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Unshaken by the Darkness

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     The green mist -

               mist isn’t usually green, is it?

The screams from the throats of burning men -

                    that, she’s more familiar with.

     And the woman, brilliant, burning -

                         CassiaAndrasteMother, please -

          Give me your hand!

 

Maker have mercy, it hurts.



She’s not really conscious when they haul her up to kneel on the stone. Not until her hand sparks with green light that hurts like taking a mage’s lightning bolt. Then, as she’s gasping for air, the door swings open. Two women enter, one in armor and one hooded that she can almost remember. 

“What have you done to me?” she asks, watching as the one in armor starts to circle her. “What is this?” The hooded one just stares at her, and she stares back - she can almost remember her…

“Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now.” The question from the one in armor catches her off guard, and she looks up at her in horror and confusion. “The Conclave is destroyed,” the one in armor says, continuing her prowl to stand in front of her again. “Everyone who attended is dead.”

“No.” The word is torn out of her by surprise. Cassia, Cassia, Cassia - “No!” she sobs, “Maker, no!”

“Except for you,” the one in armor concludes. 

She wants to pray, but she can’t find the words. With her hands bound, she can’t reach up to wipe away her tears, and she’s struggling to hold them back when the one in armor reaches out to pull her hand up, just as it flashes and sparks again.

“Explain this,” the one in armor demands.

“I can’t -”

“What do you mean, you can’t ?”

“I don’t know what it is -” She looks to the hooded one, hoping for aid. “I don’t know where it came from!”

“You’re lying!” The one in armor snarls, lunging toward her, but the hooded one catches her by the arm.

“We need her, Cassandra.” The hooded one’s accent is Orlesian, and she can almost place her - she remembers her in Val Royeaux, rose madder Chantry robes against white marble…

The hooded one has moved the one in armor - Cassandra - away to a safe distance, where she watches with a sour face.

“Please. My name is Claudia Trevelyan. I came here for my sister -” and now she is dead. “I wanted to bring her home safe -” and I failed. She lets her head fall to her chest.

“Do you remember what happened?” the hooded one asks. “How this began?”

Some of her light brown hair has fallen in her face, and she tries to shake it out of her eyes before she speaks. “I - I was in the main hall. There were so many people…” They are all dead. “I saw Senior Enchanter Bevans, from the Ostwick Circle, and I went to ask him if he had seen Cassia.” He had been a gentle man; years ago, he had attended her eldest brother’s wedding and made a shining display of sparks for the celebration. “There was a, a noise. People started to panic. I went toward it, I wanted to help…” She shakes her head. “I don’t remember what happened after that.” No, her dream - “There was mist, green mist. I heard the screaming, and there was a woman…” 

“A woman?” the hooded one breathes.

“She touched my hand...” With a growing sense of horror, she looks down at her hand. There is something there, as though one of the lines of her hand has broken open into a ragged mouth that breathes wisps of smoke and bites with teeth of green light.

“Go to the forward camp, Leliana,” Cassandra says. “I -”

“Leliana!” Claudia interrupts. “Lady Nightingale, I spoke with you! In Val Royeaux, two or th-three years ago - Please, I don’t know what’s going on!”

Lady Nightingale and Cassandra look to her, then to each other. “I will take her to the rift,” Cassandra says. As the Nightingale departs, Cassandra approaches, key in hand to remove Claudia’s chains. 

“I came to find my sister,” Claudia repeats quietly. “And now you tell me she is dead. What - what happened?”

“It…” Cassandra hesitates. She does not seem like a woman who hesitates often, and the pause sinks the stone in Claudia’s stomach deeper. “It will be easier to show you.”

Up they go, one set of stone steps and then another. Claudia’s hands are bound with rope now, and she trails them against the cold wall to keep her balance. The pre-dawn haze is enough to make her flinch as they reach open air. There is a rumble like thunder, and she looks up to the sky… 

“We call it ‘the Breach’,” Cassandra says as Claudia stares at the swirling cyclone of light, boulders larger than houses simply hovering inside the twisted column. “It’s a massive rift into the world of demons that grows stronger with each passing hour.”

“Maker protect us,” Claudia murmurs.

“It’s not the only such rift. Just the largest,” Cassandra continues. “All were caused by the explosion at the Conclave.”

“What kind of explosion can do that?” she asks, but she already has a suspicion: a magical one. The Fade holds demons and spirits, power for mages and dreams for everyone else, all tied together in one Maker-forsaken package.

“I don’t know,” Cassandra admits. “But unless we act, the Breach may continue to grow until it swallows the world.”

A tumor in the belly of the sky, Claudia thinks, and is about to say when the Breach… explodes? The mouth in her hand explodes with it - she tries not to scream but doesn’t think she succeeds - and the next thing she knows, Cassandra is kneeling in the snow beside her.

