Chapter 1: Skyhold
Fenris came to Skyhold in the height of summer, when the snowcaps on the mountains had shrunk to lacy white crowns on the dark peaks, and the trees in the garden were blooming. He had a greatsword slung across his back and a letter folded against his heart.
He was welcomed among the crowds at the open gate by some personable young enthusiasts in Inquisition uniforms. Their green hoods were tipped back to show the broad smiles on their faces. Human, elf, dwarf; there were a dozen of them, greeting everyone individually, even the children, subtly sorting the pilgrims and merchants and potential recruits and sending them off in different directions according to their kind. Fenris heard Orlesian accents, Fereldan, one or two Marchers among them; even the rumbling consonants of Orzammar from a handsome young dwarf whose special responsibility appeared to be scooping out dwarven merchants from the crowd and speaking to them passionately until they went away towards the Inquisition's marketplace with bemused smiles. It was almost possible to miss the soldiers who waited by the gate: they seemed too few to guard against such a mass. But the bridge was defensibly narrow and there were two muscular Tal-Vashoth women among the apparently unconcerned guards, each of them worth a half-dozen ordinary soldiers. This was not a careless hospitality.
It was an elf who greeted Fenris, a boy with the markings of the Dales on his face. Like for like, Fenris thought with some grim amusement: this was not the first time a Dalish elf had assumed his markings were the vallaslin of some obscure or reclusive clan. "Welcome to the Inquisition, lethallin," the young man said. "What brings you to us?"
He was visibly startled by Fenris' harsh half-Tevinter accent when he replied, "I had a letter from Varric Tethras. Is he here?"
The boy recovered fast. "Yes, ser - I mean, no, ser," he said. Not lethallin now, Fenris noted. "That is, Master Tethras is with the Inquisition, but he's not at Skyhold just now. He's due back later tonight. There is space to wait in the tavern, and food and drink."
The eyes of the Tal-Vashoth women followed Fenris and his greatsword as he passed them, and someone murmured something to someone else before a runner went darting off into the depths of the fortress. No armed stranger was to wander Skyhold unobserved, Fenris deduced. This place was welcoming, but not stupid.
Fenris dug into his scant hoard of coin to obtain an ale from the dour dwarven bartender. The inn was crowded and noisy: an indifferent minstrel was singing Orlesian favourites, and most of the ground floor seemed to be the domain of a band of drunken mercenaries who were being roared at by a Tevinter sergeant. Fenris winced as they burst into untuneful song. The minstrel rolled her eyes but switched her playing to an accompaniment.
The whole place was like and yet unlike the Hanged Man. Smaller, a little, and lacking Kirkwall's fine patina of ground-in dirt and ancient bloodstains. But the true difference was in the people. The Hanged Man had been a gathering-place of the poor and the criminal. Faces had been grim, or tired, or dangerous. There were poor here, too, and Fenris did not doubt there were aspiring pickpockets - not with such rich pickings to be had - but the faces in the Herald's Rest had a light in them; even the scarred and the exhausted, even those which had set by long habit into cruel lines. All of them glowed with inner certainty.
Fervour, Fenris thought. Faith. It made him think of Sebastian. He sat at the bar and drank the ale and let himself feel the quiet stirrings of jealousy. But causes were not to be trusted. Anders, after all, had had a cause; and Anders' free mages now served this Inquisition. There were men and women in mages' robes everywhere.
And I haven't seen any abominations yet, Fenris, so maybe give them the benefit of the doubt, he imagined Hawke saying.
He could see Hawke here, trying and failing to crack jokes with the bartender, not even attempting to make a secret of the staff across his back. It had never really been a secret in Kirkwall either. But here there would be no unspoken defiance about it, only simple freedom. Hawke truly had been here, not so long ago. Fenris had not seen him in over a year. He tried to picture it, Hawke cheerful and free among his brethren. He would have liked it here. He must have liked it here. Fenris ducked his head and hunched his shoulders as two young women in robes brushed thoughtlessly past him, conversing at volume about their research.
The bartender slid another ale in front of him. Fenris looked up. "On the house," the dwarf said, "so long as you do me a favour and don't start telling me your problems."
"I have no intention of telling you my problems," said Fenris.
The dwarf looked unimpressed. "That's what they all say, and half an hour later they're crying into their beer because daddy never loved them enough. You look like a sad son of a bitch to me. Keep it to yourself and I'll keep the ale coming."
He was as good as his word. Fenris kept his side of the bargain, drank the ale, spoke to no one. The letter remained where it was, folded against his breast. He did not need to take it out. He had it by heart, now.
It had reached him only a month ago; sent long before that, but it had taken Varric’s network of contacts some time to track him down. The messenger had caught up with him near Ostwick, where he had just finished terminally discouraging a pack of Tevinter slavers who had started a lucrative business venture acquiring superfluous alienage children. It had been their parents who sold them. Fenris had been in no pleasant state of mind after that affair.
The woman had not been pleased at having to chase Fenris all over the Free Marches, and she handed him the letter and walked away without another word. Varric’s hand was instantly recognisable, a writer’s scrawl. Only familiarity allowed Fenris to decipher it at all, and it took him time. Reading was never easy for him, and he was out of practice. The days in Hawke’s study in Kirkwall with the histories of Andraste and the elves now seemed very long ago.
So: time, spent sitting at the bar in some Marcher village tavern, running his finger along the lines of Varric’s spiky lettering, more blotched than usual. Time - a long time - for the realisation to set in, as he laboriously deciphered the next word, and the next, grimly forcing himself to keep going in the hope that the letter would end with a surprise after all - bodily in the Fade, well, that was not dead; that damned magister… thing, they had survived it once; biggest demon I ever saw, but demons could be killed; you know what Hawke was like; Andraste help me, with all the crazy shit he survived in Kirkwall, I never thought -
Fenris put the letter down then and buried his face in his hands for a long time, careless of the human travellers who eyed him curiously.
He read the rest afterwards, keeping his hands steady on the parchment, deciphering around the occasional blotches that were perhaps tear stains. Varric had written I’m sorry and nothing to bury and he would have wanted you to know. More, as well, rambling as Varric the wordsmith seldom rambled; memories of pleasanter times in Kirkwall, recollections of old jokes and conversations, uncertain threads of thought leading nowhere unless it was back to the heart of grief. Varric had known Hawke longer than Fenris. In many ways he had known him better. Fenris had, after all, turned away from all Hawke wanted from him. And Hawke had learned the lesson, and turned Fenris away too in time.
For the best, he’d said. For both their sakes. And how should they ever have been lovers after all, Fenris had told himself savagely, with the city of chains behind him and a free future ahead; what would ever have become of them, the apostate battlemage and the elf who hated everything he stood for? Hawke was right, it was better this way -
- and then he’d had the letter, and suddenly a year of hunting slavers and protecting the innocent had turned into a thin and worthless thing. He would have given a lifetime to have that year back, and not let Hawke leave him this time.
He sat by the bar in the Herald’s Rest nursing his third ale for a long time, thinking about the letter. He hardly noticed the place growing quiet around him.
“Not going out to see her, then?”
Fenris looked up.
“Am I interrupting? Looked like you had a good brood going on there.” The dwarf jerked his head at the door. “The raven came in an hour ago. There’s space to watch from the courtyard still.”
The famous Inquisitor. Varric's cause. Looked at one way: the woman who had saved the world. Or another: the woman Hawke had died for.
Fenris had heard stories. Encountered Inquisition uniforms here and there in the Marches. If he had thought the Inquisitor truly was the Herald of Andraste, the Maker's hand in this world, perhaps he would have come to Skyhold sooner. He supposed he did not know for sure that she was not. Maybe the Maker really had chosen out a champion to face down wickedness.
Was it the Maker's hand, then, which had blotted out Hawke? Was it the Maker who had looked down upon a fearless and impudent mage and chosen out an end, a, a punishment - substituting one champion for another, leaving Hawke to pay his debts to a demon, far from any home, alone? Alone as he would not have been, had Fenris not allowed himself to be sent away. Was this then Fenris's punishment for - whatever he had done, stupidity, inflexibility, something - ?
No. You did not need to be a Chantry sister to know that this kind of thinking was purest arrogance.
Surely the Maker was not so petty.
Fenris drained his ale and went out to the torchlit courtyard to stand among the watching crowd.
He knew when the Inquisitor was on the bridge, long before he could actually see her. The murmur started low and close to the gate and moved through the waiting people like a wind through the trees. People craned to see, pushed close to the edges of walls, held their children aloft to get a better view. Fenris slipped into a space left between two burly templars, both of them wide-eyed like children.
The Maker’s chosen, when she appeared, looked a lot like an ordinary elven woman. Younger than Fenris had expected. Tired-looking, which was not surprising at this hour. There was a staff across her back; Fenris curled his lip in automatic distaste. Nothing he had seen in his life had led him to any high opinion of the self-control of Dalish mages. They were no better than the rest of their kind.
The Inquisitor nodded and smiled at a few people, but she did not appear to know many of the crowd that waited breathlessly to see her. The motley company with her might have stood in for a cross-section of Thedas. The huge Qunari was perhaps the most impressive looking, but Fenris instinctively glanced at the man dressed in the height of Minrathous fashion. He was no doubt freezing to death - idiotic. What was a lordling-mage of Tevinter doing here?
Varric was among the last through the gate. He was chatting as he went to a slender youth in a too-big hat. Something made him look up. Perhaps he felt Fenris’ gaze. At any rate when their eyes met Varric stopped talking to the boy, stopped advancing with the others. He stood where he was, looking up at Fenris as Fenris looked down at him, and when the Inquisitor and her followers had passed by and the eager crowds had exhaled their satisfaction and gone back to their business, he was still standing there waiting in the dusk.
Fenris picked his way down the stairs, taking his time; he did not know at first why he was walking so slowly. Varric did not advance to meet him, either, and it was not until Fenris was standing right in front of him that he knew why neither of them had hurried towards what should have been a welcome reunion.
Fenris said, "It is true, then."
It was what he had come to Skyhold to say. He had meant to make it a question, but Varric's expression told him that was a waste of time. It was true. Varric bowed his head, and it was true. Hawke was gone.
Fenris had not known until that moment that he had still been hoping for a miracle.
"Ah, hell," Varric muttered after a moment when both of them were silent with the weight of it - and then he was suddenly putting an arm around Fenris, a brief rough armored embrace, and he said, "It's good to see you, Broody. Wish it weren't like this, but - listen, let me wash the road off and then we'll drink. I could use a drink or six."
It was after midnight, and both of them were travel-weary. Fenris nodded anyway.
"No one else here knew him," Varric said, as the sun began to climb the pale mountain sky some hours later. He was, Fenris thought vaguely, very drunk. Although possibly not as drunk as Fenris. The Inquisition had a surprisingly good wine cellar. At least one of the empty bottles on the table was a magnificent Tevinter vintage, the sort of thing Danarius would cheerfully have murdered for. "That's what gets me. The people here, they're good - they're good people. But no one else knew him."
Fenris picked up the Tevinter winebottle and turned it over in his hands. Hawke, infinitely loyal, had died for strangers. He thought about this for a while.
Then he hurled the bottle against the wall. It shattered into a hundred sharp pieces which gleamed in the pale pre-dawn light.
"They had no right," he said. "Your Inquisitor had no right. He was not -"
He stumbled. not hers to spend, he wanted to say. Hawke had not been Fenris's either in the end.
"I don't know if she could've stopped him, Fenris," Varric said."You didn't see it -"
"I should have seen it," said Fenris. It burst out of him. "I should have been there!"
"What, and died too?"
He stopped short, breathed out hard. He should have died too. No, instead. He should have been there, and died instead, rather than live with this.
“Bullshit,” Varric said, heartfelt if slightly slurred, but Fenris was not listening. He got to his feet. Varric frowned blearily at him. “What? Where are you going?” He tipped his bottle over. “Damn. No more brandy.”
“Where is she?” Fenris demanded.
“Your Inquisitor,” Fenris said. “Where is she?”
Varric refused to tell him, but a moment’s thought and it was obvious. The whole fortress climbed to a peak; and where better for an apostate mage to keep her lair than in the heights of an ancient tower? It was surprisingly easy to slip through the door leading up; the great hall was nearly empty at this hour, all the painted popinjays of Orlais still abed. Varric followed him into the hall and tried to stop him. He grabbed pointlessly at the spiked edges of Fenris’ armour and then started swearing when his fingers were pricked. Finally he sagged into the nearest chair and muttered, “Andraste’s ass, she can handle you.”
If Fenris had been sober, perhaps he would have thought better of storming up the stairs and bursting into the Inquisitor’s private quarters.
Then again, perhaps not.
He was fully prepared to drag her out of bed. What a bed it was: extravagant, carved, cushioned -
Fenris stared at it for a moment or two.
“Can I help you?” said a voice behind him.
He turned. The tired elven woman he had seen march into Skyhold late last night was standing by the high balcony doors with folded arms. The rising sun threw coloured light through the stained glass windows and mottled her plain leggings and jacket with jewelled tones. She looked at Fenris for a moment and then said, “Ah. Varric’s friend.”
It might have been the bright light, or the chilly air blowing through the open doors, or the Inquisitor’s cool demeanour, but Fenris felt rapidly much more sober. “Inquisitor Lavellan,” he said.
Lavellan lifted an eyebrow. “Aren’t introductions a wonderful thing. Welcome to my bedroom. Please, make yourself at home. Don’t mind me. Maybe tell me your name.”
“I am called Fenris.” A name that Danarius had given him as one might give a name to a dog; but still the only name Fenris had that felt true.
“Oh,” said the Inquisitor. “Then - Hawke’s friend, I should have said.”
“You know who I am?”
“Varric’s mentioned you,” Lavellan said. “And - I didn’t know him for very long, but - so did Hawke.” She did not look sympathetic, precisely, or kind, but she unfolded her arms, and she said, “Sit down.”
This woman had risen from nothing to become leader of a force that shook the world. She spoke with authority. And Fenris had not slept. He sat down abruptly on the closest surface available, which was the pompous overelaborate bed.
She followed his gaze for a moment as he frowned at the carvings. “Isn’t it terrible,” she murmured. “Comfy, though.” Then she looked straight at him. “What do you want to know?”
“You will tell me? Just like that? There is no price?”
Lavellan shrugged. “I understand wanting to know.”
Fenris licked his lips. How did he look, what did he say, why did he - why -
“You left him to die,” he said.
“For what it’s worth, which I imagine is very little, it wouldn’t have been my first choice. I do try to get people out alive.”
“Yet you left him -”
“Someone had to cover our escape,” she said. “Hawke volunteered.”
Of course he had. Fenris closed his eyes. He had already known this. It had been in Varric’s letter. Another reason he should have been there. He could have taken the burden from Hawke, given himself first - he would have been glad to do it, proud to do it -
“He wasn’t the only volunteer,” Lavellan continued - her voice seemed very far away - “but he was the only one I thought had any hope of surviving.”
It took Fenris a moment. He was still trapped in agonies of imagining - if he had been there, if he had seen what Hawke intended -
- and then his eyes snapped open and he said, “Surviving?”
Lavellan still watched him with that steady unsympathetic gaze. “Don’t mistake me. I really doubt he did. I just thought that out of all of us there, if anyone could last more than ten minutes alone in the Fade with an angry demon on top of him, it would be the Champion of Kirkwall.”
“Then - then he might yet live,” Fenris said. His gaze dropped to Lavellan’s famous hand; the green mark was a mere discoloration, like an old bruise. He had heard stories of green flame. “He might be alive. You can go back for him -”
Lavellan held up her hand and in a gesture that was the same across Thedas, stop. As she did it the mark suddenly flared bright - the flame was under the skin, and it turned her hand translucent as a wraith. Fenris stared.
“This thing was created using a magic I don’t understand, by a monster who I suspect didn’t understand it either," Lavellan said. "A monster I believe you’ve met -”
“Corypheus,” said Fenris grimly. He remembered that Warden prison well.
“Right. Then you know he was, by his own account, one of the magisters who assaulted the Golden City. He made this mark with the intention of ripping the Fade open and doing it again. I have no idea how it works, I don’t know anyone who does, and the last time mortals went blundering through the realm of dreams with no clue what they were doing they created the Blight.”
“You could go back for him,” Fenris said.
“But you will not.”
She nodded. “I won’t. No.”
He stood up. “Then there is nothing more to say.”
The weight of the knowledge was descending on him as he made blindly for the stairs. Hawke might live; almost certainly did not, but might; and he would never know. Never find him. Never be sure.
“The magisters of Tevinter are great thieves of magic,” said Lavellan to his retreating back.
It meant nothing. Fenris paused all the same. He did not understand why she was still speaking to him. She had made herself clear.
“Or, if you prefer, great researchers,” Lavellan said. “They learned a great deal from the wreck of Arlathan. I have reason to believe they stole a great deal from the wreck of Arlathan.”
“I care nothing for Arlathan,” said Fenris, but he turned around. Lavellan had not moved. The light through the stained glass still painted her in jewel colours. She shrugged one shoulder.
“Every magic I have encountered that involved travelling into or close to the Fade was originally the province of the ancient elves,” she said. “This,” her lifted hand, “was made by Corypheus - but he used an artifact of our people.”
“Your people,” Fenris said.
She rolled her eyes. “Sure, if you prefer. You’re as bad as Sera. Now let me be quite clear: I have no intention of looking for Hawke. Even if I thought it was safe - Hawke is only one man, and the Inquisition is for Thedas." She paused. "But if you wanted to look for him -”
Fenris caught his breath.
“There are two people I can think of who might know anything,” Lavellan said. “Experts - on the Fade, on the history of elvhenan. Unfortunately,” a grimace, “one of them has vanished, and if all the resources of the Inquisition can’t find him, I doubt you can.”
“And the other?” Fenris demanded.
“Something from my own history, for once. Not an Inquisition thing. There is - a criminal,” said Lavellan. “Exiled from the clans. She was the blood mage who murdered Clan Sabrae and its Keeper. Last I heard she was living in Kirkwall. A very dangerous woman - possibly insane, actually - but I met her once at Arlathven, and if anyone could help you -”
“Oh, you know her?” said Lavellan. “Well, that saves one of Leliana’s people a trip to look her up. There’s your lead.” She smiled thinly. “Take it and get out of my bedroom.”
“I - yes,” said Fenris. He added abruptly, “Thank you.”
She looked as surprised to hear it as he was to say it. “You’re welcome,” she said. “Listen - I hope you find him. I liked him.”
Fenris nodded. He did not trust himself to speak. Everyone liked Hawke. Even he, with all his reasons to despise him - even he -
Back to the road, then. There was no question in his mind about it. If there was even the tiniest chance, he had to pursue it. Back to the road, to Kirkwall and to Merrill.
“Oh, and...” said Lavellan as he turned once more to leave.
Fenris looked over his shoulder.
Lavellan took a deep breath. “If you do make it into the Fade,” she said rapidly, “and you happen to bump into a, a - an arrogant condescending bald-headed prig wandering around in his dreams like he hasn’t a care in the world when - well. If you see him, do me a favour. Tell him the Inquisitor would like a word.”
Fenris raised an eyebrow. “Just a word?”
“Maybe several words,” she said. She bared her teeth. “I don’t sleep much. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”
There were plenty of beds in Skyhold, and Fenris after some inquiries found himself an empty pallet tucked into an attic to sleep on. He would need the rest for the journey north. He could buy supplies in the fortress’s marketplace when he woke, and be on his way before nightfall. He had no wish to linger in this place. No doubt its various watching eyes would be pleased to see him go.
A stocky figure called out to him at the gates. Fenris stopped, startled. Varric looked hungover, but he was dressed to travel. “Good, there you are,” he said. “The Inquisitor filled me in. If we hurry we should make it to the western shore of Lake Calenhad by the day after tomorrow. We’ll be just in time to catch up with a Merchant’s Guild caravan that’s going our way.”
“A caravan?” said Fenris.
“Well, I’m not planning to walk the whole way to Kirkwall,” Varric said. “You can if you want, but this dwarf prefers to travel like a civilised person.”
“What of the Inquisition?"
“Are you kidding? Listen,” said Varric, “when we started there were six of us in a couple of shacks and the whole thing was held together with hope and bits of string. Now look at it.” He jerked his head back at the bustling, near-bursting fortress. “This place is telling its own story. Couldn’t tell it any louder. It doesn’t need me.” He shouldered Bianca a little more firmly. “Come on. Let’s go get Hawke.”
Chapter 2: The Keeper
The caravan took them north in fair comfort - fair for Fenris, anyway, though Varric rolled his eyes a great deal. There was nothing to do on the journey. The Inquisition soldiers on the roads had long since put paid to any bandits who might have provided a distraction, and the rulers of Ferelden had strong views on slavers - strong views they backed up with steel. Fenris had no way to wear himself out. And so each night as he slept he dreamed: dreamed over and over, helplessly, of Hawke.
There was nothing new about this. Hawke had insinuated himself into Fenris’ dreams years ago and never really gone away. It was almost humorous, now, the anger and humiliation Fenris had felt the first time he woke from a dream of Hawke’s wicked smile and big hands that had left his body excited and demanding and dreadfully aware of its isolation. That had been bare weeks after he came to Kirkwall, when the idea of letting anyone ever touch him had seemed as far away as the moon. He had felt betrayed that his body could desire the man, outraged that spirits had looked into his sleeping mind and decided that was what they would show him. It had seemed so absurd, so unlikely, so wrong. A mage.
Hawke had a way of making the absurd and unlikely turn around into the possible.
The third night with the caravan Fenris dreamed of the night he and Hawke had spent together - Maker, half a decade ago. The first time, half an accident, when the pounding of Fenris’ heart had been as much terror as arousal, and Hawke had kissed him first. The dream lingered on that kiss, on the feel of Hawke’s hands gripping his biceps, and the unreadable look that he had given Fenris through his eyelashes right before he turned them around and pushed. The wall against his back and Hawke’s hot mouth on his throat - the fading burn of lyrium in his skin, and Hawke’s hands still gripping on tight, fingers curled, as if he expected Fenris to pull away any moment.
Then in the way of dreams it skipped ahead, bypassing the stumble to Hawke’s room, the robes discarded on the stairs, Fenris laughing as Hawke hopped on one foot in his eagerness to get his boots off. Skipped past Fenris batting Hawke’s hands away so he could strip himself, and Hawke’s greedy eyes as he watched. Skipped straight to the two of them in Hawke’s bed, the blankets kicked off onto the floor, and Hawke reaching out for him without hesitation. With a smile. The flash of something fierce and tender in his eyes as he curved one hand around the back of Fenris’s head and pulled him down into a kiss that went on, and on, and on.
Fenris woke in an even worse mood than usual, and one of the dwarven merchants with the caravan - a young woman in a heavy cloak - took a look at his face and whistled. “I don’t envy you people,” she said. “Isn’t it creepy?”
Fenris glared at her. He had no wish to talk.
“Dreaming, I mean,” she continued, unfazed. “Woo, the Fade, spirits everywhere - don’t you ever think about that? You go to the Fade in your sleep. You just lie down every night and then magical creatures from another world start picking through your head for fun! If I was an elf, or a human, I’d never sleep. Just think about it. I’ve read books. You see things, and it’s all real. That’s creepy.” She shook her head. “Well, good morning. I’d better go see to the horses.”
Fenris stared blindly at the side of a wagon and did not notice her go. He had not thought - it had not occurred to him -
He dreamed of Hawke nearly every night. It was to be expected. Hawke was much in his mind. But the Fade was real. The things you saw were only echoes, spirit-built impossibilities, but the Fade was real. The people were simply the spirits themselves impersonating the waking world, but -
But Hawke was trapped there, doubt whispered to him. Perhaps the Hawke he saw in his dreams was real.
He had to pray that it was not so. After that day he did not dream any more of old encounters. The Hawke he saw in his nightmares now was suffering, injured, dying or twisted beyond recognition. Or else he was simply dead - his corpse the one real object in a whole world of dream-stuff, something to fascinate the demons, for them to play with as they so often toyed with the corpses on Sundermount -
Nightmares, he told himself. Only nightmares.
The journey felt very long.
Varric had a contact in the Merchant’s Guild who got them a berth on a cargo ship heading for Kirkwall with a hold purportedly full of fine Highever woollens. Even Fenris, no expert on seafaring, could see that the ship was the wrong shape for the honest merchantman she claimed to be; her prow cut through the water like a knife. “What, the Merchant’s Guild, smuggling? Never,” said Varric, and winked. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
It was the right season for the crossing. The Waking Sea seemed to doze in summer calm. There was nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, nothing to distract Fenris at all. He would have been glad of a brace of pirates. As it was all he could do was think, and sleep fitfully, and then wake to brood on his dreams. He was almost glad to reach Kirkwall, and that, he thought, contemplating the City of Chains as it rose in the distance, was frankly ridiculous.
Kirkwall crouched humped on the coast of the Waking Sea like an aged and guileful sea monster that had heaved itself up onto the shore to die. Mighty figures of weeping, screaming slaves remained where they had towered for long ages over its harbour. Beyond them the Gallows glowered over the city, its aspect not at all improved by the black and twisted burn marks that now scarred its ancient stonework. The mage-templar war had its roots in Kirkwall’s rotten and bloody heart, and it showed. Fenris lifted his gaze to the heights of the city, where the Chantry’s great roof should have stood above the rest, redeeming ugliness with some measure of gold. There was nothing there, of course.
“Home sweet home,” said Varric with every sign of sincerity as he joined Fenris at the ship’s prow. He even sighed happily. “I missed this place.”
Fenris made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a snort.
“What? It’s Kirkwall. It’s home. Sure, it’s got its problems, but there are worse places.”
“Oh yes. For example, in the Tevinter Imperium the mage-lords practice human sacrifice,” said Fenris. “And I hear the weather in Ferelden is sometimes quite unpleasant.”
“Believe me, you have no idea,” Varric said. “You saw it in summer, and you saw the good bits. I would take an angry magister over a walk in the bogs of south Ferelden any day. Same number of demon corpses coming to get you, but at least you don’t get frogs in your boots.”
Hurry and bustle arose among the sailors as the ship drew close to the docks. Varric strode off to collect his bags. Fenris stayed by the prow, since he seemed to be out of the way there. He had not supposed he would ever set foot in Kirkwall again. With Hawke gone, what was there to come back for?
But here they were.
With Hawke gone, his mind taunted him.
Varric wanted to stop off in the Hanged Man. “Listen, we’ve been away,” he said. “Let me talk to some people, grease a few palms, get the lay of the land in Kirkwall right now. Not to mention get a decent drink. Merrill isn’t going anywhere.”
“No,” said Fenris, and walked off.
Varric caught up with him, slightly out-of-breath, as he turned the corner past the shack where Hawke’s uncle had lived. Possibly still lived. Fenris felt no desire whatsoever to stop and check. “Fine, fine, be that way,” he said. “It was just a suggestion.”
“There is no time to waste,” said Fenris.
“If we haven’t got time, we haven’t got a hope,” Varric said. “You’ve got to see that, Broody. It’s been too long already.”
Fenris did not look at him.
“Andraste give me strength,” Varric muttered. “Or at least a stiff drink. I loved him too, you know.”
He did not seem to expect a reply, which was just as well.
They turned a corner and found themselves looking down into the alienage. Varric drew in a sharp breath. At some point in the last year’s upheavals the alienage must have been attacked, and the attackers had gone after the vhenandhal. The mighty old tree was now nothing but a burnt and blackened stump. The splintered remnants of the great trunk had crashed into the near side of the square and turned cobblestones to rubble; no one had bothered to remove any of it, shattered timber or stone.
“Now that’s a damned shame,” said Varric after a moment.
Though their alienage had been effectively halved in size, Kirkwall’s elves had simply squeezed themselves into the space that remained and carried on. The far side of the square was crowded with people, and the old stalls selling cheap necessities were all still there, crammed in tightly. As Fenris picked his way across the ruins towards Merrill’s hovel, two oddities presented themselves for his attention. Firstly, there were humans mixed in with the crowd - not very many, but far more than there should have been, and of the wrong kind. Fenris could see mothers with young children, and a group of girls with shopping baskets - a far cry from the swaggering human youths who occasionally invaded the knife-ears’ slum on a dare. And secondly -
“Does that look like a line to you?” Varric said.
“We should find out what they are queueing for,” said Fenris.
The crowd ignored them as they drew closer. Varric seemed to find this slightly offensive - “Hey, I’m an important guy in this city!” - but Fenris was grateful. If anyone had turned around and asked him about the Champion right then - as they would have done, almost certainly, only a year ago - he would not have been able to bear it.
At the crowd’s heart stood a rough wooden table. There was a still small figure lying on it, and an elven man and woman holding hands as they stood by anxiously, and Merrill. Fenris stared. It was bizarrely familiar. Only the mage at the centre of the scene was different. The table might even have been the very one from the abomination’s Darktown clinic.
“Is she crazy?” Varric said.
“Oh dear,” Merrill said, as she examined the child. “I’m not very good at this sort of thing. I think I’d better ask for some advice, if that’s all right.”
“Will it hurt him?” the mother breathed.
“What? No! Oh no. No, just me.” Merrill took a knife from her belt. “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe! Almost. Almost perfectly safe. But you should probably all stand back.”
And the queueing people did move back, a little. Not enough. Not nearly as much as they should have done, when an apostate elf stood there in their midst and as good as announced that she was going to use blood magic to summon a demon. No one shouted in outrage or cowered in fear or yelled for templars. They all just watched, as if it were natural. The people going between the alienage stalls shopping for food did not even do that - did not so much as glance over their shoulders at the witch.
“What has she done here?” said Fenris, horrified.
Merrill sliced her own palm with the knife. The blood fell in a too-even spatter, and shimmered, and vanished; and a pale green wisp of nothing spun itself out of the air where it had been. Merrill tilted her head and began asking questions.
Varric whistled, low. “Would you look at that,” he said. He was talking about the crowd, not the demon. The watching elves and humans were still hanging back, but some of them wore strained, listening expressions. They were trying to hear the answers.
“Oh, is that all? Thank you very much,” Merrill said, and dismissed the demon. She turned back to the sick child with white light gathering around her hands. The cut had already closed to a red line. “He’s going to be all right, don’t worry,” she said to the parents.
Fenris could bear it no more. The lyrium was a cold burn under his skin when it flared to life, as it always had been and always would be. People flinched away from the sudden glow. They had not flinched from Merrill’s witchery. Of course not. Blind, stupid, ignorant: they saw the monstrosity he had been made and feared it, but disregarded the willing monster in their midst. He surged forward. Varric tried to stop him, but Varric’s hands could not touch him, and the bodies of the crowd must hinder him as they could not hinder Fenris in this ghostly shape.
The nervous elven mother cried out when she saw him; the father, absurdly, drew his belt knife. Merrill looked up from the magic she was working over the child and said, “Oh, hello, Fenris! I’ll be just one moment, I promise. This spell’s a little bit tricky.”
She turned back to her work. The light pouring from her hands deepened and darkened to a pulsing blue. The crowd, the city, Fenris - all might as well not have been there. She was biting her lip slightly as she worked. Fenris growled and advanced.
Then from nowhere a fierce gust of wind knocked him backwards. It was strong enough to make him blink and stumble, the burn of lyrium fading. As he looked up again he felt a fading sensation of heat on his face. He was reminded abruptly and all at once of Hawke, drunk, facing a half-dozen night-time prowlers in a Hightown alleyway, laughing at himself for an incompetent attempt at a fireball before he bowed to the thieves and grinned and set the world aflame.
A skinny youth had leapt into what little space remained between Fenris and Merrill. The points of his ears were just visible through his unkempt hair; his dark face was unmarked. An elf of the alienage. “You stay away from our Keeper!” he cried.
He held a mage’s staff, but his hands were shaking on it. Fenris knew exactly what calibre of mage it took to outmatch him; he had no fear. He bared his teeth and the boy visibly paled. There would be no bowing, no grin, no bloom of flame from him. This was no Hawke. “Get out of my way,” Fenris advised him.
The boy stood there trembling. “I know who you are,” he said. “Everyone in the alienage knows about you. You’re the crazy elf from Hightown, the Champion’s mage-killer. You can’t have our Keeper. I won’t let you!”
“Your what,” said Fenris.
“Now, now, now, everyone calm down - calm down, I said -” Varric shouldered his way through the crowd. Flashes of silver going from hand to hand - he had taken the quick route to convince people to move aside. “That includes you.” He wrapped his hand firmly around Fenris’s forearm - no real restraint, but a pointed reminder. “And you, kid - Andraste’s ass, how old are you anyway?”
“I’m nearly seventeen,” said the boy defiantly. “And I’m old enough to fight! I don’t care who you are!”
“Wait - you’re from Kirkwall, that’s a Kirkwall accent. A Lowtown kid who knows Fenris but not me? I’m hurt.”
Someone shouted out, “Don’t be a fool, Tarly. That’s Master Tethras, that is! From the dwarven Merchant’s Guild!”
“Ooh, the author?” said some idiot in bright tones. “Does he do autographs?”
“The one and only,” said Varric. “Yes, I do autographs, at very reasonable prices, have a word with my publisher - no, not now!” This to a book that was being thrust under his nose. He looked at the elven boy. “Your name’s Tarly?”
“Yes,” said Tarly uncertainly. Varric had his attention, but his eyes kept going back to Fenris. Fenris’ markings throbbed; magic in the air still, magic in waiting. Varric’s hand gripped his forearm tightly.
“Pay no attention to my bad-tempered friend here, Tarly, he doesn’t mean it.”
“Yes, I do,” Fenris snapped.
Varric rolled his eyes. “Okay, what I meant to say was, he doesn’t mean any harm. He doesn’t mean you any harm, he doesn’t mean Merrill any harm, and he’s got strong views on blood magic but he’s going to control himself because he’s not a fucking moron.” Varric’s voice had an edge like a blade. “He’s just going to stand here and calm the hell down - quietly - and Merrill needs to finish her spell, and meanwhile why don’t you tell us all about this Keeper business?”
“I - I -”
“I don’t see any Dalish clans here,” said Varric. “Sounds like there’s a story happening. Why don’t we all sit down and have a nice friendly conversation about it?”
“Him too?” said Tarly, eyes darting nervously to Fenris.
“Yes, Fenris too. Don’t look so worried! He’s a big softy when you get to know him.”
Tarly looked unconvinced. Fenris would not have known how to look unthreatening even if he wished to, which he did not. He glowered.
“His face is just stuck like that,” Varric confided in a stage whisper that was heard by most of the crowd. “It’ll be fine. Trust me!” He glanced at Merrill, who was still absorbed in her spellcasting. “We don’t want to interrupt… whatever the hell that is. Come on, this way, we’ll all take a break - show’s over, folks - no, lady, I am not signing your book - is that a first edition of Swords and Shields? I thought those got pulped. Where did you even get that? - No, not now!”
“So let me get this straight,” Varric said, as they sat around the rickety table in Merrill’s tiny alienage hovel, waiting for their hostess. “Merrill - our Merrill - is the de facto First Enchanter of Kirkwall? We are talking about the same person, right? Little bit vague, little bit easily distracted, less common sense than the average pet nug?”
“This is preposterous,” said Fenris.
Tarly stuck his jaw out, trying to look tough and serious and only succeeding in looking very, very young. “She’s the only who stayed,” he said…
...when the war broke out, and the Gallows emptied out, mages and templars slaughtering each other and the remnants missing or in hiding or off to do battle all over Thedas, most of them heading south to Ferelden; when even the Champion had abandoned Kirkwall, and no one was left within a hundred miles who knew the first thing about what to do with magical children - Kirkwall had remained Kirkwall. Always a sickeningly magical city; the mage birth rate was near double the average for most of the Marches; the Veil was thin here, had to be - it was the only explanation for the place. There was no Circle, and no parent wanted to send their child into a war. When the signs of magic began to show, they lied to themselves, or tried to hide it, or resorted to the methods of ancient superstition which said it was possible to ‘cure’ a mage child…
...and there had been no templars to keep watch for such things, and rescue the children from themselves and their well-intentioned (or ill-intentioned) kin before it was too late…
Varric let out a low whistling breath when the picture became clear. “And then a rash of demon possessions, am I right?”
Tarly said, “My sister…”
...a twin sister, equally magically gifted, less afraid of her own powers, had succumbed to a pride demon during the initial chaos of the Starkhaven invasion. The two of them had been Darktown children, a step below even the elves of the alienage. They had been alone. And after the demon had been put down - not without terrible cost - Tarly had found himself facing a murderous mob. “They said it would be a mercy,” he said.
The boy would certainly have died there, if not for the interference of Guard-Captain Aveline and a squadron of her best. And when Aveline understood the precise nature of the problem, she sighed and sent the frightened teenager to the last fully-trained mage in Kirkwall -
- the first, apparently, of more than a dozen apprentices -
“Merrill’s running a school?” said Varric.
“Wonderful,” said Fenris. “A dozen children trained as blood mages.”
“Oh, no, we’re not allowed to use blood magic,” Tarly said. “She says nobody’s ready yet and you have to be careful or it goes all wrong and you get demons.”
“But she does not teach you to fear the demons -”
The boy looked straight at him for the first time since he had begun to tell his story. “I already know to fear demons,” he said.
There was a pause.
“I bet you do,” said Varric sympathetically.
Tarly did not look away from Fenris. He appeared to have recovered now from his earlier fear. Fenris rather wished it otherwise. “Is it true you were the Champion’s lover?” he said.
“One day I will strangle you for that book, dwarf,” said Fenris to Varric instead of answering. He had never asked to have his personal business set down in ink and then distributed far and wide for the bored and nosy to entertain themselves with.
“But is it true?”
Fenris took a deep breath. Then he let it out sharply, jumped to his feet, and turned away. There was not much space in Merrill’s hovel. He could not storm off. But he could at least pretend the others were not there.
“Sensitive subject, kid,” said Varric quietly behind him. “Let it go. How long till Merrill finishes what she’s doing, do you think?”
“She’ll be done soon. She always closes up the clinic after she does a big heal.”
It was not above ten minutes before Merrill appeared. She was drooping visibly. “Hey, easy there -” said Varric.
“I’m perfectly fine,” said Merrill. She was swaying a little.
“You are not,” said Fenris. “Sit down before you fall over.” When she did not move, he went to her side, fully prepared to carry her to a chair if necessary. That seemed to be enough impetus to make her stumble towards a seat. Fenris hovered by her side in case she tripped. Tarly was already rushing to make some tea. There was a pallet on the floor near the fireplace, Fenris noticed in passing. The boy lived here.
“I’m quite all right. I mean it!” Merrill said when she was sitting down and holding a steaming mug of tea. “There’s no need to make a fuss.”
“I am not fussing,” said Fenris coldly.
“Looked like fussing to me,” Varric said. “You sure you’re okay, Daisy? You do look pretty pale.”
“Healing’s so hard,” Merrill said. “Anders was much better at it than me. I don’t know how he did it. And there’s so much to do, as well!" She sighed, took a gulp of tea, and smiled. "But it’s very nice to see you both. It’s been weeks and weeks, hasn’t it?”
“Sure, if by ‘weeks and weeks’ you mean 'more than a year',” Varric said.
“That long?” said Merrill. “Really? Goodness. I suppose I have been dreadfully busy.”
