pin, but his legs keep me down. He scrambles for his dagger, and I jerk my elbow up, breaking his nose. Blood sprays my neck as he cries out, and I hit him again as he goes to hold his nose. He jerks off me, rolling over. I rise to my knees, grab his dagger, and then hesitate—he's young, barely an adult. My hands shake, and he reaches up to grab my wrists, his own intent clearer than mine.

            Before either of us can act, a soldier’s blade runs the Grey Warden through.

            “Inquisitor!” the woman calls, lifting me to my feet. I nod at her gratefully, picking up my staff again, cursing myself.

            “Are you hurt?” Solas asks, stopping beside me.

            I look down at the young man below me and shake my head. I spin my staff, forcing myself to refocus. I breathe the words necessary for a large fireball, launching is across the field to a group of demons. Solas’ magic blends with mine, our mana mixing and reacting powerfully. The fireball explodes on impact, taking the rest of the demons with it. Our soldiers make short work of the Wardens, cutting them down swiftly. A lull in the fighting gives the rest of us time to breathe.

            “Pull back!” a Warden on the wall shouts. “They’re through!”

            Cullen comes up beside me breathlessly. “Alright, Inquisitor. You have your way in. Best make use of it. We’ll keep the main host of demons occupied for as long as we can.”

            “I’ll be fine—just keep the men safe. Don’t take risks.”

            “We’ll do what we must, Inquisitor. Warden Stroud will accompany you. Hawke is with our soldiers on the battlements. She’s assisting them until you arrive.”

            “She went up there?” Varric demands. “Of course she did,” he adds irritably.

            “Good luck, Inquisi—” Something catches Cullen’s eye. I follow his gaze to see a soldier pushed off the battlements by a shade demon. I lunge forward, catching the man with a quick spell and bringing him the rest of the way down slowly. “There’s too much resistance on the walls! Our men on the ladders won’t be able to get a foothold. If you can clear out the enemies on the battlements, we’ll cover your advance.”

            “Got it—stay safe, Cullen.”

            “You as well, Inquisitor.”

            “With me!” I call, waving to my team.

            I lead the way through the open door, running up the stairs to the second floor. A group of soldiers tries to stop us. I push them back, keeping them at bay while the others climb up the stairs after me. A man with a shield tries to push me back, but I spin out of the way, dodging his sword, swinging my staff around quickly. The blade at the end stabs through the weak padding at his side, and I push him away.

            “Get her!” someone shouts. "The mage!"

            I jerk back in time to dodge an arrow. A flicker in my vision tells me another is on its way. I throw my left hand up instinctively, and an explosion knocks me backwards to the ground. I look up sharply to see that I blew up a section of the battlements with a fireball. I glance at my hand, alarmed, and get to my feet in time to see Cassandra’s surprise.

            “Uh—sorry!” I call. “That—wasn’t supposed to happen—”

            “Well, be sure to have more accidents,” Varric replies. “You blew a hole through the door.”

            I laugh hesitantly, charging forward again. I duck under the hole I make, working my way through quickly. I wait for the others and then run forward once more.

            We work our way up the levels of the fortress, fighting and carving our path. By the time we reach the battlements, I’m already exhausted. I don’t know how these soldiers are fighting so fearlessly and tirelessly, but I feel it begin to press on me physically. The draw on my magic is worse. I should have accepted lyrium when it was offered, but I’ve never liked the way it felt. Solas refused it, too, though, so…

            We come across a group of Wardens who resist the rituals, fighting against their mage companions. We manage to convince them, to my relief, to stand down and fall back.

            Varric runs up beside me before we get moving again. “Hawke!” he calls, pointing.

            I look up sharply to see her on a platform near the top of the battlements. She’s fighting with our soldiers, her daggers moving so fast I can barely see them. I run forward quickly, rushing to her side.

            “Ah, I was wondering when you’d show up!” she calls over the battle. “Here to take all the glory, I presume?”

            “You can’t always be the hero, Hawke,” Varric replies loudly. “It’s bad writing.”        

            “Well fine—then give me a hand already, would you?”

            I breathe a fireball to life, aiming it at a group of shades. They go up in flames, dissipating quickly. We clear the path of Wardens and demons. Our men move to the ladders, bringing their fellows soldiers up swiftly as we fight.

            I’m feeling pretty confident about things until I feel the ground shake beneath our feet, knocking me off balance.

            “Well shit,” Hawke sighs, glancing behind me.

            I whip around, sagging a little just looking at the massive pride demon. It stands taller than anything, stomping and hitting the ground hard enough to create cracks along the stone.

            “Can’t ever go smoothly, can it?” Hawke complains.

            “That’s been my experience,” Varric mumbles.

            “Just once I’d like to have it go smoothly, you know, just to see what it’s like.”

            “I think it’d be boring,” Varric muses.

            “Mm, good point.”

            “Will you two—stop talking and fight?” Blackwall huffs, raising his shield to catch a volley of arrows.

            I aim a fireball at the ones who fired them.

            “Oh right,” Hawke laughs, jogging forward.

            “Are we supposed to believe she actually forgot?” Blackwall wonders.

            “Eh, I wouldn’t put it past her,” Varric replies before joining her. Cassandra and Blackwall run after them, and Cole continues to zip around.

            I chuckle, despite myself, at Varric and Hawke and aim a fireball at the pride demon. As soon as it lands, I follow it up with several ice daggers, lodging them deep into the demon’s flesh. It roars in response, kicking Blackwall away. Cassandra catches him before he can teeter off the edge of the battlements, and the demon charges for me.

            My eyes widen. “Oh shit,” I murmur, throwing down a paralysis glyph. “Oh shit.” The demon stomps through it like it wasn’t there. “Oh shit.” I raise a blockade of ice that it runs through without even the slightest hint of resistance. “Oh shit.” It bursts through my wall of fire, ignoring the burns it receives in return. “Oh shit.” I throw up a barrier, holding it with both hands when the demon bangs its fist down. I wince in preparation for that to fail, too, and then wrench my eyes open to see the demon hit the glimmering wall. “Ha! Oh sh—” The demon reaches around the barrier, grabbing my staff. Its claws rake down my arm, slicing through my skin, and I cry out in surprise, jerking my hand back—too late. It grabs my arm and throws me aside. Before I can fly off the edge, something stops me. I glance back to see Cole suddenly behind me, catching me. “Whoa, thanks! Perfect timing!”

            Cole steadies me, and then disappears again. I heal my arm swiftly, murmuring quickly as I prepare for another attack by the demon. I glance to the left to see Solas surrounded by four warriors. He spins his staff quickly, knocking one of them down. Panic flits through me, but then I watch in awe as, before I can even interject, he drops to the ground, slamming his staff against their feet. They topple over, and he lifts his hand to his temple. In an instant, the men get launched back from him in all directions from a powerful blast. I grin crookedly, impressed.

            The demon charges for me, rudely interrupting my ogling. I go to place another barrier, but before I can mutter the words, Cole is there between the demon and me. He kicks off the wall and lands on the demon’s chest, digging his daggers in deep. He climbs swiftly, using his blades for balance, and them moves around the demon’s shoulders like a spider until he has enough leverage to drive a dagger through the demon’s head. The beast falls to the ground with a roar, and Cole flips down, landing before me in a hunch.

            “Cole,” I call.

            “Yes?” he says, not even remotely out of breath.

            “That—was the coolest thing—I’ve ever seen!”

            Cole grins happily at me before disappearing. I see him reappear on the other side of the battlements, clearing a path for several wounded soldiers.

            Something hits me across the back, and I land hard on the ground, scraping my arm on the stone as the Warden pins me down.

            “Will you people stop tackling me?” I scream in anger, jerking my elbow up.

            The man dodges my attack easily and forces me to roll over. His dagger presses to my throat, cold steel biting into my neck below my jaw. I jerk in shock, raising my left hand without thinking. The man flies off me, launched fifty feet up into the air before arcing and falling over the side of the battlements. I raise my hand to my neck in a panic, murmuring words quickly to seal the cut on my throat. I get to my feet swiftly, looking around for someone else who wants to use the same fucking move on me.