“Each time the Breach expands, your mark spreads,” Cassandra says. “And it is killing you. It may be the key to stopping this, but there isn’t much time.”

The Breach will spread, somehow Claudia feels she knows this. It will cover Ferelden, then the Free Marches, Nevarra, Tevinter, whatever is beyond the seas. “Whatever I can do to help, I will.”

Cassandra nods her approval and reaches out to take Claudia by the arm, helping her to her feet. Together they proceed through Haven. It looks the same as the last time she saw it, save for the suspicious stares and murmurs that follow them. “They have already decided your guilt,” Cassandra says, her quiet voice a counterpoint to the glare that sends a wary guard back a step and his hand away from his sword. “They need it. The people of Haven mourn our Most Holy.”

“I am an apothecary and a physician,” Claudia hisses. “I have sworn to do no harm, save to those who mean me harm.”

“You think these people know that?” Cassandra replies. “You think they care?”

“The Conclave was a chance for peace between mages and templars,” Claudia says as the guards at the gate heave the heavy wooden doors out of their way. “I had no desire and no reason to destroy that.”

“We must think beyond ourselves, as Divine Justinia did.” Cassandra turns Claudia toward the path leading up to the bridge, and the mountain beyond. “At least until the Breach is sealed.”

“And hopefully after, for the sake of my neck,” Claudia mutters.

Cassandra snorts, but whether it is in disgust or in humor, there is no way to tell. 

 

Once at the bridge, under the watchful eye of half a dozen soldiers, Cassandra draws a dagger from her belt.

Claudia skitters back a step. “I thought you wanted my help.” Cassandra doesn’t reply, just grabs her by the ropes at her wrists and pulls her forward. “This thing hurts and I’d be happy to let you cut it off, but I think I’d prefer an axe -”

Cassandra slices through the rope, freeing Claudia’s hands. “There will be a trial,” she says, meeting Claudia’s gaze evenly. “I can promise no more.”

“Brilliant,” Claudia mutters, rubbing her wrists. She looks around as Cassandra begins to walk away. Corpses are laid out in neat rows, one Chantry sister praying over them while another tends to wounded on the other side of the bridge. How many dead here alone? Thirty or more?

“Come,” Cassandra orders. “It is not far.”

Claudia would rather stay here a little while, see if there is anyone she can help, but it seems she’s needed more up there. She trudges after the warrior, turning her attention to the mountain track leading up toward the Breach. “It’s not as far as Tevinter, but I don’t think I’d say it’s a short walk.”

Cassandra huffs a little without looking back. “Your mark must be tested on something smaller than the Breach. There is a rift above. Open the gate!” she calls ahead to the guards. “We are going into the valley.”

“Maker go with you, Seeker,” one of the men murmurs as she passes. Behind them, the gate closes with a heavy thud and a clank of the latches.

“Seeker,” Claudia repeats, thinking aloud as they begin to make their way up the path. “Cassandra… Pentaghast?”

“Yes,” Cassandra replies tersely. The stones and snow crunching under her boots speak more than she does. As they pass a barricade, one of the men behind it stands and salutes.

“Right Hand of the Divine,” Claudia says. “I believe - believed - in Justinia. A moderate voice, with compassion for both sides. It must have been an honor to serve her.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you speak too much?” Cassandra snarls.

“Well -” Claudia’s retort is ripped from her as the mark flares, the mouth in her hand tearing at muscle and tendon and bone. She falls to her knees again, gasping, tempted to thrust her hand into the snow in the hope that the cold will numb the pain.

Again, Cassandra pulls her to her feet, not without gentleness. “The pulses are coming faster now,” she says grimly. “The larger the Breach grows, the more rifts appear and the more demons we face.”

“I don’t understand,” Claudia says, trailing after Cassandra. “How did I survive when so many others didn’t?”

“They say…” Cassandra pauses, looking back over her shoulder. “You stepped out of a rift, then fell unconscious. They say a woman was in the rift behind you. No one knows who she was.”

                         CassiaAndrasteMother, please -

“I - I…” But she cannot say whether she remembers or not.

Cassandra continues up the path. For a moment there is quiet, save for the rumbles and distant explosions from the Breach. When Claudia arrived in Haven, she thought it charming, the Frostbacks reminiscent of the heights of the Vimmark Mountains in deep winter. Now, under the eerie light of the Breach, the dark pine trees loom close and the edge of the cliff seems to creep toward her feet. Bodies lie along the path, mages and templars and some too badly burned to be identified as one or the other. So many dead...