“You know, I’ve met a lot of interesting people lately,” Varric said. “So believe me when I say this: there’s really no one like you. We’re in the middle of the town where the mage-templar war started, and you’re doing blood magic in the street?”
“What? Oh,” said Merrill. “I suppose so. It wasn’t really in the street, though, was it? I mean, the alienage is more of a courtyard.” She paused at their expressions. “Isn’t it?”
Varric started to laugh. “Only you, Daisy. Only you.”
Fenris folded his arms and waited, looking as dour as he felt. For some reason this made Varric laugh harder. Tarly looked between the three of them with a baffled expression.
Finally Varric wiped his eyes, shook his head, and said, “Okay, time for some old friends to catch up in private. If you wouldn’t mind, Tarly?”
“It’s all right,” said Merrill, when the boy hesitated. “Don’t be silly. Go and speak to Jeshane about those elfroot stocks, I promised I’d talk to her about it before evening and I forgot.”
“If you’re sure, Keeper,” Tarly said. He glared at Fenris before he left.
“That’s a real firecracker of an apprentice you’ve got there,” said Varric, when he was gone. “He was all ready to take on Fenris for you, would you believe it? Either he’s brave as a lion or he’s got a death wish.”
Merrill blinked. Her forehead wrinkled. “But why would Tarly need to fight Fenris?”
Fenris, almost involuntarily, exchanged a look with Varric. “Never mind,” Varric said after a moment.
“Why does he call you Keeper?” Fenris demanded.
“Oh,” said Merrill. “I wish he wouldn’t. They all seem to, though. Even the humans.” She made a face. “I was supposed to be my clan’s Keeper one day, you know. Keeper Marethari chose me for it. So when everything started going wrong in Kirkwall I thought - well, I thought maybe I could help? Somehow. I thought if I could just keep the alienage elves safe, that would be a good thing to do.”
“How did you go from just looking after the alienage to running a magical school and moonlighting as a healer on the side?” Varric said.
“It just sort of happened!” Merrill said. “Aveline sent me the children, and I couldn’t say no, could I? They’re only children. And I do know how to train mages, that’s a Keeper’s job too - well, I sort of know. And there were lots of books about it left behind in the Gallows. I went in and had a look around. It was terribly creepy but the library was very interesting. I took the dangerous books too, just in case someone tried to do something silly.”
“And the healing?” Fenris demanded.
“I didn’t realise how many people depended on Anders’ clinic,” Merrill said. “It was only a few at first, but there seem to be more all the time. I’m not even very good at it. I think there isn’t really anyone else?” She paused. “I thought - well, I thought Hawke might want someone to look after Kirkwall. And then I thought that even if he didn’t, someone should look after Kirkwall. It’s not anybody’s fault that they live here, is it? They’re just people. They shouldn’t all suffer because of what Anders did. It’s not fair.”
“I suppose you can hardly do worse to Kirkwall than you did to your own clan,” Fenris said. “As long as you manage to avoid murdering all these people whom you have convinced to trust in your witchcraft.”
“Hey, now,” said Varric.
“No, he’s right. You’re quite right,” Merrill said. She was staring at the floor. “I can’t do worse. I thought maybe I could try to do better.”
“Good thought, Daisy,” said Varric after a moment.
Fenris looked away.
“Anyway, it’s lovely to have visitors!” Merrill said brightly, shaking off the moment. “Did you come for a reason?”
“It concerns Hawke,” said Fenris.
“What about Hawke?” she said. “Have you seen him? I haven’t heard anything from him in ages.”
There was a brief, awful quiet.
“Oh, hell,” Varric said. “You didn’t get my letter.”
They told Merrill, and she cried. Fenris had not wept. Had not been able to. Envy tasted bitter in the back of his throat.
Then they told her why they were there.
“Oh,” said Merrill. “Oh, I - oh, hmm.”
“Lavellan said she knew you from Arlathven,” said Fenris. “She said if anyone knew how -”
He cut himself off. Hope was a cruel thing.
“But I don’t,” Merrill said. “It’s impossible. I mean - I think it’s impossible. Though that would explain - let me think.” She got up from her chair and went and opened a kitchen cupboard. It contained, incongruously, a pile of leather-bound books - the spoils of the Gallows’ library. “No, that’s not it,” she said to the first book she paged through, “not that either,” to the next -
Fenris exchanged a look with Varric, who shrugged helplessly.
“There’s always the eluvian,” Merrill said, thinking out loud, “but that would take such a lot of power - and it might break it - no, no, no - where did I put those notes?”
She opened more cupboards. Most of them were full of books and magical artifacts. “For the black market price of half of those,” Varric muttered, “Merrill could be living in a Hightown estate right now.”
“There is nothing impressive about living in a Hightown estate,” Fenris said.
“There is if you purchased it with actual money and it isn’t full of old corpses, Broody.”
Merrill emptied out half the cupboards and eventually found the notes she was looking for inside a pot on one of the few shelves actually containing kitchen utensils. “Here,” she said, scanning them quickly. “Now it makes sense. I know where we’re going. It has to be there.”
“Where?” said Fenris. It did not matter what the answer was - as long as there was a chance of finding Hawke, he would go anywhere that was demanded of him - travel all Thedas, no matter how long it took, no matter the risk -
“Here,” Merrill said. “Somewhere under Kirkwall. But quite a long way down.”
Chapter 3: The Enigma of Kirkwall
A templar troop on the move seemed like one mighty creature. Their armour flashed silver-bright and splendid in the wintry sunlight as they advanced along the Wycome road. The heavy tramp of their feet shook the ground as they marched. Their banners snapped in the chill breeze, the sword and branch clear to see from half a mile off.
Hawke grabbed Fenris’ arm and nearly threw himself flat in the undergrowth behind the nearest rock, dragging Fenris down with him. “Don’t move. Don’t even breathe,” he hissed. He paused. “Well, breathe. But quietly!”
Fenris raised his eyebrows. Hawke was half under him.
“Shut up,” Hawke added, and then made a face and put a hand over his own mouth. Fenris took the hand and moved it away; Hawke smiled ruefully up at him. He was armored and not exactly comfortable to lie on, but Fenris did not try to move. The templars might notice, he told himself. Their hands were still tangled. Hawke turned his head sideways and kissed Fenris’ fingers.
They could no longer see the troop, but they could hear the steady thump and jingle of a hundred armored boots hitting the ground in unison. As it drew closer a new sound rose with it; out of a hundred throats, a battle-hymn of the Chantry, rich with deep harmonies. Even here, lying under a bush behind a rock with an apostate beside him - beside and beneath him - it called out to something in Fenris: he heard again the women’s voices rising through the hollow heights of Kirkwall’s lost chantry, singing light into the world.
Hawke’s fingers tightened around his. Fenris looked back at him, only realising then that he had looked away. Hawke’s mouth was a tight line; his cheeks were pale under the dark beard and the pattern of light and shadow filtering through the leaves. “Are you well?” Fenris whispered.
“Who, me? Fine. There’s only a hundred of them, and I’m only the most recognisable apostate in the Free Marches,” Hawke whispered back. “Nothing to worry about!”
“They will not hurt you,” Fenris murmured.
“Oh, sure, some templars are nice templars. Forgive me if I don’t want to risk it. Remember Meredith? Scary lady, lyrium sword, tried to kill me and turned into a horrible statue? A week is a long time, I know, but I thought it was pretty memorable.”
Hawke’s whisper had become an audible hiss by the end. Fenris put his hand over his mouth. “Shh,” he reminded him. Hawke rolled his eyes, but silently. “They will not hurt you,” Fenris whispered again, and this time he clarified: “I will not let them.”
Hawke looked up at him, and kept looking, and this time Fenris could not look away from him, though the templars marched and sang somewhere he was vaguely aware of not very far off. He lifted his hand away, and Hawke caught his wrist, his hand resting over the strip of red cloth. “Fenris,” he said. His eyes were heavy-lidded. His lashes, Fenris found himself thinking, were quite ridiculously long. He leaned in as if drawn down by a spell.
Hawke burst out laughing right before their lips touched. Fenris jerked back, startled. “Maker,” Hawke said, grinning at him, “think how awkward it would have been if the templars caught me because I couldn’t keep my hands off you even if my life literally depended on it.”
“You -” said Fenris, and then several things caught his attention at once. The sound of tramping feet was gone, though the singing still remained: it had a hollow, echoing sound, as if they were indoors. When he looked up, somewhere high above the leaves which covered them there was a suggestion of an arched ceiling. It was too high. No chantry reached to the sky. He looked back at Hawke, who had not moved.
“This never happened,” he said.
The templars had marched past and he and Hawke had lain there barely breathing; he had told Hawke he would protect him; but Hawke had not looked at him that way, had not started laughing, had certainly not cracked a joke - his jokes had become rare and strained since the Gallows -
The body under him was twisting into a sick misshapen form; black lines running under the skin in the pattern of veins, black corruption spreading beneath the skin of what was still recognisably Hawke’s face - and then the face split open along the lines, and blood and putrid flesh boiled out of the gashes, twisting the features beyond recognition. The creature opened its mouth and screeched in something that was no longer Hawke’s voice -
Fenris’ own cry of horror woke him. He sat up, and then slung his legs over the edge of the bed. There was some weak comfort in having the solidity of the floor under his feet. He could hear the usual bustle of the Hanged Man floating up from the taproom. It did not matter how late it got; this place never really slept.
He touched his naked right wrist with the fingers of his left hand. He had almost convinced himself he did not miss wearing Hawke’s colours. Hawke had lain the whole thing out very plainly when they parted. He had made himself clear. Fenris did not even have the red cloth anymore.
It was not the first time he had woken from such a dream. It was not the first time he had sat in the cold and dark of night and asked himself if it was real.
Could that have been Hawke - the true Hawke? Had Fenris just witnessed his destruction?
“No,” he said out loud into the shadows of the empty room. “No.”
A clear, crisp morning dawned eventually. Fenris was grateful for the day, for the chance to finally act. In the uppermost alleyways of Darktown they passed the homes of the desperate and hopeful, struggling up through the mire towards the dubious light of Lowtown respectability. Varric stopped to chat with an apothecary whose profitable sideline in poisons had pulled him up to these almost-heights. An older woman approached Merrill and began to harangue her unintelligibly. Fenris drew his sword in case she was the first stage of an ambush . He had known Darktown gangs to be clever.
Merrill listened politely and then said, “Oh, no, serah, I didn’t know. I’ll be sure to tell Aveline. She’ll know what to do.” The woman ambled off, apparently satisfied.
Fenris did not put his blade away. He met the eyes of a heavyset human who was standing too-casually in the shadow under an overhanging walkway. The man looked at him, looked at Merrill in her old clothes with her mage’s staff, glanced at Varric - whose well-made coat looked positively gaudy in this muck - and seemed to decide it was not worth it. When he shook his head and melted away, a dozen more men followed him.
“You were nearly murdered for your boots just now,” Fenris said when Varric was done with the poisoner.
“In Darktown? No kidding,” said Varric. “There’s good eating on a boot. And these are real leather.” He stamped his feet a couple of times. “Ordinary prowlers or Carta? Shouldn’t be Carta, I’m paid up.”
“Prowlers,” said Fenris. “I did not recognise their leader.”
“It’s been a year. Could’ve been a dozen new gangs in that time. But we’d better not hang around in their territory. Did you say down, Daisy?”
Down they went, along sloping alleyways where daylight barely penetrated, and then along tunnels where daylight did not come at all. They passed through the territories of half a dozen different gangs, only one of which was foolish enough to try to extract a toll. Down, always down, into Darktown’s true depths, where people had hung rickety doors on hollows in the tunnel walls for homes, and ancient props were all that kept the low ceiling from collapsing, and here and there piles of rubble marked routes that had caved in and were now sealed forever.
“Makes you wonder if there was anyone the other side,” Varric muttered as they passed one. “And if they had another way out.”
They saw few people in the tunnels. Those who lived this far down existed in perpetual wariness, and feared strangers even more than they feared each other. The foul stench of rot and sewage permeated the warrens. After a while Fenris almost stopped noticing the foetid taste at the back of his throat each time he breathed in. The ground underfoot sloped ever downwards. The intermittent light wells became rarer and rarer, and then there were no more at all.
They met their first demon about an hour after the last time they saw daylight. Fenris was almost expecting it by then. It was a shambling corpse, still dressed in its ancient rags, and it stumbled out of the shadows of a side-tunnel moaning quietly. Decaying chunks of flesh hung from its bony frame. Merrill yelped. Varric put two crossbow bolts into its skull before Fenris even had his sword in his hand.
“All right there, Daisy?”
“Yes! Sorry. It just startled me.”
“Undead,” said Fenris. He had his sword now, and he did not put it away. “We should expect more to come.”
“How many walking corpses do you think are stumbling around in the dark under Kirkwall?” Varric asked. “Wait, never mind, I don’t want to know. I like being able to sleep.”
Merrill came over and inspected the corpse. “Look, he’s a miner. He still has his pickaxe.” It was a rusted skeleton of a tool, slung from the corpse’s fraying rope belt.
“Damn,” said Varric. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since anyone mined anything under Kirkwall?”
“It’s a good sign! It means we’re probably going the right way.”
“Probably doesn’t sound good,” said Varric.
“Do you actually know where you’re going?” Fenris demanded.
“Well,” said Merrill. “Sort of? There isn’t really a map.”
“I hope you have a plan for getting us out again, then,” said Varric, “because if I was meant to die wandering in monster-infested tunnels my family would never have left Orzammar.”
“Oh no, it’s easy,” Merrill said. “I’m looking for the thin place in the Veil, you see, and I just have to feel my way along the slope of it. It’s like going down a mountain! It’s very easy to tell which way is steepest. And when we want to get out, we just go back up.”
“And how are we supposed to tell, Daisy? What if you get knocked out? You’re the only mage.”
“Oh,” said Merrill. “I didn’t think of that.” She cocked her head. “No, it’s all right! The closer we are to the weak spot, the more demons and spirits there are. If you want to get out, just go away from them.”
“In other words,” Fenris said, “we are, at this moment, going towards them.”
“Well, yes,” Merrill said. “Oh, and I forgot to say - be careful. If the notes are right, then spirits can talk even to non-mages down here. If you hear any voices, don’t listen. They probably aren’t very safe.”
“Oh!” said Merrill an hour and more than two dozen corpses later.
“A door.” She pointed. “A proper door.”
It was an incongruous sight in these winding tunnels. The pointed double arch was supported by carved pillars with the forms of snarling dragons. Merrill lit the veilfire braziers that hung from brackets in the wall on either side, and in the flickering blue-green light the eyes of the sculpted monsters gleamed green. “Are those emeralds?” said Varric.
“I have seen this style before,” Fenris said. The architecture of ancient Tevinter was a rare sight in Minrathous; too many centuries and too many powerful magisters had left their determined mark, and few of the city’s great buildings had not been demolished to their foundations and replaced with ever-increasing grandeur. But there were parts of the Magisterium that had been preserved, and though the great old triumphal arches had been mostly stripped of their dragon carvings, one or two could still be seen. None retained their gemstone eyes.
“This is the work of the old Tevinter Imperium,” he said.
“Wonderful. Do we go through, or do we keep heading down?” said Varric.
“Through,” said Merrill. “But - carefully.” She paused. “I think we should all try to be very calm. Calm and cheerful! Think about nice things.”
“Well, try not to think sad things,” said Merrill. “Or angry things.” She glanced at Fenris.
“I am not angry,” said Fenris flatly.
“Oh good,” said Merrill. “Just keep being not angry! As hard as you can.”
“Are you expecting rage demons, Daisy?” Varric said.
“Well, I don’t really know,” said Merrill. “But I think if I was a spirit here, I would be quite angry.”
Beyond the doorway lay what seemed almost another world. Veilfire arced from brazier to brazier after Merrill lit the first one. The paving stones beneath their feet shone in the green light. Arched stonework supported the high ceiling; carved stone dragons coiled beneath the flying buttresses. “This place is just screaming lost temple to me,” Varric said. “Have I mentioned I hate lost temples?”
“You do?” said Merrill.
“Lost temples, lost thaigs, lost tombs, lost civilisations of all kinds, Daisy. I’ve learned my lesson. There’s usually a reason these places get lost.” He glanced upwards and shivered as the jewelled eyes of the dragon carving directly above them caught the light. “I bet people worked hard to misplace this one.”
“Did you hear that?” said Fenris sharply.
They all paused. A deep silence fell. Fenris looked up; the eyes of the carved dragons glittered. There was no sound.
“I don’t hear anything,” said Merrill.
Fenris shook his head. “I am sorry. It was -”
- they promised, they promised, they said if we did as we were told -
“- nothing,” he finished, and shook his head again. His ears were ringing as if he had just surfaced from deep underwater.
Varric and Merrill were both watching him, Varric dubiously, Merrill with concern. “Calm and cheerful, remember!” she said.
“How can I be cheerful when Hawke is imprisoned in nightmares?” Fenris demanded.
Merrill looked tremulous, and then determined, and then she said, “Try.”
There were no more wandering corpses, and no demons. But there were many whispers.
Fenris stopped tensing up when he heard them after the first few times. It served no purpose. The whispering voices were not trying to tempt him. There were no offers, no promises, no suggestions. Just, endlessly: they promised. They promised us.
“What did they promise you?” Merrill said at one point. “Who did?” Fenris had not heard the whisper that prompted her. The voices seemed to speak only to one of them at a time. He listened closely for other sounds, the tell-tale stumbling gait of a corpse or the slither of a shade, but there was nothing. Only their footsteps disturbed the ancient silence. The lyrium in his markings shivered every time a new veilfire brazier flickered into life, and the priceless eyes of the dragon carvings glittered, and sad soft voices whispered around them: we were promised. They swore it. We believed them.
“Do you know who’s talking, Daisy?” said Varric after a while.
“Oh - nobody, I think,” said Merrill. “Well, spirits. But very weak ones.”
“Why are they talking about promises?”
“It’s this place’s memories,” she said. “All the thoughts and feelings of the people who were here. It’s supposed to be like this anywhere in the Fade where terrible things have happened. Here the Veil is so thin we can actually hear it.”
“Whatever they were promised,” Varric said, “I don’t think they got it. I wonder who they were?”
“Slaves,” Fenris said.
“You think so?” Varric said.
“I know,” said Fenris. He did not know how he knew. The certainty was inside him all the same. “These are the voices of slaves.”
As if to answer him, the whispers suddenly grew louder. They promised us everything and they took everything; they promised us a future and they lied, they lied; we the chosen, we the special, we came willingly in exchange for what was offered. He flinched before it, distantly aware of a sudden chill, and a rattle of dust blowing past his feet. One voice, fiercer than the rest, spoke not in a whisper but in a low roar like a distant rumble of thunder: you know. You know us. Mages betrayed you into nothingness just as they betrayed us. You are like us - like me.
“Yes,” Fenris murmured.
He did know them, he thought distantly, and they knew him. They knew his old hatred, the sickness that did not die. He felt them recognise it and comprehend it perfectly. They saw in his mind the high towers of the Magisterium, familiar even stripped of the dragon carvings they knew, and they hissed their ancient anger. Those walls should be torn down, and everything inside them destroyed. Everything the lords of Tevinter had ever touched should be consigned to oblivion. They needed only an instrument for their vengeance -
Oh shit, he heard someone say somewhere that seemed far away and not very real. His attention was all for the whispering slaves. He felt their bitterness, their despair, their long isolation. No one had ever understood him like this -
A sharp crack of too-loud sound - real sound - accompanied a sudden burst of pain in the side of his face. Fenris opened his eyes.
“Sorry! I'm sorry!” said Merrill. She shook out her hand as she backed away. “How do you feel?”
“You just slapped me,” Fenris said. He worked his jaw a couple of times. It hurt. “How do you think I feel?”
“What she’s asking is, do you feel possessed at all,” said Varric. Bianca was in his hands. The bolt was aimed at Fenris’s head.
Fenris stared at it. He thought back over the last few moments. He could still hear the whispering, like the surging of the sea.
Tear down the walls. Destroy their cities. Kill them in their hundreds, in their thousands, innocent and guilty as they did to us; let them know what they did to us. Let them feel it. Punish them -
Varric looked at his face and then slowly lowered the crossbow.
“All better?” said Merrill
“Oh yes,” Fenris said bitterly. The voices of the dead slaves were soft and indistinct again. “I could not be more calm and cheerful if I tried.”
“The sad thing is that’s probably true,” said Varric.
Fenris looked away. He shrugged his shoulders hard, shook his head. So: that was possession, or nearly. It had not felt like something being taken from him. It had felt like something being given.
“It can’t be very much further,” Merrill said. “Let’s be quick.”
She was correct. Through the next door the winding corridor opened out into a great hall. A great carved dragon’s head dominated the far end of the room, and the only way forward was a dark archway between its snarling jaws. “One-track minds, those Tevinters,” Varric said. “Dragons this and dragons that and dragons all the way down. What’s wrong with statues of nugs or something?”
“It would be a welcome change, at least,” Fenris said.
“I take it we go down the gullet, Daisy?”
“Yes,” said Merrill. Her eyes were fixed on the dark archway. There was a slight wrinkle between her eyebrows. “There’s something - I can almost -”
She advanced a step or two. Fenris remembered what had nearly happened to him, and readied himself, watching her narrowly as he adjusted his grip on his sword. But no demonic corruption erupted through her flesh. She simply stood, and stared. After a moment she turned around, eyes very wide, and said, “Don’t move!”
In the shadows of the archway something was happening. White threads of mist wove themselves into translucent figures with indistinct faces. The constant murmur of the slaves’ voices fell abruptly silent: only then did Fenris realise how accustomed to the sound he had become.
“But Lord Amladaris,” said one of the indistinct figures standing in the shadows, “what if it’s not there?”
“It will be there!” hissed a deep voice that echoed strangely across the high hall. “It will be ours!”
Varric winced. “Now there’s a voice I never wanted to hear again,” he said. “We killed the bastard. I know we killed him. Twice!”
“Corypheus,” Fenris said softly.
“Just a memory,” said Merrill. “But a strong one.”
“We are so close now. Do not despair. The gods are with us,” the memory or spirit or ghost told its companions. “The next series of sacrifices should be enough to finish the great work we have begun. We will have all the power we need at last.”
“What about the - thing?”
The shadow of Corypheus rounded on the figure who had spoken. “I told you to kill it!”
“We’re trying,” moaned the - servant? Lesser magister? “It keeps coming back.”
Corypheus growled his displeasure, and then seemed to calm himself all at once. “It will not matter,” he said. “When our work is done we can deal with it at our leisure. Bind it and leave it. Come. It is nearly time.”
There was a swirl in the white mists as the figure turned and stalked away between the dragon’s jaws. The other translucent beings lingered a moment before they followed, beginning to dissipate even as they moved.
Fenris stared at the place where they had been. Nothing else moved. At last Varric breathed out harshly.
“I really hate this place,” he said. “You realise what this means, don’t you? If that was really Corypheus and friends, then there’s only one thing they could have been talking about. This is the place - Kirkwall is the place - where the magisters raided the Golden City.”
“I thought it must be,” said Merrill.
“Oh, well, yes?” Merrill said. “Hawke found all these old notes, all about some secret magical research. And he brought them to me because, well, I quite like secret magical research. It took ages to put it all together, but it’s the only thing that made sense. Kirkwall’s very strange, you know. It’s odd for humans to settle right next to a place like Sundermount - and the streets are laid out like the patterns of a rune - and there’s so much magic.” She paused. “I mean, I wasn’t sure! Not all the way sure.”
“Then Hawke knew about this place too,” Fenris said.
Merrill nodded. “We were going to investigate it properly,” she said. “Right before Anders - well. Before everything got so messy. Hawke thought - it must be the reason why everything in Kirkwall goes so wrong. There was horrible magic done here, awful magic, and the echoes are in the Veil, poisoning everything. But if we found it and fixed it -”
It was exactly the sort of thing Hawke would get himself involved in. Fenris could picture him in these ancient, silent hallways, laughing at the dragon carvings, shaking off the whispers of the dead. Fight through demons and ghosts and whatever else lurked in the dark, down towards an ancient unspeakable horror, in order to simply fix whatever the magisters had done here -
The sheer good-natured arrogance of it, that was purest Hawke. A thousand-year-old evil: of course he was the one who ought to do something about it. Kirkwall, he would have said, was his city now. He would have come to Fenris in the abandoned Hightown mansion and invited him to join them. He would have smiled as he held out his hand.
In fact he would probably have brought all of them for a quest like this, his whole ragtag collection of ill-assorted friends. Isabela would have plucked out the dragons’ gemstone eyes as they went. Aveline would have advanced on the ancient darkness with sword and shield and grim determination: Kirkwall was her city too. Sebastian would have called it the Maker’s work. And the abomination - yes, even Anders, Fenris could see him here too. Perhaps the whispers would have seized him just as they had nearly seized on Fenris, the slaughtered slaves murmuring their ancient longing for justice, justice, vengeance -
The voices nearly rose around him again as he had the thought. Fenris felt their attention fall on him and stiffened, denying them. He could not be their instrument. He would not be their vengeance. Yet he knew that if he had not had his quest, if he had not had Hawke to cling to like a talisman, he would have found it hard to refuse. They made too much sense to him. They understood him too well. It was terrifying.
He forced himself back to the here and now, where Isabela was long gone and Aveline’s life was given over to defending her city against Sebastian’s invasion; where Anders was dead, and Hawke worse than dead.
“Did you hear, though? They were looking for something,” said Merrill.
“The Golden City, Daisy,” Varric said.
“Even you must be aware of the story,” said Fenris.
“No, but - a story is only a way of explaining things that are difficult,” Merrill said. “I think they meant to take something. You couldn’t take the entire Golden City, could you? It’s a city. It’s not a… thing. Well, it is a thing, but not a thing thing.”
“You’ve lost me,” Varric said.
“They weren’t sure if it was there,” Merrill said. “I wonder if they found it?”
“I’m more interested in what we’re looking for,” Varric said. “A weak place in the Veil, my eye. What exactly are we doing down here?”
“Well, we are looking for the weakest place. It ought to be there, you see,” Merrill said. “I think it must be something elven. Maybe something they took from Sundermount - from the ruins of Arlathan.”
“What is?” Fenris demanded.
“I don’t know exactly,” said Merrill. “But the magisters succeeded, didn’t they? They found a way into the Fade. And if we’re going to get Hawke back, that’s what we need to do too.”
There was a pause. Merrill looked from Varric’s face to Fenris’s. “What? What is it?”
“No, you’re right,” said Varric faintly at last. “If hopping through the magisters’ gate to the Fade is what it takes to get Hawke back, that’s what we’ve got to do.” He shook his head. “Let’s just hope that whoever’s in charge of these things can tell the difference between an invasion and a rescue mission. I don’t want to go down in history as the cause of something worse than the Blight.”
Fenris nodded, once. “Let us not waste time,” he said.
There was no ghostly mist left now between the dragon’s jaws. The stairway beyond the arch was carved in slick black obsidian, and led down.
He did not even look round to see if the others were following. The whispering voices of the slaves had started up again: he ignored them. He was trying not to think too hard about what exactly it was that Merrill proposed they do. She had only said outright what Lavellan had already hinted. To follow in the footsteps of those ancient magisters, who in their hubris had brought the Blight to the world -
What other way was there?
You could leave Hawke there, said something in the back of his mind. He almost laughed. He could no more do that than he could fly. He remembered again Hawke looking up at him as they hid from templars on the road to Wycome, and the pattern of light and shadow filtering through the leaves onto his skin. Only one man. Only one mage, no less. One mocking, flirtatious, unbelievably arrogant mage, whom Fenris had hardly ever found himself in agreement with - who indeed seemed to take joy in disagreeing with him, winding him up, needling - turning the whole world upside down and making Fenris see it another way -
Just one man. He had shaken Fenris’ hand in a friendly way at the crossroads outside Wycome, and smiled when he told him goodbye.
Fenris was a fool.
He stopped short at the bottom of the stairs, all doubts and memories fled momentarily from his mind. The markings on his skin burned bright in sympathetic response to the great rush of magic. He felt rather than saw Merrill and Varric pause behind him.
Before them stretched a great black cavern of a room. Wide, shallow trenches had been cut into the floor in intricate patterns that seemed to cross over one another in impossible eye-wrenching ways. They shimmered with a dull red light. It was the same light that had shone in Meredith’s eyes as the lyrium madness consumed her.
At the heart of the pattern of trenches lay a black altar. Over the altar, suspended in reddish light, hung a gently spinning orb. And at the far end of the room stood a black archway. The same dull, bloody light gleamed underneath it: a flat shine, like a reflection in a mirror.
All around the edges of the pattern lay the bodies.
They were piled in heaps. They had not rotted. The centuries had barely touched them. They still wore their ragged, bloodstained slaves’ tunics. Their desiccated skin was stretched thinly across their faces, showing the shape of bone underneath features that nonetheless retained a terrible semblance of life. The whispering voices rose softly again: we were promised. We were betrayed.
“Well,” said Varric, looking up at the black altar, “the good news is, there’s our elven artefact.”
“It’s a focus,” Merrill breathed. “They were all lost - long before the Dales were founded, they were lost. I never thought I’d see one!”
“Really? Because Corypheus used an orb a lot like that one to open the Breach at the Conclave,” Varric said.
Fenris was only barely aware of Merrill exclaiming, asking excited questions. He could not draw his gaze away from the heaped bodies. He found himself looking at one ancient face. It belonged to a young elven man, with sharp cheekbones and a hooked nose. It was still possible to tell that he had once possessed, like Fenris himself, the dark complexion of the elves of the north.
Fenris looked, and looked, and he heard the fierce voice whisper: you. You understand. You know.
He shouted a warning just as the dead man’s eyes opened. Blue fire blazed in the empty eye sockets.
The corpse climbed to its feet, a snarl distorting its long-dead features. When it was standing it swayed a little. Varric got off a crossbow bolt that disintegrated as it came within a foot of the demon. It looked at them and spoke. Fenris saw its mouth moving, but he heard the words inside his head.
I will not be denied.
Blue light flickered in the corners of the dark room. When Fenris turned his head he saw out of the corner of his eye a towering figure of light crouched over the body it was possessing. The spirit was gigantic.
The blood of the innocent called out to me and I answered.
No other corpses woke. There was only one demon here, and it was very old, and very, very strong.
I will spare no one, it whispered. I am the scourge. I am the punishment. Let the wheel turn. I will always come for the guilty.
Release me. I will cleanse the world in slaughter.
“You were right, Daisy,” Varric said. He was almost shouting to make himself heard over the whispering that filled the air. “I think this one’s angry!”
He need not have said it. Fenris could feel it. It was rage, and worse than rage. It was despair and worse than despair. Violence was all it had left. Justice, whispered the memories that rippled through the Veil here. We were slaughtered for their pride. We demand justice.
And softer still: no justice could ever be enough.
Perhaps Anders had seen something like this, back when that was still truly his name. Perhaps this was what he had felt when he had offered himself up willingly to such a spirit.
Fenris took a deep and shuddering breath.
He looked past the thing to the black altar. “We need that orb to get to Hawke,” he said.
The demon screeched with rage.
No. You will not have it. No. No more. No!
Its corpse-body lurched towards them. Fenris had to unfocus his eyes to see the thing that was puppeting it. It came right up to the edge of the pattern of carved trenches that marked the stony floor and stopped.
“It’s bound,” Merrill said. “It can’t come any closer. If we don’t go into the pattern we’re safe.”
“We have to go in,” said Fenris. He stared up at the black altar. It was so close.
“Okay, fine,” Varric said. “You think of a way to get past it, then!”
Merrill aimed a firebolt at the thing. Just like Varric’s crossbow bolt, it fell into nothingness about a foot from the corpse. “It’s very strong,” she said doubtfully. “Perhaps if we - Fenris!”
A blaze of agony washed through Fenris’s whole body as he crossed the first trench and the lyrium in his markings flared to life. The demon turned eagerly towards him.
Fenris swung his sword off his back, felt the familiar weight in his hands.
“No,” he said.
The face of the corpse the demon wore twisted. It hissed at him. Traitor!
Then it attacked.
Chapter 4: The Black Gate
Inside the pattern of the magisters’ binding the voices of the dead were not a whisper but a roar.
“This is the stupidest thing we’ve ever done!” Varric yelled over the unearthly howl.
“You did not have to follow me!” Fenris shouted. The corpse swiped at him bare-handed and he twisted away; the blows, when they landed, hit like hammers. He had learned almost immediately that ghosting made it worse - the possessed body could no longer touch him, but the demon puppeting it had no such limitations, and was much more fearsome.
“Are you kidding?” Varric bellowed. “Of course we did!” He loosed another volley of crossbow bolts; they glittered with bluish frost as they struck the corpse’s flank. Merrill was limning them with ice magic. Fenris could see her, out of the corner of his eye, fighting with her staff reversed: the bladed haft close by her hand so she could slice into her own flesh for more blood and more power.
The possessed corpse had no weapons, no armour, very little by way of strategy. Fenris had faced revenants whose glittering intelligent eyes had rendered them in some ways far more frightening. This felt more like fighting a rage demon, and it was not fear he felt, but growing and exhausted despair. It was so strong. It hit hard, and did not tire, and did not slow; it did not defend itself, either, but a creature of such power did not need to. It shrugged off the ice-tipped missiles like pinpricks, and its ancient papery skin might have been made of steel for all the damage Fenris’ sword did to it. It was fast, as well: the blows he landed were few. None of them staggered it for even a second, and certainly not for long enough that one of the others could press the advantage.
And the howling voices were hard to ignore. Traitor traitor traitor traitor! they screeched. Fenris set his jaw and focused on the thing in front of him. It swiped at him and gnashed its teeth. Its attention was all for him. Traitor. He was better able to bear its blows than Varric or Merrill, at least.
Even as he had the thought it managed to land a blow on him. Its closed fist gleamed with blue light and felt like the heavy slam of a mace when it connected with Fenris’ shoulder. If he had not been armored it would certainly have shattered his collarbone. As it was he stumbled and went to one knee under the force of it. A red-tinged shield sprang into being over him for just as long as it took the creature to swing down its fist in a killing blow.
“Be careful, Fenris!” Merrill cried as he forced himself back onto his feet. The thwarted demon shrieked. He felt his face twist in a snarl of effort as he came to meet it again.
“How the hell do we win this one?” Varric shouted somewhere behind him. “Daisy, any ideas?”
“I don’t know!”
“Can we trick it? Get round it? We don’t need to fight the damn thing if we can just get the orb and get out of here!”
Fenris spared a sideways glance for the altar - an error, that, and one which nearly earned him a broken arm. Of the three of them, he thought, he was the quickest on his feet. He could break loose from this fight and make a dash for the orb.
The demon’s attention would turn to Merrill the blood mage if it were distracted even for a moment from the betrayal it saw in him. He knew it: he could feel it. It gave him a shocked shuddering feeling, a sense of near-dislocation from the world, to find himself understanding this Fade creature so well.
If the monster turned on Merrill, he told himself, it would certainly kill her quickly. And the orb was no key to the Fade without her.
“I’m serious!” Varric was saying somewhere behind him. The strain of the battle was clear in his raised voice. “We can’t beat this thing like this!”
“I’m going to try something!” Merrill cried. “Um - brace yourselves!”
“On what?” Fenris shouted over the dead slaves’ howling.
“Well - try not to fall over!”
Then there was a soft wet gasp of pain which told Fenris all he needed to know. For Merrill to even notice the pain of an injury she had given herself, the cut must be deep indeed.
Then the ground began to split open.
The solid rock of the cavern floor uncoiled and flexed itself as if it were a dragon’s heaving back. Piles of bodies tipped sideways, corpses sliding over each other. Ancient, brittle bones snapped as the dead were scattered like rag dolls.
Magic! Fenris gritted his teeth and tried to keep his footing. The demon, bound to its body, was as much at the mercy of this uncanny development as he was. It could not spare attention to attack him, but then he could not attack it either.
Varric was cursing fluently somewhere behind him. Spires of red-tinted rock began to erupt through the floor around the cavern, angled like blades. One barely missed Fenris’s right arm. The tumbling corpses came to rest in piles around the troughs beneath the spires, and the wailing of the dead was mixed with the low grinding grumble of the protesting earth. The intricate pattern of the magisters’ binding started to disappear as the earth heaved and twisted. The demon turned and turned again, confused.
Only two patches of solid ground remained at last. One, now a high rocky pillar, held the altar and orb. Merrill stood on the other, white-faced under her clan markings, one hand pressed over her abdomen. Her robes were staining red between her fingers.
“It’s all right,” she said shakily, in a voice that cut across the din. “Quite all right -”
With her other hand she still held her staff. She brought it down in a splendid gesture of command that was oddly familiar. Fenris did not intend his eyes to widen.
(Hawke. Mages learned from each other, shared their vile tricks, and that, that was Hawke’s flashiness, Hawke’s bold certainty, Hawke’s way of doing magic-)
In answer to Merrill’s gesture the columns of solid ground began to slide inexorably together. Fenris stared up at them. Varric’s swearing turned profane and increasingly anatomically unlikely. The baffled demon was surrounded by a wall of sharp rock spires. It paced angrily back and forth in its cage.
Merrill limped from one tall column to the other. She dropped her staff and had to catch herself on the altar as she stumbled. One hand she still kept pressed over the bloody patch on her abdomen. With the other she reached for the orb.
It seemed almost to roll into her hands.
The heaving ground stabilised abruptly; the columns sank down to normal level. Merrill said, “Oh dear,” faintly, and hobbled a pace or two, and then stopped with a wondering expression. Fenris reacted only just in time; he sprang forward, and when she collapsed she fell into his arms rather than straight to the floor.
“Oh, hello,” Merrill said, mostly into his shoulder. She was very light. She was clinging to the orb.
“Shit,” said Varric right next to him. “Shit, shit - do you have any -”
Fenris shook his head, still propping her up. He had run out of healing draughts as he endured the demon’s blows.
“I’ve got a couple - take this, Daisy, drink up, it’s good for you -”
Merrill weakly batted his hand away. “No, no - lyrium, I can heal myself if I drink some lyrium -”
“Have you got any?”
“Belt pouch?” said Merrill vaguely. “I think?”
Fenris laid her carefully on the ground. It was full of odd cracks and troughs now. The rock was heaped up on itself like petrified cloth. Varric muttered worried words and held a lyrium potion to her lips; Merrill coughed a few times, but white light flickered slowly into existence, first around her bloody hand and then her whole body.
The orb had fallen from her weakened fingers when she tried to push Varric away. Fenris crouched, carefully, and picked it up.
It was very light in his hands. Fine carvings on its surface were not immediately obvious to the eye but felt strange and prickly to the pads of his fingers. An artefact of ancient, evil magic, the harbinger of the Blight - and perhaps the key to Hawke's salvation. Strange, that something so small could contain so much.
The prickling sensation it gave his hands was unnerving. He shifted his grip. The surface of the orb brushed against one of his lyrium markings.
Agony flashed through him. All his markings blazed into light. So too did the orb. He dropped it, shuddering, stumbling back. Merrill twisted after it and cried out in pain. The demon in its cage of rock screeched.
"I got it!" Varric said.
"No, don't -!"
Merrill's warning was not necessary. The orb shone like a miniature star; to lay a hand on it now would be madness. At the far end of the cavern, something was happening to the black arch of the magisters' gate.