            Blackwall and Cassandra cut down the last of the men. Solas and Varric jog over to me, followed by Hawke and Stroud. Cole appears beside me, flicking his blades clean as best he can.

            “Are you alright, vhenan?” Solas asks breathlessly, reaching for me when he see my arms covered in blood.

            “I swear to Mythal, if another asshole tackles me, I’m going to blow them up,” I gasp.

            Solas grins, relieved.

            I lean against the wall for a moment to catch my breath. “Are you alright?” I ask Blackwall as he arrives.

            “I’m fine,” he replies, lifting a hand to wipe a thick trail of blood from his temple.

            “Here, let me—”

            “It’s alright, my lady. Save your strength.”

            “Roll call, everyone okay? Cassandra?”

            “I’m fine.”

            "Stroud?"

            "Fine, Your Worship."

            “Varric?”

            “Still alive.”

            “Hawke?”

            “What Varric said.”

            I smirk. “Cole?”

            “I am unhurt.”

            “Good. Solas?”

            “I’m alright, vhenan.”

            “Excellent. Well. Let’s not keep those Wardens waiting, shall we?”

            “It’d be rude,” Hawke agrees.

            “Shit,” Varric sighs. “Think I see another demon calling our name.” I follow his gaze to a second pride demon in time to see him unfurl a long whip of electricity.

            “Warden-Commander Clarel will be on the other side of the battlements,” Stroud says, gesturing in the other direction.

            “Let’s take care of the demon first so our men can get up the ladders,” I say quickly, heading that direction. “Clarel can wait."

            Varric smirks. “Yeah, she strikes me as the sensible, patient type.”

            “I was gonna say that,” Hawke sighs.

            “Get your own lines.”

            I lift my staff and breathlessly run across the ramparts to the other pride demon. It raises its hands over its head, and my eyes widen when I see our soldiers under them. Instinctively, they raise their hands to protect themselves. I throw up a quick shield, grunting as I maintain it. Solas joins me, his magic blending with mine to reinforce the barrier and protect them. The demon’s hands slam down against the shimmering wall, and the agents look back in shock, finding the others as they run forward and pull the men out of harm’s way.         

            The demon raises its hand again, and an orb of electricity forms in its palm. It tests the orb's weight before moving its hand back to throw it. I barely have time to register where its aimed when Solas pulls me under him, raising a thick stone wall between us and the demon. I gasp in surprise, watching the purple streaks lick across the edges of the wall.

            “Thank you,” I say quickly, grabbing my staff again. I stand and aim a fireball at the demon. It blinds it temporarily, giving Cassandra a chance to slice at the back of its leg. The demon roars, falling to one knee with a rumbling shake. Solas combines an offensive attack with a protection spell, hurting the demon while offering our men more energy to continue. Blackwall lunges his sword into the demon’s stomach, and Cole runs up its arm to stab it in the head. The demon falls heavily, and I breathe out in a rush.

            Blackwall stoops over to grab his shield, and Cassandra, ever the badass, moves beside me, breathless but somehow appearing unaffected otherwise. Guess this is the benefit of stabbing dummies all day long.

            “Thank you, Inquisitor!” the soldiers call.

            “Get to safety!”

            “We’ll hold the wall!”

            I grin proudly and nod.

            “Clarel’s turn, is it?” Hawke muses.

            “Rude to keep a lady waiting,” Varric replies.

            “That hasn’t stopped you before.”

            Varric replies with a loud laugh.

            “We must hurry,” Solas advises. “Our forces cannot stand against the demons for long.”

            I nod and run along the battlements, my breaths busting from me. We take the stairs down from the battlements to an inner room. I slam into a door, expecting it to break. It rejects me harshly, and I groan, holding my shoulder.

            “Shit! That’s—that is a strong door.”

            “Allow me,” Blackwall chuckles.

            “Allow me,” Cassandra corrects, pushing him aside. I watch, grinning as she kicks the door down in one swift motion.

            “I could’a done that,” Blackwall huffs.

            “You can get the next one,” she shrugs.

            I take off running again, my lungs aching. Blackwall kicks another door down, and then we’re outside once more. I skid around the corner, gasping for air. I jerk my hand toward the battlement edge when we reach another group of Wardens, and they go flying over the side.

            “Nice!” Hawke commends. “You’re on a roll!”

            I gasp a laugh and keep running. We reach another door, and I burst through it. My eyes widen at the large gathering of men, and Hawke pulls me aside, kneeling down swiftly so we can see what’s happening.

            I force my breaths to soften so I don't reveal our presence. Dozens of Wardens are gathered before a wooden platform, all facing away from us. Standing above them, Erimond waits beside an older man and woman, both Wardens. The woman holds a staff in her left hand, but the man beside her is unarmed, his head bowed respectfully. 

            “Warden-Commander Clarel, I take it?” I whisper breathlessly.

            “The one and only,” Hawke replies.

            “Wardens!” Clarel calls. “We are betrayed by the very world we have sworn to protect.”

            “The Inquisition is inside, Clarel,” Erimond complains. “We have no time to stand on ceremony!”

            Clarel glares at Erimond. “These men and women are giving their lives, magister. That might mean little in Tevinter, but for the Wardens, it is a sacred duty.” The Warden-Commander turns to the man at her side. “It has been many long years, my friend.”

            “Too many, Clarel,” the old man agrees, kneeling down before her. “If my sword arm can no longer serve the Wardens, then my blood will have to do.”

            Clarel pulls a dagger from her belt and moves behind the man. “It will,” she promises solemnly.

            I jerk to intervene, but Hawke holds me in place tightly. Clarel closes her eyes and drags the knife across her supposed friend’s throat. A green glint catches my eye, and I look away from them to see a faded rift hovering in the middle of the Wardens. At first I think they're unaware of it until I realize they're circled around it, and my eyes widen when I understand their intent. The seam glows brightly, seconds away from tearing open. This one is so massive that I fear what it might be capable of bringing through.

            I glare and stand up, pulling away from Hawke. The others join me, and we run forward a few steps, stopping behind the Wardens.

            “Stop them!” Erimond shouts suddenly, pointing to us. “We must complete the ritual!”

            The Wardens turn to face us, the seam growing impossibly larger.

            “Clarel!” I shout, holding up my hands. “How could you do this? This is exactly the kind of thing the Wardens are meant to stop! If you complete that ritual, you help Erimond—”

            “What?” he interrupts loudly. “Fight the Blight? Keep the world safe from darkspawn? Who wouldn’t want that?”

            Clarel looks at me uncertainly—a flicker of doubt.

            “The Wardens are meant to be defenders! I idolized you as a kid!” I shout. “But this—blood magic rituals? How could you think this was the answer?”

            Erimond waves his hand. “The Grey Wardens are doing their duty!”

            Clarel steps forward. “We make the sacrifices no one else will! Our warriors die proudly for a world that will never thank them.”

            “And then your Tevinter ally binds the mages to Corypheus!” Stroud exclaims.

            “Corypheus?” Clarel gasps. “But—he’s dead.”

            “Clarel,” Erimond implores. “These people will say anything to shake your confidence.”

            She raises a hand to her eyes, uncertainty clouding her expression. For a second—just a second—I think she might still do the right thing. Then her expression clears, and her eyes open. “Bring it through!”

            “No!” I shout.

            The Wardens turn to the rift, spreading their arms and offering themselves to their mage allies. The rift shudders and flickers, growing larger as the mages raise their blades.

            “Please!” Hawke exclaims, her voice desperate enough to make the mages hesitate. “I have seen more than my share of blood magic! It is never worth the cost!”

            The rift expands, and I see something through the green, hazy veil, something massive and terrifying. I blink, my spine chilling as I part my lips in horror.

            “Be ready with the ritual, Clarel,” Erimond says. “This demon is truly worthy of your strength.”