As they approach the gate to another bridge ahead, Cassandra speaks again. “Everything farther in the valley was laid to waste, including the Temple of Sacred Ashes. I suppose you’ll see soon enough.” Pushing through the splintered gate, she calls ahead to the group of soldiers at the other end of the bridge: “Where is your superior officer? Orders have been -”

Claudia has a single second of warning, granted by the sinister hissing whine from the direction of the Breach, before the Fade-touched blast strikes the bridge. Without thinking, she starts to use it for a prayer - Andraste, grant me - and is thrown toward the frozen lake before she can ask for something, luck or strength or perhaps the ability to disappear when in danger and reappear somewhere else. 

That would be a nice skill, she decides as she makes contact with the ice arse-first. Then there’s another hissing whine and a blast nearby and she doesn’t have any more time for serious contemplation. Something dark and malicious-looking is rising from the small crater in the surface of the lake. Cassandra said demons, didn’t she? Claudia’s not a mage, she’s never seen, let alone fought, a demon before.

“Stay behind me,” Cassandra orders, sword and shield at the ready. She moves forward to engage the demon, but something green and black and hissing and whispering is oozing over the ice toward Claudia. A soldier has been crushed by the stones behind her, his bow laying an arm’s-length from his hand, beside a chest filled with straw, the lid bashed open and weapons falling out - 

She’s fumbling to retrieve a quiver from the chest when the ooze suddenly crystalizes, shooting up from the ice before bursting into green flame and revealing a demon. No more time. She drops the quiver and draws an arrow instead, nocking it quickly and - no armor, go for the head - the arrow strikes the demon right where an eye might be if it had eyes. It snarls instead of falling, moving toward her and Andraste have mercy , those are some nasty looking claws; Claudia grabs another arrow, dropping to a knee - full draw, if this doesn’t work I’m fucked -  

This time the arrow strikes the demon in the chest, a little less off center than she was aiming, and punches straight through the thing. For an instant, smoke flows slowly from the wound, then picks up speed, pouring out onto the ice and dissipating as the demon collapses.

Cassandra is still fighting the first demon that appeared, the fine paint on her shield scratched by those hideous claws. Claudia nocks an arrow and takes aim, waiting for a shot where she won’t have to worry about hitting the Seeker… there! Cassandra takes half a step back, pivoting on her heel to avoid a strike, and Claudia looses her arrow. This time, it strikes the demon in the stomach - if it has a stomach - and punches through, its smoke-like essence pouring out.

Cassandra looks over the lake quickly for any more threats before she turns toward Claudia. “Drop your weapon,” she orders, “now!”

Claudia stands, raising her hands to show that she holds only a strung bow and no arrows. “I stayed behind you,” she offers. “And I said I would help.”

The warrior huffs, sheathing her sword before she speaks again. “You’re right. I cannot leave you defenseless. Although you claimed you were a physician.”

“Apothecary, physician, ex-mercenary,” Claudia replies. She kneels beside the chest again, digging out the quiver she wanted and then looking for extra arrows to shove into it. “Eight years of training with templar recruits, then I ran away and worked with the Eastern Shield mercenary company for seven years.”

“Give that one to me. I can carry an additional quiver for you,” Cassandra says. Claudia does as she’s told, then starts filling another quiver. “So, you wanted to be a templar?”

Claudia can’t help the laugh that escapes. “My parents sent me to the Chantry to receive a noblewoman’s education. I was too much of a hellion for most of the sisters, so the Revered Mother had me join the recruits for their training. I think she expected me to burn out, but instead I enjoyed it.” She stands, unbuckling her belt to hang the quiver at her hip. “Cassia would have been a better pupil. She was always the good twin.” She looks down as she buckles her belt again. She doesn’t expect sympathy and she doesn’t want pity.

“I… can understand your grief,” Cassandra says stiffly. “Are you ready to continue?”

“After you,” Claudia replies. Carefully, they make their way across the frozen lake, around a rocky bend and toward a gravelly slope that deposits them on the path once more. “Where are your soldiers?” she asks, looking out over the wreckage and small fires that litter the valley.

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

And so they are, fighting their way step by step along the valley from one nest of demons to another. It feels good to have a bow in her hand, the methodical motions of nock-draw-aim-loose clearing Claudia’s mind of everything but the fight. Gradually, the path gives way to the frozen river and the river gives way to ankle-deep snow, but Cassandra seems to know the route. It’s almost a surprise to Claudia when they stop at the bottom of a set of stone steps.

“We’re getting close,” Cassandra says. “You can hear the fighting now.” And indeed, when Claudia tilts her head up, she can hear shouts and the clash of steel. “Come, we must help them.”

At the top of the steps, there is yet another bridge, this one extending only a few lengths before it ends abruptly. Cassandra moves away from the bridge, jumping down from a broken wall to charge ahead into a long-ruined building where a group is battling demons beneath a cluster of green crystal hanging in the air. Claudia remains at the crest of the wall, dropping to one knee to improve her aim. 