Fenris watched, sick to his stomach, as the dull reddish gleam beneath the arch seemed to pulse, twist, and snap. Grey-green fog boiled out of the distortion. Only when the whole space beneath the arch was filled with the strangeness did it stop. The orb went dull.
"What is that?" Fenris said.
Varric breathed out hard and said, "Fade rift." He offered Merrill a shoulder to rest a hand on as she climbed unsteadily to her feet. The bleeding had stopped but she was still very pale. The three of them stood in a row and stared at what they had unlocked. "Big Fade rift," Varric said, and then he added a quiet but heartfelt profanity.
On the far side of the gate, just visible through the mists, lay the unmistakable beginnings of an old Tevinter highway: the slavebuilt roads that looked the same from Minrathous to the Korcari Wilds, with their arched checkpoints and their magically smoothed surfaces. It was realler than the fog around it, that road; an outpost of physical existence. The brick and stone of this world defied the dreamscape with their solidity.
It led upwards.
“I guess we go that way,” Varric said faintly at last. “Or… not that way.”
“Well, I don’t think Hawke will be in the Black City,” said Merrill. “We’d better not follow the road.”
“We have no road to follow,” Fenris said. The enormity of the task he had set himself was finally making itself felt. “The Fade is vast. Hawke could be anywhere - could have gone anywhere - that is if he even lives -”
The demon in its cage screeched again, cutting him off. There was a soft thump and a rustling. All three of them froze.
“Oh dear,” said Merrill.
“Nothing scares me more than you saying those two words, Daisy,” said Varric. “If we turn around right now, are we going to like what we see?”
“I… hoped it wouldn’t notice yet?” Merrill said. “I, um, broke the binding. When I made a mess of the floor.”
“Which means -”
“There!” said Fenris.
One of the many hundreds of slave corpses was twitching as something took control of its long-abandoned flesh. He turned towards it, saw movement out of the corner of his eye; another was moving too - and another -
The corpse in the stone cage had collapsed: motionless, dead, empty. The demon did not need it. It had a vast army of puppets to command. They twitched, and rose, and advanced. An army of the dead now stood between them and the gateway into the Fade.
This gate was sealed, their master whispered in its terrible voice. This gate was hidden. This gate was mortared with our blood, and it should never have been. You will not use it! No one will ever use it again!
The mental shriek of its voice was matched by an all-too-real shriek of grinding stone as something gave way in the cavern’s ceiling and it collapsed behind them. The way they had come in was blocked.
"Well, that’s not good,” Varric said. He unslung Bianca from his shoulder, and aimed first at one corpse, then another, without loosing a bolt. It would have been a waste.
They were going to die, Fenris thought. Merrill’s strength was spent, and no weapon that he or Varric could wield had done any injury to this creature. They were going to die, torn to pieces by a thousand dead hands mustered under one ancient furious will, and though he readied his blade and tried to face it dispassionately, something wailed in the back of his mind. Not like this - not with Hawke still lost, trapped, maybe dead - not without knowing -
The dead army had them surrounded. Beyond their lines the rift pulsed, the black road beckoned: so close, and yet impossibly far away. Merrill, swaying slightly, reversed her staff once more to draw the blade across her palm. Varric spat on the ground and said, “Right.” Fenris summoned up the burn of lyrium, shouted a hopeless warcry, and suddenly, without warning, the world turned white.
White and deathly cold.
For a moment Fenris thought it was death in truth. Perhaps he had been killed quickly, some unseen attack. Perhaps this cold emptiness was all that came afterwards -
Sense reasserted itself. Magic. Ice magic, a mighty blast of it, snow and hail whipping past his face. He turned without thinking to Merrill, who had almost nothing left. This would kill her, without a doubt -
She was crouched against the blast, blinking snow off her eyelashes, looking as confused as Fenris felt.
“Quickly!” shouted a voice out of the blizzard. “Follow me!”
Varric looked up sharply at the sound. Fenris could make out a lean and ragged figure among the flinching corpses, silhouetted against the green light coming through the arch. It held a mage’s staff glittering with ice; that and its upright posture were all that proved that it was not another corpse. “This way! Are you mad? Do you want to die?”
“I don’t believe it,” Varric said. “Come on!”
“I, um,” said Merrill. “I don’t think I can run.” They both looked at her. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine!”
“We’re not leaving you here, Daisy!” said Varric. But Merrill did not move.
“This way!” shouted the mage again. “Quickly!”
The conjured blizzard could not last forever; was already beginning to abate. Fenris swore. Merrill yelped as he scooped her up in his arms; an undignified position, perhaps, but she should prefer it to being consumed by a demon. He snapped an unnecessary command to Varric, who was already moving, and shouldered past a pair of frozen corpses as he ran towards the voice. Merrill was crying out something -
“The orb! Don’t leave the -”
Fenris adjusted his grip on her, ducked and scooped the orb up as he ran. It flared white again in his hand; he half-felt, half-saw the Fade rift pulse in answer. The strange mage stood framed beneath the black gate, with the magisters’ road rising behind him. He held out a hand to drag Varric through. Fenris threw himself afterwards, and he and Merrill landed in a tangled heap with the orb beneath them.
He rolled over and saw the rift blink out of existence. A single corpse, pursuing them, was caught halfway through. The closing rift neatly bifurcated it, and it collapsed lifeless.
Fenris lay on his back, panting for breath. Merrill was moaning in soft pain; Varric was gasping. There were no more corpses. The cavern too was gone. The black gate was a simple arch to nowhere, standing in the midst of rolling emptiness, and the road they lay on ended at its threshold.
The elf who had called them through wore ragged robes and a distracted expression. He could have been any age: his face was not old, but he somehow seemed very far from youth. It might have been his baldness that made him seem older. He was standing at the arch’s base, looking up at it with pursed lips, lost in thought. He might have forgotten they were there.
For the first time since the three of them had entered the Tevinter ruin, there were no whispers.
It was Varric who broke the silence.
“Chuckles!” he said. “Where the hell did you come from?”
“Varric,” said the strange mage, politely turning away from the arch. “It is good to see you well.”
“I just got chased into the Fade by an army of corpses and you call this well?”
“You are in one piece and still capable of making incredulous comments,” said the stranger. “Is that not well?”
“You know this man?” Fenris demanded.
“Sure I do,” said Varric. “Time for introductions, I guess. Though this may be the weirdest place I’ve ever done introductions.”
The stranger’s lips quirked. “If the pattern of your life to date holds, Master Tethras, it may only be the strangest place you have done introductions so far.”
“Thanks, that makes me feel so much better,” said Varric. “Anyway, Fenris, Merrill, meet Solas - former mage of the Inquisition, apostate, Fade expert, and master of the disappearing act.” Varric rounded on the man and added, “Someday you’re going to have to tell me how you managed to vanish so thoroughly even Leliana couldn’t find you.”
“A certain amount of magic was involved,” said Solas.
Fenris narrowed his eyes. The man’s level tone did not fully conceal the touch of smugness. It was not a quality that inspired any confidence in him, particularly not when found in a strange mage.
“The Inquisition had no further need of my expertise once Corypheus was defeated,” Solas carried on. “I chose to return to my wanderings and my studies. I did not wish to be found.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense,” Varric said. “Though you could at least have said goodbye. Someone we know is pretty angry with you.”
“Goodbyes were neither necessary or appropriate,” said Solas coldly.
“That’s what you think. No, I won’t say a word. I know all about bad breakups.” Solas began to say something; Varric spoke over him. “And I have strict policies about gift horses, I don’t look them in the mouth. We’d have been paste on the floor if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”
“Thank you very much,” put in Merrill. She was sitting up now. The white flicker of her healing magic was fading around her abdomen. She did not look quite so pale as she had before.
“Why were you in that ruin?” Fenris said. “Those tunnels have been abandoned for centuries. No one should have been down there.”
“You certainly should not have been,” said Solas. “And it is fortunate for you that I was. As it happens, I am an explorer of the Fade. My studies often lead me to strange and dangerous places. On this occasion I happened to be dreaming in the caverns of Sundermount when a disturbance in the substance of the Fade itself caught my attention. It was surprisingly easy to ascertain the direction and simply blast a way through to the cavern where you were trapped. The demon would certainly have killed you if not for my interference. I cannot remember the last time I encountered a spirit of justice so powerful or so twisted against itself.”
“Maker knows there’s injustice to spare in Kirkwall,” Varric said. “But it sounded like it was attracted there by - you know what, I can’t even say it. It’s too crazy.”
“By the deaths of innocent slaves,” said Fenris, “slaughtered by Tevinter blood mages in their search for the Golden City.”
“Right. That.” Varric shook his head. “Still crazy. You don’t expect stories like that one to be so… real. Or at least, I don’t.”
“It was bound,” said Merrill. “It was stuck there. All alone with those horrible memories, for such a long time.”
Solas inclined his head gravely. “Then what it became is not surprising.”
There was a moment of quiet.
“Well,” said Varric. “Here we are. In the Fade. I guess that was the plan. Though this isn’t quite how I pictured it going.”
“You planned to enter the Fade?” Solas frowned. “What could the Inquisition possibly need here? The Inquisitor surely knows better than to -”
“We do not serve the Inquisitor,” said Fenris. A memory came to him of the tired Dalish woman in her tower in the mountains: an arrogant condescending bald-headed prig, she had said. “Any more than you do,” he added, testing, and thought he saw the mage wince.
“Yeah, this isn’t Inquisitorial business,” Varric said. “As a matter of fact, it’s personal.”
Solas’s eyebrows lifted, and then his brow wrinkled. “Ah,” he said. “Hawke.”
“Yes. Hawke,” said Varric. “My friend, Chuckles, I know you know what friends are. And I’m not going to believe he’s dead till I see the body with my own eyes.”
“Hawke’s a powerful mage,” said Merrill. “He could survive in the Fade. I know he could.”
Fenris said nothing.
Solas looked from Varric to Fenris to Merrill, shook his head, and said, “You have no idea what you are doing. Your quest is extraordinarily unwise. You must abandon it immedia - what is that?”
He was staring at Merrill. Or rather, at what Merrill had cradled in her hands.
The orb was no longer glowing with magic. In the foggy sourceless light that illuminated this place Fenris could see, for the first time, the fine carvings that were etched all over its surface.
“It’s an artefact of Arlathan,” Merrill said. “It’s called a focus! I’ve read all about them in ancient scrolls. It’s said the elven gods used foci to -”
“I know what it is,” Solas snapped. “Why do you have it? Where did you find it? They were lost.”
“Wait, you stopped for that thing? In the middle of all that?” said Varric.
“Fenris got it for me,” Merrill said. “Which was very nice of him! Did I say thank you?”
“No,” said Fenris. He folded his arms and did not look at any of them.
“Well - thank you!” Merrill was smiling a little bit, helplessly, as she looked at it. “This is such a wonderful discovery. I can’t believe it was under Kirkwall all along. We could learn so much from this!”
“Better be careful, Daisy. Remember what the magisters used it for,” Varric said. “And Corypheus did some real damage with one of those at the Conclave. You must have heard about that.”
Merrill looked blank.
“Or... maybe noticed the sky ripping open?” Varric said. “Demons pouring out of Fade rifts? Our entire reality threatened with total destruction? Is any of this ringing a bell?”
“Oh yes, that. I forgot about that. I was busy,” Merrill said. But she was still smiling at the orb. “Well. I’ll be careful when I’m studying it, I promise.”
“Wonderful,” said Fenris flatly. “I shall look forward to your destruction of Kirkwall.”
“You dare not study it at all!” said Solas. “That orb was used for terrible evil. It is tainted by what was done with it - blighted and corrupted, ruined. It will destroy anything it touches. No tools now exist that could repair it. I have walked the dreams of Arlathan. I know of what I speak. You must -”
“I think I can fix it,” Merrill said.
“You cannot,” said Solas. “It would require, at the very least, an arulin’holm.”
“Yes, I know,” said Merrill absently. She was not even looking at Solas; her attention was all on the orb as she turned it over, examining the carvings. “I’ve got one at home.”
“And furthermore, it -” Solas blinked. “You what?”
“An arulin’holm. I’ve got one at home. I put it in a drawer, I think.” Merrill traced a line of carving. “Do you think this is writing? I don’t know this alphabet.”
“It was ancient even in Arlathan, as a matter of fact - What do you mean, an arulin’holm? Where did you get it?”
“From my clan?”
“Ah. Well, no Dalish imitation would be sufficient,” Solas said.
“I don’t think it’s an imitation,” said Merrill. “At least, it worked when I repaired the eluvian, so if it is it must be quite a good imitation.”
“When you - what eluvian?”
“The one I have at home,” Merrill said. “I wonder what the writing says. Did you say you know the alphabet? Can you read it?”
“I - stop that! The orb is not stable! The last thing it needs is more magic!”
“Oops,” Merrill said.
Solas began to remonstrate with her at more length. Varric snorted.
“So this mage is a friend of yours,” Fenris said in an undertone. “Do you trust him?”
“What, Solas? Of course. The Inquisition would’ve been sunk pretty early if he hadn’t volunteered. And he didn’t have to volunteer. Most apostates wouldn’t,” Varric said. “I’d have him at my back any day. Just don’t get him started on ancient magic, ancient elves, or ancient anything else.”
Fenris looked at the pair arguing over the orb and said, “I think it may be too late for that.”
Varric snickered. “Well, Merrill can keep him busy. At least she actually cares.”
“You can help me, can’t you?” Merrill was saying. “I’ve never met another elf who studies the magic of Arlathan! If we work together, we could do so much to help our people.”
Solas spluttered. “I am not your people,” he said. “The Dalish mean nothing to me.”
Merrill blinked up at him. “No, I meant elves,” she said. “We could help all elves. The elves of the alienages, the slaves of Tevinter, the Dalish - we all came from Arlathan once. Our history belongs to all of us.” She looked, absurdly, at Fenris. “Isn’t that right?”
Fenris shrugged awkwardly and looked away.
Solas was silent for a moment.
“This conversation is futile,” he said at last. “We are at the present time trapped in the Fade. We must -”
“We must find Hawke,” said Fenris.
“Oh - yes,” said Merrill. The orb disappeared into her pack. “Hawke first, of course. We’d better start looking.”
“You with us, Solas?” said Varric. “We could use you. You know more about this place than any of us.”
“I know the Fade as a dreamer, not an explorer in the flesh,” said Solas. “And I maintain that this quest is foolish. The wisest course of action would be to seek out the nearest open Fade rift and return to the waking world as quickly as possible.”
“No,” said Fenris.
“We can’t,” said Merrill.
“Hey, since when have we ever been wise?” Varric said.
Solas looked between the three of them and sighed. “In that case, I shall accompany you and guide you as best I can. And when we return from the Fade,” this to Merrill, “I would be most pleased to assist you in repairing and studying the orb - that is, if you truly possess an arulin’holm.”
“She does,” said Fenris.
“Trust me. We fought a varterral on Sundermount to get it,” Varric said. “I don’t think any of us will forget that one in a hurry.”
Solas’s lips tightened slightly. “I see there is no dissuading you. Our first priority must be to find a route to the area of the Fade where your friend was lost. Either a map or, better yet, a portal. The realms I walked while I dreamed on Sundermount are not far from here. I believe we should begin there.”
He looked around once, chose a direction which seemed no different from any other to Fenris’s eyes, and stepped off the solid stone of the magisters' road. The formless nothing solidified instantly into a glittering glyph beneath his feet. “Follow me,” he said, and strode off into the roiling mists, a shining pathway appearing beneath his feet as he walked.
“Lucky for us he was in the area, huh?” said Varric. “Feeling better, Daisy?”
“Much better, thank you,” Merrill said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“We should have a care,” said Fenris, watching the lean figure stride away from them. “I do not trust this mage.”
“You say that about all mages, Fenris."
Varric snorted. “You know, she’s got you there."
Chapter 5: Crossroads
They followed Solas along the shining path through the formless nothing for what seemed like a long time. It flickered out of existence behind them, and lit up again ahead.
“The Fade wasn’t like this last time I was here,” Varric muttered. His voice had a deadened and muffled sound, as if they were still deep underground rather than travelling through a vast and empty space.
“That was the realm of the Nightmare,” Solas said without looking around. “Its nature was shaped by its lord.”
“And whose realm is this? Is there a demon lord of Boredom about to pop out from behind a cloud bank?”
Fenris glanced sideways automatically, but no such demon appeared. The clouds were brownish-grey, seemed to be made of nothing, and always slipped away from the light of the apostate’s pathway. Only occasional pale flickers of light among the fog relieved the dullness of the place.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here at all,” Merrill said. “It feels... empty.”
“You are correct,” said Solas. “No spirit rules this part of the Fade. Few willingly come here.”
“Those lights?” said Fenris.
“Wisps. The weak, the helpless, the forgotten. Greater spirits have pushed them aside, and so they congregate along the road.”
Where they found the memories of murdered slaves, Fenris thought; where they whispered the bitterness of the helpless through the ragged Veil. He focused his gaze on his own feet and tried not to look at the firefly gleams.
“This is a dark place,” Solas said. “Blighted, if not in the most literal sense of the term. We will meet nothing capable of real thought here, let alone speech.”
“Well, if we don’t meet any demons on our way, that’s fine with me,” Varric said.
Time stretched. The emptiness of the Fade made it impossible to tell how far they had come. The only landmark in that entire formless realm had been the magisters’ gate, and once it was lost to view there was no way to mark their journey. Fenris continued to watch Solas narrowly. He told himself he was simply being careful. It had not escaped his notice that once they could no longer see the black gate there was no real way to tell which direction it lay in. This apostate had them at his mercy, if he chose. He did not understand their quest. He had never loved Hawke.
But Solas did nothing worthy of comment, unless it was suspicious to smile a little at Varric’s jokes. Merrill tried two or three times to begin a conversation about elves, magic, or the orb, but he brushed her off each time - firmly, if not rudely. Fenris did not speak to him. He kept his guard up, and watched.
At last a single landmark came into view. Standing tall in the far foggy distance was a tower. It was impossibly tall and slender, brittle-looking; its turrets went off into unnatural curving shapes that eventually spread wide into something almost like the branches of a tree. White-gold banners hung from the arches and criss-crossed stonework. They snapped and fluttered in a breeze that was not there. Fenris squinted for the heraldry as they drew closer to the base of the strange building, but it was impossible to make out; the eyes slid away from it, or else it seemed to change under one’s gaze.
“So who lives there?” Varric said. “No one we want to meet, I take it?”
“On the contrary,” said Solas. “That is our way forward.”
“I thought we were looking for the dreams of Sundermount. I don’t see a mountain anywhere.”
“To the denizens of the Fade, a mountain is merely a metaphor,” Solas said. “That tower is the realm I spoke of. It contains many portals, and the beginnings of many pathways.”
Varric tipped his head back to look up at it. Fenris glanced up as well. It was impossible to make out the tower’s height. The spreading tangle of stonework far above seemed to stretch forever, and in all directions. The banners fluttered, though many of them were hanging in the wrong direction, as if they thought the ground lay above, or off to the side. For a moment he heard birdsong, and smelled a scent he did not recognise -
Merrill breathed deep. “Oh, a real forest,” she said. “That’s lovely.”
There was one door in the tower’s base. It was made of the same white stone as the rest of the building, and it was closed. It had neither handle nor keyhole.
“So,” said Varric. “How do we get in?”
Solas paused. “Ah,” he said. “Breaking in through this entrance will not be easy. And the moment we pass through the door, this realm’s master will know of our presence.”
Merrill said, “Why don’t we knock?”
They all looked at her.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Daisy,” Varric said.
“Why not? It’s polite,” said Merrill. “People always knock when they come into my house.” She thought about this. “Except for the ones who want to kill me. They don’t knock. Oh, and Hawke! Hawke never knocks. He just walks in.”
“Whether you invite him or not,” Fenris said. Hawke had walked into his Hightown mansion on all sorts of occasions, at all kinds of times - in the middle of the night, as often as not. He had interrupted friendly conversations, drinking sessions, black rages, bouts of humiliating self-pity - as if he had every right, just by existing, to claim a place for himself in Fenris’s life -
Solas raised his eyebrows. He appeared to be considering Merrill’s suggestion seriously. “I do not know which spirit rules this place,” he said. “It is much-contested territory. We may regret drawing its attention.”
“We can’t avoid drawing its attention,” said Varric. “Not every spirit is a demon. Just look at Cole. If being polite might stop it getting angry with us, I say we do it.”
No one spoke up in disagreement, but none of them moved. Merrill looked at Varric and opened her mouth - perhaps to ask who this Cole was - but then shut it again with a click. They looked at the door. It did not change. The white-gold banners fluttered in the stony branches far overhead.
Finally Fenris could bear it no longer. He snapped a curse in Tevene and stepped forward. No one moved to stop him. He rapped sharply on the door with his knuckles. The white stone surface was smooth as porcelain. The sound of the knock echoed.
“So much for that idea,” said Varric at last. “Solas, got anything? Or should we -”
The door swung open.
In the same instant, there was a terrible creaking and groaning above them, like a ship protesting in the height of a tempest. Fenris looked up just in time to see the entire impossible edifice of arches and turrets shudder. It was as if the mad Fade architecture had remembered, all at once, that down was a direction with meaning.
When the tottering towers began to plummet there was not time to even think of trying to dodge.
Fenris looked around, confused. He had a bizarre distracted feeling, as if something important had just been happening. He shook out his shoulders, stretched, and felt strange about it for a moment. Then he had to laugh at himself. There was nothing strange about having enough room to stretch.
“Copper for your thoughts?” said Hawke.
Hawke shrugged. “Nice to see you smile. Share the joke, if you’ve got one. I could use a joke or two.”
“I -” Fenris paused. It was mid-afternoon. The Wycome road was wide and clear, well-paved. Tangled flowering bushes grew on either side, with occasional verdant patches of elfroot. Somewhere, a bird sang.
“I don’t remember,” he said eventually. “A passing thought.”
“Shame,” Hawke said, but the corner of his mouth quirked in a smile nonetheless. His fingers brushed Fenris’s forearm. It might have been an accident. “Come on. Not far now.”
There were barriers and checkpoints set up at the crossroads outside the city. Fenris frowned at them. They had a slapdash, shoddy look, as if they had been built in a hurry. The soldiers manning them wore the colours of Wycome’s duke, and looked as if they would rather have been anywhere else. There was a group of refugees arguing with their captain. Fenris and Hawke came to a halt at the back of the group. “Wait,” Fenris said, holding out a hand without looking. Hawke’s breastplate bumped against his fingers.
“According to the duke’s orders,” the captain shouted desperately over the uproar, “all travellers on the Kirkwall road are to be prevented from entering the city until - until -”
“You don’t know!”
“Until someone finds out what the hell is going on in Kirkwall!” shouted a man in civilian clothes behind the barriers. “We’ve heard the stories. Apostates, demons, abominations, the Circle gone mad, the Chantry destroyed - we don’t want any of that here, thank you!”
“Good!” said the leader of the refugees. “That’s what we’re trying to get away from!”
“Can you prove that you’re not a rebel mage in disguise?”
“Sure. Abracadabra, look, you’re not dead. Let us in!”
“You didn’t do any magic!”
“Of course I didn’t do any magic! I’m not a sodding mage! Do you even know what a mage looks like?”
“A mage can look like anyone,” the captain bawled back, “that’s the whole point!”
“Well, this looks like a great party,” said Hawke under his breath. “Wycome doesn’t seem very warm and welcoming, does it?”
“You might say it lacks Kirkwall’s native charm,” said Fenris.
Hawke’s lips twitched. “No giant prison, no screaming statues, no horrible templars - it’s like they’re not even trying. I say we just back away slowly and pretend we were never here.”
They began to do so, carefully. Two armed strangers turning and running would certainly draw attention. “Just an ordinary pair of travellers sauntering by,” Hawke said airily, as if it were normal conversation, “on our completely innocent way to somewhere else, nothing to see here -”
“Over there! That’s the Champion of Kirkwall! He’s a mage! Everyone knows he’s a mage!”
Hawke met Fenris’s eyes. “Well,” he said ruefully, “it was worth a try.”
Fenris shook his head.
“Now I guess we talk our way out.”
“Or try,” said Fenris. He was already seeing how the fight might go. The Wycome soldiers looked incompetent, and the refugees were mostly unarmed. If Hawke stunned them, they might yet get away without bloodshed.
All the Kirkwall refugees were staring at them now, and murmuring to each other. Fenris heard the word Champion repeated several times. The Wycome guards too were staring from behind their barricades. As many of them goggled at Fenris’s peculiar appearance as were gaping at Hawke. “Which one is he?” one of them whispered loudly.
Fenris took a careful, pointed pace backwards and positioned himself behind Hawke’s shoulder. The guard captain looked relieved at this evidence for which of them to talk to. “Ser mage,” he said, “uh - that is, your… Champion-ness -”
Fenris was close enough to Hawke that he was aware of the tremor that went through him as he tried not to laugh.
“We don’t - I mean, I don’t want to be rude, but -”
“Is it true he blew up your Chantry?” the whispering guard was asking a refugee.
“I heard that was an abomination.”
“Wait, your Champion’s an abomination?”
“Well, he’s not our Champion anymore, is he?”
“Please, serah,” said Hawke, “don’t let me trouble you.” A chink and a flash: gold changing hands. “We were just leaving.”
“Going where?” said the guard captain.
“Not to Wycome, and isn’t that what really matters?” Hawke said. He passed the man another gold piece. He was dipping deep into the limited funds they had now. “As a matter of fact we’re on our way to -”
“Therinfal Redoubt,” said Fenris. It was the first thing that came into his head - a name from the books of Chantry history he read with Hawke. It was fortunate, he supposed afterwards, that he had not blurted ‘Minrathous’.
Therinfal Redoubt? Hawke mouthed incredulously, but then he shrugged. “Yes! Therinfal Redoubt. I am, as these good people have helpfully pointed out, a mage, and under the circumstances I thought I’d better go, er, turn myself in to the templars.”
“Why didn’t you do that in Kirkwall?”
“I tried,” said Hawke piously. “Knight-Commander Meredith was very unreasonable about the whole thing, and then she turned into a lyrium statue, which I still think was uncalled for. I thought I’d better tell the templars all about that too. So! I’ll just be on my way -” the flash of coin was silver now, and Fenris rather thought Hawke had already given the man all their gold. “If you’ll excuse me -”
“Hold it right there.”
“Aaaand there goes talking our way out,” said Hawke.
“You tried,” Fenris said.
“Looks like I was wrong about the lack of horrible templars, too.”
A broad-shouldered human woman with dark skin and cold eyes was advancing on them. She wore templar armor. So did the squadron of heavily-armed knights behind her. The refugees prudently backed away from the barricades.
“Knight-Commander Yseult!” said the guard captain with relief.
“We have begun a purge of the rebels. All mages are to be taken into custody,” said the commander.
“By, er, whose order?”
“By mine,” Yseult said. She passed the man a scroll. “Countersigned, if it makes you feel better, by his grace the Duke. But authority over defiant mages remains where it has always been - with the templars.” She drew her blade with a ringing sound. It gleamed blue with enchantments. “I know who you are, Serah Hawke,” she said. “The Seekers of Truth are looking for you. There are too many templars here for one mage to defeat alone. You had better make this easy on yourself.”
“And you’ll, what, give me a nice guest room with a lovely view of the gardens?”
“The Circle in Wycome does have a pleasant view,” said Yseult. “But I doubt you’ll care. The Seekers can interrogate a Tranquil just as easily as they can interrogate a mage.”
Hawke stepped back. His shoulder bumped Fenris’s. “You can’t do that,” he said.
“Oh yes I can,” Yseult said. “Apostate! Rebel! And a battlemage to boot - hardly someone who uses magic safely. A mercenary and hired killer, a man who consorts as a matter of course with blood mages and abominations - I said I knew who you were, Champion.”
“I have to admit,” said Hawke, “when you put it like that it does sound bad.” He slung his staff off his back. Fenris drew his sword. This was madness. There were two of them, and a full squadron of templars. Yseult alone looked to be a deadly foe. “Look, this is stupid. I don’t want to fight you. You know perfectly well you can’t go around making people Tranquil for no reason. Just look where that got Meredith! You can’t -”
“Hey,” said the guard captain. “Does this say you’re making all of them Tranquil? The whole Wycome Circle?”
“A pre-emptive measure for the safety of the city,” said Yseult. “Agreed between myself and the Duke.”
“Well!” said the captain. He wore a broad, relieved smile. “About time!”
Hawke’s mouth opened in simple shock.
Fenris could not look at him. It was nothing he had not suggested himself, now and again, in bitter moments, or to needle the abomination during an evening at the Hanged Man. He had fully believed he meant it, at the time. There was a simple way to prevent mages doing any damage to those around them. Merciful. He had believed he meant it. He had meant it. He still meant it. But - the look on Hawke’s face -
Hawke was gaping at Yseult. For once in his life it seemed he could not find words. “Are you out of your mind,” he managed at last.
“This is a war!” snapped Yseult.
“Oh sure - at least, it is now! Do you think your mages are going to just sit there and let you?”
“If this rebellion spreads further than Kirkwall -”
“Maker’s breath. If it spreads further than Kirkwall, it’ll be because you’re spreading it! At least Meredith had an excuse - Meredith had lyrium poisoning - ”
“Hawke,” said Fenris.
The squadron of templars had moved quickly. The guard captain and his men had been pushed back. The refugees were well out of the way. Hawke and Fenris were surrounded by a circle of polished steel.
“Oh,” said Hawke quietly. “Oh hell.” He didn’t take his eyes off Yseult. “You have to see this is crazy,” he said. “It’s going to make everything worse.”
“I have nothing to say to your kind, rebel,” said Yseult. She looked at Fenris. Her eyes lingered on the red cloth wrapped around his wrist. “You are no mage, elf,” she said. “You would do better to stand aside. If you defend him, we will kill you.”
Fenris met her cold gaze and said nothing. He had already chosen. He had chosen Hawke at the Gallows. It had been impossible, mad, and he had done it. There was no going back. He would choose Hawke forever.
“She’s right, Fenris,” said Hawke, making him startle. “You don’t need to be a part of this.”
Then Fenris looked away from Yseult. “You would say that to me?” he said. “Now?” Hawke did not meet his eyes. “They will not hurt you,” Fenris told him. “I have told you. I will not let them.”
“Then,” said Hawke, “Then - don’t let them take me alive.”
Fenris flinched. “I cannot promise that.”
“You have to,” Hawke said. “I mean it. I’d rather be dead than Tranquil.”
“Enough of this prattling,” said Yseult. “Templars! Take this apostate prisoner!”
White light bloomed from all directions; the templars’ mana-sapping powers. Hawke went to one knee, gritted his teeth, planted the butt of his staff hard in the ground and dragged himself back to his feet.
He would be helpless, Fenris thought, until there were far fewer templars.
So be it.
Six templars in Yseult’s squadron. The first did not expect a ghostly hand reaching through his armor and skin and ribcage for his heart; he gurgled on his scream as he died. The second was equally surprised; so was the third. Speed was of the essence. By the time Fenris turned to the fourth and fifth, they were on their guard, dodging away; the rigours of templar training showed in how quickly such heavily-armed men could move. But one of them made the error of worrying too much about Fenris’s lyrium-marked hands, and not enough about his sword. He fell heavily under a pommel blow, and the dent in his helmet meant he was not likely to get up again.
Two remaining - three, if you counted Yseult. There were no longer enough of them to effectively neutralise Hawke. Fenris felt his markings thrill to the rising power in the air as Hawke gathered strength for the fire and lightning he controlled so well. Of the templars, Yseult alone was still blazing with the steady bursts of white light that were her mana-draining abilities. The other two lacked her power and focus. Fenris left them for Hawke to pick off.
Yseult was the threat. It was Yseult he turned to.
“I said I would kill you, elf,” she said calmly. “I meant it.”
Fenris shouted a warcry and lunged at her.
The duel was a blur of steel and rage and white light - from his markings, from her powers. Her blade had all the force promised by those broad shoulders behind it, as well as a wicked and deadly speed. She -
Then the world was dark for a time.
“Maker, no,” he heard eventually. It might have been any amount of time later. “Come on, Fenris, don’t do this to me - you know I’m a useless healer. Please.” And again, more quietly: “Please.”
“Um - Ser Champion,” said a girl’s voice. “My mother said - you can have these, for your friend, if it helps. They’re from Lady Elegant’s.”
“Bless you,” said Hawke. “Tell her thank you - with all my heart - here. Fenris.” Fenris twisted his face against the taste. The strongest cultivars of elfroot were the bitterest. “Don’t give me that, you idiot,” Hawke said. There was a choke of laughter in his voice. “Drink.”
Fenris opened his eyes to Hawke’s upside-down face above him. He was lying on the side of the road. His head was in Hawke’s lap. “I can’t believe you did that,” Hawke said, but his hands were gentle in Fenris’s hair. “You really ought to be dead right now.”
Fenris coughed a couple of times and tried to ask a question. “No, don’t,” Hawke said. “The templars? Well. Yseult’s dead.” He looked wry. “And I think the rest of them have bigger problems. Someone ran and told Wycome’s Circle what the plan was. There’s a pitched battle breaking out in the city right now.”
“Oh,” Fenris managed. He closed his eyes. “We should not -”
“- stay here,” Hawke finished for him. “No. It isn’t safe.” He added softly, “Nowhere’s safe.”
He felt somewhat recovered when he woke in the morning. Elegant’s potion had done its work in the night. They had camped, it seemed, among the Kirkwall refugees, by the abandoned checkpoint at the crossroads. Someone had dragged the bodies of the dead templars into a neat pile off to the side. No one had stolen their armor yet, though it was no doubt only a matter of time. They would have a hard time retrieving anything of value from Yseult’s corpse; it was charred beyond recognition, the steel plate melted onto the skin.
Smoke was rising from the walls of Wycome.
Hawke was nowhere to be seen. None of the refugees knew where he had gone. Fenris felt a momentary lurch of panic in his stomach when he realised. It was only relieved when he spotted the familiar silhouette standing on a low rise that overlooked the crossroads.
“Hawke,” he said when he drew near.
Hawke turned and smiled at him. “Morning,” he said. “Ready to get going? To - wherever we’re going.”
“Anywhere,” said Fenris, “so long as you are there.”
Hawke’s smile broadened, and he stepped in, and then in again, and Fenris did not back away. They were chest to chest, and then Hawke ducked his head a little. The first kiss missed Fenris’s lips and landed on his cheek. Fenris laughed, low, and pulled Hawke in properly with hands in his hair. His mouth was warm, his lips a little chapped; his beard prickled. He breathed Fenris’s name when they broke apart. He was not smiling now, but his eyes were bright. “I want to do that all the time,” he said. “I -”
“Wait,” said Fenris.
“What is it?”
“A moment, I simply -”
Something was nagging at the edges of his attention. There was some memory. Something was not -
“Hawke,” Fenris said when he drew near.
Hawke turned and smiled at him. “There you are,” he said. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
Fenris stopped short.
“Goodbye,” he repeated.
Had he misheard? He could not have misheard.
“Seems like the right time for it,” Hawke said. “I think the Champion of Kirkwall needs to disappear for a while, and we make a pretty recognisable pair. Safer to split up here.”
Fenris nodded numbly even as understanding crashed down onto him. Every time he thought he knew every last twist of the curse his markings inflicted on him, a new one appeared. Recognisable. He was recognisable, undoubtedly - infinitely recognisable -
“I do not care about my safety,” he blurted.
Hawke raised his eyebrows. “Well, maybe I care about mine,” he said.
“Please,” said Fenris all in a rush. “I beg of you. You are the most important thing in the world to me. Do not send me away.”
There was a moment of quiet. Finally Hawke laughed. It was not the easy good-humoured laugh, but the uncomfortable one that meant he was laughing at himself. “Twist my arm, why don’t you,” he said. He looked at Fenris. “If it means so much to you...” he began. His words were mocking, but the look in his eyes said something else.
Fenris breathed out in terrible relief, feeling the precipice receding from his feet. Then he frowned. Something -
“I do not care about my safety,” Fenris blurted.
Hawke raised his eyebrows. “Well, maybe I care about mine,” he said.
Fenris nearly said more - nearly humiliated himself with pleading - but he bit his tongue at the last moment. There was nothing more to say. Hawke had made up his mind. There was no use in dragging this out into a shameful scene.
“Well,” he said instead. “You are not wrong. Parting would indeed be the prudent course.”
“You know me,” said Hawke. “Prudent.”
Fenris gave him a look.
“Don’t say it,” Hawke said. He held out his hand and Fenris took it. Hawke’s grip was firm and warm, and then it was gone. “Oh,” he said. “I’d better -” He nodded at the strip of red cloth wrapped around Fenris’s wrist.
The Hawke crest.
Fenris tried not to make a show of his reluctance as he unwrapped the cloth. His wrist felt naked without it. Hawke tucked the red scrap into a pocket. “Well. Goodbye, then,” he said. “Good luck. Don’t pick any fights with knight-commanders without me.”
“Without you there is no reason to do so,” Fenris said.
“I guess that’s true,” said Hawke. For a moment Fenris thought he was about to say something else, but he only laughed and shook his head and turned away.
And then he was gone, and Fenris was alone.
Alone - for months on end. They were months which he filled with good and necessary work, with hunting slavers across the Marches, doing what really mattered, hardly letting himself even think of Hawke - Hawke, who had made himself perfectly clear -
Until the letter from Skyhold arrived. We could use you, Varric wrote. He did not mention Hawke. But when Fenris trudged along the bridge into Skyhold in the depths of winter, when he ducked into the Herald’s Rest and looked around, Hawke was at the bar. Fenris recognised him at once, even before he heard him laugh. And then when Hawke felt his stare and turned around, his eyes said everything, said it all -
“But -” Fenris said.
Alone - for months on end, until the letter from Skyhold arrived, and Varric’s dire news; only then did Fenris realise the depths of his error. But he did not give up. He never gave up.
And it was worth it, in the end, when they found Hawke wandering in the Fade - haggard, wild-eyed, but alive. Hawke looked at Fenris and said, “I knew you would come,” and -
“Enough!” Fenris shouted. “No more lies!”
The wild-eyed illusion of Hawke melted into nothingness, as did the dark formless shapes of the Fade realm he had been wandering in. They were replaced by four smooth white walls. There was no sign of Varric or Merrill or Solas. Exactly where Hawke had been standing was a familiar figure. She had Isabela’s hip-cocked stance and Isabela’s face and Isabela’s daggers at her belt, but her eyes glowed a pale unearthly red.
“Are you always this hard to please?” the desire demon said in Isabela’s voice. “No wonder he dumped you.”
Chapter 6: The Palace of Desire
Fenris struck out at the demon without thinking. It was sickening to see those inhuman eyes in a familiar face. The false Isabela evaporated into pale smoke just before his blade connected.
The four white walls remained, smooth and unchanging. There was no obvious weak point. Fenris threw himself against the nearest. He felt a shiver run through his markings, but he only succeeded in bruising his shoulder.
Despair began to grow in him. It could keep him here as long as it chose. Perhaps it intended for the tedium to break him. It had eternity to wait for its prey. With enough time, and enough hopelessness, Fenris would no doubt succumb. The dreams of Hawke it offered were sweet ones. He would not have to know that he had failed, that he was dying.