            “Blackwall, please!” I call. “Maybe you can talk some sense into them!”

            Blackwall looks at me, startled, before he directs his attention to the Wardens. “You...you don’t know me, but you may have heard my name. Like you, I’ve given my life to the Grey Wardens. The first time I put on this armor, I felt like I belonged, like I was part of something honorable, something with a purpose. I know how good that feels. How safe. But fighting and dying here today won’t stop the Blight! If you want to stop the Blight, kill that bastard up there. His master is the living embodiment of its corruption!”

            “We have no quarrel with the Wardens,” I add. “We’ve spared those we could on our way here. I don’t want to kill you! You’re—you're the Grey Wardens! You’re meant to serve and protect and shield! Look at what that man has done to you! He's made you kill your brothers, your sisters! He’s twisted your purposes, bound your dead to Corypheus! You’re being used! Can’t you see that? You must feel that something here is not right! You know this is wrong!”

            One of the Wardens steps forward hesitantly. “The mages who’ve done the ritual…they’re not right. They were my friends, but now they’re like puppets on a string.”

            “Corypheus’ string,” I reply.

            “You cannot let fear sway your mind, Warden Chernoff!” Clarel calls, her tone warning.

            “He’s not afraid!” Hawke shouts angrily. “You are! You’re afraid that you ordered all these brave men and women to die for nothing!”

            Stroud steps forward imploringly. “I honor your bravery, my brothers and sisters, but this is not the way! You have been tricked!”

            The Wardens falter, looking back at Erimond. Even Clarel looks shaken now.

            “Clarel,” Erimond says, his tone low. “We’ve come so far. You’re the only one who can do this!”

            “Perhaps…perhaps we could test the truth of these charges,” Clarel suggests, “to avoid more bloodshed.”

            Erimond’s entire demeanor changes. He drops his act, his expression hardening. “Or perhaps I should bring in a more reliable ally.” He turns to me, tapping his staff against the stone with an electric ring. Red energy flickers off the end of it. “My master thought you might come here, Inquisitor! He sent me this to welcome you!”

            Fear clutches my heart, and I ready myself for the searing pain.

            I’m so focused on my hand that the following thunderous roar startles me badly. I look up sharply, dread filling me at the Archdemon that soars overhead. Blackwall’s arm whips around my waist, jerking me back. In one swift movement, he tucks me securely against his chest, bending over me to raise his shield. A ball of fiery red energy falls down over us. Red electricity fries the ground beneath my feet, slamming powerfully against Blackwall’s shield as he holds strong. I pant against Blackwall, gripping his arm tightly. He waits a moment for the heat to die down and then stands and releases me.

            I stare up to see the Archdemon circle the fortress, screeching again. Clarel stares at Erimond, backing away in horror. The dragon swoops overhead, landing against the walls high above. Stones crash to the ground as it roars deafeningly.

            Clarel grunts, and I look back to see her swing her staff sharply. Erimond gets pushes back from the force of her magic, hitting ground so hard he rolls several times. The dragon looks at Clarel when Erimond drops his staff, seizing on the ground from her electric blow.

            “Clarel,” Erimond cries when she eyes the dragon, creating another ball of electricity. “Wait…”

            She launches her magic at the dragon, and it roars in anger. A red energy fireball lands near her feet, but she easily dodges. Erimond rolls clumsily to avoid it, scrambling to his feet ungracefully. The dragon rears its head back with another roar, finding a new target in Clarel. Erimond runs away, up the stairs and through a door.

            “Held the Inquisitor!” Clarel orders, chasing after Erimond.

            Demons burst through the rift. I can still see that thing in the distance, hiding and waiting in the Fade—a monstrosity, from what little I can make out.

            The Wardens turn on the demons, and relief washes over me. Another pride demon comes through, flanked by terror, rage, and despair demons. Adrenaline races through me, making everything sharp and clear.

            “Go after Clarel! We’ll hold them off!” a Warden shouts.

            I nod at that, grip my staff, and run around the fighting, the others close behind me.

            I hear the dragon’s wings as we run, and it terrifies me that, at any moment, it could sweep down and take any of us with it. I keep close to the wall, taking the stairs quickly, following the only path Erimond and Clarel could have taken. I see a flicker of her Grey Warden robes as we round corners at the same time.

            We move under an archway, tearing down a long hall.

            “Suledin, stop!” Solas shouts urgently.

            At the same time, Cassandra grabs my arm, pulling me to a jolting stop. A split second later, the dragon hits the side of the fortress, moving its massive head through the stone columns. It breathes fire coated in red energy, causing a harsh wave of heat to wash over us.

            Blackwall charges forward and slams his shield against its jaw. The dragon rears back, roaring and pushing roughly off the fortress.

            “Shit,” I gasp, moving forward once again. “Nice work!”

            We make it to several flights of stairs, and I slow, my thighs cramping and shaking uncomfortably.

            “How many—gods-damned stairs—does this place—have?” I gasp, holding my stitching ribs.

            “More than—I’ve ever climbed—in my life,” Hawke replies. “This is—ridiculous.”

            “Glad it’snot—just me.”

            “Definitely not—Snow,” Varric chips in.

            “Fen’Harel,” I gasp. “This is—going to kill me. Is everyone—still alive?”

            I receive a handful of panting gasps in affirmation as we reach the top level.

            We round the corner and come to a jarring stop when we see Clarel and Erimond on a broken bridge.

            He launches a fireball at her as she storms over angrily. She blocks the fireball without even moving her staff, rage fueling her mana powerfully.

            “You!” she seethes. “You’ve destroyed the Grey Wardens!” She knocks Erimond off his feet, and he loses his staff.

            He laughs weakly, holding up a hand. “You did that to yourself, you stupid bitch.” He tries to stand, and Clarel knocks him down again. “All I did was dangle a little power before your eyes, and you couldn’t wait to get your hands bloody!”

            Clarel roars, a powerful force pushing Erimond back violently. He slides across the stone, curling in on himself as his clothes smoke from the friction.

            “You could have served a new god!” he groans.

            “I will never serve the Blight.”

            A flicker of movement catches my eye.

            “Get down!” I scream—too late.

            The dragon lands on the bridge, bloodily grabs Clarel, and takes off again. I watch in horror as the dragon flies to the walls of the fortress high above us, Clarel’s legs kicking wildly from its teeth. The Archdemon jerks its head back and forth before releasing Clarel. She soars over us, landing and sliding in a bloody, mangled heap on the bridge. The dragon moves down off the wall like a prowling jungle cat, its focus on me once more. We all back up onto the bridge, cut off from any other path. Clarel crawls towards us, and I step forward to help her. The Archdemon roars, and I jerk back again.

            “In war, victory,” Clarel recites, her words thick and weak.

            The dragon moves closer to her, walking over her body. She rolls onto her back, staring up at the beast’s belly as it stalks towards us.

            “In peace...vigilance.”

            The dragon rears back, preparing to launch itself at us. Solas grabs my hand, pulling me to him swiftly. His arms close around me, and we brace for the dragon's breath. I watch as Clarel raises her hand, frowning briefly before I understand. My eyes widen, but I don't have time to react before a ball of lightning explodes under the dragon’s belly. It screeches and falls on top of her, sliding across the stone bridge powerfully. Solas tightens his hold on me, pushing me out of harm's way. Everyone dives for separate sides of the bridge, escaping flailing claws as the dragon roars and slides away. It reaches the edge of the bridge and, in a blink, slips off.

            I scramble backwards as the bridge collapses from the explosion. Solas grabs my arm, hoisting me to my feet. I push him ahead of me, checking the others to see Cassandra and Blackwall pull Hawke and Varric up, and then we're running as the bridge cracks and breaks apart beneath our feet.