Nock, draw, aim, loose - and one demon collapses in on itself - nock, draw, aim, loose - that one was only a glancing strike, but the demon is distracted enough for Cassandra to deliver a killing blow - nock, draw, aim, loose - she finishes off a demon that a mage had frozen in place, and now she is out of arrows. She jumps down and trades her bow for a sword left in the grip of a soldier’s corpse, its hilt singed but its blade still sharp. There is a wisp creeping up on the mage, trailing cold mist behind it, and Claudia splits it in half with a grunt of effort.

“Quickly, before more come through!” the mage calls, seizing her by the wrist and dragging her left hand up toward the crystal that shimmers from within, that has now morphed into a tear in the fabric of the world, still hanging in the air -

“Maker!” Claudia cries, more in surprise than in pain. Something has connected between the mark on her hand and the rift, and it pulls like it’s trying to drag her in, like it’s trying to drain her blood from her veins, and every muscle from her hand to her shoulder is cramping and then… The rift snaps shut. “Fuck,” Claudia says, and sits down on the cold ground.

“What did you do?” Cassandra asks, looking down at her.

“Ask him,” she retorts, nodding her head toward the mage as she cradles her arm to her chest. “He’s the one that shoved my hand up there.”

“Whatever magic opened the Breach also placed that mark upon her hand,” the mage says. He’s an elf, bald and pale as an ivory carving, in well-worn traveler’s clothes. Not a Circle mage, then. “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.” Claudia watches him, almost expecting him to tug at his lapels in a smug, self-congratulatory way. Instead he holds his hand out to her.

“Meaning it could also close the Breach itself,” Cassandra says as the mage helps Claudia to her feet.

“Possibly,” the mage agrees. He folds his hands as he looks to Claudia. “It seems you hold the key to our salvation.”

“Bloody wonderful,” she mutters, barely loud enough to be heard under the crunch of snow as someone approaches.

“Good to know!” a deep and friendly voice announces. “Here I thought we’d be stuck ass-deep in demons forever.” Claudia looks back toward the voice and takes in the dwarf, his crossbow, and his expanse of chest hair. “Varric Tethras. Rogue, storyteller, occasionally unwelcome tagalong.”

“I could have guessed,” she replies. “Claudia Trevelyan, pleased to meet you.”

“You may come to reconsider that stance,” the mage says quietly.

“Aww,” Varric says, feigning disappointment. “I’m sure we’ll all become great friends in the valley, except maybe me and you, Seeker.”

“Absolutely not,” Cassandra says immediately. “Your help is appreciated, Varric, but -”

“Have you been in the valley lately?” Varric asks. “Your soldiers aren’t in control anymore. You need me.”

Claudia glances over her shoulder at the mage, one eyebrow raised to ask Are they always like this? He only shrugs in response, which could mean Yes and you’ll get used to it or I’ve never met these people before.

After a pause, all Cassandra has to add to the conversation is a disgusted grunt.

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

“As am I,” Claudia replies with a sarcastic tilt of her head.

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

“You know about this thing?”

“Solas is an apostate, well versed in these matters,” Cassandra says, returning with a scabbard and a fistful of arrows. “Here. You might as well keep the sword.”

“Technically, all mages are now apostates,” Solas says, just a tad prickly, as Claudia attaches the scabbard to her belt on the other side from the quiver. “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.”

“If I can close it, I will,” Claudia replies as she reloads her quiver. “Even if it costs my life.”

“A commendable attitude,” Solas says, bowing his head to her. “Cassandra, you should know - the magic involved here is unlike any I have seen. Your prisoner is no mage. Indeed, I find it difficult to imagine any mage wielding such power.”

“Understood,” Cassandra says quietly. Her voice strengthens as she continues: “We must get to the forward camp quickly.” She sets out to lead the way, Solas following close behind. Claudia pauses, looking back to Varric.

“Well,” he says, “Bianca’s excited!”

“Your… crossbow?” Claudia asks, dredging up memories from The Tale of the Champion.

“This way, down the bank,” Cassandra calls. “The road ahead is blocked.”

And so they go, down a rocky trail to the frozen river below. At the narrow throat of the ravine, demons are waiting for them. The battle goes faster this time, with Solas throwing spells and Varric adding his bolts to Claudia’s arrows while Cassandra keeps the shades distracted. Ahead, a cabin on the shore is burning. Claudia’s breath catches in her throat for an instant, but the smoke is grey, not black, and does not carry the smell of burning flesh. No one at home.

“Now, I take it you’re from the Free Marches?” Varric asks, at her heels as they trudge uphill.

“I - yes,” Claudia says.

“Accent,” Varric explains, catching the note of surprise in her voice. “I’m from Kirkwall, but you’re from… further east, I think.”