He swore. He tried assaulting the blank wall again, to no avail. “I will not surrender, demon!” he cried as he stumbled back, shrugging hard as if he could shrug away the pain. “Let me out!”
Is that what you want? whispered a voice behind him, so close it might have been speaking into his ear. He turned around sharply, but the demon was not there. He heard laughter - behind him, again. When he turned back there was still nothing, and the laughter grew louder. Fenris stilled. He would not twist and turn for the amusement of this creature. “Let me out,” he demanded again.
Is it what you really want? the demon said. Fenris thought for a moment that he felt its breath on the back of his neck. It took great effort not to turn around. I promise you, if you stay here, I will find a way to satisfy you.
“I want my companions and I want to leave this place, creature,” Fenris said, staring grimly straight ahead, ignoring the prickling sensation that told him there was something powerful and terrible standing just behind him. “Nothing you offer could ever satisfy me.”
There was an indefinable change in the quality of the air in the room. Fenris still could not see the demon, but he felt absolutely sure that it was pouting. Oh, fine, it said. A door appeared in the wall he was staring at. Go on, then. Find your friends and take them away with you, mortal. Low laughter again. Assuming they want to go.
The demon’s - realm? palace? tower? - was a maze of white corridors without doorways. Fenris ran down them to begin with, but then sense reasserted itself. There was nothing to be gained by throwing himself headlong into a trap, and he might well miss something in his haste. He might have already missed something, he thought then, and tried to retrace his steps, but everything looked too much alike, and he could not find the doorway back to the room he had been trapped in. Perhaps the demon had made it disappear.
He was the least able of any of them to navigate a labyrinth like this. It called for a mage, with a mage’s expertise; or at least for someone like Varric, with his sharp eye for secrets and anomalies. Fenris could not make sense of the place. He paused at an intersection where five white corridors joined together - the joining marked, absurdly, by an inverted tower built of empty wine bottles and hovering just slightly off the ground. Fenris looked from one corridor opening to another. They all looked the same. There was no sign of Varric or Merrill or Solas.
Well, are you looking or not? said the demon’s voice. Fenris couldn’t help it; he looked over his shoulder for her. Not there, of course. Don’t you want to find them? the demon said. Why aren’t you doing anything?
“I do not dance for your pleasure, demon,” Fenris said. “I am not your slave.”
He spotted her, then, out of the corner of his eye. She was reflected in the tower of wine bottles, the same swaggering figure nearly two dozen times over, a woman’s form distorted into monstrosity by the curvature of the glass. She still wore Isabela’s shape, Isabela’s face. Fenris should have been reflected in the tower along with her, but the glass appeared not to have registered him.
Fenris took a couple of steps towards one of the corridors, as if he meant to go that way. He watched the demon’s multiple reflections move with him. He rather thought she was standing to his right. He took another step, and another. If he reached for his weapon he would give himself away. He glanced at the reflections one last time, and then he spun on his heel and struck out with transparent fists that blazed with light.
“Oh!” said the demon - and Fenris heard the voice with his ears and not in his mind. He did not actually see her. His fists connected only with empty air; wisps of pale mist were all that suggested he might have come close. In the same instant there was a tinkling crash. The tower of wine bottles had collapsed, smashed into hundreds of tiny glittering shards.
You are determined! said the demon approvingly. You earned a hint.
Fenris stared down at the collapsed heap of broken glass. His face was reflected in the sharp-edged pieces now. They had fallen in a rough line. He looked at it for a moment before he realised: an arrow.
It pointed back at the corridor he had come from. Fenris hesitated. But what better plan was there?
At the far end of the corridor was a door which certainly had not been there before. Fenris opened it and saw only darkness beyond. No way to know what the demon planned for him now.
He drew his sword and stepped through the shadows.
He was almost instantly hit by the smell: stale beer, piss, and sweat. The noise came a second later: shouting, cheering, a fight breaking out, someone calling for more ale. The room was greasy and dirty and lit by candles, night and day: Fenris automatically looked to his left, and -
There she was. Isabela by the bar, downing an ale and then wiping the froth off her lip with a suggestive smirk. Her eyes still gleamed pale red. She caught Fenris’s eye, grinned, and vanished.
The Hanged Man. Well.
If this really was a recreation of Kirkwall’s worst public house, Fenris thought, then Varric should be holding court upstairs. He noticed, as he shoved his way through the mass of patrons, that the illusion was not quite perfect. The drinkers lifting cups to their lips often missed their mouths, splashing their ale across the floor - where it vanished. Some people had several doppelgangers in the crowd. One of the barmaids was wearing full armour - and not just any armour, but the peculiar overlapping plate of the Dalish, which looked strange indeed on a human form.
He darted up the stairs with his sword still in his hand and rounded the corner into Varric’s rooms. “Varric -” he began.
But the rooms were all wrong. Varric’s fine carpets had been rolled up against the walls, and his things packed away. Most of the space was taken up with a long table piled at one end with scrolls and at the other with several sealed boxes of the type used to contain raw lyrium. There were armour and weapon stands, and a cleared space where a disassembled blade trap was lying in neatly regimented pieces. Fenris stared. A forge had been set up in one corner, and a solidly built dwarven woman was working over it.
She turned around and saw Fenris. “Oh, perfect,” she said. “You look strong. Come here and hold this steady for me.”
“Where is -”
“Over here, Broody,” Varric said. “Good to see you. If that is you.”
He was sitting behind his writing desk, his feet propped up on a second chair. His comfortable pose did not hide his tension. He did not look at Fenris: his eyes were all on the smith.
“Are you helping or not?” she said.
Fenris glanced at Varric, who nodded very slightly. If that is you. It seemed he knew or guessed that this was an illusion. “Certainly,” Fenris said, and went over to the forge.
He held the intricate object the woman pointed to steady while she worked. “Good, that’s good,” she said when she was done. “All right, I’m busy. Go have a drink, boys.”
Fenris looked at Varric.
“Fenris! It’s been forever!” Varric said. He gestured expansively. His eyes spoke an urgent warning. “Come on, let’s hit the bar. How’s Hawke?”
Fenris allowed himself to be steered towards the doorway and stairs. “Well, when I saw him last,” he managed to say.
Varric looked relieved. When they reached the bar. he leaned in and said in an undertone, “Thanks. Things get a little hairy if you don’t play along.”
“Who is she?” Fenris said. He glanced along the bar. There was no sign of the thing that looked like Isabela.
“Some damn demon, I don’t know.”
“I meant -”
“I know what you meant, Broody.” Varric sighed. The bartender set two foaming flagons of ale in front of them. “Bianca. Her name’s Bianca.”
“Bianca,” Fenris repeated.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Varric reached for the ale, but his hand passed straight through it. “Do you know, that happens every time? Apparently this demon lord’s powers don’t stretch to providing me with a stiff drink. But I keep hoping.”
“We need to leave,” Fenris said.
“I know, I know.”
“We should -” Fenris stood up, looking at the door. Varric tugged him down again.
“Do you think I haven’t tried that?” he said. “Every time I walk out of that door, I find myself walking straight back in again. Next thing I know I’m up there and she’s saying hello and telling me what she’s working on.”
“And if you don’t play along?” Fenris asked.
Varric made a face. “She gets upset. We yell at each other. Then I’m walking in the door again.”
“What if we killed her?” Fenris said.
“I thought of that.”
“And I can’t do it, so I don’t know.”
“That being is not the woman you know, Varric,” Fenris said.
“I know that. I can see that.” Varric laughed, not happily. “You know how long it took me to work out this was a dream, Broody? All of twenty seconds. Bianca in the Hanged Man? Bianca in Kirkwall? Never. Never in a million years. Not her.” He sighed. “We’d probably only drive each other crazy anyway. I thought I’d made my peace. Shows what I know.”
Fenris did not know what to say. “I am sorry,” he managed.
“Not your fault,” Varric said bleakly. Fenris could not recall ever seeing him look bleak before. It made him look much older.
There was a long moment of quiet between them. The mindless taproom bustle continued. Finally Varric bowed his head and then scrubbed at his face with his hands. “Right, you’re right. I’m not staying in a pub with no alcohol in it forever. We’ve got to find the others. And then Hawke. Let’s do it.”
“You need not,” Fenris said. “I am -” more than willing, he meant to say.
Varric cut him off with a hand gesture. “If this demon is anything like as twisty-minded as the others I’ve met,” he said, “it won’t work unless I do it.”
Fenris felt or heard the low chuckle of laughter cut through the meaningless noise of the taproom crowd. When he glanced along the bar, the thing that looked like Isabela was there once more. She raised her ale to them in a friendly salute. Her pale eyes glittered red in the dim and smoky room.
“Well, that’s creepy,” Varric said. He’d seen it too. “Come on, then. This won’t get easier if we wait.”
Show me, Varric Tethras, the demon’s voice whispered behind them as they climbed the stairs. Show me what you really want.
The spirit or dream that wore Bianca’s face was still working at the forge. She called a hello over her shoulder, but did not turn around. Varric’s face was pale and strained. He slung his crossbow off his back. Fenris readied his blade and waited.
“Bianca,” Varric said at last, and then the thing turned around.
It did not fight.
It would have been much easier for Varric, Fenris thought, if the thing had fought; if it had revealed its true nature and risen up to battle against them with a scream of rage. But when the first crossbow bolt sprouted from her collarbone the doppelganger only gasped with soft pain and shock. She said Varric’s name, and Varric screwed his face up as if he were facing some terrible storm when he loosed the next bolt.
That one took her in the shoulder, and the third sank deep between her ribs. The false Bianca fell to her knees, hands coming up to touch the ends of the bolts where they sprouted from her flesh.
“Why,” she said in a voice that still sounded like it belonged to a dwarven woman, a voice rich with pain and betrayal. Fenris nearly looked away. It was very hard to watch.
“Damn it,” said Varric, and the last bolt took the thing through the throat. It fell forward onto its face and was still.
Varric lowered his crossbow. His expression was terrible.
“Varric - “ said Fenris after a moment.
“Not a word. Not one damn word,” Varric said.
“She was not your Bianca,” said Fenris all the same. He felt he had to.
There was silence. Then Varric laughed. “Oh, I know,” he said. He patted the crossbow on the stock. “My Bianca’s right here. Come on. That had better have been enough to get us out of here.”
It was. The Hanged Man dissolved into white smoke around them as they crossed the taproom once more, and by the time they reached the door they were in another plain white-walled room. The door opened at a touch, and then they were in the twisting corridors once again. Fenris led the way back towards the intersection with the smashed glass, but could not find it. He rather thought the hallways had moved.
“So we’re looking for Merrill and Solas,” Varric said. “Keep a look out for anything that looks like the secrets of the ancient elves - if this desire demon wants Merrill’s attention, that’s how to get it.”
“And the apostate?”
Varric rolled his eyes. “You do realise they’re both apostates. You keep calling him that, it’s going to get confusing. And as for what he’s doing right now - I don’t really know. More ancient elf stuff would be my best guess.” He chuckled. “Though come to think of it, he spent most of his time at Skyhold painting a giant mural. Perhaps we’ll find him surrounded by art supplies. Honestly? I’m not worried about him. He’ll turn up.”
“He is as alone with this demon as any of us,” Fenris said.
“Yeah, but it’s Solas. Some of his best friends are demons. He can handle himself.”
“So we look for the secrets of the ancient elves, then,” Fenris. “Perhaps you could suggest what they look like.”
He expected Varric to laugh, but instead he said, “In my experience? Shiny, creepy, lots of animal statues.” He took in Fenris’s look and added, “Remind me to tell you that story sometime. It’s a good one.”
They kept exploring the labyrinth. There was no way to mark the passing of time; it might have been hours, or even days. Fenris had not felt truly tired since they entered the Fade, which had surely been some time ago now. Varric took to leaving trail signs at the openings of pathways they had already taken, but it did not help very much. It was sheer chance that they found the next doorway.
It was almost hidden in a shallow nook that led off a crossroads. It had a handle, but the handle was ghostly; Varric’s hand passed straight through it. Fenris grimaced, but the solution was obvious. The lyrium burned only briefly, and with his markings ablaze he could touch the ghostly handle.
The door swung open silently. They stood at the base of a rickety flight of stairs. A brisk chill wind blew through the arrow-slits in the stone walls. Somewhere a raven croaked. The place was vaguely familiar, though Fenris could not think where it was.
Varric had no such difficulty. He looked around in surprise. “Wait - this is Skyhold!” he said.
Then Fenris recognised it. These were the stairs up to the Inquisitor’s tower rooms. He had charged up them, full of fury and despair, when he sought her out to hold her accountable for Hawke. The raven croaked again.
There was a thump and a cry from the top of the stairs.
Fenris rushed forward, Varric hard on his heels. Something was happening up there. He pounded up the stairs into the Inquisitor’s bright many-windowed apartment, sword at the ready, and then stopped abruptly. Varric nearly crashed into him, but caught himself just in time. They were both trying not to look directly at what was happening.
“Well, this is awkward,” Varric said after a moment.
The thump had been a chair getting knocked over. Solas had the Inquisitor - or rather some Fade dream of her - pinned up against the far wall. Most of their clothes were scattered across the bedroom floor. Solas’s face was buried in her throat, and her head was tipped back as she cursed, softly and fluently, in the elven tongue.
Fenris thought, absurdly, that he had never heard anyone use so much elvish at once - not even Merrill.
It was not necessary to know the language to understand perfectly what the words meant: the hot caressing tone was more than enough. There were scratch marks fading on Solas’s bare back. The Inquisitor hooked a naked thigh over his hip. Fenris forced his eyes away. “So. Not art supplies, it seems,” he said levelly.
Varric, also determinedly not looking, said, “Some things I never needed to know.”
There was a yelp and a low groan from across the room. Fenris tried extremely hard not to listen. Solas and his Fade illusion seemed totally unaware of them. “We should stop them.”
Varric made a face. “Or we could... just come back later. When they’re finished.”
“If we can find the place again,” Fenris said. "And if -"
“All right, all right. I wasn’t being serious.” Varric took a step into the room. “Okay! Sorry to interrupt, but the fun’s -”
He never had a chance to finish. The room was already changing.
Solas and the illusory Inquisitor disappeared. The tower apartment, with its stained glass gleaming in the crisp mountain sunlight, gave way to shadow and stars overhead and grass underfoot. Manicured trees were twined around arched supports to form green bowers. Somewhere there was the sound of running water, and somewhere further off than that the chatter of a party was audible, and musicians were playing Orlesian tunes. Fenris could not see Varric anywhere. He had vanished with the tower room. The first thing to do, then, was to find him.
He did not get far. He had only gone a few steps into the garden when he heard voices.
“There is so much I have not said to you,” Solas said.
Fenris turned. Solas and the Inquisitor were standing in the shadow of an arched and leafy bower. The Inquisitor wore a dress uniform of the Inquisition, splendid reds and blues. Solas, incongruously, was still in his wanderer’s rags. Fenris tried to advance on the mismatched pair. He found he could not. Something was holding the illusion of the evening in absolute stillness while the apostate spoke. He felt, again, the prickling sensation of something huge and terrible close by. The desire demon was there; he knew it, though he could not see it. It was watching. Something about this prey had seized its interest totally. It would not easily relinquish such a prize.
The dream-Inquisitor was still looking at Solas, considering. Something was strange about her face. It was not until she raised her eyebrows that Fenris abruptly realised: she had Dalish clan markings, which she had not possessed when he had met her in the flesh. They shimmered faintly, and seemed to fade in and out of existence, as if the illusion could not make up its mind about them.
“Say it, if you want to,” she said, light, amused. It was a good imitation of the real thing. Fenris had only met her once, but he could tell that much.
“I meant to,” Solas said urgently. “I tried. My courage failed me, vhenan. I have told you a thousand thousand lies - you, who love the truth. In countless years there has never been a spirit like yours, and I have betrayed you more ways than you know. Before I ever knew you I betrayed you. I did not think it possible - I have been a fool -”
“It’s not too late,” the Inquisitor said. “I’m listening.” She smiled, though it was only a slight curl at the corners of her mouth. Her clan markings had disappeared for good now. “I’ll be here all night.”
Solas fell to his knees in front of her. Fenris still could not move. He could feel the demon’s fascination. It seemed almost to be holding its breath. Solas grasped both the Inquisitor’s hands in his and bowed his head over them. “I have been so long alone,” he said, in a low voice that seemed to be picked up by the warm soft wind blowing through the garden: alone alone alone alone.
Fenris knew that he should not have been watching this. It seemed somehow even more private than the scene he and Varric had interrupted in the tower. Solas drew in a deep breath to speak. The dream of the Inquisitor looked down at him, thoughtful, waiting. Fenris wished he could look away.
“Oh, there you are!” said a bright and totally unexpected voice right by Fenris’s ear. “I knew you had to be here somewhere.”
Fenris startled and stumbled and was taken aback to find that he could move again. Merrill looked pleased with herself. Varric was standing next to her. He was wearing an Inquisition dress uniform too, and holding a plate of very small canapés. “Good job, Daisy,” he said. He looked at the plate in his hand, shook his head, and put it down on top of a nearby ornamental hedge. “Now let’s find Solas and get out of here. Attending this party was bad enough the first time.”
“He is there,” Fenris said, and nodded at the shadowy bower. “But the demon has him enthralled.”
“Oh dear,” Merrill said. There was a tiny wrinkle of concern between her eyebrows. “Um. Well, we could try asking her to let him go?”
“She seems nice!” Merrill said.
“She seems nice,” Fenris repeated incredulously.
“You still haven’t explained exactly how you got away from her, Daisy,” said Varric.
“Oh, I had sex with her.” She looked slightly confused when she saw their expressions. “Was I… not supposed to? She just wants to give people things they want. It seemed like the easiest way.”
Fenris kept staring at her. Varric opened and closed his mouth several times and then appeared to give up. “Asking nicely,” he said instead. “Well. Anyone got a better idea?”
“We could leave him here,” Fenris said.
“We’re not doing that,” Varric said. “Okay. I’ll take that as no one having a better idea, so go ahead, Merrill. Floor’s yours.”
“All right,” Merrill said. She looked around, and then towards the bower where Solas knelt at the Inquisitor’s feet. She stepped towards them. “Um, excuse me?” she said. “Lady Desire? I want to talk to you.”
“Do you,” said the demon.
It was leaning against a tree to their left, hip cocked, pale eyes gleaming red. It had definitely not been there the moment before. It was smirking, and it still looked like Isabela. “Just talk?” it said, and pouted.
“Yes please,” said Merrill. “Um - all of us, please? Would you mind?”
“It’s a wrench,” said the demon. “He’s very interesting. But for you, kitten, anything.”
The shadowy evening and the ordered Orlesian garden fell away into mist and nothingness. They were in another plain white room. Solas was left on his knees, head bowed. He froze and then scrambled abruptly to his feet. His face was crimson - with humiliation, Fenris thought, and with anger.
“So very interesting,” the demon said to him in crooning tones.
“You -” said Solas.
“Was that not what you wanted?”
There was a pause. Solas appeared to collect himself. “Ah,” he said at last. “Desire. I see.”
The demon grinned. It turned to Merrill. “Well, kitten?” it said. “What is it you wanted badly enough to interrupt me? I don’t like being interrupted.”
“I’m ever so sorry,” Merrill said.
“Oh, don’t apologise,” the demon said. “That’s not interesting.” It stretched luxuriously. The movement was so much one of Isabela’s that Fenris could not help himself.
“Why that shape?” he demanded.
The demon looked at him and shrugged. “I don’t know. I just picked the first thing you all thought of when you thought about sex.”
Fenris, Merrill and Varric all avoided each other’s eyes. Fenris’s gaze fell on Solas and he realised the mage was also trying not to look at any of them. Varric worked it out at the same moment -
“When did you meet Isabela?”
“I am a traveller,” Solas said testily. There was still a faint chagrined flush high on his cheekbones. “I meet a great many people.”
"Would you prefer a different shape?" said the demon. "I can do that." It ran its hands seductively over its body, as if it reshaped itself: Isabela's clothes fell away, and a deep pink glow flushed through its suddenly bared skin. Fenris forced his gaze up from the demon's naked breasts. Horned, sharp-toothed, it favoured him with a wicked grin which was still uncomfortably like Isabela's. "How do you feel about the classics?" it purred.
"I've actually always thought that look was a little bit much," said Varric. "I mean, the nudity and the," he gestured the shape of the exaggerated curves, "and all the pink -"
"Have a care, Varric," Solas said unnecessarily. The Fade creature was frowning.
"Well, I think you look very nice," Merrill assured it quickly . "Though you looked nice before too! You're very pretty - um, very desirable."
It smiled toothily at her. "Do you really think so?"
"Oh yes," Merrill said.
“I do like you. So what is it you want, kitten?”
“Well, actually,” said Merrill, “we want to leave.”
“Leave?” the demon said. Its eyes went wide. “Have I been such a bad host? I gave you all such nice things.”
“You’ve been lovely, truly,” Merrill said. “But we really just want to go. It would make us all ever so happy.”
“Why?” said the demon. “I don’t understand. I can give you everything you want. Why will none of you let me?”
“Do not try to explain,” Solas said, quietly but firmly. “The thought processes of mortals will merely distress and anger her. She understands only desire.”
“Please,” Merrill said instead. “We really want to go.”
"You're being so unreasonable!” the demon said. “But - fine. Fine. If it’s really what you want, you can go.” She gestured. Glittering portals appeared all around the walls. “Anywhere you want. On one condition.”
“Uh oh,” said Varric under his breath.
The demon heard and glared at him. “It’s not a bad condition,” it said. “It’s nice. I won't let you go until I've given at least one of you your heart's desire."
There was a moment of silence.
"Won't or can't?" said Fenris.
"She is a spirit. There is no meaningful difference," Solas said.
“That’s my condition and it’s final,” the demon said. “Otherwise you can all stay here.” And she crossed her arms under her naked breasts, set her lips in a petulant pout, and waited.
They all looked at each other. “Now what do we do?” said Varric.
“I think I know,” Merrill said. “I can ask her to tell me the truth about Arlathan.”
“No!” said Solas.
Merrill blinked at him. “Why not?”
“She - she is a young spirit,” Solas said. “That is clear. She was once a wisp, and has only claimed this place recently. She has not possessed her power or her nature for long. She may well know nothing - and even if she did -”
He stopped. Finally he said, “Even if she did, it is not her nature to possess knowledge or to share it. She could never truly satisfy your curiosity. And she would destroy herself trying.”
“Oh,” Merrill said. She looked disappointed. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Then we’re back to square one,” Varric said. “Do you have a heart’s desire that she actually could satisfy, Chuckles? Andraste’s ass, does any of us?”
“I’m wai-ting,” singsonged the demon behind them.
“She would no doubt accept, as an alternative, one of us remaining here,” Solas said, “so that she could continue to attempt to fulfil the desires of that individual.”
“And are you volunteering?” said Fenris.
Solas did not answer, which was answer enough. All of them stood there helpless for a time.
And then the answer came to Fenris, and he hated it at once, and knew it was right. He turned back to the demon.
“Satisfy me,” he said.
It blinked at him. “You were the difficult one,” it said. “What do you want?”
Fenris drew a deep breath. He did not look left or right. If he glanced once at any of the others he knew he would falter. “I,” he said, “I - there is - was -”
The demon waited, head tilted in interest. It had to know at least some of what he would say. It had already plucked the desire out of his head to spin its first lies. That should have made this eaiser. It did not.
“There was a man,” Fenris said at last. “He was - nothing I would ever have imagined myself wanting. A mage. I distrusted him even when he helped me. He enjoyed his power too much. He laughed at things that I could not imagine laughing at. He -”
“Yes,” the demon said - not encouraging him, but revelling in what he was saying. Its eyes - her eyes, it was impossible not to see it as a female - were heavy-lidded as it listened to him. It knew, it had to know, but it was enjoying this.
“I should have despised Hawke,” Fenris got out. “I tried to despise Hawke. But I still wanted him. In the end I loved him. I never meant to. I could not help it. Even after he sent me away I could not help it. I no longer wish to try. Hawke changed me. Hawke changed everything.”
“But I tried that,” the demon said. “I gave him to you and you didn't like it.”
“How could I be satisfied with a dream?” Fenris said. “Hawke is lost. He was lost here in the Fade. He may well be dead, I do not know. More than anything, creature,” he swallowed, “I want to know. And if he lives, I want to find him.”
The demon looked at him for a long time. She drew close to him, and raised one clawed hand to cup his face. Fenris could not help his flinch. The creature did not seem to care. “Oh,” she said, with a shiver of pleasure. “You do, don’t you? You want him so much.”
Fenris stared up at her alien, pointed face and said nothing.
She smiled at him, sharp teeth. “The answer,” she said. “That is your heart’s desire. To know if your Hawke is alive.”
Fenris’s heart felt heavy in his chest. She was so obviously triumphant. He nodded, once.
The smile broadened. The demon leaned in so close that her red lips brushed his ear when she spoke. “He is.”
Chapter 7: The Village of the Lost
Fenris felt a shudder run through him. The demon giggled at whatever look was on his face. “Oh, you want that,” she said. “That’s lovely, that’s lovely, you don’t even know if you believe me but you want to, you really want to -”
“How do I know if you speak the truth?” Fenris demanded.
The demon paused. “Well, you don’t,” it said. “But I do. Of course I do.” She darted back a few steps, and her bright sharp-toothed smile took in all of them. “Now you have to go. You have to. Especially you. You have to go find him.”
Solas stepped forward. “If we may, then, spirit,” he said calmly. “The portal behind you leads, I believe, to a place of many doorways -”
“Oh, boo to that old ruin,” the demon said. “Just because you think you know how it works. I know all about you. It’s too slow, much too slow.” She was so pleased with herself that the edges of her form were blurring slightly and pink threads were trailing off around the room; for a moment she slipped briefly and disconcertingly back into Isabela’s shape. She shook it off just as quickly and then conjured a glowing purple-tinged vortex out of nowhere. “You should go this way!” she said. “It’s quick!”
Fenris saw Varric catch Solas’s eye, then Merrill’s. Solas frowned; Merrill made an uncertain face. Fenris knew he should have some opinion, some part in this silent conversation. He did not. Could not.
If it was true - if it was really true -
Hope was dragging its way through his chest like something sharp hooked through his innards. He half-thought he could still feel the demon’s lips pressed against his ear to whisper the words like a wicked promise. He was barely aware of the other three beginning a low-voiced argument.
The demon seemed to lose interest in them after a moment. She came to stand in front of Fenris, and touched his cheek once more with those sharp-clawed gentle fingers. “I still don’t understand. He left you,” she said. “He doesn’t even love you anymore and you still want him. Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” Fenris said.
“Mortals are strange.”
Fenris had to swallow a choked laugh. “I suppose we are.”
“Fun, though.” Another Isabela smirk, and Fenris was struck with a sudden and entirely unexpected stab of nostalgia. Ridiculous, to stand in front of this thing and miss the pirate wench.
“You should just go,” the demon said in confiding tones. “They’re going to waste lots and lots of time this way. The old one, he wants to waste time.”
Fenris frowned. “You mean Solas?” Neither Varric nor Merrill could plausibly be described as old.
“Mortals can’t live in our realm for long,” the demon said. “Not and keep being mortals. Your Hawke lives. That’s true. It might not be true if you wait.”
“You expect me to trust you?” Fenris said.
“No,” she said. “I expect you to want him too much to care.” She tilted her horned head to one side. “Am I wrong?”
Fenris forced himself to breathe deep. To think, though he ached right through with a pain that was not physical. He closed his eyes for a moment, watched meaningless spots dance briefly on the darkness behind them, and when he opened them again the portal still beckoned.
“No,” he said quietly. “You are not.”
The vortex was right there. He walked towards it. He heard Varric call out in sudden panic behind him, but he did not look back. He stepped through.
The portal winked out of existence behind him. Fenris had a feeling he had just made a very foolish decision. But the thought had no weight. Ahead lay a great shimmering pool, a lake with no far side visible: it reflected pinkish grey under a pale dawn sky. The odd spiky black tree broke up the scene, lifting leafless fingers towards the vast heavens. And a familiar silhouette stood at the shore.
He was as shadowy against that pale distance as the trees. He stood very still, but Fenris thought he saw his chest rise and fall. The waters lapped at his boots as he looked out towards the horizon, where lake and sky curved into each other and no distinction could be drawn between them.
Fenris stopped short.
It could be a lie, it could be a trap. The desire demon would surely enjoy doing that to him. But he could not look away.
Hawke did not seem to know he was there. (Would a dream not know, would a lie ignore him?) He stooped. Fenris heard the faint splash as his hand disturbed the water. A series of ripples went out across the mirrorglass surface of the lake, one circle chasing another.
When Hawke straightened again he was holding something. Water dripped from his hand. Fenris saw him adjust his stance, lean back to throw. A flick of his wrist and the stone spun out of his hand and went skipping across the lake, one two three bounces against the water's still surface. New circles of overlapping ripples appeared every time the stone touched the water. But it failed to come down again for the fourth bounce. It had vanished mid-flight.
(A memory: Hawke and his brother Carver on the Wounded Coast, waves crashing around their feet, competing half-seriously to see who could skip stones the furthest. Carver sulking when he lost. Fenris had not thought of that in years - had forgotten, in fact. Did that prove anything? Did it make this true?)
Hawke stooped for another stone. This one bounced five times before it failed to come down. It did not vanish. In fact, it sprouted wings and began to rise, black raven shape against the pinkish sky. Hawke tipped his head back to watch the new bird's progress.
"I wish something normal would happen around here," he remarked, apparently to himself. His voice echoed across the open water. "Just once. Once is all I ask."
That was all Fenris could take. He stepped forward. "Hawke," he said.
Hawke turned. His eyes widened. "Oh no," he said. "Not this again. I've had quite enough, thank you."
And before Fenris could say anything else, he disappeared in a green shimmer.
Fenris ran towards the place where Hawke had been, but there was no sign of him, no trace to follow, no trail. Even the shimmer of the shifting Fade was gone. The chill water splashed around his feet as he turned about, searching in vain. Nothing - nothing - and Fenris was convinced by that more than anything else. A spirit would have taunted him, encouraged him, tried to tempt him.
“Hawke!” he shouted, but no one answered. The spiky black trees stirred a little, moved by a wind Fenris could not feel. A movement behind him - Fenris turned - was the bird that had been a stone, coming around to rest on a high bare branch. It looked like a raven. It tilted its head to fix one beady eye on Fenris, and croaked. Fenris stared at it. Everything was still.
Somewhere somebody screamed.
Fenris looked around sharply. He could not see anyone. The scream had been high and thin and recognisably human. That did not mean much. He reached for his blade.
Another scream. This one echoed thinly across the water. The sound was coming from a low rocky rise that lay hard by the great lake. Running towards it was not a conscious decision. Fenris just did it. When the scream came a third time, it was followed by a dreadful roar. Nothing human had made that sound.
At the top of the rise was an open space surrounded by low cliffs. Blackened and twisted bodies lay where they had fallen, charred and frozen. The dead darkspawn wore fearsome grimaces even in death. Dark blood leaked from beneath them, and a few were still twitching.
The roar had come from an ogre, a massive armored monster. It was advancing on a small terrified figure. “Here, creature!” Fenris shouted.
It swung its massive head around, sniffing for him. Rusting iron rings were riveted to its horns. Its ugly face was painted with blood in patterns not so different from the vitaar of the warrior Qunari.
The monster’s victim screamed again. It looked backwards, distracted. Fenris did not know if it made a difference that the ogre was a Fade echo, not a true darkspawn. He suspected it would make very little difference to his corpse. He would not have chosen to face such a monster alone.
But then, he had done a great many things in his life that he would never have chosen; and the figure the beast was advancing on was a child.
“Come and face me!” he cried. The ogre threw its head back and roared a challenge. When it turned to face Fenris he could see the brute intelligence in those narrow eyes, and the snarl might equally have been a grin of beserker rage. It set its head low for a charge. White fire burned through Fenris as he leapt. The child screamed again.
It was what Varric would have called an absolute bastard of a fight.
The ogre - or whatever species of demon was imitating one; Fenris suspected rage - was no mere beast. Its huge hands were deadly weapons in their own right; its horned head a battering ram. It was not stupid. Fenris would have given much for some ranged support - such as, he thought with bitter humour, the three companions he had left squabbling in the desire demon’s palace. An archer and a pair of mages posted around the outside of this impromptu sparring ring would have made this, if not a pleasant battle, at least a straightforward one. As it was he had no choice but to attempt to duel the thing, attack and defence all at once; and the ogre’s size and strength and massive reach made that no easy proposition.
Still, he survived. Fortunate, he supposed, that he was armed with a greatsword rather than a maul or hammer. It turned out one could not kill an ogre without stabbing it, deeply, several times. Blood sprayed widely from the wounds, and the thing struggled and struck out as it died, its gigantic clawed hands still deadly. Fenris leapt backwards, watched its death throes without letting his guard down, and did not let the lyrium burn fade from his skin until the beast was still. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, scrubbed a hand backwards through his hair and felt stickiness. He was splattered head to toe with the monster’s gore. It was to be hoped that darkspawn blood in the Fade was less poisonous than it was in the waking world.
The child had kept screaming for some of the fight before seeming to think better of it. Now it was staring at Fenris with wide-eyed awe. It was unkempt, and slightly grubby, and as far as Fenris could tell, female. “You killed it,” she said.
“I did,” said Fenris. “You are safe now.” Wryly he added, “Whatever you are.”
The child did not seem to take this amiss. She scrambled to her feet. “Mother said it was dangerous outside the village,” she said. “She said I had to be careful. Elder Miriam says the Bann has abandoned us and there aren’t any soldiers. She says it’s a Blight.”
“It seems Elder Miriam was right,” Fenris said. “Perhaps you should return to your mother.” He wiped his face again. There was no blood now; a relief. The ogre’s body had disappeared too. The child was still looking at him. “What?”
"Your ears are pointy," the child said. It seemed to be something between an observation and an accusation.
"Yes, they are," said Fenris.
"Are you an elf?"
"Are you a real elf?"
She seemed to accept this. "Isn't it difficult having sharp ears?" she asked. "Do you ever cut yourself when you're combing your hair?"
“Yes, all the time,” Fenris said. “I avoid the problem by never combing my hair.”
Her mouth formed an O shape. “Really?”
"No," Fenris said. "And my ears are pointed, not sharp."
She looked dubious. "Old man Barlin says elves have knife ears."
"The word 'knife-ear' is something in the nature of a metaphor," Fenris said. "It is also a slur. You should not repeat it." He felt ridiculous, lecturing this Fade being as if it were a real child. She seemed pleased, though.
"That's what Mother says too," she said. "If they're not sharp, can I touch them?"
"But I said please!"
"And I said no," Fenris said as firmly as he could. He had no idea how one talked to children, illusory or otherwise. Or how to extricate himself safely from this encounter. "Return to your mother, child," he tried, and added without quite meaning to, "Stay away from ogres."
"Will you take me home?" she asked.
"I will not."
“I have other things to do,” Fenris said. “I am looking for someone.”
"You’re mean," she said. "I'm scared."
"The ogre is gone," Fenris told her.
"No, it’s not. Not really," she said. "It's never gone. Not here."
Fenris looked at her, really looked, for the first time. He was not sure how one judged the age of a child; he had never in his memory had much to do with them. She was certainly not yet into adolescence. Her dark hair, in two pigtails, was the same shade as Hawke's. The shape of her face, young as it was, held the promise of a strong jaw and sharp cheekbones. Once he saw it he could not understand how he had missed it before.
"You are Bethany Hawke," he said.
The little girl nodded. Hawke's mage sister. Fenris knew very little of her. Hawke never talked about her, any more than he talked about Carver, or his mother, or his long-dead father. She had been older than this, surely, when she was killed.
By an ogre, Fenris remembered. It was Carver, not Hawke, who had once mentioned that.
"Where is 'here', exactly?" he asked. "What is this place?"
"Memory," said the child-Bethany. She held out a small and slightly grubby hand. "Please take me home. It always comes back."
"Do you know where your brother is?" Fenris asked. He took the offered hand, rather helplessly. For a ghostly spirit being, the child had a strong grip. "I have been looking for him."
"You mean my big brother? He's in the village." She tugged hard on his hand. "I'll show you."
She led him back down the path towards the lake. Fenris nearly protested - he already knew that Hawke was not there - but he swallowed the objection as the landscape began to shift around them. Fresh spring grasses shot up around their feet, deepened to summer green, and then vanished in flames. A blanket of snow covered the rocks for an eyeblink before it was gone. Trees were now strong young saplings, now barely-grown sprigs, now full-grown and green. One near the base of the path had a wooden swing strung from its branches. It was broken, then green-painted and new, then gone: Fenris glanced back when the girl tugged him past and saw it had reappeared, and a young human couple were kissing across it.
The lake was where he had left it, still and mirror-bright, and the black trees still grabbed for the pale sky. But by the lakeshore now there was a village. People were going about their daily business, gossiping, browsing a merchant’s wares, disappearing mid-step. Time seemed to have no meaning. One moment it was high summer, the next red autumn leaves clogged the village’s little river. A ragged train of refugees passed by heading towards one gate, and then a group of soldiers in bright armour going the other way. There was, briefly, a Qunari suspended in a prisoner’s cage, but he was gone again before Fenris could get a good look.
The child-Bethany dragged him on through the village, past windmill and tavern and a small country chantry, and Fenris saw for a single moment every house in ruins, and the green land turned black as darkspawn streamed past with pitch torches. A young man wearing Grey Warden colours jogged past, looking sorrowful. “Carver? Is that you?” Fenris said. He could have sworn it.
But the boy turned around and was unmistakably not Carver. Fenris did not recognise him, and then he did: Fereldan coins turned up in the Free Marches occasionally, and recent ones bore their Warden king’s profile. Which meant the woman with the Warden’s shield he turned to had to be the famous hero of the Fifth Blight. Fenris never saw her face. Their ghostly figures lingered no longer than any of the others.
“Oh!” cried the child-Bethany. “Mother!”
And she finally let go of Fenris’s hand to go racing across the square into the arms of a woman who - Fenris stared - was clearly Leandra Hawke. A younger version, certainly, with only some fine grey threads in her hair. She was dressed well, but not richly. She was smiling as she embraced her daughter. She had always been kind to Fenris. She had been dead for years.
The child seemed pleased, at any rate.
This place was - had to be - the Lothering of Hawke’s memory. Impossible that the Fade would conjure it in such detail without him. He must be here somewhere. Fenris glanced around.
“Excuse me, Ser Fenris,” Bethany said.
Fenris backed away a step. He had looked away for only a moment, but that had been long enough to effect a change. The spirit addressing him no longer had a child’s form, but a young woman’s. The resemblance to her brother was more marked than ever before. There was a mage’s staff at her back.
“I am no ser,” he said, foolishly. She only smiled at him. Had he even told her his name?
“Thank you,” she said. “For bringing me home. Here - take this.”
It was a ring, marked with the familiar crest of Hawke’s family. Bethany put it into his hand and then used both hands to gently close his fingers around it.
“What is this for?” Fenris demanded.
“Past and future,” said the spirit. “Thank you. You were kind, and you didn’t have to be.” She ducked her head, smiling. “I think I would have liked you.”
“You are not the real Bethany Hawke,” Fenris said.