            I glance back to see Stroud get caught in the collapse. I stop and run back to him, but Cole appears ahead of me. He picks Stroud up, and they run past us. Cole grips my hand, pulling me after him as Solas shouts my name. He reaches for me, but before he can grab me, the bridge gives way under my feet. I scream involuntarily, gravity pulling me down so fast that the air gets trapped in my throat, cutting my scream short. I see everyone fall from the bridge with me, and grief-stricken terror rushes through me when I see Solas among them. I turn in midair and hold my left arm out instinctively to shield myself from the impact. Wind roars past my ears deafeningly, and I stare into the abyss as we plummet into it, blackness surrounding us. Panic seizes me, and I shut my eyes tight, thrusting my left hand out more. In an instant, brilliant green light blinds me, and I fall through it.

Chapter Text

After plunging headfirst into an seemingly endless canyon, I can safely say that I fully expected to hit the ground—hard.

            What I did not anticipate was that I would get yanked back up the way I came and then dangle in midair. For a long, breathless second, I hesitate with my eyes squeezed shut, convinced that this may, in fact, be the Beyond. Instead, I open my eyes to find myself upside down, the ground hovering above me—or, below me, as the case may be. Disorientation makes me dizzy, and I frown at the ground—the same ground I should be broken against. I reach my hand out, my breath caught in my lungs. The instant my fingers press against cool stone, I drop into it face-first. Not my most graceful of entrances, to be sure.

            I grunt, searching quickly for broken bones or severed limbs only to find myself intact. I frown in confusion, rising slowly to my feet.

            “Where are we?” someone breathes. 

            I look up, turning my head in confusion when I see Stroud parallel to the ground, standing perfectly balanced on the side of a stone wall. He looks up at me, equally confused. Suddenly, I’m not sure which of us is wrong.

            “Uh—pretty sure we were just falling to our deaths,” Hawke mumbles. "Weren't we?"

            Stroud and I look up to see her standing upside down, fixed to the underside of a cliff. I angle my head, trying to pick one that works for seeing her.

            Hawke frowns at us. “Is this—are we dead? If this is the afterlife, the Chantry owes me an apology. This looks nothing like the Maker’s bosom.”

            “No,” Solas murmurs, his voice awed. Relief rushes through me blindingly, and I whip around to see him stop beside me, unharmed. In fact, they're all okay. Cassandra is gaping wide-eyed all around, her hand resting on her sword handle. Blackwall is beside her, frowning unhappily as he takes his helmet off. Cole's back is to me, his head tilted up the way we presumably came. Varric is staring up at Hawke, his head cocked a little as she shrugs and sighs. Solas stares ahead in open amazement, his eyes bright. “This is the Fade,” he whispers.

            I blink, following his gaze to a floating, silhouetted island in the sky—the Black City. Holy— “What?” I gasp, shocked.

            “You opened a rift,” he explains in wonder, looking up at the green sky above us. “We came through…and survived! I never thought I would ever find myself here physically.”

            “Huh,” I breathe. “Don’t...say I never take you anywhere?”

            A wide smile breaks across his face, and he glances at me. “Look,” he whispers, pointing ahead of us. “The Black City. Almost close enough to touch.”

            “This is incredible...and...impossible,” I gasp, looking around.

            “What spirit commands this place?” Solas wonders thoughtfully. “I’ve never seen anywhere like it.”

            “Not how I remember the Fade, either,” Hawke muses. “Where are all the talking horses? The naked women? Where’s the upside statue of me and the parading ants?”

            “Maker’s breath, Hawke—what—what kind of dreams are you having?” Varric laughs.

            Cole stands before me, wringing his hands, shifting his weight anxiously. “No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no! This is the Fade! B-b-but I-I’m stuck! I can’t—why can’t I—!”

            “Cole,” Solas says soothingly. “It’s alright. It’s alright, you—”

            “I-I-I c-can’t be here! N-n-not like this! N-n-not like me!”

            “Cole,” I say, catching his hands. His fingers tremble violently in mine. “Shh, it’s alright.”

            “It is, Cole,” Solas agrees. “We’ll make it right. You’re safe with us, Cole. Nothing here can hurt you.”

            “This place is wrong!” Cole exclaims. “I-I made myself forget when I made myself real, but I know it wasn’t like this!”

            “Cole, listen to me,” I murmur, moving my hands to his shoulders. He doesn’t resist, peeking up at me. “Cole, we’re going to be okay. I promise you, alright? Do you hear me? We’re going to be okay.”

            “Why—why is it wrong—w-why is it—I c-can’t—”

            “We’re here physically,” I remind him. “This is no one’s dream. It’s just—raw…Fade.”

            “Yes,” Solas nods. “That may be it. There is no one to shape it, no dreams or emotions to mold it.”

            “The stories say you walked out of the Fade at Haven,” Hawke says. “Was it like this?”

            “I—don’t know,” I admit, looking around. “I still can’t remember what happened.”

            “Well…I guess what happens in the Fade stays in the Fade. Guess we should also be on the lookout for demons intent on ripping us apart. Precautionary, of course.”

            “In our world,” Stroud adds, “the rift the demons came through was nearby. In the main hall. Can we escape the same way?”

            I shrug. “Beats waiting around for demons to find us, right? There,” I murmur, pointing. In the sky, far away and atop a rickety, uphill path is a circular sun of green energy—perhaps the inside-out version of a tear in the Veil. “That must be the rift. Let’s go.”

            “How, uh, do we get down?” Hawke wonders. “Got any pointers, Fade experts?”

            “If it were your dream, you could simply think yourself down,” Solas muses.

            “Uh—maybe…jump?” Varric says.

            “Jump?” Hawke repeats drily.

            “I’ll catch you.”

            “You’ll catch me?”

            “Yeah, sure. What's the worst that can happen?”

            “You see, you say that, but—”

            “Just jump.”

            Hawke sighs and hunches down. She kicks off the cliffside and comes plummeting down. Before Varric can even raise his arms, she crashes into him, and they both fall to the ground in a heap.

            “You’ll catch me, huh?”

            “I did. With my body. Ow.”

            She sighs heavily and gets up, pulling Varric to his feet. “And they say chivalry is dead—wait, how’d you get down?” Hawke suddenly asks.

            I turn to see Stroud standing behind us. “I just walked.”

            Hawke squints. “Probably...should've tried that first.”

            “Is everyone ready?” he wonders. 

            “Well I am now.”

            Our first few steps are hesitant. I stay close to Solas; he looks around in wonder while I watch for demons. But I can't deny this is a marvel. No one just strolls through the Fade physically. As we go, I find myself less focused on guarding us and more intent on admiring our dismal surroundings. Despite the bleak scenery, I can't help but find it beautiful, in a creepy, desolate sort of way. Raw Fade. This is unbelievable. 

            Not everyone is as...tolerant of our predicament. Cole wrings his hands, and Cassandra grimaces almost angrily. 

            “This is very odd,” she murmurs.

            “You said it,” Blackwall mumbles.

            “Is this really what it’s like when you dream?” Varric mutters. “How do you people ever sleep?”

            “Like I said,” Hawke replies, “there are usually more talking horses.”

            “Hey, remember the last time we ended up in the Fade?”

            “How could I forget?” Hawke answers sardonically. “My closest friends showed such loyalty in the face of a demon’s temptations.”

            Varric winces. “Yeah…probably…shouldn’t have brought that up again.”

            “This is fascinating,” Solas muses to me, admiring the world around us. It makes me smile, despite our potentially dangerous circumstances, to see him so enthused. “It is not the area I would have chosen, of course, but to physically walk within the Fade…” He sighs softly, and I smile wider, turning my head to hide it.

            “Right,” Varric mutters. “You like it here. Of course you do. Isn’t that wonderful.”

            “Yes,” Solas chuckles, lighter than usual. “Literally.”

            “Solas,” I murmur softly as we go. “You’re the expert—any tips?”

            He nods. “The Fade is shaped by intent and emotion. Remain focused, and it will lead you where you wish to go. The demon that controls this area is extremely powerful—some variety of fear, I would guess. I suggest we remain wary of its manipulations and prepare for what is certain to be a fascinating experience.”

            I smirk at him affectionately.