“Ostwick.” She pulls on a sapling for extra momentum as she clambers up a boulder, then reaches back to pull Varric up. “You have a good ear.”

“I’m all kinds of impressive,” Varric says when he’s mounted on the stone, tucking his thumbs into his belt and presenting a proud pose. Claudia laughs, while Cassandra looks back and gives another disgusted grunt. “So, are you innocent?” he asks as they keep walking.

“I don’t know what happened,” Claudia replies. “But I have no reason to have done it, and I certainly don’t know how to make something like that happen.” She finishes her sentence looking up at the Breach above, still rumbling and shining like some awful beacon.

“Should’ve spun ‘em a story,” Varric says.

“That’s what you would have done,” Cassandra calls over her shoulder.

“It’s less prone to result in premature execution,” he says, defending himself.

“I’ve told the truth,” Claudia says. “That’s my story.”

“Demons ahead!” Solas calls down to the group, effectively ending the conversation.

And of course, there are. Four, bunched up tight on the top of the stairs. Claudia leaves Varric behind and passes Solas on the snow-covered steps carefully, following Cassandra into the fray with her sword drawn. Two strangely glowing wraiths fall back and begin to throw blasts of green energy. She faces off with the smaller shade, while Cassandra moves to take on the larger. It’s the first time she’s struck a demon more substantial than a wisp, and she finds them disconcertingly solid. 

The demon is strong, but Claudia is fast; it swipes at her with its claws and she dances back a step before bringing her blade down to shear its arm off above the elbow. It shrieks at her, a sound like a blade against a whetstone that sets her teeth on edge. Again it attacks, the same swipe from the other arm, and this time Claudia ducks, going down to one knee and coming up to drive her sword into its torso while it’s still completing the movement of the attack. Its own momentum turns it, tearing a gash in its side that gapes open, pouring forth spirit-essence until there isn’t enough to keep the demon upright.

Claudia stays low, and a bolt from Varric’s crossbow whizzes over her head to strike one of the wraiths squarely in the middle of the chest it seems to have. The bolt sticks, and the wraith looks down at it as though in surprise before it vanishes and the bolt clatters to the stone. To her left, Cassandra is still fighting the greater shade, holding it back with her shield. Claudia tumbles forward, rolling to come up behind the demon. Cassandra presses forward to plunge her blade into the shade’s chest and Claudia’s sword meets the shade’s back as it tries to move away. For the instant that the demon remains whole while bleeding smoke, it throws its claws up in defeat.

“Well done,” Cassandra says, looking down at Claudia over the rag-like remnants of the shade.

“I do my best to please,” Claudia replies, with a wink that makes Varric chortle and Cassandra scowl. Smiling, Claudia stands and sheathes her sword.

“I hope Leliana made it through this,” Cassandra murmurs. Though she’s looking northeast, she seems to be seeing something the others cannot.

“She’s resourceful, Seeker,” Varric says reassuringly, coming up to pat Cassandra on the hip.

“We will see for ourselves when we reach the forward camp,” Solas says, following Varric up the last few steps. “We’re almost there.”

Almost there is a relative term. They have a short distance to cover, but another rift and another four demons are between them and the gate to the camp. This time Claudia keeps to her bow, wanting to save her energy before the rift tries to pull her hand off. Varric takes out the wraith on the left with a well-placed shot while Claudia does the same to the one on the right. Solas freezes both shades in their tracks, and Cassandra steps forward to take the head off one before she slices the other open from shoulder to waist.

“Hurry!” Solas calls. “Use the mark!”

It’s what she’s here for, isn’t it? Claudia braces her feet and reaches up. Again the rift pulls at her hand, threatening to tug her forward, but she leans back, trying to ride the pain rather than letting it take her. Remember when Sophie was born - that was worth the pain - this is worth the pain -

The rift swallows itself and vanishes. Suddenly, Varric’s hand at her hip and Solas’s hand on her shoulder are the only things keeping her upright. “I don’t want to think what closing the big one will be like,” Claudia mumbles, dizzily clutching her hand to her chest.

“You’re doing great,” Varric assures her as Solas slings her right arm over his shoulders to help her walk into the camp.

Cassandra has already ordered the gates opened and crossed the bridge to speak to her counterpart and some man in Chantry garb. Solas helps Claudia to sit on one of the many crates nearby while Varric rummages through his pockets.

“Here,” Varric says, producing a health potion in a scratched glass vial. “Drink up, kid. You look like you could use it.”

Claudia downs the potion in one long swig - the faster she drinks, the less she has to taste it - and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “If you’re trying to nickname me, Master Tethras, I don’t think that one is a good fit. I have two children of my own.”

“Yeah?” Varric asks.

Before he can continue, Cassandra calls from her place beside the table with Lady Nightingale and the Chantry brother. “Trevelyan!” When Claudia looks toward her, Cassandra gestures for her to come over.