The spirit did not seem to hear. Instead she pointed towards the village’s small chantry. “You can find my brother there,” she said. “Look after him, please.”
Fenris looked at her, and at the ring he held. He carefully slipped it into the pouch on his belt. “I shall do my best,” he said.
That seemed to satisfy the spirit. It went back to Leandra. Fenris turned towards the chantry.
There was a roar and a scream behind him. He spun back quickly. The outline of the ogre was already fading. The young woman lay sprawled and broken on the ground, with her mother - grey, ragged, mourning - crouched over her in an attitude of despair. Both of them melted into nothing within seconds.
Never really gone, he thought. No, not here.
“Oh my. You say such sweet things. Soon you are going to turn my head.”
The voice was female, the accent Orlesian, the tone all arch flirtation. Typical Fade nonsense: you would never hear a voice like that one floating through a Fereldan village chantry. To add to the bizarre mismatch, the woman speaking wore the robes of an affirmed sister. She was leaning against the entrance to a chapel, hip cocked, head tilted, eyebrows raised.
“How soon exactly?” said the boy she was flirting with. “Because I can put the appointment in my diary. Second Harvestmere, Sister Leliana’s head due to turn; meet her at - let’s say - the old windmill and find out how much of what they say about Orlesian girls is really true.”
Fenris only just kept his mouth from dropping open. That was Hawke. That was Hawke, and he didn’t have a beard -
“Oh, sweet boy,” said the sister. “A windmill? Really? You have a lot to learn.”
- and the woman he was trying to flirt with was openly laughing at him.
“I’m a very willing student,” the younger version of Hawke tried hopefully. “Eager, in fact.”
The sister chuckled. “I’m too old for you, pretty thing,” she said. “Come and find me when you want to talk about your immortal soul.”
“You can’t be more than a year or two older than me,” Hawke said.
“Oh, believe me,” the sister said, looking very amused, “that’s more than enough.” Hawke opened his mouth to say something else, but she was already walking off. She was still chuckling to herself. Hawke looked briefly mortified, and then he shrugged and laughed.
“Worth a try,” he said, though no one but Fenris was listening.
Fenris supposed he had to do something, try to snap Hawke out of this dream or memory or whatever it was. He was not entirely sure where to begin. There was no obvious approach, nothing to fight. The youthful Hawke slipped into one of the chantry pews and leaned back at ease in a pose that owed nothing to thoughtful contemplation of the Maker. After a moment he put his boots up on the back of the pew in front. Fenris winced.
There was nothing for it. He had to say something. With any luck Hawke would not simply vanish this time.
He stepped forward. “Hawke,” he said.
Hawke startled. His boots slipped sideways, his backside went the other way, and he fell off the pew in a tangle of lanky limbs. Fenris could not help it: he snorted.
“What,” said Hawke, “that was your fault.” He looked Fenris up and down from his position sprawled on the floor. His eyebrows went up. “Well,” he said, with no sign of recognition, “hello.”
Chapter 8: By The Still Waters
Hawke scrambled to his feet. He was beardless, skinny, still taller than Fenris but no longer that much bulkier. It was strange what a difference it made. Fenris stared at him.
“Aaaand now you’re making me slightly uncomfortable,” Hawke said. “You said my name. Well, my surname. Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I don’t know,” Fenris said. “Possibly not.”
Hawke paused. “Well, that’s not mysterious at all,” he said. “Should I know you?”
“Yes,” said Fenris.
Hawke blinked at him. “Wait, don’t tell me, I’ll guess. You’re… let me think… you’re an elf. You’ve got a great big sword. You have weird markings - don’t Dalish elves have clan markings?”
“I am not Dalish,” Fenris said.
Hawke came closer. His eyes went from Fenris’s throat to his hands, the places where the lines of lyrium were visible. “They look magical. You’re a mage?”
Fenris thought he said it fairly neutrally, but if Hawke’s expression was anything to go by he had not. “All right, all right, you’re not a mage. You’re definitely not from around here. You’re a bit young to be a friend of my father’s. You’re, uh…” he was standing very close now, and his gaze flicked back to Fenris’s eyes, “really… very attractive, wow.”
“This is getting us nowhere,” Fenris said. He took a step back. He was not pathetic enough, he told himself firmly, to crave compliments from an adolescent Hawke who did not even know him. “My name is Fenris.”
“Fenris,” Hawke repeated. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Are you sure I know you?”
“Yes,” Fenris said, “but not yet.”
Hawke frowned. “You mean I’m going to know you? So you’re from the future?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Fenris, “I suppose.”
“You’re not giving me a lot to go on here, you realise,” Hawke said. “Okay, how am I going to know you in the future? I’ll be honest with you,” he added, “I’m hoping the answer’s ‘intimately’.”
Fenris folded his arms.
“No?” Hawke said. “Shame.”
“Listen,” Fenris said. “This place is not what it seems. You think you are in Lothering. You are not.”
“Looks a lot like Lothering to me,” Hawke said. “Where else would I be? Where did future me even meet someone like you?”
“In Kirkwall,” Fenris said.
“Kirkwall? Crawling-with-templars Kirkwall?” The boy laughed incredulously. “Mother said she’s never going back. What in the Maker’s name would I be doing there?”
“Your family fled north during the Blight,” Fenris said.
“During the what?”
Fenris hesitated. He wished for Varric. Varric would have known how to tell the story.
In the end he just gave Hawke the bones of it, as he knew them. He suspected he was missing pieces. There were things Hawke preferred not to talk about. Fenris knew little of his father, little of his sister, little even of the year he had spent indentured to one of Kirkwall’s criminal fraternities: the adolescent version of Hawke asked questions he could not answer, and frowned at the silences. It was easier to tell the parts that Fenris had been present for - but even then that was only fractions of the whole. There had been times in the Kirkwall years when Fenris had barely seen Hawke, times when Hawke had been away in the Marches on his various expeditions, or during the lull before the Qunari crisis had reached its peak, or else when they had simply been at odds. Hawke had always sided with Anders in arguments over magic. Sometimes the arguments had turned sour, and Fenris had not expected to see him again - only to have him turn up at the Hightown mansion with an adventure in mind a month later, cracking jokes like nothing had ever happened.
And of course there had been the six months after the first time they slept together, when Fenris had seen Hawke only twice, and both times they had avoided looking at each other.
He told what he could, hoping the sheer quantity of facts if nothing else would be convincing. The young Hawke laughed at some of it, raised his eyebrows at other parts, clearly found the death of the Arishok hard to believe. He went quiet when Fenris told what he knew of Hawke’s involvement with the Inquisition, and how exactly he had ended up in the Fade. Fenris saw him glancing around the illusory chantry - looking for something, perhaps.
He made Fenris tell the story of Leandra’s death twice, every detail. Fenris had tried to leave out the worst parts the first time.
“No,” Hawke said at last.
“I don’t understand,” said Fenris.
“No,” the boy repeated. “That’s not my future. I would never let that happen.”
“It is the present,” Fenris said. “I am sorry, Hawke.”
“Say I believe you, and this is the Fade. If it’s the Fade, you could be a demon. You could be trying to trick me.”
“I am no demon.”
“Oh, sure. According to you, we’re - what, friends?”
Fenris shook his head. Whatever he and Hawke were to one another, it had never been that.
Hawke rolled his eyes. “So I’m supposed to believe my frenemy heard I was stuck in the Fade - which is impossible - so he went and found a gateway, which is also impossible, in order to find me, impossible again, and tell me that in the future I’m the most notorious criminal in Thedas and everyone I love is dead.” He cocked his head. “Or you could be a despair demon. You’re wasting your time. Demons have been trying to eat my brain since I was six. You think they’d learn. It’s never going to work.”
“Since you were six?” Fenris said. That was young - very young - for magic to make itself known.
Hawke shrugged. “I was precocious. So, despair?” He folded his arms and gave Fenris a level look. “Desire, maybe? It’s a bit creative for a desire demon.”
“But you believe despair could imagine something like me?”
The young Hawke shrugged. “Despair’s surprisingly inventive,” he said, but he looked Fenris over again, and there was doubt in his look.
“Hawke,” Fenris said.
“Say I believe you,” Hawke said. “Say it’s all true - then -”
Hawke looked away. “Nothing. It’s not true.”
Fenris sat down on one of the chantry benches. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a chanter appear out of nowhere and spread his arms before the altar. He looked down at the carpeted floor.
“It is true,” he said. “For your sake, I wish it were not.”
“Why do you even care?” said the boy Hawke. “If we’re not friends -”
“Friends is too small to contain what I feel for you,” Fenris said savagely.
“Oh,” said Hawke. He sounded uncertain for the first time. “I - oh. Really?”
Fenris looked up in order to glare at him. “Is it any harder to believe than the rest?” he demanded.
Hawke looked a little wide-eyed. “You’ve got a point. So we’re… together?”
“No,” said Fenris. He looked at the floor again. It was hard to look at this fresh-faced youth, this familiar stranger who sounded like Hawke. “Not any more.” Hawke had shaken his hand and walked away. That was all. There was nothing else to say. It was over.
There was a pause.
“Why not?” said Hawke.
“You ended it,” Fenris snapped. “Ask yourself, not me.”
There was another, slightly longer pause.
“So had I perhaps recently been hit on the head?” said Hawke. “Or did I have another lover lined up who was somehow even more good-looking, because believe me, I’m finding that hard to imagine.”
“Hawke,” said Fenris, and then to his own surprise he dropped his face into his hands and laughed. Curse Hawke. Curse the man, who had thoroughly ruined Fenris, who had broken him and remade him without even noticing and then left, and who could always make him laugh.
He did not lift his head when the laughter stopped. He did not trust his own expression. He startled at a touch on his shoulder. “Fenris,” Hawke said, the name sounding awkward on his lips. He snatched his hand back when Fenris looked up.
He still looked very young. Fenris missed the beard.
“Let’s say, hypothetically, that I do believe you,” Hawke said. “Did you have a plan for getting out of the Fade again once you found me? Hypothetically.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Fenris said.
“That sounds a bit like no to me.”
“I came with companions,” Fenris said. “Mages who understand this place better than I do.”
“So where are they?”
“Great,” said Hawke. “Good to know.” He paused. “Are you doing that on purpose?”
“Doing what?” said Fenris.
Hawke made an awkward gesture in Fenris’s direction, and then he said, “You know. Glowing. I only ask because it looks a bit -”
Fenris didn’t hear the rest, because he was looking down at his hands, where the white lines of lyrium were beginning to shine not with the painfully familiar pale light but with a dull red gleam. Fenris stood and held up his hands in front of his face; the red colour grew deeper. It was not a trick of the light or some Fade reflection. It was coming from his skin. It was nothing Fenris was doing, and he could not make it stop.
“- I mean, maybe they’re supposed to do that,” the young Hawke was saying, while Fenris stared at the red lines of light. He could feel it spreading through him under his armour; it was an uncomfortable prickling sensation, no true pain - less pain, in fact, than there usually was when his marks came to life - as if the pattern of the markings had gone numb and dead. As the prickling grew stronger he could see red lines of light appear through his armour, too bright or too magical for leather to hide. He remembered Meredith’s transformation. He knew what it meant when lyrium turned red.
But how - but why -
“Fenris?” said Hawke, and then with sudden urgency. “Fenris -”
The red lyrium must have reached some critical point, because where there had been no pain there was suddenly agony - agony that tore at every inch of him. Fenris crumpled to his hands and knees. He could not hear his own screaming, but his throat was soon raw with it.
Hawke was at his side: he was vaguely aware of that. Hawke was kneeling by him, and calling his name. It no longer sounded awkward on his lips.
By the time it stopped, time no longer had meaning. Fenris panted for breath. He opened his eyes, though it took a long time for his vision to focus. He was lying on greenish ground that did not seem to know whether it was rock or soil or neither. He could see the broad shimmer of the lake. The chantry, and indeed the entire illusion of Lothering, was gone. He could not see Hawke - at any age - anywhere.
A narrow red line appeared hovering over the edge of the lake. It widened into a shimmering red curtain, and hardened into a doorway. The door opened, and water splashed around the feet of the first figure who stepped through. He was lean and ragged, and in one hand he held aloft a glowing red orb.
Fenris had to use his hands to push himself into a sitting position. His markings had returned to their quiescent state, no red left. He was not in pain, but his body was exhausted with the knowledge of pain, the aftermath. He met Solas’s eyes for a long moment. Solas inclined his head. The orb still had that evil red gleam. He had known, Fenris thought. He had known what it would do.
For a moment it was only the two of them in that desolate place, with the unfelt wind still moving the black branches of the spiky trees on the lakeshore.
And then Hawke was there.
The shadows cast by the spiky black trees on the lakeshore rose up and became him and had suddenly always been him. No boy, this. His shoulders had broadened again; he wore the armour of the Champion, mail and leather and fur, Kirkwall’s dragon crest red on his arm. His brows were drawn together. He held his staff at a familiar angle: battle-ready. “You son of a bitch,” he said. He was talking to Solas.
“Champion,” Solas answered politely. He lowered the orb. Hawke looked at it, and then looked at Solas again, and said nothing.
There was a long, dangerous moment of quiet. The air felt thick with magic, sticky with it. Fenris remembered duels of magic he had seen in Tevinter. Danarius against a rival magister in fearsome single combat. This would be -
Merrill’s feet splashed in the water as she ran from the doorway straight into Hawke’s arms. He stumbled back a good two or three paces under her weight. “Merrill?” he said. “What the -”
“Oh, thank the Creators,” Merrill was saying, “thank goodness, it‘s so good to see you -”
“Andraste’s holy knickers, I almost didn’t believe it,” said Varric. He was framed by the red light of the doorway. “Hawke, you lucky son of a bitch, I knew you wouldn’t die that easy.”
The doorway vanished behind him. The light of the orb in Solas’s hand winked out. Solas stood where he was, watching quietly, as Merrill and Varric embraced Hawke and exclaimed over him. Hawke looked shocked at first, and kept looking shocked right up until something Varric said made him laugh. He retorted - no mistaking that expression, that smirk - as he pulled Merrill under his arm so she could weep into the fur at his shoulders. Varric swiped a hand surreptitiously across his eyes, smiling. Fenris watched them all, watched Solas watching.
Varric turned around and spotted Fenris. “Maker be praised, it’s the elf.” He took in Fenris’s position. Fenris had not yet managed to stand. “What’s wrong?”
Merrill ran over to him. “What happened, Fenris? Are you all right?” she said. The blue gleam of healing magic appeared around her hands.
“No,” Fenris said. He pushed her hand away. “No magic. I don’t need it.”
“Can you stand?”
“Of course I can stand,” Fenris said. He had to lean on Merrill to do it, he found. He wished it were otherwise. “How did you get here?”
“With that thing,” Hawke said, and he sounded very grim. Fenris had to look at him then. He was glaring at Solas once more. He had not yet looked at Fenris once. “That thing, which has got to be the strongest magical artefact I’ve ever seen, and which is so malign it’s making my teeth itch. And you used it on Fenris. Didn’t you.”
“Not on purpose!” Merrill put in quickly. “It already knew Fenris. He picked it up. And I asked him to, so it’s all my fault really.”
“What isn’t?” Fenris said.
Merrill ignored him. “The orb remembers his markings. Solas thought he could make a door. And it worked!”
“At a cost,” said Solas.
“You could have killed him.” Hawke said. “Did you know that? You didn’t see what it looked like. You could have killed him.”
“It was necessary,” Solas said, and then pointedly turned his back on Hawke and looked at Fenris. “I suppose I do owe you an apology. You must understand that you were already bound to the orb. You touched it; the lyrium in your body awoke it. It knows you. My spell took advantage of a connection that already existed.”
“Which means?” Fenris said tiredly.
“The orb is blighted,” Solas said. “It will blight you.”
Fenris bowed his head. It was not the worst of the possibilities he had thought of, when he saw the red light under his skin. No, not the worst.
“Unless,” Solas continued after a pause, “it is repaired, cleansed, and renewed.”
“Then that’s what’s going to happen,” said Hawke. He did not look at Fenris. Not even then.
“You could do it, couldn’t you, Solas?” Merrill said. “You said you knew how. We just have to get it home. I’ve got the arulin’holm at home.”
“It should not be difficult to open a gateway through the reported Kirkwall eluvian -”
“- the one in my house!” said Merrill helpfully.
“- from this side,” Solas finished. His tone remained even. Fenris thought it might have been an effort.
“Then everything will be all right,” Merrill said. She took Fenris’s hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry.”
“I am sure you will do your best,” Fenris said after a moment. Hawke still had not looked at him. Clearly was not going to.
There was an awkward silence. Fenris was grateful when Varric broke it. “Unless I’m very much mistaken,” he said, in a transparent change of subject, “that’s the lake from the realm of Nightmare. The Inquisitor thought it poured through the rift from Crestwood.”
“That is as likely a source as any. It is certainly true water,” said Solas. He went to investigate, handing the orb back to Merrill as he passed - quickly, as if he did not like to touch it. Fenris watched as Merrill put it back into her pack. He fancied he could still see a faint red glow. It made him shudder.
“So where’s Nightmare?” said Varric. “There’s got to be a story, Hawke. That thing was the size of a house. A big house.”
Solas bent gracefully, scooped up water in his palms, and drank. When he straightened again his face bore no particular expression. “Nightmare is dead,” he said. “The echoes of its fall still linger.”
“It’s complicated,” Hawke said. “I’ll tell you later.”
Solas and Merrill went to work building the magic that would open Merrill’s eluvian. Hawke and Varric and Fenris sat by the shore of the lake.
“So… Nightmare?” Varric said.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” said Hawke. “What’s been happening in the real world? I take it the Inquisition dealt with Corypheus.”
“Dead,” said Varric with satisfaction. “For good, this time.”
“Must have been a hell of a fight.”
“No shit. I hardly believe it happened, and I was there. Can you imagine -” and Varric was off, flying: jokes and descriptions and exclamations, his hands moving as he talked, shaping the movement of a dragon twisting through the air, columns of rock falling from the sky. Fenris could not focus on it. He watched the elven mages work. They were slow and deliberate, layering glyph upon glyph, glittering lines of magic. Solas directed Merrill in the performance of blood magic, but never did any himself.
Hawke was laughing at something Varric had said. A raven croaked in the branches overhead - perhaps the same one that had once been a stone.
Fenris stood up and walked blindly along the edge of the lake until he could not hear Hawke any longer. He stared out at the water. Nothing moved - not so much as a ripple.
A light footstep behind him.
“Leave me be, Merrill,” Fenris said. “There is nothing to say.”
“She is a talented mage,” said Solas.
Solas gestured one-handed; the air shimmered, and a black log appeared on the shoreline. He sat down on it. “We have spoken very little, you and I,” he said.
“We surely have little to say to one another,” said Fenris.
“You were a slave of Tevinter?”
“I was,” said Fenris. “Tevinter magic put these markings on my skin and made me a living weapon. I served loyally for years, and then I rebelled, escaped, and slew my master. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
Solas gestured at him to sit. Fenris folded his arms and remained standing.
“It is not a Tevinter magic,” Solas said.
“Do you think I do not know who to blame for my curse?” Fenris snapped. “I remember the magister standing over me as they cut me open. He was instructing them.”
“Dwarves, I presume,” Solas said. “Or Tranquil mages. He could not work the lyrium himself.”
Fenris said nothing for a moment. Solas watched him.
“They were Tranquil,” Fenris said at last.
Solas nodded. “The art is related to runecrafting,” he said. “A bastardized form was invented by the dwarves, who used it to build golems.”
Fenris sat down on the log.
“And of course the Dalish still wear the blood writing, though they have lost their history and do not know its meaning,” Solas said. “It was used on slaves in Arlathan. To mark them, and to bind them. Your Dalish friend’s face, in those times, would have branded her a slave under the aegis of Elgar’nan.”
“How do you know this?”
“I am a scholar and a wanderer,” Solas said. “I have seen many secrets as I explored the Fade. Very little is truly lost, here.”
Fenris said nothing.
“It is not a Tevinter magic,” Solas said.
“Well,” said Fenris at last. “It seems it will kill me either way.”
“Not if the orb is repaired,” Solas said. “And -”
“It would be possible to remove the markings,” Solas said. “Once the taint is lifted. More difficult, certainly, to remove lyrium than blood. But possible.”
Fenris stared out at the still water.
“I barely remember my life before them,” he said. “It’s like a dream. For a long time I didn’t even have that. The name I grew up with means nothing to me. My master named me the same hour they completed the ritual. Fenris. His little wolf.” He swallowed. “I would not know myself without them,” he said.
Solas was silent.
“I saw a wolf cub taken from its dam and raised by men,” he said at last. “They thought to make a fighting dog too fierce to lose a battle. But a wolf is not a dog, nor could the hunstmen change its nature. It fled into the dark and found its pack beyond the snows.” He met Fenris’s eyes. “Your master named you better than he knew,” he said. “No wolf was ever yet a slave.”
The words rang oddly inside Fenris’s head. He had to look away.
“Thank you,” he said eventually.
“Do not thank me,” Solas said.
“There!” said Merrill, some time later. The final glyph lay on top of dozens of others, a glittering lacework star made of magic. “That was a little bit tricky. It’s lucky you knew so much about it. Now I just trigger it, is that right?”
“Yes,” Solas said. “The rest of us will serve to anchor the spell.”
The star had five points. Fenris stood where Merrill gestured him. “Are you sure about this?” Varric said. “I’m no mage. Dwarves and magic don’t really get on all that well.”
“No, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter,” Merrill said. “It’s only me that needs to be a mage at all, really.”
“Can’t remember the last time I was superfluous to requirements,” Hawke said, taking up his place. “Unless you count getting left in the Fade.”
“Don’t joke about that, Hawke,” Varric said. “Just - don’t.”
Hawke grinned. “Too soon?”
“Way too soon.”
When they all stood in their places, Merrill looked to Solas, who nodded. She drew her belt knife and carefully slashed a careful cut across her upturned palm. Then she turned her hand sideways and made a fist. Blood dripped from it. The first drop to touch the glittering lacework of magic turned it red. At the second drop it deepened to orange. The third made it flare gold.
“Don’t move!” Solas shouted. Fenris put his hand up to shield his eyes.
When the magic was done, the glyphs were gone. In the midst of the five of them stood the ghostly shape of a golden mirror. It was surrounded by twisted black branches. Its surface shimmered like the waters of the lake.
“Pretty,” Hawke said after a moment. “Nice one, Merrill.”
“So we just step through?” Varric said. “And that takes us back to Kirkwall?”
“Almost seems too easy,” Varric said.
“Can you close it again?” said Hawke.
“It is only open in one direction,” said Solas. “The route back through is impassable without a key.”
“Well,” said Varric. “Time to go home. And then all that’s left to do is fix the blighted orb before we have to find Fenris a Grey Warden, and after that the first round of drinks is on me. Who’s going first? Want to do the honours, Hawke?”
“About that,” Hawke said.
Something inside Fenris went cold.
“I’m not coming with you,” said Hawke. He avoided all of their eyes as he took a careful step back from the mirror. “I can’t.”
“Ah,” said Solas quietly.
“Don’t start, Varric,” Hawke said before Varric could get any words out. “Believe me, I would if I could. But it’s a bad idea.”
“What did you do,” Fenris said.
Hawke looked at him then - looked directly at him, for the first time.
“What did you do.”
“I made a deal,” Hawke said. He said it right to Fenris. Like an apology. “It was stupid, I know. Spur of the moment. In my defence, I really didn’t want to die.”
Merrill made a distressed sound.
“You dealt with that thing?” Varric said. “You dealt with the Nightmare?”
“No! Do I look insane to you?” said Hawke. “I dealt with something that could kill it.” He shrugged one-shouldered. “And now here I am! With my own realm and everything. It’s got a lake. Also a spirit that thinks it’s the ghost of my sister, don’t really know what to do about that, but the lake is nice.”
“What was it,” Fenris said. It came out flat. Angry.
“Does it matter?”
“Courage, I imagine,” Solas said. “Or something close to it. Such a being would certainly have found you fascinating as you faced the Nightmare alone." He looked at Hawke. "You must realise that you have made a dangerous choice. Courage unmastered is pride. And courage betrayed is despair.”
“You know, you make a good point,” said Hawke. “Next time I’m looking for a spirit to possess me and save my life from a spider monster the size of a house, I’ll hold panel interviews.” He laughed, not pleasantly. “Anyway. It’s a nice spirit, as spirits go, but we’ve all seen what happens when one of those gets loose in the real world, and I’d rather not end up like Anders, thanks. So.” He gestured to the mirror. “Thanks for coming. Really. I’m grateful. Get home safe.”
“Hawke,” said Varric.
“Sorry, Varric,” Hawke said.
Fenris closed his eyes. He felt - nothing, nothing at all: ice inside him, stone. And certainty, still, always: the certainty he would break himself on.
“If you are not coming,” he said, “then I am not going.”
Chapter 9: Courage
Hawke looked at Fenris then. The pale light of the barren realm reflected off his eyes, making them glitter. It was not the flash of possession - Fenris knew very well how that looked - but still for a single moment Hawke’s familiar dark eyes were the eyes of a stranger. His expression did not change at all. It was strange to see that mobile good-humoured face so still. Hawke had been a young man when he began his career in Kirkwall, but the creases of laughter had already been making themselves known around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. Fenris remembered noticing them on the late spring evening they had first met, before he even knew Hawke was a mage.
And he had kissed that mouth; he had felt Hawke’s laughter against his lips.
There was a long and humiliating moment of silence. Fenris should have been expecting it. Hawke had proved beyond a doubt at the crossroads outside Wycome that he did not feel a fraction of what Fenris felt; proved it once again by his silence just now.
Then Hawke smiled. Fenris was familiar with most of Hawke’s smiles: this one, quick and convincingly sincere, usually went with attempts to be diplomatic. “Fenris,” he said, in a reasonable tone that was also familiar: I try to make allowances because all my friends are lunatics, but you’re being particularly difficult right now. Whatever he meant to say would no doubt boil down to that, tactfully put. It would sound very sensible and practical. Fenris wanted nothing to do with it
“You will not change my mind,” he said.
Hawke promptly changed tacks. “Come on,” he said, familiar joking tone, lopsided smirk. “You really want to hang out here forever? The scenery’s awful and the company’s not great either.”
“I am aware.” Thousands of spirits, and Hawke, who was possessed, who did not want him anymore. Fenris did not make the mistake of trying to argue. He just waited.
Hawke opened his mouth and then closed it again. His face twisted. “For fuck’s sake, Fenris,” he said - and that was real, that anger. “I can’t, all right? I can’t. Could you please not make this any harder than it has to be.”
Fenris swallowed. “You expect me to walk away and leave you here as if that is easy?”
“Yes! Yes I do!”
“A year,” Fenris said. “A year, and this, and that is all you have to say to me.”
Hawke's jaw went tight. “There’s nothing else to say,” he said. “There can’t be. This is the Fade, Fenris. Stick around here and it’s not a question of if you get possessed, it’s when. Is that what you want? You? You hate magic. You hate spirits. You hated Anders even before he lost it.”
“There was never a time when Anders had not ‘lost it’.” Fenris said.
“Right! Like that! Well, I’m the abomination now. It’s done.” Hawke's voice was grim. “It’s been a year, Fenris. You were fine. I know you never let anything go - I was there for Danarius - but this is different. It has to be.” He looked away. His voice went soft - reasonable - as if reason had any place in this conversation. “You have to let me go.”
Fenris said, “I cannot.”
“Well, forgive me if I’d rather not watch you stick around and -”
“Hawke,” said Fenris, hating the desperation that leaked into his voice, "I cannot.”
“If Fenris is staying,” said Merrill, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, “then so am I.”
Hawke looked startled. He too, it seemed, had forgotten the others were there. Merrill planted her feet apart, folded her arms. For a fraction of a second there was a ghostly figure of a Dalish woman standing behind her in the same pose. Keeper Marethari, fearsome as when she lived. (Memory, the spirit-Bethany had said.)
Hawke only took a second to recover. “Merrill,” he began, in the tone of affectionate remonstrance he only ever used for her.
“Don’t! Don’t patronise me, Hawke,” Merrill said. “Don’t try to talk me out of it. You’ve never talked me out of anything and I won’t let you start now. You’re being silly. Anders was fine for years -”
“- six years is not that long -”
“- you’re not an abomination, you’re still you -”
“- I don’t think that’s really how it works, Merrill -”
“- and Fenris is quite right and he’d be miserable here and you’re being selfish,” Merrill finished.
Hawke made an exasperated gesture. “I’m not forcing him to be crazy!”
“No, but you had to know he would be,” said Merrill.
“Thank you,” said Fenris bitterly.
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!” Merrill said. She paused. “Well, I did, but - not in a bad way. I think it’s romantic."
Romantic. To tear his own heart out and lay it at Hawke’s feet for nothing. But it was no matter, Fenris knew. There was a time when he could have turned his humiliation into anger and made the wound in his pride into a weapon. There was a time when he could have hated Hawke for this, for making him this, for breaking him open like this. But the time was gone; and he loved Hawke, could not stop loving him, would deceive himself no more. He had known as he deciphered Varric’s letter that it was already much too late for his obstinate heart ever to let go.
"Anyway," Merrill was saying, " the point is that Hawke’s being stupid and stubborn, and I’m staying too.”
“Me being stupid and stubborn is not an invitation for every elf I know to be stupid and stubborn with me,” Hawke said. He was not aware of Fenris’s turmoil; how could he be? It was not his concern. “Talk some sense into them, Varric.”
“Well, my friend,” said Varric, “I have to say, this is not really how Bianca and I were planning to spend the rest of our lives.” He slung the crossbow off his back and planted it in the ground. “Still, it’s a nice lake.”
Hawke froze. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“Oh, all the time,” Varric said, “but not about this.” He undid a button on his coat, stretched, and sat down next to his crossbow on the nearest greenish crag of Fade-stuff. “I’m going to miss reality,” he said thoughtfully. “The ale, the gambling, the pretty girls, the hordes of screaming fans begging for the next brilliant literary masterpiece -”
“But hey, at least the dwarven Merchant’s Guild can’t bother me anymore.” Varric chuckled. Then he leaned back on his perch and sighed the belly-deep sigh of a man not planning to move any time soon. “I wonder if I can haunt my publisher from here? Or the Seeker. Now that would make this whole thing worth it. What are you staring at, elf?”
Fenris swallowed. “I would never ask this of you. Of either of you,” he said.
Varric lifted his eyebrows, but he was smiling. “Who says you had to?”
“We’re your friends, Fenris,” Merrill said, as if that was all the explanation required. She turned on Hawke. “And we’re your friends,” she said, “and we won’t give up on you. We just won’t.”
Solas cleared his throat.
All of them turned to look at him.
“Not you too,” Hawke said. “We only met once. I know I’m charming, but no one’s that charming.”
Solas looked unimpressed. “If I may,” he said. “I have some expertise in matters involving spirits.”
“That’s right, so you do,” said Varric. “Tell me you’ve got a better solution to Hawke’s problem than staying in the Fade forever. Can we get the damn thing out of him somehow?”
Solas ignored him. “Was it a spirit of courage?” he asked.
“Does it matter?” said Hawke.
“Certainly. Otherwise I would not ask.”
After a moment Hawke nodded.
“And you knew this when it came to you,” Solas said. “You offered yourself to the spirit freely and in full knowledge of its nature.”
“I suppose I did,” said Hawke.
Solas frowned. “Yes or no?”
“Then - yes,” said Hawke. “Yes.”
Fenris found himself imagining it. He wished he could stop, but the pictures came to him whether he liked it or not, and his mind could not ignore them. Hawke before a towering monster, facing it with his usual determination, but abandoned, alone, with no escape open to him - one small figure defying an undefeatable horror -
Varric hissed, reaching for Bianca. Fenris followed his gaze. A shimmer in the pale sky resolved itself into a towering crag on the far side of the lake. A dark and spiralling stormcloud began to spread from its peak.
Hawke glanced at it, made a face, and gestured one-handed. Crag and cloud vanished. “Do you mind?” he said. “Not a memory I want to relive, thank you.”
Varric whistled in relief. “Nice trick. I thought for a minute there we’d have to fight the damn thing again.”
“I am asking you about these things because the information is relevant,” Solas said. “Try to avoid remembering the events too vividly. You must have received some magical training - surely you realise the Fade reacts strongly to such thoughts. Control yourself.”
Hawke rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the tip,” he said. “Well? Do you know a way to get rid of the spirit?”
“The spirit, as you understand it, is already gone,” Solas said. “Or rather, it is within you and part of you. You accepted it freely and with full knowledge. Now you can neither remove it nor destroy it. It will exist for as long as you do.”
“Great,” said Hawke. “So there’s nothing to be done and we’re back where we started, which is where I'm a dangerous abomination and you all need to come to your senses and leave.”
“You are not an abomination,” Solas said. “An abomination is by its nature abominable. Twisted. But many mages over the years have entered into agreements like yours and continued to live their own lives, retaining control over their minds. I have seen the echoes of such bargains in the Fade. Some of the mages who made them you may even have heard of.”
Hawke paused. Naked hope was on his face for a bare instant, difficult to look at: then it was gone, suspicion in its place. “Name one,” he said.
Solas shrugged. “Flemeth.”
“You want me to take Flemeth as an example of a possessed mage who wasn’t crazy?” Hawke said. “Maybe you haven’t met her. I have. Twice. She was not what I’d call normal. Back me up here, Merrill.”
“She was a bit odd,” Merrill said. “Sort of…I can’t explain it. She liked you, Hawke.”
“How could you tell?” Hawke said.
“She laughed at all your jokes. Even the bad ones.”
“She must have liked him a great deal,” Fenris muttered, and Hawke cast him a sideways glance, lips twitching in a brief grin, before he seemed to remember himself and looked away again. It was as if Hawke could not bear to look at him. Perhaps he was embarrassed for Fenris. By Fenris’s begging, his refusal: I cannot. Perhaps he knew - remembered? - the things Fenris had said to his younger self. Perhaps -
“Over the centuries, Flemeth has left her mark on many great events. Her echoes permeate the Fade. She is not normal, no,” Solas said. “But she is quite sane.”
“If Asha’bellanar is possessed,” Merrill said, “what possessed her?”
“A spirit of justice, I believe,” Solas said.
“Well, that would fit the story,” said Varric. “Flemeth was out for vengeance for her husband, wasn’t she?”
Solas frowned. “Justice. The distinction is significant. I grant that Flemeth is an unusual case. There are less dramatic examples, but it is less likely that you would have heard of them.”
“Give me one,” Hawke said. “Just one example of a possessed mage who didn’t end up losing their mind. Something you’ve seen.”
Solas paused. “I saw a aged sorceress on the very edge of death,” he said. “Her time was done, and yet her work still lay undone before her. She prayed for help and her great faith was answered by a spirit. It was Faith that raised her up to face the Blight anew.”
“A Grey Warden, huh,” Varric said.
“No,” said Solas. “A human mage of the Fereldan Circle, during the Fifth Blight. Wynne was her name.”
The name was familiar, though Fenris could not place it exactly. He had heard enough stories of Ferelden’s Blight. There had been a time, during his early days in Kirkwall, when one seldom heard anything else. Varric had taken occasional pleasure in embellishing the best of the tales he had heard. And Anders had always been fond of them.
“You expect me to believe that Enchanter Wynne was an abomination,” Hawke said incredulously.
“Ah. Then you do know who she is.”
“He’s Fereldan, Chuckles, of course he knows who she is,” said Varric. “That whole nation is obsessed with heroes. Well, heroes and dogs.”
“We also like mud, plaid, and the colour brown,” said Hawke. “We have a wide and varied range of national stereotypes. We - you distracted me.” He rounded on Solas. “Enchanter Wynne? Seriously?”
“She was no abomination,” Solas said, “But she was the willing avatar of a spirit of faith.”
“How is that different?”
Solas paused. “To be the vessel of a spirit of faith,” he said at last, "or of any other such virtue - justice, compassion, wisdom - is an honour. Such beings very seldom take much interest in the shadowy affairs of our realm. A mortal must be exceptional indeed to draw their attention. Presumably the spirit you met found you in some way exceptional.” His tone said that he found it hard to imagine how. “When the spirit submits to such a partnership, it is, essentially, destroyed. It cannot be separated from its chosen avatar again. It is a great sacrifice.”
“Get to the point, Chuckles,” Varric said.
Solas shrugged. “You are courage,” he said - no, it was a name: you are Courage. “But your choices are yours. If you wish to avoid becoming an abomination, you must be Courage - embody it - freely and without hesitation. Betray the spirit which sacrificed itself for you and it will turn on you; and since it is you, it can only twist upon itself, and go mad. If, on the other hand, you live according to your nature,” he shrugged once more, “you will be no more abominable than I am.”
In the quiet that followed, the raven that haunted this realm croaked from a perch in one of the spiky black trees. They all glanced at it. It croaked again. It had to be a spirit of some kind, Fenris thought. Here, everything was.
Hawke laughed uncomfortably, scrubbed his hands over his face, and then said, “This doesn’t sound like anything I ever learned.”
“Well, you weren’t really trained very much, were you?” Merrill said.
“I was trained by my father, thanks - and he was a senior enchanter before he left the Circle -”
“But he had left,” Merrill said. “And the Circle doesn’t know everything, I don’t think. The Dalish do lots of things differently. And the Qunari have their own traditions of magic as well, don’t they?”
“Tie them up and sew their mouths shut?” Hawke said.
“No, but - I mean - there are all sorts of things in the world. There are all sorts of things we don’t know, or can’t explain, not yet. That doesn’t make them not true.”
“A wise position,” Solas said.
“It sounds reasonable to me,” Varric said. “Blondie was crazy at the end, but - you know, Hawke, he really was fine for a long time before that. He only went really off the deep end once Vengeance showed up. I guess that counted as betraying the spirit. Maker knows vengeance isn’t justice.”
Hawke grimaced. “What if you’re wrong?” he demanded.
Solas spread out his hands, open palms, as if to say no secrets here. “What if I am not?”
“You’re making it all sound simple. I could still become a monster. I could hurt innocent people. Do you know how many people died because Anders thought he could handle Justice? How many people are still dying?”
“I saw a great deal of the mage-templar war with the Inquisition,” Solas said. “I suspect I know the answers to those questions better than you.”
“What if I can’t do it?”
Solas cocked his head. “Does the prospect frighten you?”
Hawke breathed out sharply. For a fraction of a second his eyes blazed with an unearthly golden colour. Fenris flinched. He saw Hawke notice and go still. The golden light behind his eyes had faded already. It was too late to take the flinch back. Fenris had not meant to do it.
Hawke deliberately turned away.
"It frightens the hell out of me," he said, not to any of them. He was looking out at the lake. "So I guess I'm doomed already."
"Oh, no -" said Merrill.
"Not necessarily," Solas said.
"You're telling me that to stay sane I have to stop being scared -"
"What do you think courage is?"
Hawke stared out at the mirrorglass water and did not answer.
Fenris had to speak. He had never possessed anything approaching Varric's facility with words - nor even Hawke's, or Anders', both mages always quick-tongued and ready with the right phrases as Fenris could never be. He had felt clumsy and hopeless the night Hawke's mother had died. But he had spoken all the same then: and he knew he had to say something now. He owed it to Hawke, for that flinch.
He did not know how to say it. And then he did.