            “Wrong, wrong, wrong,” Cole whispers, pulling me from my thoughts. “Wringing me out. Wrought right and rigid. Can’t relax. Can’t release—”

            “You doin’ alright, kid?” Varric asks sympathetically.

            “It’s okay, Cole,” I murmur. “We’ll get you out of here soon.”

            “Thank you,” Cole whimpers. “It should be like home. It’s not. This isn’t me, not this part.”

            “This place is dangerous,” Blackwall mutters. “I will gladly fight demons, but I have no desire to see where they come from.”

            “Imagine it,” Cassandra says softly, her demeanor changing when we don't immediately die. “To walk in the Fade and survive!”

            “Haven’t survived yet, Seeker,” Varric mumbles.

            “There’s that optimism I adore so much,” Hawke sighs fondly.

            We reach a flight of stairs and walk up them slowly. When I reach the top, I look up and freeze in my tracks. A woman is standing ahead of us, her pale skin wrinkled and freckled. Her gaze finds mine, and she gives me a warm smile that crinkles her grey eyes. Her white and red robes are immaculate, despite the damp, dirty surroundings. The gold sunburst emblem shines in the pale green light. Her wrinkled fingers are clasped before her, and her tall cowl is utterly unique. Even I know that there is only one woman in the Chantry permitted such attire.  

            I gape at her, recognition staggering me. The word impossible bounces around my mind. “Holy—”

            “By the Maker,” Stroud breathes. “Could that be…”

            “I greet you, Warden. And you, Champion,” the woman murmurs. 

            “Divine…Justinia?” Cassandra breathes, stepping forward shakily. “Most Holy?”

            “Cassandra,” the woman smiles fondly.

            “Is this—really her?” I whisper.

            “I…” Cassandra stares in shock. “I don’t know…It…is said that the…souls of the dead pass through the Fade and sometimes linger, but…We know spirits lie…Be wary, Inquisitor.”

            “I fear the Divine is indeed dead,” Stroud murmurs. “It is likely we face a spirit…or a demon.”

            I look at Solas, but before I can ask, the Divine speaks. “You think my survival impossible,” she muses, “yet here you stand, alive, in the Fade yourselves.”

            “That’s…a fair point,” I muse.

            “In truth, proving my existence either way would require time we do not have.”

            “Really?” Hawke hums. “How hard is it to answer one little question. I’m a human, and you are…”

            “I am here to help you.”

            “Well played.”

            The Divine turns to me. “You do not remember what happened at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, Inquisitor.”

            “No,” I agree. “I don’t.”

            “The memories you have lost were taken by the demon that serves Corypheus. It is the Nightmare you forget upon waking. It feeds off memories of fear and darkness, growing fat upon the terror. The false Calling that terrified the Wardens into making such grave mistakes? Its work.”

            Stroud glares ahead. “I would gladly avenge the insult this Nightmare dealt my brethren.”

            “You will have your chance, brave Warden. This place of darkness is its lair.”

            “Wait…wait…” I look up at the Divine. “You’re saying the big demon Erimond was trying to bring through?”

            “Yes.”

            “It’s nearby?”

            “Yes.”

            “In this area?”

            “Yes.”

            “Well. Shit.”

            “When you entered the Fade at Haven, the demon took a part of you. Before you do anything else, you must recover it.”

            “How?”

            Divine Justinia waves her arm over the ground. Green orbs appear scattered around us in a half-circle. “These are your memories, Inquisitor,” she murmurs. “They were taken from you, but I have retrieved them. These objects hold the truth of what happened. All you have to do is touch them with the Anchor.”

            I frown. “It’s that simple?”

            She offers an amused smile. “It was not simple for me.”

            “Oh…sorry. Is it…uh…safe?”

            “They are your memories,” she replies with a shrug. “They cannot hurt. They can only enlighten.”

            “How do you know about the Anchor?” I ask, realizing she shouldn't know its name.

            “Recover your memories,” she answers softly.

            “Alright,” I sigh. I step forward once, trusting that Solas would stop me if it was dangerous. I pull my glove off and flex my fingers, hesitating a moment before I extend my hand. I reach for the green orb, feeling it pull at the magic of the mark.

            “What’s going on here?”

            I blink in shock, startling slightly at the sound of my own voice in my head. 

            “Wait—did—did you just say that?” Varric asks.

            “No, you heard it, too?”

            “It is a piece of your memory,” the Divine explains.

            “Why can we all hear it?” 

            “Because we are in the Fade.”

            “Sure,” Varric mutters. “That clears it right up.”

            I step to the next one, pressing my fingers to it gently. A second voice cries out, the woman's tone high and scared but recognizable. 

            “Why are you doing this? You, of all people?”

            “Divine Justinia,” Cassandra breathes, moving her hand unconsciously to her stomach. “The real Divine.”

            “Are you alright, Cassandra?” I murmur.

            “Of course I am.”

            “I know she—”

            “I’m alright, Inquisitor," she says softly. "Continue.”

            I reach for the last orb and suddenly my head pounds with a migraine. I gasp, pressing my hand to my temple. Beside me, I see the others do the same. 

            A fragment flits through my mind, a few forgotten moments rushing back to me staggeringly.

            I walk down the hall, searching for the cry I heard. I move quickly, wishing I had my staff with me. 

            “Why are you doing this?” the voice from before exclaims. “You, of all people?”

            She sounds terrified. I speed up, jogging down the hall to the doors at the end.

            “Someone, help me!” the woman screams.

            I burst through the doors, stopping as I try to understand what I’m seeing. A woman—the Divine—is being held up by some form of red energy. It swirls around her arms and legs, keeping her suspended in midair. Grey Wardens stand around here, another wave of horror washing over me. How is that—what are they doing to her?

            A figure, tall and dark and terrifying, stands before the Divine, his fingers outstretched. In his clawed hand, an orb sits, magical green energy spewing around it as he holds it to the Divine’s chest. She cries out, red energy pulled from her as she struggles. Gold light fills the room, and I raise my hand to block it. 

            “What’s going on here?” I demand, fear gripping me. "Let her go!" 

            The shadowed figure turns to me, and I recoil in horror. A darkspawn—I’ve never seen one—his chest—his eyes—

            The Divine jerks one of her arms free, hitting the creature’s hand. The orb goes flying. It clatters to the ground and rolls towards me loudly. Instinctively, I reach down to catch it with my left hand. The darkspawn's eyes flare, and he growls, lunging at me. I hold the orb up, pain lancing up through my hand and arm like fire. The orb glows, green and brilliant, until it becomes blinding. I scream, falling to my knees, and—

            The migraine disappears as quickly as it started, and I gasp, staring at the ground as I process. 

            “Wait—” I pant.

            “What was that?” Varric demands. “How did we all see that—or…remember that? What is happening?”

            “You saw it, too?” I breathe. 

            “Yeah—like—like I was there. Judging from the looks on everyone’s faces, I’m not the only one.”

            I look at Solas, confused and scared. His eyes are wide as he stares at me, his expression shocked. “You—how did you—you touched the orb,” he whispers.

            “So your mark did not come from Andraste,” Stroud says, straightening. “It came from that…thing.”

            The Divine nods. “Corypheus intended to rip open the Veil, use the Anchor to enter the Fade, and throw open the doors of the Black City. Not for the Old Gods, but for himself. When you disrupted his plan, the orb bestowed the Anchor upon you instead.”

            “Wait,” I whisper, a new horror making me sick. I step back from the Divine, holding my hand up. “Wait, wait, wait…” I look at Solas, at Cassandra, at Varric with wide eyes. “Did—” My eyes flood. “Did…did I blow up the Temple of Sacred Ashes? Did—did I…did I kill all those—” I raise my hand to my mouth, horror making me weak. My stomach rolls, and I gasp, bending slightly. Mythal, no—gods, no, please, no.

            “No, vhenan,” Solas says quickly, stepping towards me. “It was Corypheus who activated the orb.”

            “But I grabbed it!” I shriek. “I—you saw how the vision ended—the light was blinding, and—Justinia, spirit—whatever you are—did I kill those people?”