“Thank you, Varric,” Claudia says softly, returning the now-empty vial to him as she stands.

“Chancellor Roderick, this is -”

“I know who she is,” the chancellor snaps, cutting Leliana off. “As Grand Chancellor of the Chantry, I hereby order you to take this criminal to Val Royeaux to face execution.” Claudia looks at him dully, unimpressed.

“Order me?” Cassandra snarls, stepping toward him. “You are a glorified clerk. A bureaucrat!”

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

“We serve the Most Holy, chancellor, as you well know.” Leliana’s voice is even, but carries an edge.

“Justinia is dead!” the chancellor barks.

As he continues speaking, Claudia leans toward Cassandra. “Is he going to say something important at some point, or can I sit down again?” she asks in a whisper.

“Stay here,” Cassandra says quietly.

“Seeker,” the chancellor says, and Cassandra looks back to him. “Call a retreat. Our position here is hopeless.”

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

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

“We must get to the temple. This is the quickest route.” The Seeker points emphatically on a map laying on the trestle table, weighted down with empty glass vials and small stones.

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

“Listen to me,” the chancellor says. “Abandon this now, before more lives are lost -”

The rumble of the Breach expanding once more cuts him off. The mark on Claudia’s hand flares, the light a green so bright it’s all but white, and she grits her teeth to keep from crying out. When she’s able to focus again, she finds all three Chantry officials looking at her.

“How do you think we should proceed?” Cassandra asks. “You are the one we must keep alive.”

“We charge with the soldiers, then,” Claudia says. “I won’t risk lives on a distraction. Whatever happens, happens now.”

Cassandra nods and turns to her counterpart. “Leliana, bring everyone left in the valley. Everyone.”

“On your head be the consequences, Seeker ,” the chancellor hisses.

“On mine,” Claudia says, harshly enough to startle him.

 

The path beyond the last bridge is even worse than earlier climbs. The stone steps are buried in snow at some points, slick with ice at others, and gravel makes for precarious footing in yet other places. Claudia keeps her head down, focusing on where she places her feet rather than where she’s headed or the soldiers marching around the group at her order. She’s commanded men before, asked them to put their lives on the line, but never so many, never any that she didn’t know and consider a friend. 

More wreckage. More snow and ice. More bodies. Ahead, someone is crying for help.

“Please, he’s wounded!” the person calls, and Claudia raises her head involuntarily. At the top of the steps, one soldier is holding another that clutches at his abdomen.

“Cassandra!” Claudia calls. The Seeker is a few steps ahead, and returns when she sees Claudia throwing the injured soldier’s arm over her shoulders.

“There is little time to… spare,” Cassandra says, changing the final word at the last second. Even so, she takes the soldier’s other arm and helps Claudia move him away from the path. Together, they lay him on a piece of singed canvas spread over the snow.

“Let me see,” Claudia murmurs. She nudges away the soldier’s hands and begins to examine the wounds under his armor. “You,” she says to the other soldier, “do you know where a mage healer can be found?”

“Tried, mistress,” is the reply. The soldier sniffles and rubs his nose with his sleeve. “None about up here. Is there aught you can do for him?”

Claudia hesitates, then moves the soldier’s armor back into place. “You can do the most for him now,” she says softly, standing and placing a hand on the other soldier’s shoulder. “Keep him warm. If you can write, see if there’s anyone he’d like a letter sent to.”

“You have served well,” Cassandra says, though her hand is on Claudia’s shoulder to tug her away. “Stay here with your friend, soldier.”

They are already a few steps away when the soldier calls his thanks after them. Claudia keeps her head down and watches where she puts her feet.

More bodies. More injured. More demons. Another Fade rift. Loose stones clatter under their feet as they fight. These demons are different, spindly and bony, all long fingernails and sharp teeth. Claudia’s glad to have enough arrows - these terrors are as fast as she is, or faster, and she can’t vanish into the ground and pop out of it in the perfect location to run someone through from behind.

The rift hisses and spits gobbets of light like a rabid beast as Claudia links her hand to it and starts to close it. This time, she pulls against it as it pulls against her. By the time it closes, her legs and back are screaming, but her hand and arm hurt less.

The cramps in her arm are just starting to ease off when one of the soldiers - their commander, probably, to judge by that impressive fur mantle - steps forward to speak to Cassandra. “You managed to close the rift?” he asks her. “Well done.”

“Do not congratulate me, Commander,” Cassandra says, still a little out of breath from when one of the terrors slammed her against a wall. “This is the prisoner’s doing.”

“Claudia Trevelyan,” she says to introduce herself. She takes a step toward him, wobbling more from rubble underfoot than from post-rift-closing dizziness. “At your service, Commander,” she adds as he clasps her outstretched hand.