"From the first day I met you," he said, "you have always laughed at fear. I know you had much to fear in Kirkwall, as a refugee. As an apostate. But you laughed. It was the first thing I admired about you."
Hawke turned. A brief ghost of a smile passed across his face. "Not the beard?" he said.
"Apart from the beard," Fenris said.
"Well, that's something,” Hawke murmured, except it was not the words that Fenris was paying attention to, it was the look in his eyes, and the way he glanced down, smiling. Fenris could not make it match with his silence before. He wanted - oh, Maker, what he wanted. Foolish. Blind. Hawke flirted like he breathed. It meant nothing.
Hawke startled; the smile fell off his face. He looked at Solas. "Is it that simple? I have to do things that scare me?"
"Surely you understand the nature of courage better than I ever could," Solas answered.
"I have to say, Hawke," said Varric, "if the key to your sanity is do as much terrifying shit as possible, I think you're good to go. I mean, have you met you?"
“That’s true!” chirped Merrill. “You fought the varterral twice.”
“You faced a high dragon,” said Fenris.
“And then there was the Arishok,” said Varric. He paused. “Also multiple pride demons, assorted magisters, gangs of criminals, gangs of giant spiders, those weird rock monster things, let’s not talk about the time with the wyverns, and on top of all that there's Nightmare - has it ever occurred to you, Hawke, that your life is a bit weird?”
“All the time,” said Hawke ruefully. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “Okay. Say Solas is right and I'm not an abomination. Not yet, anyhow. Now what?”
“You fear the mortal plane,” Solas said. “You fear the future. You fear what you may become.” He took a careful step backwards, ragged robes flaring around him, and spread out one arm towards the ghostly eluvian he and Merrill had created. It was an oddly theatrical gesture, and in that moment the ragged elf seemed almost a ringmaster, a lord of ceremonies - like a noble at some grand celebration inviting his guests to begin the dance. Fenris’s memory must have called something forward: for a single sick instant a ghostly version of Danarius stood there behind Solas, resplendent in formal festival dress, smiling his host’s smile as he had once at the start of a Satinalia celebration -
“Courage,” said Solas, instruction and invocation both, and the vision was gone. Fenris did not know if the others had seen.
“Point taken,” said Hawke. His mouth lifted at one corner. “Looks like you won’t get to haunt your Seeker after all, Varric.”
“It probably wouldn’t have been as much fun as it sounds,” Varric said. He picked up Bianca and slung her back across his back. He was grinning.
“Oh, thank the Creators,” said Merrill. “I know you can do it, Hawke.”
“Thanks, guys,” said Hawke. He looked at Fenris then. His expression was unreadable. “Coming?” he said.
As if there had been any other reason to stay. As if Fenris were not bound to follow at Hawke’s heels like a dog. He could not let Hawke walk away from him again after this - he knew that - not when the last time had ended with Hawke trapped here. He had no choice at all. It was an oddly philosophical sort of misery that settled on him. If love was to make him a slave again, well, he had known worse masters.
“Of course,” was all he said.
“If that is settled,” said Solas tartly. Fenris turned towards him, grateful for the chance to avoid Hawke’s eyes. “We should now concern ourselves with the orb. It needs to be cleansed of the taint as quickly as possible. It is quiescent, but the Blight is inclined by nature to grow.”
His eyes were on Fenris, who remembered numbness and agony, the young Hawke’s eyes widening in horror, red lines spreading under his skin like an infected wound. “I imagine your spell did not slow the process,” he said. “Magic, as usual, makes everything worse. How long do I have before it blights me permanently, I wonder?”
“Don’t talk like that,” said Merrill. “We’ll make it right.”
“He is not wrong,” Solas said. “Though the answer is hard to predict. It depends on how well your markings were shaped,” this to Fenris. “You have weeks, perhaps, if you are fortunate. Days if you are not.”
“No time to waste, then,” said Hawke.
“You better go first, Daisy,” Varric said, nodding towards the ghostly eluvian. “If that excitable apprentice of yours is home you can reassure him before he tries to set the rest of us on fire.”
“You have an apprentice?” said Hawke.
“I've got fourteen, as a matter of fact,” Merrill said. “Um, it was an accident.”
“You accidentally acquired fourteen apprentices?”
“It’s all Aveline’s fault really,” said Merrill. “I’ll tell you later!” She looked at the eluvian. “I’ve never actually gone through one of these before.”
“Take it at a run,” Varric advised. “Gives you less time to think about it.”
“All right,” Merrill said. She took a step back, then another; and then she ran through the mirror and was gone.
Fenris followed her. The sensation was akin to walking through a waterfall: brief, dread cold, and an awareness of something fearsomely strong pouring over you for a single instant. He stumbled out of the other side of the mirror and into Merrill’s small drab bedroom. Merrill was there, red-cheeked, still breathing hard: “Oh goodness,” she said, “that felt strange. Oh - out of the way!”
Fenris only just moved before Varric would have landed on him. “Hawke’s right behind me,” he said, and they all looked at the eluvian. It reflected only Merrill’s bedroom. There was no way to know what was on the other side.
After a moment Fenris realised he was holding his breath.
The ninety seconds that passed before Hawke plunged through the mirror, gasping for air as if he really had just stepped through a curtain of freezing water, felt very long indeed. Hawke’s face wore a terrible expression. He stumbled a few steps, caught himself on Merrill's bedpost and then sat down hard among the tangle of shabby blankets on the bed. Solas stepped through the mirror in his wake as calmly as if he did it every day. Merrill cried out as it cracked behind him.
For an instant Fenris thought he saw a dark-haired human child looking solemnly out of the cracked glass, watching her brother stumble away.
Solas turned to look at the broken mirror. The spirit-Bethany - if that was what it was - had already gone. “I am afraid some damage was always a possibility,” he said. “They were never intended for such a use. An arulin’holm should serve to repair it.”
“I know it’s here somewhere -” Merrill said. She looked around uncertainly. The small room was crowded with five of them in it. Fenris thought of leaving. It was done; they had achieved their goal. Hawke was safe for now - as safe as he could be, possessed as he was. Hawke was in the world of the living once more. Hawke -
“Hawke?” said Varric.
“I’m fine,” Hawke said.
He had not moved from Merrill’s bed. He was still hanging onto the bedpost with one hand. There was a slightly wild look in his eyes. “Just fine," he said. "Merrill, have I ever mentioned how much I like your house?”
“Really?” Merrill said. “It always seems to be a mess… oh, by the Dread Wolf, I didn’t even make the bed.”
“It’s fine, Merrill,” Hawke said. “It’s -” and he started to laugh. Fenris took a step towards him without thinking about it. His shoulder bumped Solas’s. Hawke held up his hands. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, laughter still bubbling up under the words.
“Really? Because you sound either crazy or drunk,” Varric said.
“Maybe the second one,” said Hawke. “Oh, Maker. Have you ever noticed how solid things are all the time?”
“Not... lately?” Varric said.
“Trust me,” said Hawke, “it’s worth appreciating.” His smile was broad, beautiful. Fenris wanted to take him in his arms, to kiss him; to shake him, possibly, for getting himself trapped in dreams in the first place; to never let him go again. All things he could not have.
Hawke took three long deep breaths as if to steady himself, muttered, “Courage,” and let go of the bedpost. Gold flickered behind his eyes.
Fenris forced himself not to flinch this time. It was not easy.
“The arulin’holm,” said Solas. “Where is it? We must repair the orb as quickly as possible.”
“I know it’s here somewhere,” Merrill began, and then the front door slammed open in the next room.
They all startled. “Keeper!” someone shouted.
“Tarly?” Merrill said.
The young mage appeared framed in the doorway to Merrill’s bedroom. He was sweating, dishevelled, and, Fenris judged, most of the way to tears. “It is you,” he said. “You’re back - praise Andraste - you have to come quickly - it’s loose in Hightown, Captain Aveline said she needs mages - please -” his eyes fell on Hawke. “Is that the Champion?”
Hawke stood up. “What’s loose in Hightown?” he said. “Breathe. No, that’s it, deep breath. Tell me.”
“The demon,” Tarly managed. “No one knows where it came from. It appeared a few days ago out of the Undercity. Help was supposed to be coming but it’s going to be too late - it won’t stop killing people - it’s so angry - it’s so big -” He had to stop again.
Fenris thought of the whispering voices down in the ancient Tevinter tunnels. Of the ancient and terrible creature that had been guarding the magister’s gate. I am the punishment, it had said. I am the scourge. It had been quite mad. And they had fled into the Fade under the cover of Solas’s ice storm, and they had closed the gate behind them, leaving -
He exchanged a glance with Varric, whose horrified expression surely matched Fenris’s own.
“Oops,” said Merrill.
Chapter 10: Hightown
The alienage was empty. Fenris suspected that was a bad sign. Their small group scrambled over the wreckage of the vhenandal, charged up the steps, and found themselves cut off by a mob. People were streaming through the streets from the direction of the Lowtown marketplace. A guardsman stood on a crate at the street corner, bellowing instructions. “Everyone is to evacuate to the Gallows! Yes, everyone! Careful of the children, there - no, you can’t bring your donkey, serah - down to the docks, there are ferries waiting! Captain Aveline has the situation under control!” He glanced towards the alienage gateway. “Tarly, did you find - Champion. Thank the Maker.”
“People hardly ever have that reaction to me,” Hawke said. “Nice to see you too, Donnic.”
“I - no! leave the damn donkey! - sorry, Hawke, things are a little busy around here. I heard you were dead.”
“I got better,” said Hawke.
“Well, thank Andraste you’ve turned up,” Donnic said. “Kirkwall could really use its Champion right now. Could use anyone willing to fight, really. Keeper,” he added, a belated greeting, nodding to Merrill. His gaze took all of them in, three mages with their staves, Fenris and Varric both armed and armoured, and his expression spoke of relief.
“Where’s Aveline?” Hawke said. Just like old times, Fenris thought with something twisting in him between amusement and heartache. Hawke took charge; Hawke always presumed to speak for all of them. For a moment he thought he heard a sound as if in answer to the thought, a murmur like distant thunder. The words were not clear, but then they did not need to be. He knew what they were saying. None better.
“Aveline's running the crisis response. We’re based in the Hanged Man; she’s set up a defensible position in the Hightown market. Volunteers are manning it. We’ve cleared the shopping district and the residential quarter, but the demons are wrecking the upper city. They go after anything fancy.”
“Wait, demons?” said Varric. “Plural?”
“There’s hundreds of them,” Donnic said. “Aveline can fill you in - you’ll need to go round the evacuation routes, you’re not getting through this crowd in a hurry - Maker take me to his arms, no, you can’t bring your pig either!” He stomped off through the crowd towards the offending animal. “Hurry!” he called over his shoulder. “I need to deal with this!”
They shouldered through the crowd towards the nearest sidestreet, which was deserted; then Tarly took off at a run, and the rest of them followed. Fenris ran with an eye to Hawke’s lead, as so often before, and the rest of his attention given to watching for attackers. He saw no one, not even looters; even the stray cats seemed to have deserted the city. “Well, this is creepy!” Varric called out over to his right.
Tarly was fast. They caught up with him at the foot of the market steps, where Elegant had once kept her stall. He was bent double, panting. “Keeper -” he said as soon as Merrill was in earshot. He reached for the staff on his back. “I’ll help you fight.”
“No, Tarly. It’s all right,” said Merrill. She was very pale under her tattoos. “I’ll take care of everything.”
“Take a break, kid,” said Varric.
“I can’t -”
“We’ve got three fully trained battlemages here, and you’re worn out. The guards are operating out of the Hanged Man, right?”
“They lost the Keep,” said the elven boy. He looked tired beyond measure, and young. His hair was lank with sweat. “I can fight. I should fight -”
He was about the age that the memory of Hawke in the Fade had been. Fenris could have been no older when he received his markings and became a living weapon.
“Go to the guards,” he said. “Perhaps they can use you.”
Tarly still hesitated. Merrill put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle push, and only then did he let himself turn back. Fenris watched him go. The market was clear, more or less abandoned; the crowds had already fled this part of the city. The boy cut a lonely figure before he darted out of view.
“Let’s go,” said Hawke.
“We’re with you,” Varric said. Fenris drew his sword off his back. Merrill took her staff in hand; Solas, after a moment, did likewise. He had said not a word since they left Merrill’s hovel.
“Not taking off yet, Chuckles?” Varric said. “Fade archaeology is probably more restful than this.”
“I will remain in Kirkwall until the orb is repaired,” said Solas. “And since I am here, I will gladly assist. Let us proceed.”
There were magical barriers at the arched entrance to the Hightown market, but they were thin and ragged-looking, flickering in places. “Apprentice work?” said Varric. Solas’s lip curled.
“Oh dear,” said Merrill. “They’re all much too young -”
“Keeper!” cried a voice from beyond the barrier, and then it came down and they passed into the marketplace, where guards were manning furniture barricades. Three young mages all ran towards Merrill at once; the oldest looked about fourteen. She embraced the youngest as the others began to talk all at once. Something about the barrier; Fenris was not listening. He stood where he was, feeling the prickle of magic pass over his skin. His markings throbbed to it.
All across the marketplace tiny green flickers danced in the air, appearing and then vanishing for fraction of seconds. Small white lights drifted between them: wisps. And there was the whispering again, on the very edge of hearing. It was still almost wordless, but for a moment Fenris strained to hear something that was not a sound.
Varric paused beside him, taking in the scene, and his breath hissed between his teeth.
“Oh, good,” said Hawke. “This looks like wonderful fun.”
Solas frowned. “The Veil is not merely thin here,” he said, “it is practically in rags.”
“And this is the nice bit. You should see how it looks up in the Chantry square,” Aveline said, coming up beside him, and then she went white.
“Hello, Aveline,” said Hawke after a moment. “Been a while. I see you’ve been keeping busy.”
“You,” said Aveline. “You.”
Hawke held up his hands. “In my defence -”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Aveline said. She launched herself at him in a movement that was embrace and assault at once, armoured fists beating on Hawke’s shoulders hard enough to make him stumble and splutter protests. Fenris felt foolishly envious. He had missed his chance to do that, embrace Hawke or strike him, prove beyond a doubt that he was real. Merrill had embraced him, and Varric, but Fenris had been trapped in the aftermath of pain, and then the opportunity had gone, and there would not be another one.
Aveline finally moved back, settling her hair, and planted her hands on her hips - the Guard-Captain once more. “Well, Hawke,” she said, with an admirable attempt at calm, “I guess you and trouble really do go together.”
“Always,” Hawke said.
“I mourned you, you know,” said Aveline, voice softening. “We all did.”
“I’m touched,” Hawke said. “I didn’t know you cared.”
“Don’t give me that.” She looked them over one by one. “I won’t say this isn’t a welcome surprise. I would have been happy just to get Merrill. Fenris, good to see you. Varric.”
“We heard you had a demon problem and we just had to come take a look,” Varric said. “We’re suckers that way. Have you met Solas? Guard-Captain Aveline Vallen, Solas the mage. He doesn’t do surnames.” Aveline looked dubious, but gave him a nod.
“Where can you use us?” Hawke said.
Aveline gave a brief laugh. “Where can’t I use you? My men are exhausted from trying to contain the demons up here. We won’t hold out much longer.”
“Oh Aveline,” said Merrill, finally turning away from her apprentices, “this is all my fault -”
“Captain!” yelled someone from the direction of the barricades. “Another wave!”
“We’ll assign blame later, Merrill,” Aveline said, and raised her voice. “Mages! I want barriers all around this square. Ready archers! Varric, get up high, pick your shots. Hawke, Fenris, up front with me!”
She was already running. Fenris and Hawke went with her, and Fenris through his markings felt the magical curtain of a barrier settle around him seconds before he saw the blue gleam of spirit magic flash across Hawke’s armour. Merrill or Solas, he thought: Hawke was no defender. Then they were at the barricades that cut the square in half. Hawke used one hand to hurdle himself over, and Fenris followed suit, summoning the burn of lyrium as he went, feeling the familiar pain of it flash through his body, giving him strength. Aveline was ahead of them, already shouting a challenge towards the ragged, shuffling line of corpses that was descending the steps. Fenris swung his sword off his back and ran past Hawke, who had planted his staff to raise one hand to the air, pointing, calling -
I bring punishment, something whispered. I bring death.
For a fraction of a second Fenris froze.
Then there was fire and lightning: a storm pouring down out of nothing. The dry hair and desiccated flesh of the corpses was already beginning to burn with a terrible stench. Fenris came back to himself and threw himself into the fray, among the magic, among the dead - a lyrium ghost to shred them and harry them and and force them into the flames, to leave the demons possessing them without puppets for their desecration. He took the right, Aveline the left, both of them driving the monsters inwards for Hawke’s next fireball. Stray corpses veered off in different directions, trying to flank them; each went down with a whistling crossbow bolt in the throat or through the eye. Varric was picking his shots.
Fenris had fought many battles alone since he left Kirkwall. Some had been hard fought; Tevinter slavers in the Free Marches expected trouble, usually hired mercenaries, and began to hire more once Fenris started hunting them and the rumours started to spread. He had - no, not forgotten, but had forced himself to stop remembering what it was like not to be alone. The white pain of magic was pouring through him, and he was sweating, but he found a fierce smile settling on his face. The enemy was in front of him and Hawke was behind him. Let the rest go. If Hawke loved him no longer, if he was bound for life to a careless mage by his own idiot heart; no matter. He was made for this. He had made himself for this.
“Revenant!” roared Hawke.
Fenris felt the tug of the demon’s magic and turned and charged before it could pull him in. Revenants always expected you to run from them, and were best faced head-on. It was heavily armoured, red lights in the eyes that looked out from under the helmet; it swung around to face him, setting its shield for an assault. Weapon, they called you, something whispered through it, as it faced Fenris down. Slave.
Fenris gritted his teeth, ghosted and threw himself straight through the oncoming attack. He kept going through the monster’s body, dragging out handfuls of black gore that quickly turned to dust, and spun to attack its flank as Aveline took his position facing it head on.
As before, he did not notice the change happening at first. He had possessed the markings for as much of his life as he remembered clearly; in fact his earliest clear memories were those where he practiced controlling them and using them, naked under Danarius’ interested, scholarly gaze. They were a cruel infliction and a curse, but they were natural to him. It was the numbness that alerted him. That had been the start of it before. He did not dare take his eyes off the revenant to glance down at himself. But he knew, all the same; knew before he saw the reddening glow reflected in the shine of Aveline’s shield.
Someone called his name. (Hawke: it was Hawke.) But the midst of a battle against a revenant was no time for distractions. It had been numbness first, and pain after. There was time. Fenris shouted a battlecry in Tevene. The revenant turned on him just as lightning struck it - twice, three times, four times in quick succession, making it twitch and shudder - and Aveline put her shoulder’s weight behind her shield and pushed hard. The demon fell to its knees. Fenris plunged his glowing red hand through its helmet into its skull, grabbed a fistful of rotting slime, and twisted.
The revenant screeched and thrashed. Fenris could see the shape of his hand through its helmet; the lines of red light blazed hideously through viscera and bone and metal. He pulled his hand out with a sharp tug that pulled away most of the front of the monster’s skull, took a two-handed grip on his greatsword again, and beheaded it.
There was a moment of quiet. No more corpses advanced on them; scattered bodies and drifts of ash showed where they had been. The volunteers on the barricades began to cheer. Fenris glanced at Aveline, who shook her head and sheathed her sword.
He let the burn of lyrium go, and felt a hot uncomfortable shiver go through him as the red light faded from his skin.
“That looked a little different,” Aveline said.
Fenris looked at his hands. The lyrium had mostly faded back to white. There was a red streak along his thumb, bright as a poisonous insect, numb-feeling. He curled his hand into a fist so he could not see it. “A long story,” he said. “And unpleasant as anything to do with these markings usually is.”
“Fenris -” that was Hawke, practically at his elbow; Fenris startled and jumped away. “Are you all right?” Hawke said.
“Fine,” said Fenris. Aveline looked between them and frowned, but Fenris barely saw it, because he could half-hear words, softly and from all directions. Their victory had had no effect on the will driving these attacks. Our lives were never yours to spend, it whispered. We were never yours to -
“Are you sure?” Hawke said, but Fenris did not answer.
They returned to the barricades, where they were met by Merrill and Solas. “Show me,” Solas said immediately.
After a moment Fenris held out his hand, palm upwards. Hawke said Fenris’s name again. Fenris wished he would stop that. Solas touched the red streak with one long, delicate finger.
“Let me see the orb,” he said, and Merrill brought it out of her pouch and held it out to him. Solas would not touch it. His lips pursed. The fine barely-visible carvings were glittering with faint red light. Fenris could feel the power inside the thing humming. It made his skin prickle.
“Can’t we just smash the thing?” said Hawke.
“Absolutely not,” Solas said. He looked at Fenris. “The more you use your lyrium-induced abilities, the faster the blight will spread,” he said. “It will not stop until the orb has been cleansed.”
“Of course,” said Fenris bitterly.
“I advise restraint.”
“Naturally. Perhaps you could also advise the demons to restrain themselves.”
“Stay out of the fighting, Fenris,” Hawke said. “The rest of us can handle this.”
Fenris gave him an incredulous look. “No,” he said.
“This isn’t up for debate,” said Hawke.
“On that much we agree,” Fenris said. “I will not stay out of any fight you are in.”
Hawke’s expression was mulish. “I can handle myself. You know that."
“You threw yourself head-first at a nightmare and got trapped in the Fade,” Fenris snapped. “Where you were possessed.”
“Once is enough!”
Hawke drew himself up tall. Green light from one the flickering tears in the veil illuminated the side of his face. Fenris fancied for a second that he saw gold flash behind his eyes. He would not let himself step back. He would not.
Varric interrupted before the glaring could develop into - anything else. “Maybe this is a conversation for another time?” he said. “A time with fewer demons rampaging across Hightown, for example. That might be a good time.” He looked at Fenris. “I think we’d all rather you didn’t turn yourself into a red lyrium statue like Meredith, Broody. Maybe take it easy on the whole turning into a ghost and ripping out hearts for a while. Demons also die if you just hit them with heavy bits of metal for long enough.”
“One of my many talents,” Fenris said. He deliberately turned his back on Hawke and looked towards Aveline. “What do you need us to do?”
Aveline's eyebrows were up. "Right," was all she said, and then she folded her arms. "The population should be on their way to the Gallows by now - it's defensible, and it's still got all the old templar safeguards against magical attacks. But the demons have to be held up here while people get to safety." She glanced around the square and clicked her tongue. "I have a lot of good men wounded or unconscious at the moment. They need healing magic and some time to pull themselves together. Most of the demons were coming through around the site of the old chantry. They come in waves. One good push to throw the next group back should give my people some breathing space. Your kind of job, Hawke."
"Got it," Hawke said.
"I'll stay here," said Merrill. "I can heal. I can shore up the barriers, too. The demons won't get out of Hightown this way."
"This isn't the only way down to the rest of the city, Guard-Captain," Varric said.
"I know that. Merrill's apprentices put barriers across all the exits," said Aveline.
"The work was sloppily done," Solas said. "They will need reinforcement by now."
"Thank you for volunteering," said Aveline briskly. "Maker knows Hawke's useless at it. You've got about ten minutes before the next wave starts." She paused. “There’s a big one out there somewhere,” she said. “It was the first. It hasn’t come this way. Take care if you encounter it. It’s killed a lot of people. And don’t listen to it, either. It… whispers.”
“Oh, we know,” Fenris said grimly.
Four of them set out into the abandoned squares and boulevards of Hightown: Fenris, Hawke, Varric, Solas. They fought a gigantic pride demon in the dwarven quarter, and three desire demons clustered outside the Blooming Rose. That battle had to be done without barriers. Solas was fully occupied layering curtain after curtain of magic over the ragged apprentice-made shield blocking the stairway. By the time Fenris sheathed his sword after the last demon fell shrieking, the barrier was a glittering wall of white light, with odd rainbow reflections running over it. “What element is that?” said Hawke.
“I find a combination of several makes for a more effective barricade,” Solas said. “Shall we?”
Fenris glanced down and flexed his hand. The red streak along his thumb had not grown any larger. He had not been using his abilities. It would have made the desire demon fight considerably easier if he had. There were still flickering green lights and drifting wisps everywhere. The whispers continued, on the very edge of hearing, too low for words.
It was here somewhere.
“I take it none of those was the big one Aveline mentioned,” Hawke said, as they jogged past the Keep. The bodies of guardsmen were scattered in the street. There had been a battle here.
“Oh, you’d know the big one if you saw it, Hawke,” Varric said. “Trust us.”
“Where exactly did you meet this thing?”
“We may have unleashed it accidentally while trying to get to you in the Fade via the original gate to the Golden City built by Corypheus and the other ancient magisters - surprise! - under Kirkwall, in what has to be one of my top five least favourite ancient ruins of all time.”
“You have a top five,” Fenris said, as they paused to face a new onslaught of corpses. Many of these still wore the fine garb of Kirkwall’s elite. Not all the inhabitants of Hightown had been evacuated in time. Fenris chopped both hands and the head off the ruined remnant of a man in a lounging jacket with his family’s coat of arms on the back.
“Sure I do,” Varric said, peppering what had once been an older woman in a pink silk dress with crossbow bolts. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“What’s number one?”
“The thaig,” said Hawke and Varric in unison. Hawke threw up a wall of flame ahead of a charge of enraged corpses; the few that skidded through it, still burning, ran straight into mines laid by Solas and froze solid. Fenris smashed them one after another: the ice made terrible cracking sounds, and the bodies fragmented. No more rose.
“Seriously, screw that thaig,” Varric said, lowering Bianca.
They faced another pride demon in the chantry square, where the little flashing rifts were so numerous it seemed that they would collapse into a great breach at any moment. The demon was intelligent enough to make use of weapons available to hand; they had to dodge collapsing scaffolding and hurled blocks of masonry from the building site of the new chantry. As it shuddered and fell - demolishing most of a freshly mortared wall with its bulk - Fenris heard the voice clearly at last.
You, it said, a low hiss that was not really a sound. It was not speaking to him; it might not even have been aware of him. Its anger was thick, rich, strong. Mage-lord, it hissed. Magister. Murderer and worse than murderer. With all your pride, with all your power, with all the privileges of blood and name and witchcraft, you will still answer to me.
A look at the others' faces was enough to reveal that they had heard it too. “That’s our demon,” said Hawke. “Sounds friendly.”
“Oh, yeah, a real charmer. Let’s invite him over for tea,” Varric said.
“Its anger is ancient,” said Solas. “And its cause is just. It will be strong indeed.”
Hawke’s eyes flashed gold for an instant. “Let’s kill it,” he said. He paused. “Assuming we can find it.”
The whispers washed over them from all directions. But Fenris turned towards the broad shallow stairs that led up to the mansions belonging to the very wealthiest of Kirkwall’s wealthy elite.
“Up there,” he said.
They all paused at the top of the stairs.
“Did you know it would be doing that?” said Varric after a moment.
Fenris said, “Let’s say I had a suspicion.”
There were about two dozen corpses. In fact, Fenris thought, there were probably exactly two dozen corpses: he had counted them once. They had been scattered through the halls of Danarius’s mansion ever since the magister had cut their throats and left them there. He had meant for them to one day rise under his command, and Fenris had let them lie out of a kind of bitter defiance.
Well, they had risen now, and not for any magister.
“Are you… enjoying this?” said Hawke.
“Oh yes,” Fenris said.
The corpses paid them no attention. They were systematically, brick by brick, demolishing the house.
They must have been at work for some time. Most of the elaborate fronting was gone. Shattered fragments of the marble facade had been piled together; while they watched, one of the corpses took up a warhammer and began smashing the pile into tiny white shards. Through the skeletal remnants of the walls they could see the piles of rubble and brickdust across the grand entrance hall. The afternoon sunlight pierced the old gloom in a dozen places, and green light flickered, and in the midst of destruction the naked body of a murdered slave fished piece after piece of fine porcelain out of a storage chest and threw them one by one against the last solid wall.
Fenris wondered where it had found the chest. He thought he’d already broken everything breakable in that mansion. Apparently not. He could hear the vengeance demon’s whispers, not as words but as a low rumbling in the back of his head, distant angry thunder.
He stepped forward. All the corpses turned to look at him as one.
The whisper became a word: you.
It knew him.
It had been angry with him, in the ruins. It had called him traitor. But it had understood, as well. And Fenris had understood it too. He thought he still understood now.
“The magister you seek is dead,” he said.
No, said the demon. He is not.
“I killed him myself,” Fenris said, ignoring the shiver that went through him at the monster’s certainty. He had seen Danarius bleed on the floor. He had felt the beating heart in his fist. He had seen the body. His master was dead.
He lives, the demon said in his head. The mouths of the corpses moved with the words, though none made a sound. I see him. I feel him.
“The Fade is a realm of thought and memory,” Solas said quietly. “Nothing is ever truly gone there.”
You, you, the demon whispered in Fenris’s head. You are like me. You are, you are. You are one of us. A slave like us. Betrayed like us. He lives, I see it. I see his hand on you. As the hands of shadow are on me. Monsters beget monsters. I was, I was justice once.
Let me -
“He’s not interested,” said Hawke.
His voice cut through the demon’s murmur with uncomfortable force, making Fenris startle as if out of a dream. The corpses turned to glare at Hawke, and in their heads the demon snarled so viciously that all of them stumbled from the force of it. Mage! it spat.
“I think you made it mad, Hawke,” said Varric.
“You can’t have him,” Hawke said. His eyes were gold from side to side. “He’s not yours.”
You think he is YOURS? the demon howled.
“Yep,” said Varric, “you definitely made it mad!”
Two dozen corpses; they had faced worse. They had faced worse that very day. Fenris readied his blade. The demon itself had not yet made an appearance. It worked through the bodies of the countless dead; it spoke through them. Perhaps, if they were fortunate -
Green light flickered and arced from tear to tear in the Veil. The dust and rubble that were all that remained of Danarius’s grand foyer began to shake. Earthquake, Fenris thought, but it was no such thing: one tattered, bony arm thrust out of the ground, and then a second, and an ancient body the colour of parchment pulled itself out of the earth. Then another. Then another. They still wore their slaves’ tunics. Two dozen was already three dozen, then four, and more were coming. The four of them drew closer together. Blue light was the flicker of Solas’s barrier coming down over them. A paler, wilder blue burned in the eyes of the corpses. A hundred, Fenris thought. Two hundred. Too many. They were flanked on all sides.
“There were thousands of them down there,” Varric said. He unshouldered Bianca and took aim.
Fenris gripped the hilt of his greatsword tightly. He nearly ghosted without thinking about it; it was an instinct. He caught himself at the last moment. His markings still burned in reaction to the magic in the air. The demon’s anger was a long thin wail in his head, an anger that still bled together with all Fenris’s oldest hurt and rage, still felt too much like his own. It attacked, a countless horde of the dead against four. Fenris knew before the onslaught even began that they could not possibly win.
Then it was battle, and there was no more time for thought.
Body after body went down before him. Some were crumbling into dust as they fell; only magic and rage had ever held them together. Another corpse always took its place, another dead face with flickering blue eyes. There was no hope of strategy, no way to plan. Fight, and fight, and fight; with sweat running down the sides of his face and his body beginning to ache, and still there were more. Varric showered them with crossbow bolts, the mages took down swathes of them with fire and lightning and ice, and still there were more. They did not speak or cry out to each other as they might have in any ordinary battle. They did not waste their breath. This demon’s anger would not abate, Fenris knew. It would not stop. He would not have stopped, in its place.
He did not see the moment when Varric went down under the onslaught, but he knew when Solas fell; the blue light around him flickered out and nothing replaced it. Fire still rained down upon the corpses, an unceasing storm of flame. Fenris saw out of the corner of his eye Hawke gulping a lyrium potion and throwing the phial aside, and heard the shatter of breaking glass.
It must have been Hawke’s last, because a few seconds later the firestorm stopped. Fenris had been pushed some distance from the others by a concerted onslaught of ravening corpses, and it was only then he realised it had been intentional. Hawke was surrounded, exhausted, and the demon’s rage tasted triumphant in Fenris’s mind. It hated Hawke. The other two it had simply ignored once they ceased to be a threat; but it hated Hawke.
Magister. Mage-lord. You whom we trusted, you who used us and threw us aside -
Fenris felt sick when the realisation hit him. He had thought it understood. And it did, as much as it could. It understood as far as its nature allowed, and it hated Hawke - hated him bitterly - for Fenris’s sake.
Hawke was holding his own. A battlemage’s staff, bladed and weighted, was a formidable weapon in knowledgeable hands even without magic behind it. But it was no answer for their sheer numbers; it was no answer for the demon’s hatred: you who took possession and left nothing, with all your pride, with all your mastery -
- you who own me still -
A staggering blow from a dead man’s fist took Hawke in the back of the head and brought him to his knees, staff skittering out of his hands. He was swaying on his knees, stunned. The demon screeched with satisfaction. Two seized Hawke’s right arm; a third pulled hard. Hawke screamed as his shoulder was dislocated. A fourth corpse stumbled forward. It had a weapon, a warhammer. And Fenris -
Fenris threw himself between Hawke and the deathblow. It fell on his armoured shoulder. It hurt. He only realised a second later that he had called upon the lyrium to get there in time. It had not been a decision at all. He had just done it.
He was still in the ghost form; the corpses’ attacks struck him, but they lacked their previous strength. He could feel the numbness, the prickle; when he moved he could see the red streaks spreading along his arms. “Stop!” Hawke cried. His voice was ragged with pain. Fenris ignored him. “Fenris, stop it!”
And still the monsters kept coming, and Fenris felt red madness bleeding through him, and did not stop. Hawke shouted for him to leave - just leave - go, leave me, run - as if Fenris ever could again.
The pain began in his fingertips, following the numbness. He did not heed it. Green light leapt and danced between the rifts that pockmarked the room, and Fenris beheaded another corpse, and another, knowing that he was blazing with red light now, knowing he would destroy himself, not caring. He would not see Hawke die. He would die first.
Green light blazed brighter and brighter, and then brighter still, gathered in the midst of the ruined room like a miniature star.
A shockwave burst from its heart, and before Fenris’s eyes some two hundred corpses simply disintegrated.
Both in the ruins of Danarius’s mansion and inside Fenris’s head there was silence.
The lyrium burn slipped away from him, purely from shock. He let it go. He could still feel lingering echoes of the pain. Red marked both his hands up to the wrists now, and was snaking up his forearms. Hawke’s breathing was ragged with pain; his arm hung from his shoulder at the wrong angle. Fenris could see Varric sitting up slowly, bleeding freely from a head wound. There was Solas, stumbling to his feet, leaning on his staff like an old man.
The light began to change. One by one, the small green rifts flickered and folded in on themselves and were gone.
A slim figure walked through the drifts of rubble and death, green flame flickering in her hand.
“Inquisitor Lavellan,” said Varric. He pressed his hand to the wound on his forehead and it came away red. “Good timing.”
“I try,” Lavellan said, and then she paused.
Solas was silent as he looked back at her. It was a silence that seemed to spread and encompass the whole scene, the ruins, the rubble, what little remained of the corpses. The only sound was Hawke’s wet, pained breathing. Fenris could not stop hearing that.
Solas continued to look at Lavellan. His expression did not waver, but his skin had paled to the colour of old bone.
Chapter 11: Hanged Man
“Well, this should be good,” Varric said quietly. Fenris did not think anyone else heard. Lavellan’s mouth was a flat line, and after a moment Solas bowed his head in what might have been a gesture of respect but was certainly an effective way to avoid her eyes. The Inquisitor would like a word with him, Fenris remembered, and I have been so long alone.
Hawke groaned as he got to his feet. “Tell me someone’s got an injury kit,” he said.
The Inquisitor’s eyes flicked to him. Her sudden smile looked unfeigned. “Hawke,” she said. “They found you.”
“Everyone’s happy to see me today,” said Hawke. “I have got to die and come back to life more often.”
“It certainly did amazing things for my popularity when I tried it,” Lavellan said.
“Inquisitor,” said Solas then. He was standing very straight. “A word.”
Lavellan glanced at him and raised her eyebrows. “If you have something to say,” she said flatly, “then say it.”
Solas’s expression barely flickered, and yet for a moment Fenris felt something akin to pity. “Very well,” was all he said. “There is a rift beneath this city which requires your urgent attention.”
Lavellan’s expression hardened. “I would have led with ‘sorry’, personally,” Varric murmured.
“It is guarded by a vengeance demon which you have sealed back into its lair but not yet destroyed,” Solas went on. “The magic which holds it open is complicated by the involvement of an elven artefact -”
“You’ll love this,” Varric said.
“- akin to the orb used by Corypheus. You must find a way to disentangle it from the rest of the spell before the rift can be sealed. An arulin’holm will certainly be required, and I believe it will also be necessary to acquire a certain amulet in order to handle the forces involved safely. I happen to know of one such amulet hidden in a burial complex on Sundermount.”
Lavellan looked at him. Eventually she said, in neutral tones, “How?”
“I felt its presence,” said Solas, “when I was exploring the Fade.”
“Honestly, Inquisitor,” Varric said, “what else did you think he was going to say?”
“Sundermount? Maker, there really is no rest for the wicked,” said Hawke, and then groaned again. “Seriously, somebody give me an injury kit.”
Varric went to his side. Fenris sheathed his greatsword and sat down on the low and crumbling wall that was all that remained of the mansion’s grand frontage. Aveline ran up to the group moments later, and Merrill, and several strangers who seemed to be Lavellan’s associates. Someone saw to Hawke’s injuries. Lavellan conversed seriously with a lean sharp-faced human woman. At some point Merrill fished out the orb and every mage present had to gather around it and talk over each other. Fenris sat on the ruined wall and tried not to think of anything very much. Hawke’s arm was in a sling and he was cracking jokes - Fenris did not need to be anywhere near him to know he was cracking jokes, his smiles alone were enough. Fenris’s hands were marked with red lyrium up to the wrist, and fine threads of red were snaking up his forearms, like the poison spreading from an infected wound.
The Inquisition had come to Kirkwall. They had come with soldiers skilled at demon-hunting, with builders who clicked their tongues at the wreck of Hightown and calmly got to work, with wagons upon wagons of supplies. Vast queues formed in the Gallows courtyard, while crates of foodstuffs were unloaded and efficiently distributed under the watchful eyes of smartly uniformed overseers. Patrols swept Lowtown in segments and declared street after street safe for the inhabitants to return. Looters and other such opportunists were swiftly dealt with, an infirmary with three mage healers and a surgeon was set up near the docks, and by the evening of the first day a makeshift bazaar had already sprung into being just outside the city gates.
The last time Fenris had seen Varric he had been helping mediate a conversation between a half-dozen aggressively well-dressed Guild dwarves and a smiling, steely-eyed Antivan aristocrat. Aveline had disappeared into meetings at the viscount’s keep, where Lavellan had based her vast entourage. The captain had torn Merrill away from her apprentices to accompany her, insisting that her presence was necessary, and Hawke had tagged along as a matter of course. No one ever questioned Hawke sticking his nose into things. He was, Fenris supposed, the Champion.
Perhaps Fenris could have inserted himself into those meetings too. He did not care to. He was no politician, and he had had more than enough experience of the halls of power. No doubt the mighty were deciding the fate of Kirkwall up there in the heights of the city. It was no concern of his. In the past this would have been the time when he excused himself and returned home. If you could call the mansion a home.