            “You cannot escape the lair of the demon until you regain all that it took from you.”

            “Answer me!”

            “You will find your answers within your own memories.”

            “Please—”

            “You must progress. I cannot answer that which you must find on your own. You have recovered some of yourself, but now it knows you are here. You must make haste. I will prepare the way ahead.” The Divine looks at us and then disappears.

            “No!” I exclaim. “Wait!”

            “You did not do this, vhenan,” Solas says quietly.

            I raise my hands to my eyes, wiping them quickly before I turn back to the others. I press a hand to my stomach, breathing quickly. Hawke stares straight ahead, her expression disturbed.

            “Something troubles you, Hawke?” Stroud asks.

            “Those were Grey Wardens holding the Divine in that vision,” she replies coldly. “Their actions led to her death, to the explosion, to the—”

            “I assumed he had taken their minds, as you have seen him do before,” Stroud says quickly. “Come. We can argue after we escape this dark place.”

            “Oh, I intend to.”

            I look down at the ground, walking forward again.

            “I’ve never met the Divine,” Varric murmurs. “You think that was really her?”

            “I don’t know,” Cassandra whispers hoarsely.

            “We have survived in the Fade physically,” Solas says quietly. “Perhaps she did as well.”

            “For this long, though?” Varric wonders.

            “Or,” Solas continues, “if it is a spirit that identifies so strongly with Justinia that it believes it is her, how can we say it is not?”

            “She seems interested in helping us,” Stroud mutters. “That much is clear.”

            “That’s all wonderful and all,” Hawke mumbles, “but it’s the Nightmare that actually has the brunt of my attention at the moment, not the friendly ghost thing.”

            “Sounds like it preys on fear,” Varric says. “Stealing people’s memories. That’s low, even for a demon.”

            “Fear is a very old, very strong feeling,” Solas murmurs. “It predates love, pride, compassion…every emotion save perhaps desire. Be wary. The Nightmare will do anything in its power to weaken our resolve.” Solas walks closer to me, directing his next words to me alone. “Vhenan, this is fear taking hold of you. Do not let it win.”

            “What if I caused this?” I whisper.

            “You didn’t, vhenan. This is the Nightmare.”

            “The memory was real.”

            “It was neither your decisions nor actions that led to the events at the Temple. You tried to help. Nothing that happened after is your fault.”

            Varric sighs. “This Nightmare is gonna be a real ass, isn’t it?”

            “After what it did to my fellow Wardens,” Stroud mutters, “I pray we find some way to strike it down.”

            Hawke gasps. “Shit. What—what is that—”

            I look up sharply, recoiling back several steps into Cassandra. My eyes widen, and I reel back again. Enormous spiders crawl across the stone towards us, their legs tapping against the ground. They screech loudly, shaking me more.

            “Snow?” Varric says. “Hawke? What’s wrong?”

            “Nope,” Hawke replies, backing up. “Nope—nope—nope—”

            Varric grabs her arm, stopping her. “I don’t see anything—what do you see?”

            “Spiders—giant, giant spiders—”

            “It is fear,” Solas says briskly, coming to stand before me. I look over his shoulder, shrinking as they climb the walls around us. “Focus on something else. It is feeding on you. Hawke, Suledin, you must focus your attention elsewhere.”

            “Hawke—hey, Hawke,” Varric calls. “Look at me—hey, look at me, remember that time…”

            “Vhenan,” Solas whispers, catching my hand when I recoil. “Don’t look at them. Focus on me.”

            “No,” I whisper, shuddering violently. “They’re—”

            “Vhenan.” I look at him, my eyes wide with sheer terror. He lifts a hand to my cheek, brushing his thumb against my skin. “It is the Nightmare. You must not let it in. It will feed off you, gaining power as it weakens you.” I blink rapidly, clenching my jaw in fear when I see them arrive closer. Something brushes against my arm, and I scream, jerking away. Solas catches me. “There is nothing here. It is an illusion, a trick of the Fade. Focus on me. Focus on my voice.”

            Hawke shrieks, brushing her legs off quickly before Varric steadies her. I squeeze my eyes shut, gripping Solas' arms, my hands shaking.

            “Did it have to be spiders?” Hawke complains, her voice hoarse.

            “Fear’s a bastard,” Varric mutters. “Think about the Hanged Man, alright? Drinks with Isabela and Fenris. Remember the time we…” 

            “Vhenan,” Solas murmurs. “You’re doing so well. Focus on me.”

            I nod slowly, still shaking, though I can no longer hear the clatter of giant legs.

            “Imagine we are back at Skyhold, in the atrium.”

            I nod again, relaxing a little. “Okay,” I breathe, loosening my grip. “Okay.”

            Inquisitor Suledin Lavellan.

            I flinch again, recoiling from Corypheus’ voice.

            “What the fuck was that,” Blackwall breathes.

            “Did you hear it too?” Varric demands.

            “It said the Inquisitor’s name, but the voice—it was inside my head, and it sounded like…that’s impossible.”

            “Sounded like…someone I’d rather not mention,” Varric mutters.

            “It sounded like Corypheus to me,” I breathe, staring at Solas.

            “It is likely designed to shake all of us, a voice that would haunt each of us individually,” he says quietly, his own expression tight.

            “In my head,” Cole whimpers. “No, no, no, no—”

            Ah, we have a visitor.

            “I’m not crazy, right?” Hawke says uneasily. “Everyone’s hearing that, right?”

            “Yep,” Varric mumbles. “Not crazy.”

            Some foolish little girl comes to steal the fear I kindly lifted from her shoulders. You should have thanked me and left your fear where it lay, forgotten.

            I raise my hands to my ears, looking at Solas panicked. Corypheus’ voice crawls through my skin—the pain he inflicted controlling my hand; my days spent wandering broken, dying, lost in the mountains; the damage at the Temple and then at Haven—

            You think that pain will make you stronger? What fool filled your mind with such drivel? The only one who grows stronger from your fears is me. But you are a guest here in my home. So, by all means, let me return that which you have forgotten.

            My heart pounds wildly in my chest.

            Solas takes my hand, his grip firm and grounding. “We must keep moving.”

            “No, no, no, no, no,” Cole murmurs, wringing his fingers. “No—in my head, voices in my head—get out, get out.”

            “It’s alright, kid,” Varric says. “Stick with me. We’re gonna get through this.”

            We walk hesitantly forward. I grip Solas’ arm. He always seems so confident, so in control. Even here. Even now.

            “Oh shit,” Varric says. “What the—”

            “Shit!” Hawke shouts.

            I look up again, recoiling once more when I see spiders. They spin down silken webs from the rocks above—hundreds, no, thousands of them.

            I jump back into Solas and Varric, tripping and falling to the ground.

            “Shit, those are big—” Hawke gasps.

            “Off—get them—get them off—” I whimper, scrambling back. Spiders crawl up my feet to my legs. I scream, fear blinding me. Hawke lunges down beside me, her daggers slicing through the air.

            “Fuck!” Blackwall exclaims, reeling back. He lands hard on the ground, swatting at the air as I scream again, crying as I brush my clothes. Thousands of spiders crawl up my fingers, tickling my skin as they race over me.

            “Vhenan,” Solas says urgently, bending to me. “Close your eyes. There is nothing here. It is an allusion.” I close my eyes, gasping and shaking. “Focus on my voice.” I feel his hands brush softly against my arms as my heart beats wildly out of control, so fast it hurts. I clutch my chest, groaning. “Please, vhenan, focus on me. There is nothing here.”

            “Spiders—”

            “You and me both,” Hawke gasps.

            “They are tricks of the Fade. Demons of fear shape their appearance to unnerve each of us,” Solas says.

            “What do you see?” I beg. I look up at him, wide-eyed. “Do you see something, too?”

            “Yes,” he whispers, brushing my cheek. He pulls me to my feet, and I look down to see my clothes free from spiders.

            “What is it?”