“I hope they’re right about you,” he replies, his tone a little sharp. “We’ve lost a lot of people getting you here.”

“Whatever I can do to help, I will,” she promises, for the third or fourth time today. “I can’t promise I’ll be able to close the Breach, but I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all we can ask, I suppose.” He steps away, looking to Cassandra again. “The way to the temple should be clear. Leliana will try to meet you there.”

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

“Maker watch over you,” the commander says, before glancing back at Claudia. “For all our sakes.”

She can’t help but give him a casual salute in response. For an instant, before he turns away to help a wounded soldier, she thinks she sees the ghost of a smile on his lips.

 

The Temple of Sacred Ashes is… worse than anything Claudia’s ever seen. Worse than the nest of blood mages who’d made their lair west of Ansburg, where her fellow mercenaries decided to bury the entrance to the caves rather than venture any deeper into the blood-stained tunnels. Worse than the little village north of Markham where slavers had taken or slaughtered every living thing, men and women and children, dogs and cows and horses. Worse than watching the docks at Kirkwall burn in the attack by the Qunari, not knowing how many of her friends and loved ones were there fighting to get innocents onto boats to safety.

Claudia doesn’t speak. She doesn’t watch her feet, because she can’t stand seeing finger bones with rings melted in place, scraps of ash fluttering in the wind, burned bodies curled up like children. She stares ahead, picking her way through the maze. The sooner she gets to the center, the sooner she can do what little she can to make this right.

They end up on a balcony, looking up at the Breach. Behind her, Claudia can hear Cassandra and Leliana speaking, but their voices echo in a strange way that she almost can’t understand. There is a ringing note hanging in the air, like nothing she’s ever heard before… 

“Claudia.” From the faint scowl on Cassandra’s face when she looks, it isn’t the first time the Seeker has tried to get her attention. “This is your chance to end this,” she says. “Are you ready?”

She nods. She thinks if she opens her mouth, she’ll say I’m afraid I’ll never see my children again. She doesn’t want to say that.

“This rift was the first,” Solas says from beside her, “and is the key. Seal it, and perhaps we seal the Breach.”

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

Claudia keeps a hand on the stone wall as they descend. There are voices, whispers, echoes, ringing through her head and through her bones.

“I shall lay thee here, my lady,” a man with a rough Ferelden accent whispers. “Where thou canst gaze ever into thy Maker’s sky.”

“Andraste reborn!” another man thunders, his voice deeper than the first.

“A High Dragon is not a joke -” a third man says, but is cut off abruptly. Behind her, Claudia can hear Leliana murmur a name, too quiet to make out.

“Now is the hour of our victory,” a fourth voice says in a rumble like an avalanche, somehow closer than the others.

“What are we hearing?” Cassandra asks.

“Things that have come to pass in the temple, I think,” Leliana answers. “I heard Alistair, when he came here with the Warden-Commander, and before that, the man who was the head of the cult that built Haven.”

“Bring forth the sacrifice,” the last voice continues.

“And at a guess, that one is the person who created the Breach,” Solas says.

After another moment, the voices quiet down. Claudia tries not to relax at the lapse - she has no reason to believe they won’t return. In front of her, Varric seems to have the opposite reaction, growing more anxious and flinching away as they pass an outcropping of red crystal.

“You know this stuff is red lyrium, Seeker,” he whines nervously.

“I see it, Varric,” Cassandra replies, her voice even but tense.

“But what it’s doing here?” Varric asks.

“Magic could have drawn on lyrium beneath the temple, corrupted it,” Solas says.

“What is red lyrium?” Claudia asks.

Varric winces at the question. “It’s evil,” he says. “Whatever you do, don’t touch it.”

They turn a corner, and like a sudden gust of wind, the voices begin again.

“So Andraste said to her followers,” a young woman says, her voice strong and unshakeable as she declaims the words from the Chant of Light, “ ‘You who stand before the gates, you who have followed me into the heart of evil, the fear of death is in your eyes; its hand is upon your throat.’”

“That is Elissa,” Leliana murmurs. “She always had a good memory for the Chant.”

“A dream came upon me as my daughter slumbered beneath my heart,” another woman says, an older woman with sorrow in her voice. “It told of her life and her betrayal and death…”

“Please, help me!” a third woman cries, her Orlesian accent thick with fear.

Cassandra starts, instinctively looking up as though she might see the speaker. “That is Divine Justinia,” she hisses.

As they continue, the wall crumbles away until the group stands on the edge of a small cliff, the ground not far below. The Breach, on the other hand, is very, very far overhead. The mark on Claudia’s hand crackles, and she bites her lip.

“Someone, help me!” Divine Justinia calls again from the Fade.

“What’s going on here?” another woman asks, half afraid and half angry.