That, at least, he would never do again. The mansion where he had spent so much time brooding on his wrongs was ruined beyond repair. The dark corridors he had paced for hours on end no longer existed; the room where he had slept, raged, and regularly drunk himself into a stupor had been flung open to sunlight and then demolished completely. It was an odd feeling.
What Fenris really wanted, he decided, was a drink.
Aveline’s guards had left their base at the Hanged Man and returned to the barracks, but this part of Lowtown had not been cleared by the Inquisition forces yet. The taproom was empty of everything but shadows. Chairs and tables had been pushed against the walls. A guard had forgotten his helmet; it was sitting on the stairs. There was no sign of the barman.
Fenris found a cleanish flagon and drew himself an ale. He reached into his belt pouch for a few coppers to leave on the bar. Among the small pile of coins that tipped into his palm was a plain gold ring. It was sized for a human woman’s hand. Fenris could have worn it, if he wanted to. It shone in his palm, gold a stark contrast to the livid streaks of red that now marked him to the wrist.
It was slightly flattened on one side. Fenris touched the pad of his thumb to the spot and felt the delicate engraving. The Amell coat of arms; Hawke’s family.
A strange gift for a spirit to give. Dangerous in some way, no doubt. It did not feel magical, and Fenris could usually tell. If he had thought about it at all, he would have expected it to vanish when he left the Fade. Solas would no doubt find it interesting.
Or Hawke might.
Fenris nearly left it on the bar with the money. It was only a fleeting impulse that made him slide it back into his belt pouch. He did not let himself think about it further. He drained the first ale in three long gulps - easier not to taste it that way - and then got himself another and sat on a bench that had been shoved against the wall near the cold hearth. He did not drink. He looked at the flagon in his hands for a while.
Eventually he admitted to himself that he was just looking at his hands.
Red spiderwebs marked them. Even in this gloom the colour was bright. Loops of the stuff curled lovingly around his wrists. Danarius had occasionally displayed Fenris naked to interested associates; had taken great pride in the aesthetic effect of his creation. Such an elegant design. Fearsome but beautiful.
What had Solas called it? An art. Related to runecrafting.
Fenris took a swallow of the foul ale and hoped, viciously, that the red spoiled the effect.
Varric had mentioned Grey Wardens. There were some among the Inquisition forces. It was a life that seemed to suit Hawke’s brother. Perhaps he could live that way. He had always been a weapon. Why not a weapon against the Blight?
The thought felt hollow. Fenris tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
He had done what he set out to do. Hawke lived. Hawke lived.
If a few hot tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, at least there was no one to see. Judgement would have been hard enough to bear, and sympathy worse. Fenris was a fool. Had he expected Hawke to fall into his arms? No. No, never. He had told the desire demon the truth: all he had wanted was to find Hawke alive. He had expected nothing more. Had not even really expected that. When you expected nothing you could not be disappointed.
But some damned stupid helpless corner of his heart, it seemed, had hoped.
Hawke had done him a favour all those months ago, walking away like that, with a handshake, a smile. He had saved Fenris from having to contemplate the wreck of his love - having to face it every day. Fenris scowled at himself and passed his hand across his eyes, too carelessly. The spike of his gauntlet caught against his cheek. He winced as he felt the cut. It was a hot shallow pain, not enough to distract him from the bitter circle of his thoughts. After a moment he buried his head in his hands.
Life as a Warden, throwing himself against a sea of darkness that would never end - or following Hawke forever into the dangers he could never stop facing, now, as long as he lived - or else, Fenris thought with a wild kind of satisfaction, walking away. He had not lived so long, had not suffered so much, to end as a mage's bodyguard again. Surely he owed Hawke nothing more than he had already given. He could go back to the work he had been doing before. As long as there were slavers to hunt, he would not want for occupation, and if eventually the poison in his lyrium scars consumed him - let it. Let it. Why not.
And then a simpler path occurred to him.
The demon was not dead. Solas had said as much, but Fenris had already known; he was irrationally certain that he would have felt its death. It had never been in Hightown at all: only its voice, its influence, reaching up from deep beneath the city, tearing at the Veil. The Inquisition could mend as many rifts as it liked, seal it, trap it, but that would not kill it. Its lair was down in the depths. He knew exactly where.
He stood up before he even knew he had made the decision. It was, of course, a stupid decision. Varric would rail at it. Aveline would be appalled. Hawke - never mind what Hawke would think. The demon belonged to Fenris. It understood him. It would have killed Hawke for him. Perhaps that made it his responsibility.
But before he went any further the door of the empty tavern banged open.
It slammed against the wall and set off a shudder that dislodged several cobwebs. Fenris reached back over his shoulder for his greatsword. The figure in the doorway paused and looked up into the shower of spider silk and dead moths.
“Creators!” said Merrill, as cobwebs settled in her hair. “I always forget that happens.”
“Oh, it’s you,” Fenris said. He let his hand fall to his side. “Come seeking congratulations from the grateful citizenry of Kirkwall, Keeper? They are not here yet. No doubt it’s only a matter of time.”
“The Inquisition soldiers just cleared this part of the city. People will be back soon,” Merrill said. “But I was looking for you, actually. I hoped you’d be here. Well, I thought you would be. You do like to drink when you’re upset. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I mean, it’s probably not very good for you. But you’re a grown man, you can do that if you like. It’s not my business. I should stop talking, shouldn’t I.”
“You should never have started,” Fenris said. “What do you want?”
“I brought you something,” Merrill said. “I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.” She held up a dusty bottle of something pale-coloured. “It’s quite strong,” she said. “The Dalish brew it from halla milk. And herbs! The herbs make it taste nice.”
Fenris stared at her.
“Sometimes when we were playing cards in here, in the evening, Isabela used to get up and leave,” Merrill said. “To go drink with you. She used to say no one should get drunk all alone. I know I’m not her, and you don’t like me as much as you like her. But she’s not here. I thought - maybe - it was stupid, wasn’t it. I’m sorry.”
“You want to get drunk with me?” Fenris said incredulously.
“I’ve only ever been drunk once,” Merrill said. “It was quite interesting.”
Grey Warden, mage’s bodyguard, a slow suicide by red lyrium or a quick one by vengeance demon. Or, Fenris considered, drunk.
With that list of alternatives to choose from, Merrill’s gift had a certain appeal.
“Fine,” he said.
“I - really?” said Merrill.
He took the bottle of Dalish brew out of her hand. “I said fine.”
Merrill's liquor was rich, sour, and strong. Fenris had drunk worse. She tried to explain to him exactly how it was made, but kept stumbling over her own tongue and giving up in giggles. They were not even a quarter of a way down the bottle. Corff was back behind the bar now, and the fires were lit, and stray Kirkwallers were straggling back into the tavern. The Hanged Man was starting to look like itself again.
Against all reason it made Fenris feel more like himself again.
It was not that anything had changed, or that the reasons for despair had shrunk. But they receded, a little, in the warm firelight, with the fiery taste of the Dalish brew in the back of his throat, and the barmaids trying not to laugh at Merrill as she tried and failed to pay them compliments. "I mean, it's a lovely bust," she said earnestly to the tired-looking girl who came to poke the fire, and then blushed terribly. The girl snorted, but she was smiling.
“Master Tethras used to slip us some coin to cut her off,” she murmured to Fenris, while Merrill hid her face in confusion.
“I know,” Fenris said. He leaned back on his chair and took another swig from the bottle.
It took almost no effort for his mind to fill in all the people who should have been there with them. Varric, of course, getting interrupted every few minutes by an admirer or informant. Isabela with her wicked smile flirting lazily with whoever was closest. Anders - Fenris could not claim he missed the mage, but he had had his place here. And there had been Aveline now and again, and Sebastian nervous as if he expected his old self to take over at any moment, and Hawke, who by the last year or so in Kirkwall usually got a cheer when he walked through the door. Things had been - not simple, not at all. All of them had brought their share of complications to the card table. Aveline and Isabela had sniped at each other. Varric had loathed Sebastian. Fenris and Anders had usually grimly ignored the other’s presence - if only because everyone groaned if they started to argue. And on top of that Fenris had spent plenty of time on those nights trying to stop himself staring at Hawke every time Hawke looked away, tangled up in a longing that he had not let himself examine too closely.
Not simple, no. Still.
Strange, that Fenris had not noticed happiness when he had it.
Merrill nudged his shoulder. “It’s all right,” she said. “We saved him.”
Fenris shrugged her off hard. “What makes you so sure I was thinking about Hawke?”
“You have a face that you do,” Merrill said. “Sorry! Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything, should I. Sorry.”
Fenris kept glaring at her, and then gave up and reached for the bottle instead.
The hour was late, the bottle mostly empty, and both of them moderately tipsy by the time a shadow fell over their table. “Oh!” said Merrill.
Fenris looked up into cool green eyes and a level expression. There was a pause. Then he raised his eyebrows. “A renegade slave, an alienage Keeper, and a Dalish saint walk into a bar,” he said.
Lavellan’s cool expression cracked. She snorted. “And the saint says: we are the last of elvhenan - never again shall we submit!”
Fenris toasted her with the bottle. Merrill’s giggle sounded unnaturally loud in what should have been a noisy taproom. Fenris glanced over his shoulder and realised that most of the humans drinking at the bar had fallen quiet and were staring at Lavellan with strange expressions: uncertain, fearful, hungry.
Lavellan looked too, winced, shrugged, and sat down at their table. “We are the last of elvhenan and we could really use a drink,” she said. “Please?”
After a moment Fenris pushed the bottle towards her. Lavellan looked surprised when she picked it up. “Hall’inehn. This is for festivals,” she said. “Where on earth did you find it?”
“I was saving some,” said Merrill.
“You’re supposed to drink it out of very small cups and pray to the Creators before each sip,” Lavellan said. Then she laughed, picked up the bottle and tilted her head back to drain what was left. “But rules change all the time,” she said as she put the empty bottle down. It fell and rolled across the table. “I should know.”
Fenris signaled to the barmaid for some ale. The girl was shaking slightly when she brought it over, and refused to take the silver Lavellan tried to give her. When Fenris tasted his it was considerably better than the Hanged Man’s usual slop. Corff had opened one of his good barrels. “There are advantages to drinking with a saint,” he said.
“Don’t. I mean it. Don’t,” said Lavellan. The conversations around the room were starting to pick up again, though she was still drawing plenty of attention. No doubt most of the people here were talking about her. There was a slight tightness to the way she sat, as if she were very aware of it. She had her back to most of the room: Fenris suspected it was so she did not have to look at those hungry faces. He remembered the first time he had seen her making her way through the eager crowd at Skyhold, nodding and smiling, stopping for no one. It could not be comfortable being holy.
“So,” she said after a moment. “You found Hawke.”
“I did,” said Fenris.
Lavellan considered him for a moment longer. Those eyes were just as sharp as they had been the morning he broke into her tower bedroom. “I’m glad of it,” she said finally. “I prefer it when people get out alive.”
Fenris nodded, once. He had no doubt that Lavellan could see the bitter confusion of his feelings all over his face. She was kind enough not to say anything. It was a relief when she turned that too-observant look on Merrill.
“Keeper,” she said.
“Oh, I’m not,” said Merrill. “I’m not a Keeper. I mean, they call me that here, but they don’t really know what it means. I was supposed to be one day but - I’m not. I won’t ever be. I mean, you know that. You were your clan’s First, weren’t you? Before you - well.”
“I was,” Lavellan said. She hesitated. “You probably don’t remember me.”
“We’ve met?” said Merrill. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m sure I would remember an Inquisitor. I mean, you’re very memorable. Probably everyone remembers you.”
“It was at Arlathven,” Lavellan said. “I was ten.”
There was an odd strained note in her voice. Fenris looked between them. He saw the moment Merrill placed her, frown turning to wide-eyed enlightenment. “Oh!” she said. “Little Isthari!” She looked at Lavellan in some astonishment. “But you’re - has it really been that long?”
“You have been living in Kirkwall for most of a decade,” Fenris said.
“I suppose I have,” Merrill said dubiously. She looked at Lavellan again. “I do remember you. Marethari had just made me her First, and she sent me to Keeper Istimaethoriel for some training, and you followed me around for a whole week, didn’t you? You were terribly sweet.”
“You were my hero,” Lavellan said, like an accusation. Her expression was cold.
“I - oh,” said Merrill. She swallowed. “Oh.”
Now Lavellan had started she did not seem able to stop. “You were so clever and so talented - you knew so much of our history and you studied so hard - you cared so much. Everyone always talked about getting our past back but it always seemed to be just talk. Just the things you had to say if you were Dalish. But you made it sound real. Like reclaiming our history was something we were actually going to do, that you were actually going to do, and soon. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be just like you.”
Merrill was staring at the table. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“How could you do it?” Lavellan said. “Your Keeper. Your clan. How could you do it?”
Fenris - should have been enjoying this. He was enjoying this, he told himself. But he could not make himself believe it. Merrill was hanging her head, her hair covering her eyes.
“People hardly ever talk about it,” she said. “Humans don’t care.”
“The clans care,” Lavellan said. “I care.”
“I can’t tell you something that makes it right,” Merrill said.
“I didn’t ask for right. I asked for why.”
Fenris caught the eye of a human man wearing an Andrastian amulet who was approaching their table. He stared coldly at him until the man clearly thought the better of it and went away. Merrill’s hands were clenched in her lap. Lavellan waited mercilessly. Her silence demanded an answer.
He was enjoying this, Fenris told himself savagely. Mages should face judgement for their evil. No human would ever hold Merrill accountable for the murder of a Dalish clan. Let her look her own kind in the face and answer for it. It was only just -
and there must always be justice -
“Keeper Marethari always taught me to be wary of spirits and demons,” Merrill said quietly at last. “She said that they were dangerous. But she was wrong.” She looked up then. “She was wrong. Spirits are - well, they are dangerous, they can be dangerous - but mostly they just are. The Keeper said that they were untrustworthy, but she didn’t understand them properly. They’re not untrustworthy at all. They always do exactly what they’re meant to do. A hunger demon always wants to consume. A despair demon will try to make you despair. You can trust spirits to be what they are. They don’t change. We change, and sometimes we change them. But they just exist. Once I learned that I thought I could manage them. If you understand them, if you just know enough, you don’t have to fear the Beyond at all.”
“Pure arrogance,” said Fenris, mostly to block out the distant whispering.
“No - I mean yes! I mean, I was right! We don’t have to fear demons,” Merrill said. “But I didn’t understand that we ought to fear ourselves. Everything I did, I did for the clan. I was so sure I was right. I was so certain. That was the - the arrogance. You don’t need a pride demon to be proud. I destroyed everything I cared about, not because of magic or demons or anything like that, just because of - me. Because I chose badly. I thought I could do anything. And I was right, and I did the wrong thing, and other people paid for it. So that’s why.”
Lavellan breathed out hard.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better hero,” Merrill said. “I’m so sorry, Isthari.”
“Well,” said Lavellan at last. “That was honest, at least.” She took a gulp of her ale. An awkward silence reigned briefly over the table.
“You too are a mage,” Fenris said abruptly. “One with power beyond anything Merrill has ever aspired to. You could make the same error just as easily, and with far worse consequences.”
“Oh, I know,” said Lavellan. “Believe me, I know.”
“Listen,” said Lavellan before she left. “I’m heading up Sundermount tomorrow.”
“I should probably come with you,” said Merrill. “I know the mountain. There’s all sorts of angry corpses and things. And a varterral.”
Lavellan nodded, but her eyes were on Fenris. “I was hoping you’d join us,” she said.
“I do not serve your Inquisition,” said Fenris.
“No,” said Lavellan. “But apparently this ruin Solas mentioned is warded so only elves can get in, and I’m actually a little short on elves who can swing a greatsword. I need a warrior. If there’s a varterral I definitely need a warrior. We have to get this amulet before we can fix the orb.”
“Your mage did not mention an amulet before,” Fenris said.
Lavellan sighed. “It’s Solas,” she said. “He always knows more than he’s saying. If he thinks we need an amulet, we probably need an amulet.” She added, with barely a pause, “And he’s not mine. Will you come?”
She could have said, you owe me. Fenris did, after all. She had set him on the path that led to Hawke’s rescue. He met her eyes and saw that she knew it, and was choosing not to say it.
“I will consider it,” he said.
Lavellan nodded. “I wanted to say - well done. On finding Hawke. I really didn’t think it was possible.”
Fenris said nothing.
“The Inquisition can always use people who can get things done,” she said. “Something else to consider, maybe. Once we sort out this mess.”
Merrill remained subdued after Lavellan left. When she went home Fenris kept drinking without her. “A room, serah?” said Corff eventually.
It was so late it was early. Fenris could not afford the room, but he had no doubt Varric would pick up the tab, and if he attempted to go anywhere else right now he was absolutely certain he would get jumped in the street. No alley gang would be able to resist the target presented by one drunken elf wandering at random and alone. Fenris had enough pride left that he did not want to wake in the morning stripped of his armour and thrown into a gutter. Or surrounded by a pile of corpses. Or both.
The bed was hard and narrow. He crashed onto it face down and fell immediately into fitful sleep. He dreamed of Hawke - consumed by demons, twisted against himself: the same dreams that had plagued Fenris ever since he first learned Hawke was trapped in the Fade. Unfair, he thought, in the brief periods of wakefulness that came between the dreadful dreams. It should have stopped. He had done all he could. It should have stopped.
The sky was still dark when he woke for the third time and admitted to himself that sleep would not come again. He was only mildly hungover, which was better than he had been expecting: half the headache might have come from the bad night’s rest. He sat on the side of the bed and ran his hands through his hair. Sundermount. Sundermount with three mages. “Joy of joys,” he muttered out loud. It would at least put him well away from the sources of any stray whispers.
As if he had summoned it by the thought a voice murmured to him out of the dark: but I am waiting, kinsman.
“You are no kin of mine, demon,” Fenris said, but nothing answered him.
Water, he thought grimly. Water to wet his throat and splash on his face. Possibly a bucket of water to pour over his head. That would help.
He opened the door and got no further. There was shouting coming from further down the grimy corridor. One of the raised voices was Hawke’s.
Chapter 12: What Lies Beneath
Fenris froze with a hand on the doorknob. The shouting was indistinct. Then the door to Varric’s suite slammed open with such force that dust was shaken from the rafters all along the ill-built corridor. Varric’s voice rang out clearly: “Fine, get out of here! But as your friend, Hawke, and speaking as a guy who gets assassins on his ass every time he gets within a hundred miles of the love of his life -”
“Varric,” Hawke snapped, just as clearly, “speaking as a guy who’s finding this hard enough already: please shut the hell up.”
Fenris saw Hawke storm out into the corridor and slam the door behind him, setting off another shower of dust. He paused, then, shoulders sagging. Perhaps he expected Varric to come after him. It was rare indeed for the two of them to be at odds. Fenris could not look away. Hawke was still fully dressed in his mail and leathers: he had discarded the top layer of plate and fur at some point. His face was flushed with anger and alcohol. There were deep shadows under his eyes.
It was rare, Fenris thought, for Hawke to drink to excess. He knew he should take a step back. One step backwards into the shadows of the room where he had been sleeping, before Hawke saw him. A step away, since he could not go towards him. But he could not move. Hawke was looking towards the stairs down into the taproom, but it was a blind and distant stare. Fenris could not stop noticing things. There was a new pair of scars on Hawke’s bicep that had not been there a year ago. His hair and beard were longer than he usually liked them. His hands clenched into fists and relaxed again, and Fenris thought he was trembling.
And then he must have felt Fenris’s stare. He blinked and his brow creased. He turned. His mouth opened, wordless: oh.
“Fenris,” he said.
Fenris gripped the doorknob tightly. “Hawke.”
“I didn’t know you were there.”
“My house was demolished,” Fenris said. “By demons.”
“Right. You know, I don’t know what happened to mine,” Hawke said. “I haven’t even been home yet.”
Fenris said nothing.
“Did you know Viscount Dumar kept a decent wine cellar?” Hawke said. “No one’s touched it in years. Not Meredith’s style, apparently.” The corner of his mouth turned up, a pale shadow of his usual smile. “Varric and I went on an adventure.”
And got drunk, and came back here, and argued, Fenris supplied in his head. Argued in the early hours of the morning, before either of them had slept: and then Hawke had stormed out of Varric’s quarters, and now he stood by the stairway looking unhappy, and none of it was any of Fenris’s business.
“By your leave,” he said. He let go of the doorknob. His hand was cramping. He would have to walk past Hawke to get out of here. It would only take seconds and then it would be done. In that moment he had no particular thought of where he would go: just out of here.
“Wait,” said Hawke as Fenris walked past him with his eyes cast down so he did not have to see his expression. “Fenris, wait.”
The stairs. The taproom. There was the door. Fenris kept walking.
“Wait,” said Hawke, and that was Hawke’s big hand on Fenris’s bicep, familiar as dreaming. Fenris jerked away and spun on his heel and shoved all in one movement, lyrium blazing through him, and Hawke stumbled back. He caught himself on a table, and Fenris -
- stared at him.
“Don’t do that,” said Hawke, stretching out one suppliant hand, not moving from where Fenris had pushed him. “Don’t do that.”
It took Fenris a moment to realise what he meant. The pain and the burn and the numbness all fell away before the feeling of that one instant when he had put his hands on Hawke to throw him off. The solid breadth of Hawke's shoulders. A fraction of a second only.
“Please,” Hawke said, and Fenris glanced down at his red-lit hands and wrists and grimaced and let the lyrium go dim. He could no longer summon much self-pity about the whole thing. There was, he thought with bitter amusement, too much else to pity himself for in this moment. The Blight would have to wait its turn.
Hawke was still where Fenris had shoved him, still looking at him. He dropped his hand to his side. “Does it hurt?” he said.
“No more than usual,” said Fenris. He added, honestly, “Less.”
“Less?” Hawke said.
“Until it changes,” said Fenris. He glanced down as he said it, half expecting to see the creep of red crawling up his arms, but the infection was still halted at his wrists.
“Let me see,” Hawke said, and Fenris did not see what he meant to do, and then Hawke’s hands were around his. Fenris could have jerked away, but he did not. Hawke turned his hands over, gently, to see the markings on his palms. Fenris looked down at them too rather than looking at Hawke’s face. They curled in their familiar shapes. Hawke ran the pad of his thumb along a line of lyrium, and Fenris could feel the warmth of his touch either side of the line, and the deadness in between where the marking was. The thrill of stray magic made it glow briefly crimson. Hawke stopped stroking the mark as soon as he saw that. Neither of them said a word. They stood like that, looking down at Fenris’s narrow hands in Hawke’s big ones in the dim grimy light of the empty taproom, for what felt like a very long time. Hawke’s hands had the distinctive calluses of a staff fighter. And they were very warm.
When Fenris could bear it no longer he looked up.
Hawke was already looking at him. “Fenris,” he said.
“I dreamed you were dead,” Fenris said abruptly.
Hawke opened his mouth to answer.
Fenris did not let him. “I dreamed it over and over. I didn’t know if it was true. It gnawed at me. I had to come after you. I would have known no peace otherwise. Alive or dead, I had to find you. Wherever you were, whatever had become of you. I could not have gone on living otherwise. I could never have forgiven myself.” Hawke’s grip on his hands was tight. “I am sorry,” Fenris said, looking away, and then he tugged his hands free. He had said enough. There was no more to say.
“You don’t have to be sorry, Fenris,” Hawke began, and then he said, “Hey! Don’t just -”
A hand on Fenris’s bicep, again: “Stop touching me,” Fenris snapped as he turned back. He lifted his hands to shove, and then he was gripping Hawke’s shoulders and he dragged him in instead. He could not help it. Hawke’s body was big, warm, solid, unbearably familiar. He still smelled the same. Fenris took a deep gulping breath with his head against Hawke’s collarbone, and then Hawke’s arms came around him, a tight embrace, and Fenris held onto him and felt his chest rise and fall as he breathed.
He was waiting for the jest. He could hear it in his head, almost, what Hawke would say: so should I still stop touching you, or -
And he would laugh, he knew, when Hawke made the joke. He would laugh despite himself, and things would be a little easier, perhaps.
But Hawke said nothing. He let Fenris cling to him and breathed slowly and did not speak, for long enough that Fenris was surprised, and then confused. He pulled away, enough to make out Hawke’s face, and Hawke’s hands fell from Fenris’s back to his elbows, slowly, as if reluctant. They stared at each other. Fenris’s hands were still on Hawke’s shoulders.
Nothing felt real. Hawke’s gaze dropped to Fenris’s mouth, shadow of eyelashes on his flushed cheeks, and it felt less real than the dreams Fenris had had of Hawke’s death. Fenris could not have said which of them moved first. Hawke tipped his head down, Fenris leaned up, and then they were kissing.
Hawke’s mouth was warm and chapped; his beard was rough. His lips were slightly parted. Always when they had kissed before Hawke’s kisses had been confident, eager. But this felt strange and fragile. Hawke’s hands still gripped Fenris’s elbows. When Fenris pulled away, his eyes stayed closed.
Fenris stared at him and all at once felt something wild break loose inside him.
Hawke’s eyes snapped open when Fenris shoved at his shoulders. He stumbled back with Fenris crowding him until his back was against the wall by the doorway. Fenris kissed him again, kissed him hard; dragged his head down with one hand in his hair and bit at his full mouth until it fell open with a muffled groan. Hawke seemed to come alive in his arms then; he grabbed at Fenris and pulled him close, kissed him back just as hard, wet open-mouthed hungry kisses. Fenris jammed a thigh between his legs and Hawke groaned again, his head thunking back against the wall. Fenris scraped his teeth across Hawke’s newly exposed throat, tasted the sweat there. Then Hawke dragged him back up, hands cupping Fenris’s face as he sought his mouth, and it was Fenris who moaned when he felt Hawke’s tongue part his lips.
Maybe this was another dream, part of Fenris was thinking. Maybe he was still in the realm of Desire and this was merely her most complicated illusion yet. But Hawke was here and real and alive and kissing him. The doubt began to fall away before the feeling. There was a shiver of power loose in the air of the empty room, Hawke’s magic slipping ever-so-slightly from his control, making Fenris’s markings shimmer with reflected power, and there was a sweet fire in him, the twin and opposite of the lyrium burn. One of Hawke’s hands was tender on his face, the other strong on the back of his neck. His hips were moving restlessly, shoving his crotch against Fenris’s thigh. Fenris caught Hawke’s lower lip between his teeth and tugged at it, and Hawke whimpered and thrust against him.
Fenris wanted him. Fenris had always wanted him, long before he ever loved him. And it seemed Hawke wanted him too, still, despite it all. No doubt this was a terrible idea. In that moment Fenris could not bring himself to care. He braced himself with a hand on the wall beside Hawke’s head and reached for the placket of Hawke’s trousers. Hawke was panting wetly into Fenris’s mouth, and it seemed to be mostly the wall keeping him upright. Fenris took a look at his shocked, flushed face and then had to leave off what he was doing to kiss him properly again.
Hawke made a protesting noise.
“I have you,” Fenris murmured, feeling a smile curve his mouth, reaching down.
Hawke took a deep heaving breath and grabbed his wrist.
Fenris stared at him. Hawke’s mouth was red from kissing; his eyes were dark, all pupil, save for a dizzyingly horrible instant when they flashed gold.
“I can’t,” Hawke said.
Fenris jerked his wrist away from Hawke’s grasp. Hawke did not move. There was a space between them now that seemed suddenly unbridgeable.
The wild want inside Fenris transmuted all at once into rage. This was surely more than anyone could bear. And Hawke had the gall to stand there looking guilty. He very nearly lashed out, but Hawke was just standing there. He would not have defended himself, and Fenris could not do it.
“Then don’t,” he spat instead, and Hawke flinched as if Fenris had hit him after all.
Fenris was still in a black rage when he joined Lavellan and the others on their way up Sundermount. All of them seemed too preoccupied to notice. Merrill looked stricken every time she looked at Lavellan, and Solas and Lavellan did not look at each other at all. Fenris decided he despised them all. He took a mean delight in tearing through the corpses that assaulted them as they made their way up the lower slopes, and growled at Merrill the one time she tried to talk to him.
Hawke had no right to do this to him. Hawke had no right to make him feel this way. Fenris had never asked to feel this way. He went toe to toe with a shadow warrior whose blows jarred his whole body every time their blades crossed, and magic blazed in all directions around him as the mages dealt with its entourage of corpses, and it did not make him feel better at all.
Solas led them down into the cavern of the varterral. Fenris fully expected a battle worthy of his fury, but there was no sign of the creature. “That’s odd,” said Merrill. “They don’t usually go very far away from the places they’re guarding.”
“There,” said Lavellan, and nodded towards what Fenris at first had thought was a heaped pile of rock. The familiar old monster was motionless, slumped in on itself. Dead, perhaps, but since Fenris had personally seen it torn to shreds by magic and weapons - twice - he doubted it. He suspected the beast was unkillable.
“Is it asleep?” said Merrill. “Do varterrals sleep?”
“It is in a quiescent state. I do not believe it will interfere with our progress,” Solas said.
“Good to know,” murmured Lavellan.
“If we may proceed,” Solas said, and turned towards a narrow cut in the rock where a natural archway led to what Fenris knew well was a dead end.
“I don’t think there’s anything through th - goodness,” Merrill said.
Solas lowered his staff. Beyond that apparently natural archway a wall had simply melted away before his spell. A second archway had formed in its place. It matched the first in rough size and shape, but it had clearly been carved by elven hands. The fluted pattern of the carvings spread at the peak of the arch into something that recalled the branches of a tree. A white stone stairway led down.
“What are we likely to meet down there?” Lavellan said. She still did not look at Solas.
“Nothing,” Solas said. “There will be no rifts here, nor stray spirits, nor demons. The graves of Sundermount lie elsewhere. This place has been sealed for a long time, and its wards are strong.”
“Defences?” Lavellan said.
“The varterral is the last of them,” said Solas. “From here our progress should be simple.”
Lavellan’s mouth made a pinched shape, but she nodded. Hawke would have made a joke, Fenris thought automatically. Don’t jinx it. And the thought of Hawke sent him straight back into the pit of rage from before. Hawke’s kisses, careful and then eager. I can’t. Hawke’s hand grabbing his wrist, the same wrist where Fenris had worn Hawke’s colours before Hawke insisted on taking them back - and he had had no right to do that, Fenris thought suddenly. Fenris had worn that scrap of red cloth for years without ever expecting anything in return. It had been Fenris’s choice, that proclamation of loyalty; it had been his and his alone -
“Are you all right?” said Merrill at his elbow.
“Fine,” Fenris said.
“Is it a hangover? I had a little bit of a hangover this morning. I know a spell for hangovers. I’m not really sure how it works, but Anders used to swear by -”
“I said fine.”
“Are you sure?” said Merrill after a moment.
Fenris glared at her.
A shimmer of magic passed over them as they went through the archway. They could not see it, but Fenris could feel it. Perhaps that was the ward meant to keep other races out. There was a fearsome rumbling sound behind them as they passed through. Fenris looked back and saw the spindly legs of the gigantic monster moving beyond the double arch. The varterral had awakened. It was guarding its post once more. No one would be able to follow them down.
Solas led them down the spiralling white stairs into a high cavern lit by a multitude of pale veilfire torches. Hanging spires of rock had formed overhead and water dripped slowly from their tips down to a shallow pool, which covered most of the cavern's floor and reflected the veilfire as if it were one great mirror. Lavellan stopped short; Merrill had her hands over her mouth. At the cavern’s centre stood a tall white tower, slender and almost brittle-seeming, with fluted carvings that called to mind the shapes of trees. Ragged banners hung from its turrets. They were long since faded; there was no way to know what insignias they had borne.
“It’s the tower from the Fade!” Merrill whispered.
“Eranen Dahl’an,” Solas said.
It was not the Fade tower, but it was clearly its model. The version inhabited by the desire demon had been an impossible dream-construction of tangled white stone. This tower was made of similar materials, and had the same slender lines, but it was a very real building. Fenris tilted his head back. The tower’s upper reaches had been damaged by the formation of the stalactites creeping down from the cavern’s ceiling. The rocky spikes looked impossibly old, but the tower was older.
“I had no idea this was here,” Merrill said. “None of the Dalish knew about this. This place must have been lost for -”
“Inquisitor,” said Solas sharply.
Lavellan’s expression was very distant. She shook her head once. “Sacred to Mythal,” she murmured. “Just my luck.”
“It should not affect you,” Solas said. Fenris could hear the edge of concern in his voice.
“Oh, it’s not. Just memories,” said Lavellan. “Someone else’s memories.” She did not explain further. A single low white bridge led across the lake towards the tower door. She set off towards it.
The white door was not locked. It creaked on its hinges as it swung open. Fenris felt the rush of magic that accompanied it. He reached for his greatsword.
“There is nothing to fear,” Solas said.
Fenris ignored him. This place was ancient and strange, and the magic here had deep roots. He felt better with a weapon in hand.
The ground floor of the tower was one perfectly circular room. Fenris had expected white walls, as in the Fade, but these had been carefully modelled into panels and then painted with sweeping abstract shapes. Each panel was divided from the next by a floor-to-ceiling strip of bronze closely inscribed with flowing script. “Fresco!” said Merrill. She ran into the centre of the room and then turned on the spot, all delight. “Oh, it’s beautiful. Look how well preserved it is! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I have,” Lavellan said. “At Skyhold.” She looked at Solas.
“The ancients had skill far beyond my small abilities,” said Solas. “As you can see.”
“You can do this?” said Merrill, wide-eyed.
“I learned a little of the art in my explorations of the Fade,” Solas said. “It seemed appropriate to attempt it at Skyhold. Like this tower, it was once a place of our people.”
“Your people,” Fenris said flatly.
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“I assume the amulet we seek is further up the tower,” said Fenris into the awkward silence. “How do we proceed?” There were no stairs, no ladders; no obvious way forward at all.
“We wait,” Solas said. He pointed upwards to a small aperture in the ceiling. “At certain hours of the day, the light of the sun shines directly down into this cavern. It will trigger the magic which opens the way forward.”
“So we just sit here till then,” said Lavellan. “What fun.”
“I don’t mind,” Merrill said. She was looking longingly at the nearest strip of inscribed bronze. “This place is amazing.”
They waited. Solas took a seat against one wall of the circular room and closed his eyes, as calm as if he were meditating in an open field on a summer’s day. Perhaps he was asleep. No doubt this was the sort of place that suited a dreamwalker. Lavellan gave him a sour look and then sat against the opposite wall and wrapped her arms around her knees, head down, eyes distant. Merrill went from inscription to inscription, running her fingers along the lines of bronze writing, pausing only to look at the painted frescoes again and exclaim. There really did not seem to be anything to fight - not even a stray giant spider.
Fenris put his sword away and paced the whole circumference of the room, keeping away from Merrill as best he could lest she attempt to draw him into her burbling excitement. He tried not to look closely at the paintings. They seemed to have strange figures hidden in their abstract shapes, and they made him uncomfortable.
He made two circuits, and only spotted the doorway on the third. It was well hidden, painted over with curved blue and gold swirls that made him think for no reason of an ocean. It was only the hinges on the bronze strip that gave the door away. He pushed; the door did not open. “Here,” he said.
Lavellan was closest. “Better take a look,” she said, getting to her feet.
“Don’t break it, Fenris!” Merrill said, before Fenris could kick it down.
“Do you have a better idea?” Fenris said.
“Magic might do it,” Lavellan said. She sent a whisper of energy towards the door.
With a creak and a groan, it swung wide.
The room on the other side was small and dark. Its walls were plain dark stone, and covered floor to ceiling with carvings which seemed to move in the flickering light from two veilfire braziers. They stood on either side of a pair of statues: a male figure, standing, larger than life, with one hand resting in the scruff at the neck of a mighty wolf.
The statues were carved not in stone but in ivory and gold. They were badly damaged. Someone had taken an axe to the face of the standing figure, and shattered fragments of ivory were scattered across the floor. Nothing remained of the front half of its head but the metal frame which the fine materials had been laid across. The wolf was in better shape, but its eyes had been gouged out. A low wooden altar had once stood before the pair. Someone had kicked it over.
Some ancient elf had been very, very angry. Fenris could feel it, not as he had felt the anger of the murdered slaves - there were no echoes, no demon voices - but in the silent witness of that ruined shrine. All three of them stood in silence for a little while as they looked at the faceless statue surrounded by chips of ivory.
There was so much anger in Kirkwall, Fenris thought. The rage that had filled him for years, ever since he escaped Danarius, had always seemed all-consuming; and yet it was so small a part of the miserable buried fury of this small Marcher city. Perhaps that was why he had ended up here.
He thought of Hawke for a moment then. There was no bitterness in Hawke’s heart, and there could have been, easily, after all that had befallen him. Fenris reached for his own anger at the man and found it shrunk to a weak and thready thing. Somewhere between the foot of Sundermount and this small dark room most of it had burned away into grim, tired sadness.
Merrill went down on her knees to pick up the overturned altar. There was writing gouged into it. “I can’t read it,” Merrill said, running her fingers across the letters. “I don’t know this alphabet.”
Lavellan began, “It says -”
“‘Traitor’,” said Solas behind them. Fenris had not heard him approach. He stepped into the shrine and looked it over. “Or perhaps ‘anathema’ would be a more apt translation. An interesting discovery.”
“You didn’t know it was here?” Lavellan said.
“I did not.”
“Destroying something like this seems like a moment that would leave its mark on the Fade.”
“The Fade is fluid by its nature and essentially unpredictable. Not all moments of deep emotion create echoes of the same strength,” Solas said. He smiled a little. “I do not actually know everything.”
Lavellan kept looking at him. After a moment Solas’s smile faded.
“Back to waiting, then,” Lavellan said at last. “How long?”
“An hour or two, perhaps,” Solas said neutrally. Lavellan nodded. The air in the small room crackled with suppressed magic. Fenris’s markings prickled to it. Merrill, already examining the carvings on the walls, did not seem to notice.
Fenris was thoroughly sick of the company of mages.
He went back into the room with the frescoes. After a moment he sat on the floor against the wall. He looked up towards the aperture in the ceiling. It was better than looking at the pictures. He ignored the others when they came back in. Merrill kept darting back and forth between the circular room and the ruined shrine, comparing bits of carving to the inscriptions on the bronze plates.
An hour or two of waiting. Then the rest of the tower, and the amulet. And back to Kirkwall, and the buried anger that waited there. And Hawke, Fenris supposed. Hawke would certainly want to be involved in sealing the magisters' gate - could hardly stay away, given the Fade creature that drove him. Fenris would not be able to avoid him.
Afterwards, he could. Afterwards, he would find his own path, one way or another. Afterwards, he thought, if he still lived, he would leave. He would leave knowing Hawke was alive. He would not have to see him again. After all this. First Skyhold, then the buried gate, then all the travails of the Fade, then Kirkwall, and now Sundermount - Fenris reached for his anger and found it gone to flickering embers. Nothing was left but exhaustion.
He would leave. He could do that. He was, after all, a free man.
Chapter 13: Eranen Dahl'an
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Merrill said.