            Solas glances to the side, and I don’t think he’s going to answer at first. His eyes catch on something behind me, his expression tightening in something akin to anger before he composes himself. “A wolf,” he answers.

            I shake against him. “Spiders, for me…obviously.”

            “Bats,” Blackwall grumbles. “Rats with wings.”

            “Mine were bees,” Cassandra says.

            “Okay, okay,” Varric snaps. “Let’s not do the whole 'what’s your biggest fear' game, alright? Let’s just try to emerge from this alive.”

            “Remember,” Solas says firmly to everyone. “This is the Fade, and it is being controlled by a fear demon. What you see, what you hear—it is all part of the Nightmare. Let us continue.” Solas takes my hand firmly again, and we all walk forward again.

            I breathe out evenly, focusing on Solas, on the ground beneath my feet, and the rift far ahead. I'm just starting to relax when the voice appears in my thoughts again.

            Perhaps I should be afraid.

            “Not this again,” Varric sighs.

            Facing the most powerful members of the Inquisition. The demon laughs drily. Like Blackwall. Ah, there’s nothing like a Grey Warden. And you are nothing like a Grey Warden.

            “I’ll show you a Warden’s strength, beast,” Blackwall seethes.

            Oh, are you afraid, Cole? I can help you forget. Just like you help other people. We’re so very much alike, you and I.

            “No,” Cole gasps.

            “Don’t listen to it, Cole,” Solas advises.

            “No,” Cole whimpers again, holding his head as we walk.

            “It is alright, Cole,” Cassandra says. “They are just words."

            “Uh—” Varric laughs uneasily. “Not to be that guy, but, uh—is—is that—”

            “Son of a—seriously?” Hawke complains.

            “What?” Blackwall asks.

            “You don’t see that?”

            “See what?”

            “Great,” Hawke sighs. “Great. All in my head. Lovely image.”

            “Our heads,” Varric corrects grimly.

            We move quickly down the path. I try to stay focused, tightening my fingers on Solas’ for strength.

            Suledin Lavellan. Such a promising name. Tell me, when your keeper called you as such, do you think she knew you would kill her and all your clansmen with your incompetence?

            A strangled breath leaves me.

            “Do not listen to it, vhenan,” Solas whispers, tightening his grip on my hand.

            Tears flood my eyes, and I hold a hand to my mouth, nodding as I walk forward more quickly.

            Your Inquisitor is a fraud, Cassandra. Yet more evidence there is no Maker, that all your ‘faith’ has been for naught.

            “Die in the Void, demon,” Cassandra spits back.

            “This is a fun way to spend an evening,” Varric mutters. “Wonder when it’ll be my turn.”

            “Probably after this next bunch of spiders,” Hawke muses.

            I grip my staff, rage blinding me momentarily. I thrust a fireball at the creatures as they scurry towards us. The demons all go up in flames instantly.

            “Huh,” Varric murmurs. “Good—work, Snow.”

            Once again, Hawke is in danger because of you, Varric. You found the red lyrium, you brought Hawke here…

            “Just keep talkin’, smiley.”

            The demon laughs in response.

            “Aw,” Hawke murmurs. “Varric, you big ol’ softie.”

            “Can we not?” he complains.

            “You really do care.”

            Varric sighs heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose.

            Warden Stroud. How does it feel to devote your whole life to the Wardens only to watch them fall? Or worse, to know that you were responsible for their destruction? When the next Blight comes, will they curse your name?

            “With the Maker’s blessing, we will end this wretched beast," Stroud says through his teeth.

            You have all offered me so much to feed upon.

            “Next time we end up in the Fade,” Varric sighs, “can we pick a beach or a nice mountain or something?”

            “Or the Hanged Man,” Hawke muses.

            “That would be heaven,” Varric says. “I just meant this weird dream shit.”

            Despite the circumstances, Hawke laughs, the sound easing my tension.

            Did you think you mattered, Hawke? Did you think anything you ever did mattered? You couldn’t even save your family, not to mention your city. How could you expect to strike down a god? Fenris is going to die, just like your brother and sister, and everyone else you ever cared about. Everything you touch turns to rot.

            “My, my,” Hawke muses. “That was a long one.”

            There's a moment of perfect silence before the demon continues, his voice crawling through my thoughts. 

            Dirth ma, harellan. Ma banal enasalin. Mar solas ena mar din.

            Solas clenches his jaw. “Banal nadas.”

            I tighten my fingers against his.

            We climb stairs to another platform, and I’m feeling so tense that I startle when I see the Divine standing before us.

            “The Nightmare is closer now,” she murmurs. “It knows you seek escape. With each moment, it grows stronger. You must remember. Come closer, child.”

            I glance at the others and step forward, letting go of Solas’ hand gently. The Divine reaches up, her fingertips glowing. She presses her forefinger to my brow gently, and I recoil in pain, holding my head again at the influx of memories.

            —the orb explodes in my hand. One moment, I’m standing in the Temple of Sacred Ashes with a dark figure lunging at me, the next I’m—in the Beyond? Am I dead?

            I look around wildly at my surroundings—rock and green mist. I look at my hand to find it glowing softly, a faint green that unnerves me. I flex my fingers, wincing at the bright hues. Above me, rocks float in the green sky and—is that—the Black City? The Fade? I’m in the Fade? I look up to see a brilliant white light so bright that it hurts my eyes. Against it, a figure. I look around uncertainly before stepping up to the cliff.

            I scale its walls, moving as quickly as I can. The Fade surrounds me in a green haze. A clacking behind me alerts me to the presence of spider demons. Fear grips me, and I force myself up faster, escaping them as quickly as I can. Some follow me so fast that they nip at my heels. I kick them down, panic seizing me. Above, the light flares. It pulls me closer, lures me in. If I can get to it, I’ll be safe.

            A figure stands against the light, silhouetted by it, but I recognize the Divine’s robes and the shape of her cowl. She’s alright!

            “The demons!” she cries, pointing below me.

            I move more quickly, scratching my fingers against the stone. She reaches down to me, kneeling as she stretches as far as she can. I reach up for her, my fingers barely grazing hers. I cry out in panic, jumping up to grab her hand. She grunts as she pulls me up.

            “It is coming!” she warns.    

            “What is—”

            She pushes me ahead of her.

            “Keep running!” I call, reaching back to take her hand.

            We run together to a slit in the Fade—beyond it, I can see something bright and vivid—mountains, I think.

            The Divine suddenly screams, and she yanks me back. I whip around, grabbing her hand with both of mine to keep her with me. She's pulled back by demons. They latch onto her waist and legs, dragging her by force.

            “No!” I cry, wrenching her towards me a couple steps.

            The demons pull her up off the ground. My feet slide across the stone as I try to pull her back. I shift my weight, dropping it lower as I pull as hard as I can. She looks up at me, her eyes shining.

            “Go,” she breathes. "You must go now! The demons!"

            “No, not without you!” I argue, gripping her tighter. She releases my hand, and I jerk forward, trying to grab at her better. I cry out, pulling as hard as I can. My muscles roar in protest—not strong enough —I'm not strong enough! Please, Mythal, help me save her—

            “Go,” Justinia orders again, pushing me off her. I stumble backwards, landing hard.

            “No!” I scream as she's ripped from me, pulled out of sight.

            I stand up, scrambling to my feet to find her over the edge. As soon as I do, a black shadow rises above me. I gasp, leaning backwards away from it. A long finger extends out, tapping my forehead.

            Color vanishes as my vision blurs, and I stumble backwards, confused.

            I blink rapidly, staring at the ground below me. Where am I? What was I doing?

            I turn around, walking uncertainly forward. A dream—I’m dreaming—I blink languidly, frowning in confusion as I step through something. I trip, my hands meeting stone. I stare at them, my vision blurring. I fall to the side, and darkness takes me.

            I look up, tears brimming my eyes. “It was you,” I whisper, looking at the Divine. “They thought it was Andraste sending me from the Fade…but it was the Divine behind me. And then you…she…died.”

            The Divine bows her head sadly. “Yes.”