Claudia doesn’t recognize it until Cassandra looks at her. “That was your voice,” the Seeker says. “Most Holy called out to you…”

The green Fade-crystal throbs like a beating heart, then lets out a pulse of white light that has everyone shading their eyes. When the light fades, ghostly images hang in the air: Divine Justinia restrained with coils of magic, a tall and mangled figure with eyes of red flame, and… Claudia. She blinks up at the image of herself - yes, that’s her hair pulled back in its usual bun, her scarred cheek from taking a shield-blow to the face, her pale hand creeping toward the knife on her belt…

“Run while you can! Warn them!” the image of Divine Justinia cries.

“We have an intruder, ” the shadowy figure rumbles. “Kill her, now!”

The crystal pulses with light again, and the images disappear.

“You were there,” Cassandra growls. “Who attacked? What happened to the Divine? What are we seeing?”

“I don’t know, I don’t remember!”

“These are only echoes of what happened here,” Solas says, stepping toward the edge of the pit. “The Fade bleeds into this place. This rift is not sealed, but it is closed… 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 other side.”

“That means demons,” Cassandra calls, looking back at the archers positioned above. “Stand ready!”

Soldiers stream past them, taking up positions below the Breach while Varric and Claudia move toward the edge to stand beside Solas. Above, she can hear the wood-on-wood sounds of dozens of arrows being readied.

“Leliana,” Claudia says as Lady Nightingale begins to pass her on the way to an archer’s perch. “What was the verse the Warden-Commander was reciting?”

The spy-mistress almost smiles. “Andraste’s sermon at the siege of Minrathous. ‘Raise your voices to the heavens. Remember, not alone do we stand on the field of battle.’

Claudia nods to Lady Nightingale, and Leliana returns the gesture before she moves away. She wants to pray - this time she remembers the words - but her throat feels frozen shut. Instead, she raises her hand toward the Breach.

The pull is like nothing she’s felt before, like she’s tied to a stone taking her to the bottom of the sea, and she can’t stop the groan of pain and effort that escapes her as she fights it. She can hear crackles of lightning jumping from one stone to another, can feel sparks leaping up from the ground to sting the fingers of her other hand. Abruptly, the pull changes to a push , knocking her back. For an instant, she lays on the stone - did it work? is the Breach closed? - and then she hears the unnatural roar.

Delightful.

Claudia sits up just in time to see several dozen arrows slam into the immense demon’s chest and shoulders. They seem nothing more than irritations; the demon swipes a clawed hand across its chest, snapping arrow-shafts as easily as brushing away an insect.

“What the fuck is that?” she hisses as she grabs her bow and takes up a position to shoot from.

“A pride demon,” Solas says through gritted teeth, throwing one blast of ice after another at the demon’s head. “One of the strongest denizens of the Fade.”

“You wanna forget about using words like ‘denizens’ and focus on taking this thing down?” Varric asks. The twang of his crossbow’s string comes at even intervals, and within a moment, Claudia has fallen into rhythm with him. This fight is easier for her than the others -  the demon towers over the soldiers, easily twice their height or more, and its scaled chest and head make for a good target. She has to stay focused on the actions of shooting - nock, draw, aim, loose - has to stay focused or her shooting falters as the demon lashes out at the soldiers crowded around its legs, knocking back a dozen men in a single swipe of its claws.

“More coming through the rift!” Cassandra cries. 

Above their heads, the Fade-crystal of the rift collapses in on itself, tearing itself inside out to open a portal through which wraiths and shades pour like water from a broken pitcher. Seamlessly, the three ranged fighters change targets - Varric picks off demons clambering up the stone toward them, Solas slicks the walls beneath other archers’ perches with ice, and Claudia takes out one demon after another going for the backs of the soldiers below. A clatter beside her distracts her for an instant, and she looks away from the battle to find a generous pile of extra arrows at her knee and a scout laden with a dozen half-empty quivers sprinting toward the next group of archers. Leliana’s doing, no doubt.

By the time the pride demon begins to waver, its great blows coming more slowly, Claudia’s arms and shoulders ache from strain. Three empty vials of lyrium are scattered around Solas’s feet, and Varric is sweating despite the chill in the air. The demon falls to one knee, still trying to push away the soldiers that surround it, but now their swords dig into its clawed hands and scaled arms. Smokey demonic essence flows from its wounds freely, and it collapses further, now supporting itself on one hand.

“Now!” Cassandra calls. “Close the rift!”

Claudia throws her hand up - 

          Maker have mercy, it hurts.

     - and links it with the rift -

               too tired, my babies, forgive me

          - she can’t fight it, she lets the pull take her -

                    CassiaAndrasteMother, please -

               - and the last thing she hears is the boom of a thunderclap.

                         Give me your hand!