            “So…this creature is simply a spirit,” Stroud says, his voice low.

            “I think we all knew that was the case, Stroud,” Hawke mutters.

            “I am sorry if I disappoint you,” the Divine offers. She closes her eyes, and a bright white light emanates from her body so sharply that I shield my eyes at first. When I look back, she is pure and beautiful—her true self.

            “Are you…her soul?” I wonder slowly.

            “If that is the story you wish to tell,” the spirit murmurs, “it is a good one.”

            “What we do know,” Hawke murmurs, “is that the mortal Divine perished at the Temple. Thanks to the Grey Wardens.”

            Stroud turns on her. “As I said, the Grey Wardens responsible for that crime were under the control of Corypheus. We can discuss this further once we return to Adamant.”

            “Yes,” Hawke muses drily, “Adamant, where right now Inquisition forces face an army of demons raised by the Wardens.”

            “How dare you judge us! You tore Kirkwall apart and started the mage rebellion!”

            “Hey!” Varric shouts angrily.

            “Yes!” Hawke exclaims at the same time. “To protect innocent mages! Not madmen drunk on blood magic! Even without the influence of Corypheus, the Wardens go too far! They need to be checked.”

            “Agreed,” Solas murmurs. “The Wardens may once have served a greater good, but they are far too dangerous now.”

            “What are you saying?” Blackwall demands. “The Wardens are heroes! They defend the land against the Blight. Who will do it if they don’t? They do what they must to protect people!”

            “That’s madness!” Hawke exclaims. “If I slit my wrists open and call forth a demon to save my friends, I’m adding to the problem! And these Old Gods—” She splutters, disbelief rendering her speechless.

            “I cannot believe the Grey Wardens could even conceive of such a plan,” Solas says hotly. “To seek out these Old Gods deliberately in some bizarre attempt to preempt the Blight.”

            “They had the best of intentions!” Stroud argues.

            “The Blight is not something one smugly outsmarts,” Solas replies irritably.

            “I don’t know what to think,” Varric sighs. “There are a few good ones, but an awful lot of the Wardens I’ve known went crazy.”

            “They hurt people,” Cole says between his teeth.

            “They made a mistake!” Stroud argues.

            “A mistake that would have cost the lives of everyone in Thedas had they succeeded,” Solas snaps.

            “They’re—heroes of old,” Blackwall says. “What would we do without them? The world would have ended five times over if not for them.”

            “Acts of heroism do not justify bad decisions,” Hawke frowns.

            “That’s rich,” Stroud spits. “It was your friend that blew up the Chantry in the first place, beginning this whole ordeal. And what did you do? Where is he now? Is he facing the proper punishment for his crime? No—he’s free.”

            Hawke glares at him.

            “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Stroud,” Varric warns.

            “You want to throw judgement at the Wardens for their desperate acts yet excuse the actions of your own friends—”

            “Hey!” I shout, clapping my hands twice. “Now is really not the time for this, you two—or…all of you. We can argue once we’ve escaped from the giant fear demon that’s stalking us—you know, the one currently pitting us against each other and controlling our emotions?”

            Hawke and Stroud turn to me, their expressions shifting. “Uh, Inquisitor,” Hawke murmurs.

            I turn back. “Oh, come on!” I exclaim, angrily hurling a fireball at the spiders before they get too close. They blow up on impact. “Now, let’s go! I don’t want to hear another word about this Warden situation until we’re back in our own world, got it? Got—it?”

            “Yes, Your Worship,” Stroud says.

            “Yes, Mother,” Hawke replies quietly.

            “Hawke, I swear to Mythal, I will turn this ship around.”

            Hawke snickers. "You just make it so fun."

            “Come,” Solas says. “Real or not, the Divine is the key to escaping from the Fade.”

            I nod, leading the way forward. I grip my staff tightly, listening to my own advice. I can’t think about the Temple or the Divine or the Wardens right now. We just need to get out of here in one piece.

            The voice returns to my thoughts, scoffing.

            Do you really think you can fight me? I am your every fear come to life. I am the veiled hand of Corypheus himself. The demon army you fear? I command it. They are all bound through me.

            “Ah,” the Divine murmurs, “so, if we banish you, we banish the demon. Thank you, every fear come to life.”

            “Oh,” Hawke laughs. “You just got burned by the Divine…spirit…thing.”

            Laugh while you can, Hawke. I have a special place for you here in the Fade.

            “Does it have talking horses? I’d be happy if there was just one.”

            “You know the one thing I like about you, Hawke?” Varric murmurs.

            “Just the one? I’m delightful.”

            “I like how serious you are. I mean, some people go around, and all they do is joke, joke, joke. But you? You take things seriously.”

            “It comes from years of rigorous training. I once spent an entire day in front of a mirror perfecting my straight face.”

            “Well, it worked.”

            “Why is there water everywhere?” Cassandra suddenly wonders, her boots splashing against the puddles underfoot.

            “Maybe it’s preying on my fear of wet socks,” Hawke suggests.

            “Do you think it’s from Crestwood?” I ask, looking at Solas.

            He gives a thoughtful expression, nodding. “Possibly. The lake would have flooded the Fade at the rift you sealed. That is a fascinating observation.”

            “Oh, no wait, look, this place has captured my true fear,” Hawke shudders. “Floating rocks.”

            “And my fear of sand,” Varric adds.

            “Oh—look—cliffs,” Hawke gasps.

            “I am so glad you two are enjoying yourselves,” Cassandra mutters.

            “Come now, Seeker, it’s more relaxing to make fun of everything,” Varric replies.

            “It is helping with my trepidation. Do not let that go to your head, dwarf.”

            Varric cackles. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

            “Uh…anyone in here afraid of pride demons?” Hawke wonders.

            “Why?” Blackwall asks.

            “No reason.”

            The ground rumbles beneath our feet, and I look up sharply to see not one but two pride demons running towards us. One raises its hand, a ball of electricity hurling across the distance between us. Solas throws up a barrier around me at the same time I raise one over all of us. The electricity slams against the wall, flickering across its surface as it searches for a way through. I grunt at the impact on my mana, feeling the hair raise on my arms and neck from the static. I throw the barrier off us, letting it fade away. It takes the electricity with it.

            Cole tries to phase out, but he can’t, and he appears dismayed by it. He runs shakily forward, gripping his daggers as he follows the others. Cassandra and Blackwall split up, each going to separate sides while Hawke launches herself at the demons head on, flipping and ducking and rolling so gracefully that, for a second, all I can do is mindlessly watch her go. Solas’ barrier protects her when she miscalculates a hit, and she throws a grin back at him. I use my staff to throw a fireball at one of the pride demons, feeling myself weaken immeasurably from the energy it takes. My mana is draining quickly, and I once again regret not taking the blasted lyrium when I had the chance.

            The demon I strike roars in anger, kicking its leg out harshly. Blackwall tries to shield himself from the blow, but he flies backwards, a heap of heavy armor slamming against a wall. I quickly throw out a barrier to cushion his fall. The kick hit him hard, though, and he stirs but doesn’t rise. Cassandra dodges and slashes at the demon’s heels, earning another thunderous response from the beast. I try to freeze it in place, sweat beading my forehead as I tighten my grasp on the demon’s leg. It struggles to free itself, but I hold firm, solidifying and sealing its foot to the ground. Cole runs up the ice, using his daggers to scale the beast. As before, he drives one of the blades into the creature’s head, and it disappears.

            Exhausted and drained, I turn my focus to the second pride demon. Hawke cartwheels in time to avoid a heavy punch. She uses one hand to catapult herself back a few steps to Varric. He mutters something that makes her laugh, and she wipes her forehead before charging back in. She feints left and moves around the demon to the right when it tries to strike at her. Her daggers sink into its thigh, and it cries out angrily, on the verge of kicking her. Solas erects a quick barrier over her while I summon the will for another fireball. I pant, gathering the necessary mana for even just a small one. It glows at the tip of my staff, slowly growing. I release it when I fe