They were still waiting for Solas’s promised magic to trigger. They had been waiting some time. Lavellan and Solas and Fenris were all sitting with their backs against the painted walls of the fresco room. They had all put themselves as far away as possible from each other. Varric would have made a joke about it by now, Fenris thought.
Merrill was still examining the carvings. She had copied most of the inscriptions into a little book. Now she was standing in the middle of the room flicking through it with a tiny crease between her eyebrows. Fenris closed his eyes. He could barely make sense of the elven tongue as it was spoken now, let alone ancient dialects like these. He could read the common tongue, if only with humiliating slowness, but he did not suppose he would ever know how to make sense of elven writings.
“The inscriptions are complex,” said Solas. "There are layers upon layers of intricate meaning here. Poetries and arcane secrets - some of them discussed in the most cryptic terms. It would take years to decipher.”
“Oh, no, I’ve got it, I think,” Merrill said. “It’s a little code! But it doesn’t make sense.”
“A code?” said Lavellan. Fenris opened his eyes again in time to see Solas narrow his eyes.
“Yes, look!” Merrill summoned veilfire to her hand and held it up to the nearest strip of inscribed bronze. “It’s ever so clever. I would never have guessed if Fenris hadn’t found that shrine. It’s a story about the Dread Wolf, I think - well, it’s very wolfy, anyway. Every line with fen’r in it counts, and then the rest is just there to fill up space, and - do you see? - there are little dots for which letters to look at, but you can only see them with veilfire.”
Lavellan came close to look.
“Ingenious,” Solas said.
“Isn’t it good? Just think what a lot of time people might waste reading all of it!”
“Indeed,” said Solas. “And instead it seems you have deduced the secret with impressive speed.”
“Oh, it was sort of obvious really,” said Merrill vaguely. “Anyway I don’t think I have deduced it. I know what some of it says, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything.”
“Din’an solas dar’athim,” Lavellan read from the notebook, “la solas’an athim dara halam…” Her voice was low. Musical, Fenris thought. He had never seen the point of the Dalish obsession with the elven language. Dead was dead. Trying to resurrect it was as perverse and ghoulish as summoning a spirit into a corpse. But spoken in Lavellan’s voice he supposed it had a certain beauty. He glanced at Solas and caught the edge of a terrible expression just leaving the man’s face. The desire demon had tempted him with Lavellan speaking in elvish, he remembered. There was no accounting for a mage’s desires.
“Pride is the death of humility, and humility is the end of pride,” Merrill said - translating, Fenris realised after a moment. Lavellan nodded agreement. “But it still doesn’t seem to mean very much.”
“Moralizing?” said Lavellan.
“But it’s about the Dread Wolf. It can’t be moral. And the ancients didn’t really do that anyway, did they?”
“Not like the Chantry,” Lavellan said.
“What is the point of a religion that tells you nothing about how to live your life?” said Fenris.
“The Creators don’t tell us what to do, Fenris,” Merrill said. “It’s not like that. There are stories. And you learn from the stories. You’re meant to think for yourself.”
Fenris rolled his eyes. “And that worked so well for you. Perhaps a few more moral precepts among the Dalish would have done you good.”
Merrill ignored him. “This ought to be a story,” she said.
“Wisdom,” said Solas abruptly.
“Athim. I believe the word was often used to mean wisdom. In this context.”
“The context of coded messages in secret shrines?” said Fenris.
“Pride is the death of wisdom,” said Lavellan thoughtfully.
“Perhaps it refers to beings such as the spirit of wisdom you and I once encountered, Inquisitor,” Solas said. “In her case, pride was indeed her death.”
“Perhaps,” Lavellan said.
Time dragged on. Fenris would have been glad of something to fight. Anything. A high dragon, right now, would be an improvement on this. His mind kept turning back towards thoughts of Hawke. Hawke’s hot mouth and broad shoulders. A flash of gold in his eyes. It was just as well, Fenris tried to tell himself, that their entanglement was at an end. He could never love someone who had submitted to possession. But it was a lie, and he knew it for a lie. Yes he could, something in him was crying, yes he could, if it was Hawke. No matter how it frightened him. No matter how it ended. Add it to the list of things he could never have imagined before Hawke - the long long list of things which Hawke and Hawke alone had made possible.
It would not happen. It was over. It was over. Hawke had ended it, and wanted it to stay ended, and so it was over. Put all moments of madness in the dark and quiet of an empty tavern to one side. Lock it away and never think of it again. A year alone had not lessened his love, but that might change. Perhaps he would live to take those memories out again one day, and look at them with fondness: the time when Fenris had fallen in love with a mage despite himself, and it had made him happy for a little while. Someday. Perhaps someday this would not hurt.
He doubted it. He had too much experience of lingering pain.
Merrill and Lavellan continued to puzzle over the inscriptions together. The problem of translation seemed to have put an end, for now, to the tension between them. They passed the notebook back and forth, and got up to light the walls in different colours of veilfire, and looked very much like two of a kind. They might have been the same woman twice over, ten years apart. They might have been sisters. Fenris was not the only one watching them. Solas stayed seated, and spoke little and moved less, but he was certainly not asleep now.
“I give up,” said Lavellan at last. “We need Keeper Istimaethoriel. She knows more elvish than anyone I’ve ever met.” She looked at Solas. “Unless you want to have a go.”
Solas shook his head.
“Do you know that feeling when you’re missing something that’s terribly obvious?” said Merrill. “I’ve got that feeling.” She frowned at the notebook. “And I can’t see what it is.”
“Take a break,” Lavellan said. “It’ll come.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Merrill sighed, but she tucked the notebook away. “Um,” she said then. “Isthari. I meant to ask. What happened to your vallaslin? Did you never have them? But you must have had them, you’re of age -”
“Oh, that. Funny story,” said Lavellan.
Even Merrill could not miss her tone. “Oh - sorry! I’m sorry! Did I say something wrong? I didn’t mean to be rude, I promise. You don’t have to tell me.”
Fenris’s eyes were on Solas, so he saw the very slight flinch as Lavellan said with a tone light and sharp as a stinging insect, “Oh, no, it’s not that important. Someone removed them. That’s all.”
“Da’len,” Merrill said, eyes wide.
“Don’t look like that. I agreed to it. It seemed reasonable at the time.”
“I’m so sorry,” Merrill said.
Solas looked away. The Dalish still wear the blood writing, Fenris remembered him saying. Once again he felt the uncomfortable stirrings of pity. Lavellan’s anger was a bright cold thing, and fearsome. He looked down at his hands. The lyrium was close to the colour of blood - not dull dried blood, but a fresh living red.
“Did you know they were slave markings originally?” Lavellan said, still light, still sharp. “In Arlathan. Isn’t it strange? All the glories the elves lost, but we managed to hold on to the worst of it. Embarrassing, really.”
“Unsurprising,” said Fenris, low, but both of them heard him.
He kept staring at his blighted hands. His markings had always been his history. It had not seemed strange to learn how thoroughly true that was. He could feel Merrill’s look. He did not want to be aware of it, but he was. She had told him once that their markings were alike, and he had rebuffed her for it. Let her look now. Let her see.
Finally Merrill touched her own face, once.
Then her jaw firmed. “That’s terrible,” she said. “That’s - dreadful. But it’s not what they mean now. Is it? That’s not what it means to the Dalish. We changed it.”
Solas got to his feet then. “Things do not change what they are simply because you wish it,” he said flatly. He looked up towards the aperture. Fenris looked that way too, and saw the gleam of light coming through. “It is time.”
Fenris had not the faintest idea how it worked and no desire to ask. When the light was shining directly down from above, the ceiling shimmered and vanished, and the floor began to rise.
The whole interior of the tower was hollow. The inscribed bronze strips continued all the way up. So did the frescoes. They were not abstract now. There were forests and oceans and wild tundra: beasts familiar and bizarre moved through the landscapes alongside elongated figures whose eyes were picked out with flecks of shimmering gold. Merrill’s eyes were bright, her hands outstretched, as if she could embrace it all. Lavellan seemed transfixed by some deep emotion. Solas was smiling a little. The rising platform carried them past a layer of sky, each panel painted for a different time of day - and ruled, Fenris saw, by a different beast: he saw eagles, wrens, a plunging broad-winged griffon. And then above the sky they were carried through a painted city, all white and gold towers among mighty trees.
“Arlathan,” said Solas, still smiling.
“It’s beautiful,” Lavellan breathed. Merrill was wiping tears from her eyes.
Perhaps it was part of whatever was broken in Fenris that this did not move him. It was not that he felt no connection to this painted city. It was familiar to him: more so, perhaps, than to either of the Dalish women. He had seen great cities, high towers, extraordinary works of magic. He could picture the mighty immortals who had dwelled among these painted splendours with perfect ease. It was just that he had a better idea than the others of what his life would have been in that city of golden towers.
After all, the magisters of Tevinter considered their homeland a delightful place.
The platform came to a halt. There was no way to know how far up it had carried them. The paintings around them now showed the crowns of those golden towers, and sinuous shapes flying among them: dragons. Sunlight shone down through a hole in the ceiling: Fenris thought of the cavern outside, and pictured the light pouring down through all the heavy stone of Sundermount to find this buried place.
One of the panels had been moulded into the shape of a golden frame, the window of a painted tower. It was meant to be an eluvian, Fenris saw. Solas touched it and it swung open, the twin to the hidden door all those floors below.
Another statue dominated the room beyond the door. This one was undefiled. An elven woman eight feet high, ivory for her skin, gold for her robes; milky opals for her eyes, and real long-withered flowers crowning her carved ivory tresses. She was hung with golden jewellery, and she stood holding out one open hand. No veilfire burned in here. Only the glimmer of light coming through the door illuminated the goddess. It made the opal eyes shine with a gleam that was uncomfortably close to life.
Fenris thought for no particular reason of the dragon statues in the magisters’ temple, each with its pair of glittering gemstone eyes.
“Well,” said Lavellan. She made a face. “Sacred to Mythal. There she is.”
“She looks like a person,” Merrill said. “I mean. I’ve seen other statues of Mythal. But they were always - perfect. Not -”
Fenris thought of the towering Andraste in the Kirkwall chantry, the many smaller figurines like it he had seen. This statue had something of the power, the grace. But it also had a hooked nose, and slight creases of age around the eyes, and a smile that curved into something very close to a smirk. There was personality in that look; and, Fenris thought, the personality was not altogether kind.
“I would not care to worship such a goddess,” he said.
Lavellan grimaced. “Good call. I’ve met her.”
“You’ve met her?” said Merrill.
“Well - her spirit, or her ghost. Something. She didn’t look like this anymore.” Lavellan looked up at the statue. “But I’ve got a feeling it used to be a good likeness.”
Solas stepped up to the mighty figure. The dim light in the shrine had an odd effect: for a moment it seemed almost as if both of them were carved in ivory, or else that both of them were living flesh. The statue’s smile looked knowing. Fenris narrowed his eyes. Though Solas looked small beside the goddess, he did not seem out of place there. There was something almost -
“There,” Solas said. He reached up and pulled something loose. The golden jewellery was not part of the statue. The bracelets and necklaces were real, and had been carefully fastened around the still ivory limbs by worshipful hands. The amulet Solas was holding was hung on a golden chain, and marked with the sign of a tree. He tucked it away into a fold of his robes. “That is what we came for. Let us leave this place.”
Finally. Fenris thought of the varterral on the way out. He was almost looking forward to it.
“Do we have to?” Merrill said.
“The tower will still be here when the rift below Kirkwall is sealed,” Solas said. He paused. “You should not make too much of these paintings. This place sought to tell a story about our people. It records beauty and grandeur. But all stories have a teller, and the teller shapes the tale. By its nature, this tower is not the whole truth.”
“And what is the whole truth, would you say?” said Lavellan.
Solas blinked. “I -”
“Based on your explorations of the Fade,” said Lavellan. “And what we saw at the temple of Mythal in the Arbor Wilds. And, oh, anything else you happen to know. You said once the Dalish wouldn’t listen to you. Well, I’m listening. What should we think of Arlathan?”
Solas looked back at the statue, the goddess with her crooked, wicked smile.
“I have seen things that cannot be described,” he said. “The elves of old built something rare, an empire which no empire since can hope to imitate. A place of grace and wisdom where death had no dominion. There are no words worthy of what was lost in the destruction of elvhenan.” He shook his head. “And yet I believe it deserved its end.”
The words rang hollow to Fenris’s ears. He snorted.
“What is it?” Solas said.
“You wish it were not gone,” said Fenris.
“That is complicated,” Solas said.
Fenris bared his teeth. “There is nothing complicated about it. You would gladly see it restored. You claim to have seen corruption, and yet all you speak of is power.”
"I have no love of power," Solas said.
"Does a snake love its fangs?" snapped Fenris. "Does a fish love water? You are a mage. Whether you love power is of no consequence. You live power. You breathe it every day. The world bends to your will. You can condescend, you can sympathise, as much as you please - you can even be sincere - but you understand nothing. I know more about our people than you - than any of you - ever could.” He was so tired of this ruin, of these codes and secrets and pictures, of the way all three of them seemed so caught by this dream of a history as foul as any he had ever heard.
“Fenris -” said Merrill.
“Listen to yourselves. So Arlathan was splendid! Minrathous has its beauties. You were the one who told me that the elves made this magic.” He held up his ruined hands. “Should it surprise me that mages infinitely more powerful than the magisters were also infinitely more corrupt? Why should the rest of us care anything for your elven empire? It does not matter to a slave whose boot is upon his neck. Believe me, the view is much the same."
"Colourful metaphors aside," said Solas.
"It was not a metaphor," Fenris said. He breathed out hard. “We have what we came for. We should leave.”
It was Lavellan they all looked to. Fenris did not realise that till afterwards. Young as she was - younger than any of them - there was a fearsome force in her. Like Hawke, perhaps; but Hawke’s way of leading had always been a casual assumption of power. There was nothing casual about Lavellan. When she decided to get them moving, they moved. She marched them past the varterral - which did not attack - and back up through Sundermount’s caves. They took out a group of corpses and a couple of spiders’ nests on the way. When they were out on the lower slopes again, the stiff breeze blowing away the stench of death that had come up from the dark with them, she let them stop for a moment. Fenris took deep gulping breaths of the fresh air.
He startled when Lavellan touched his shoulder. “What,” he snapped.
“Thank you,” Lavellan said. “For what you said down there.”
“I did not say it for you,” said Fenris.
“But I needed to hear it,” Lavellan said. She tilted her head slightly, fixed him with that level green gaze. “My clan taught me that it was important to think about history. I’m not sure they taught me how to do it right. The Dalish were slaves once. We should remember that more, and dream less about being nobles of ancient days. Power seems very romantic when you haven’t got any.”
“You are the Herald of Andraste,” said Fenris. “The Inquisitor.”
“Right. And the whole thing started seeming way less appealing once every decision I made could kill hundreds of people by accident if I got it wrong.” She smiled, slightly sardonic. Self-mockery, Fenris thought. “We really could use you in the Inquisition, you know,” she said. “I could use you. I could use your perspective.”
Their journey back down the mountain was broadly uneventful. The same could not be said for their arrival in the city. The bazaar that had formed outside Kirkwall’s gates was heaving with people. When they realised who exactly was in their midst, the crowd transformed into an eager, worshipful mob. Fenris found himself acting as Lavellan’s bodyguard, physically shoving away the people who tried to grab hold of her or touch just the hem of her robes. “Is it always like this?” he shouted to her over the noise of crowd.
“Pretty much!” she yelled back.
Solas and Merrill were no help whatsoever. Before long Fenris could not even see them. Eventually he put one arm around Lavellan’s shoulders, turned his other shoulder sideways into the crowd, and drove a path through with simple physical force. Many of the humans who approached them made the mistake of looking at him and thinking they could push him out of the way. Fenris knocked them down and dragged Lavellan on. When they reached the city gates he was joined by a squad of Inquisition soldiers, who helped to keep the worst of the hysteria off them. On the whole, Fenris thought he preferred fighting corpses.
“Well, that was fun,” Lavellan said when they reached the safety of the Inquisition base in the viscount’s keep. “Thanks.”
“We should probably arrange a public appearance for you -” began a woman in golden silks, coming up on her other side.
“We must not delay any longer in sealing the Kirkwall rift,” said Solas.
Lavellan jumped. Fenris was taken aback as well. He could not see where the man had come from. Merrill was at his elbow. She was cradling the orb in her hands; Fenris could feel the magic in it humming low and wicked. There was a long sharp blade with peculiar engravings tucked through Merrill’s belt: the arulin’holm. They must have been back to the alienage to recover it.
“Gather everyone together, Inquisitor,” Solas said. “This will require some planning. The destruction of the magisters’ gate, the defeat of the vengeance demon, the cleansing of the orb, and the healing of your red lyrium infection -” this to Fenris “- are all linked. They must all be done more or less simultaneously, or none has any chance of success.”
Varric nudged Fenris’s side during the council of war that followed. “So how was the Sundermount camping trip?” he whispered. “Did you have a lovely elven bonding experience?”
Fenris was grateful for the distraction. Hawke was one of the group arguing around the war table. It was hard not to look at him. “I considered murdering all of them at least once,” he murmured. “Does that count as bonding?”
“For you, Broody, that’s practically affectionate.”
Fenris swallowed a chuckle. “I think I begin to see what it was that so impressed you about your Inquisitor Lavellan,” he said.
“Yeah, she’s quite something,” Varric said. “And she gets things done. Which is just as well, because Kirkwall’s in deep shit this time.”
“Again,” Fenris said.
“Again,” Varric agreed. He paused, and then dropped his voice even lower. Fenris had to lean in to hear. “Listen, about Hawke -”
“There is nothing to say about Hawke,” said Fenris. He turned his face away.
Varric gave up trying to talk to him eventually.
There was nothing to distract Fenris now. Almost unwillingly he glanced over at the war table. Hawke was arguing with Solas, making wild gestures to emphasise whatever he was saying. Solas’s eyebrows were slightly raised, and he was otherwise not reacting. There was a smudge of something on the side of Hawke’s face. Ink, maybe. And why should he not stare, Fenris thought. He was going to leave. Why should he not look his fill while he could?
But then Hawke glanced towards him, so Fenris had to look away.
It was mostly out of an effort to avoid Hawke that Fenris dawdled near the war room once the council was ended and the various agents and commanders of the Inquisition had been dispatched to make their preparations. All the power that Lavellan could bring to bear in time was to be sent down to face the demon of the tunnels. Hawke would be among them - would be in the lead. Fenris had heard him arguing for it: look, the demon’s got it in for me personally, so use me: I’ll be the bait, we can draw it out -
Fenris would go with him. No one had bothered to ask him, or tell him: but it was what he intended to do. It was his fault the demon hated Hawke. Fenris would go with him, and never mind how the thought of being within ten feet of the man made his stomach twist miserably. He leaned against the wall, folded his arms, and put his head down. He had no preparations to make. He commanded no one, needed no one, had no one to speak to. He was alone. He should have been used to it by now.
“So I couldn’t help noticing that at no point did you explain exactly why we needed that amulet,” he heard.
Lavellan, still in the war room, just the other side of the open doors. Fenris had no intention of eavesdropping. He merely did not care enough to move.
“You are the one who must wield the orb to seal the rift,” Solas answered her. “The order of events is significant. The rift must be sealed, and then the orb cleansed, immediately: but until then it is a blighted and ruined object, certain to corrupt what it touches.”
“Me, you mean,” Lavellan said.
“The amulet will protect you,” said Solas. “Allow me.”
There was a rustle, a soft clink. Fenris thought of that heavy golden chain. He could picture the two mages easily enough. The lonely apostate draping the jewellery of a goddess around the neck of his beloved. A fine gift. At least someone was happy.
“You bastard,” Lavellan hissed.
- or not.
Fenris felt magic crackle through the air. His markings prickled with the suppressed power. No, Lavellan was not happy at all.
“You left,” she said. “You were the one who left. You did exactly what you wanted. If you wanted something else, all you had to do was say so.”
“I know you know my name!”
“Isthari,” Solas said. “Please. The matter is complicated.”
“Isn’t it always?”
“I never intended - I could not -”
“I would have gone with you,” Lavellan said.
There was a pause.
“There are certain circumstances which made that an impossibility,” said Solas.
“How stupid do you think I am?” Lavellan burst out.
Solas said nothing.
“Circumstances. Please. I know there are you things you weren’t telling me. That you still won’t tell me! I know there’s more to this. I’m not blind, I’m not an idiot, I’m not a child, Solas. I can think for myself. I can choose for myself. I know, I knew. I knew you were lying to me. But I would have gone with you." She swallowed hard, once, and finished, “I would have gone with you anyway.”
Fenris should not have been hearing this. But nor, he considered, should anyone else. There was a gaggle of Kirkwaller nobles advancing towards the war room, no doubt looking for Lavellan. Fenris stood up a little straighter from his slouch against the wall and glared at them. He had never had any difficulty intimidating the wealthy. Once upon a time it had been his whole purpose.
“I have not deserved so much trust from you,” he heard Solas say.
Lavellan laughed mirthlessly. “Well, I know that now,” she said. “Go on. Leave. Go. I know you want to. It was always your choice.”
Solas strode straight past Fenris on his way out. Fenris doubted he had even noticed Fenris was there. He certainly had not noticed the nobles: he stalked through their midst as if they were mere furniture. That seemed to shock them enough to give up on seeking the Inquisitor. They murmured together a moment, and then went away.
Fenris was left standing in the empty hallway outside the war room.
After a moment of uncertainty he went in.
“Oh, Creators,” said Lavellan. The golden chain was around her neck; the amulet rested against her breast. “How much of that did you hear?”
“You were not quiet,” Fenris said.
Lavellan winced. Then she sat down on the war table, legs swinging, and sighed. “Well, so much for dignity. Have you ever had someone,” she said, “just make you feel - stupid?”
Hawke shaking his hand. Smiling. As if none of it had mattered. “Yes,” said Fenris.
“I feel so stupid,” Lavellan said. She cocked her head at whatever she saw in Fenris’s expression. “Well. It’s a shame we don’t have another bottle of hall’inehn.”
“I hear this keep has a decent wine cellar,” said Fenris.
Lavellan laughed: a choked, cheerless sound. Something inverted itself in Fenris’s head then. He had been pitying Solas, despite himself, ever since the palace of Desire. Something about his pride, his longing, his terrible loneliness, had seemed… familiar.
But: you were the one who left.
“You are not the fool in this,” he said.
“You think so?”
“No more than I am a fool for Hawke,” Fenris said.
He went and sat next to Lavellan on the table. It had felt good to say it. And Lavellan had seen the wreck he had been, grieving and furious and drunk, when he stormed up the stairs to her tower. She had seen him drinking in the Hanged Man after Hawke’s rescue. She might understand.
“Will you join us?” Lavellan said. “After all this.”
A sidelong look. She did understand.
“Yes,” Fenris said. “I will.”
“I’ll introduce you to Sera. You’d get on. And we’ll have that drink.” Her lips twitched. “In honour of some arseholes who should have known better. To the Void with them anyway.”
“I shall look forward to it,” Fenris said.
“Right,” said Lavellan. She stood up. “And now we have a demon to fight.”
Chapter 14: Past and Future
As Fenris stood among the armoured ranks in Darktown and listened to Captain Cullen - Commander Cullen, now - he reflected that this was not even the full force of the Inquisition.
Scouts had been sent ahead into the tunnels. Routes had been found, or in some cases blasted through the rubble of ancient cave-ins. There was no easy way to get an army down into the depths, and the most obvious route had in any case been destroyed by Merrill’s witchcraft when they last passed through the tunnels. Instead multiple small squadrons would converge on the buried temple through various side passages. The demon defended the gate. It would have to be at least distracted in order to buy the elven mages time to perform whatever magic Solas deemed necessary.
Hawke meant to be the distraction. Fenris meant to see to it that he did not get killed.
Lavellan had taken the time to speak to him before the chaos began. “Show me your hands,” she’d said.
Fenris raised an eyebrow and held them out, red-tinted, spoiled.
“We’ll fix this,” Lavellan had said.
Now she stood between Merrill and Solas, waiting for the sign, the goddess’s amulet at her breast. Fenris had chosen his place - with Hawke’s group, shoulder to shoulder with Aveline. Varric would join them in a moment. Hawke was shifting his weight impatiently, waiting, as Cullen conferred with various bands of warriors. Fenris tipped his head back slightly and reached for calm. He could not afford to be this pathetic, not now. A difficult battle lay ahead, against a very dangerous enemy. He could not - must not - allow personal concerns to distract him.
Yet he thought Hawke was avoiding looking his way too.
“He is,” a voice cut in on his thoughts.
Fenris startled hard. He had not seen the boy approaching. An Inquisition agent - one of Lavellan’s associates. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but it took Fenris a moment to remember a summer night in Skyhold, when he had watched Varric bringing up the rear of the Inquisitor’s train and chatting easily to a pale youth in a big hat.
The young man fixed him with an unnerving, unblinking stare. The hat cast strange shadows on his face. “You have something that doesn’t belong,” he said.
Fenris gave him the look that normally made strangers go away.
The boy ignored it. “It wants to belong,” he said. “It heard him hurting and it wanted to be real. It wants to be. But it knows it can never, not really. Like me. I was dead already too.” He tilted his head slightly. The shadows on his face changed. His eyes were hidden now. “You want to belong too. You think you can’t. One more pain among so many. You try to make them into armour. You hold the hurt so close you think it’s who you are.” A pause. “I’m sorry. I wish I could help.” He turned his face the other way, like a bird trying to get a better view. That was what was strangest about him, Fenris thought, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart at the words. Nothing in the way he moved looked human.
“You aren’t dead yet,” the pale youth said. “I would have killed you once. But dead isn’t better really. It’s just dead.”
Fenris stared at him.
“Aaand here’s a friendship that probably isn’t meant to be. Cassandra was looking for you, kid,” said Varric.
The boy blinked at him. “If I look for her too, perhaps we’ll find each other,” he said.
“That’s the spirit,” said Varric. “Off you go.”
Fenris watched him wander away, limbs moving ever-so-slightly out of time. “What is he?” he said.
“Now that’s a little complicated. If I put it in a book no one would believe me. He used to be a spirit,” said Varric, “but what he is now… is anyone’s guess, really. His name’s Cole.”
“He said he would have killed me.”
“Believe it or not,” said Varric, “that’s Cole’s way of being friendly.”
“You keep strange company in the Inquisition,” said Fenris eventually. You hold the hurt so close. It said something for the month Fenris had had that having such a creature listening to his thoughts had not frightened him more. I wish I could help was better than the desire demon’s laughter and promises; better by far than the greedy understanding of the beast that lived in the dark under Kirkwall.
Varric blinked. “What, that’s it? No rar magic bad?”
“You already know my feelings on magic,” said Fenris. “I could shout about it if that would make you feel better.”
“That’s all right. Save it for later,” said Varric. “That is, if there is a later. Am I the only one who’s noticed that every time we fight this thing we lose?”
But Hawke must have overheard. He turned around with a grin. “There’s no need to be defeatist, Varric,” he said. “Just because it’s a thousand years old, unbelievably strong, commands an army of corpses, hates the world of men…” he paused. “What was I saying again?”
“That there’s no need to be defeatist,” said Varric. “I’ve got to admit, I was hoping for something heroic and motivational at the end.”
“’The power of friendship is sure to win the day’?” Hawke said.
“Think we tried that,” Varric said.
“’The people united can never be brutally dismembered by an angry demon’?”
Hawke cast a tiny flicker of a smile in his direction. “I’ll work on it,” he said. Fenris looked away. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the smile slip from Hawke’s face.
“You’d better,” Varric said. “We need to be pretty damn motivated by the time we get down there. Shame you can’t pull out whatever it was you did to kill Nightmare.”
Hawke made a face. “Believe me, I would if I could,” he said. “I don’t control Courage. It just… happens.”
The old mining tunnels had not improved in the least since the last time Fenris had been in them. The smell was the worst part. Centuries of death and sewage had combined to create such a foetid stench that it was actively unpleasant to breathe. Fenris kept his sword in his hand and an eye to Aveline’s lead, and tried not to think too much about having Hawke at his back. It was a strangely two-edged feeling, knowing Hawke was there. Fenris was angry with him, and grieved beyond measure, and humiliated; but underneath that there was the old comfort of knowing Hawke was simply there, utterly reliable, a force to be reckoned with in any battle.
The tunnels twisted and turned. When they met corpses, they killed them. “The Veil is thin here,” said Varric in portentous tones as they stood over a pile of the dead.
They all looked at him.
“What in the Maker’s name are you talking about?” said Aveline.
“Varric,” said Hawke, “you are a dwarf.”
“Shit, really? What gave it away?” Varric said. “Look, I felt like someone should say it. It just doesn’t seem right to be walking through a horrible ancient ruin without someone going on about metaphysical weight loss.”
Fenris glanced down and away, covering a smile he could not hold back. Yes, it was strange, this. Strange to be in Kirkwall, strange not to be alone; strange to listen to his companions - his friends - joking with one another in the midst of horrors the way they had done so many times before. He had missed this. He would miss this. Despite everything.
They went on through the tunnels. They killed more corpses. Hawke frowned at the Inquisition scouts’ map by the light at the tip of his staff until Aveline sighed and took it from him and turned it the right way up. “How are your hands doing?” Varric murmured as they argued.
“No worse than before,” Fenris said.
“Any visions? Hallucinations? Paranoia?”
“I might be hallucinating your chest hair,” said Fenris.
“I’m not kidding around, elf,” Varric said. By the steady clear light coming from Hawke’s staff Fenris could see the worried crease between his eyebrows. “I’ve seen too much of what this stuff does to people. What it did to Bartrand.”
Fenris looked away. “No,” he said. “Not yet.”
He could feel Hawke looking at him. A memory went with the look; Hawke in the Hanged Man staring down at Fenris’s hands in his. Fenris thought, abruptly, that he did not regret it. Did not regret anything. If he had not touched the blighted orb when he had, they might never have made it into the Fade, might never have found Hawke. That was enough for him.
He flexed his hands a time or two without looking at them. They did not feel any different for the days of poisoning. A little stiff, perhaps. He might have been imagining it.
Aveline found the passage they sought. They kept moving. Occasionally they heard strange rumblings and groanings in the deep dark. Once the clash of steel. Another Inquisition party somewhere in the tunnels, perhaps. Fenris was braced for whispers, but none came. He was not fool enough to think that meant the demon would spare him. It knew him. It was waiting.
They saw the glimmer of veilfire in good time. They entered the Tevinter temple by way of a hole some scout with a knowledge of mining had carefully cut in the tunnel floor. They dropped down into a high-arched corridor, and Hawke immediately looked upwards, wide-eyed, to where the dragon statues’ gemstone eyes glittered evilly under the flying buttresses. “I can’t believe this place was under Kirkwall,” he said. “I can’t believe this place was under Kirkwall and no one looted it.”
“Will wonders never cease,” Aveline said wryly. “All right, we need to join the others for the battle. Let’s -”
There was a rumbling overhead. Fenris heard the low malignant laughter on the very edge of something that was not really hearing and did not even have time to shout a warning. He moved without thinking. He did not need to think. He knew exactly how the demon worked. He knew exactly what it would do. He heard Hawke get out the first syllable of his name and nothing more as Fenris slammed into him, and then they were falling together, a tangle of limbs and armour, Hawke’s staff clattering out of his hand as they rolled, and the temple’s arched ceiling fell in behind them.
Fenris thought he had seen Aveline leap for Varric and drag him the other way. He prayed he had - prayed as sincerely as he knew how. Dust was settling around them. There was a massive heap of rubble where the four of them had been standing a moment ago, no sign of what lay beyond, no way past. A broken dragon’s head with jewelled eyes lay at Fenris’s feet. If there was a Maker, if there was anything -
The demon would not stop there. Fenris looked around. The two of them were alone in the gloom. There were three - no, four - passageways leading off this corridor. He could already hear the soft shuffling footsteps of the dead. Too many - far too many. There was not time to think about the others, about the Inquisition’s battle, about the warmth and strength of Hawke underneath him. He stood up and dragged Hawke up after him. “We have to -” said Hawke.
“Run,” said Fenris. “We have to run.”
They ran, and the armies of the dead pursued them. There was nowhere to make a stand; every corridor left them open to ambush and flanking, and every arched hallway seemed to join up with another. The temple was a maze, and the demon knew it better than they did. Its puppet-corpses hounded them ever onwards, and though now and again they stopped, and Hawke blasted the dead with fire as Fenris cut them down, it seemed to serve no purpose. There was no end to the horde. They should have met with others. There should have been a dozen different parties of Inquisition soldiers down here in the maze with them. There was no one.
“Listen,” Hawke yelled over the shrieking of an arcane horror at an intersection, “I wanted to say -”
“Not now, Hawke!” Fenris shouted. The arcane horror aimed a bolt of spirit magic at him. He chopped its arm off. Hawke set it on fire. They ran.
Leave him, he heard as they stumbled up and down twisting stairways under the glittering gaze of the dragon sculptures. Let him pay the price for his corruption.
“Hawke is not one of your magisters,” Fenris snapped.
“What?” yelled Hawke. They were fighting more corpses.
“I was not talking to you!”
They cut down the last of the wave. Hawke leaned on his staff, panting. Fenris could hear soft rustlings in the gloom. There would be more corpses in a minute.
“About the other night,” Hawke said. “I owe you an apology -”
Fenris rolled his eyes. “Not now, Hawke.” He looked around. A charred robe containing a half-rotted skeleton had collapsed in the corner. It was missing an arm. The arcane horror from before. Fenris cursed in Tevene. “We have been going in circles,” he said. “It will chase us until we can run no more.” Or until it managed to split them up, he thought. It was Hawke the thing hated. It was Hawke it wanted. Fenris would not let that happen.
“We need to find a way out of this maze,” Hawke said. “We can’t be the only people alive down here. There were a dozen Inquisition parties. If we -”
Fenris saw movement. “Go!”
And again they were running. Now that Fenris was aware of what the demon was doing to them, the whole thing felt infinitely futile. He recognised the sculptures as they passed under them; the chips and breaks in the stairways were familiar; they passed the gory remnants of their own battles against the demon’s puppets. But every passageway they tried led back to the same familiar corridors. They were caught like rats in a trap, buried in the dark for the demon’s pleasure. Fenris felt his despair growing, and with it came the sound of the demon’s voice: how is he different? You should know better. You of all people, little wolf. Look how he hurts you. Why should his life be worth so much?
He swore at the voice and ignored Hawke’s shouted inquiry. Somewhere nearby there was the sound of clashing metal. Fenris could picture it perfectly: steel rising up from nothing, slamming together into full armour. Revenant.
They would not survive one of those. Not even if Fenris used the markings to fight - which he had not, not yet. But behind them lay only more of the same maze, leading back to the same place: sooner or later it would catch up with them. He looked at Hawke and found Hawke already looking at him. It was, strangely, a moment of perfect understanding. “Here, then,” Hawke said.
“It would let you go,” said Hawke. “Wouldn’t it.”
“Perhaps,” Fenris said.
“You should -”
Fenris glared at him.
“All right, all right, it was just a suggestion,” said Hawke.
Fenris shook his head and readied his blade. He would die first, he thought. Which was as it should be.
A sound of heavy footsteps echoed through the ancient archways - armoured footsteps, unmistakeable, drawing nearer. Hawke braced his staff on the ground and spread his hands wide. There was a glitter around his fingers which Fenris felt thrumming through his skin. Fire and lightning. It would not be enough.
Fenris closed his eyes for a moment. When magic whipped through him it burned, burned everywhere, and his hands felt for a bare instant as though he had dipped them into boiling water, a pain so sharp and bright it was almost not pain at all. Fenris opened his eyes again and the corridor was as bright as he had seen it, lit by the lyrium glow, crimson edges to the white light. He could feel the numbness crawling up his arms. When he glanced down, the red was advancing fast enough that he could actually see the change happening. In moments it was almost to his elbows. Fenris stopped looking. It hurt - oh, it hurt - but he did not fear pain. He turned to face the monster that was coming for them.
“I can’t do this,” Hawke said. His voice was shaking. He reached out; his hand passed through Fenris’s ghostly shoulder. “Fenris, please.”
I chose you long ago, Fenris thought, and I am still glad I chose; you changed my world whether I liked it or not; when all I knew was misery you showed me a thousand ways I was wrong; again and again you made me laugh. He opened his mouth to say - something, some of that, any of it, but what came out was, “I would far rather die for you than live without you.”
Hawke laughed, an awful sound. “Well, I don’t like that plan.”
“Too late,” Fenris said, and he might have said more, but then a thrill of magic went through him that was not Hawke’s and did not come from the vengeance demon either; and just as the revenant came into view, silhouetted by veilfire beneath the dragon-carved arch where the corridor turned, he heard a voice which was not the demon’s whisper, past and future.
He was so surprised he let the lyrium burn go, and when it was gone something still shone. Fenris reached into his belt pouch and brought out the ring from the Fade. It was glowing so brightly that the glitter was visible through cloth. It burned in his hand like a miniature star, quickly growing so hot that Fenris had to drop it. But it never reached the floor. The white gleam of it shifted and grew and spread broad wings, and for a moment Fenris saw the ghostly shape of a crow, black inside the white like dazzle from the sun. Then it fell again, changing as it fell, growing into the shining form of a human girl with a staff already in her hand.
She turned and smiled at them: Bethany Hawke’s smile, which was very much like her brother’s. Something that didn’t belong. A spirit that dreamed of being a ghost. A memory.
Magic blossomed around her. More magic, surely, than this mage girl had possessed in life. Fenris had a vague feeling, or perhaps had been told once, that Hawke was the more gifted of the siblings, but the billowing clouds of light the spirit summoned to her hands were well beyond anything a human mage could bring to bear. Curtain after curtain of spirit magic went up across the hallway, barriers overlapping and fine-threaded as spider silk, and the revenant stumbled into them and went to its knees.
The spirit pointed at a wall and what had looked like solid masonry simply melted away. “Quickly!” she cried. Her voice had a strange echo to it.
“You,” Hawke said.
“Go!” said the spirit. “I’ll catch up with you!”
When Hawke did not move Fenris grabbed his arm and dragged him. Hawke looked back, once, twice, to where the sounds of battle echoed behind them, the revenant’s roar and the clash of steel. It was only when the spirit appeared beside them again, running flat out with her robes hiked up in one hand, that he relaxed. “This way!” it cried, pointing them through another unfamiliar archway.
Fenris felt rather than heard the rising rage of the vengeance demon as it realised it had been robbed of its prey. Interference! its voice hissed from everywhere and nowhere.
“Down!” the spirit shouted, and there was a stairway, and they stumbled down. A white crow flew past them and turned back into a human figure at the foot of the stairs. She darted ahead, down the corridor, and Fenris heard the corpses before he saw them. His sword was in his hands - he noticed, in passing, the curl of red lyrium now well past his elbow, marking his tricep - and the girl was beside him, and then Hawke was too. They fought the same way, the same tricks of countering and staffwork, but she used blasts of blue spirit magic where Hawke threw fire. “Through here!” she cried, when the corpses had fallen. Fenris balked for a moment, and the girl reached out to pull him on. All the lyrium in him sang at her touch, not with pain but with a strange and terrible awareness; it was a jangled, mismatched chorus, and the spirit snatched its hand away, looking horrified.
And then they were through that doorway, and the next, and Fenris saw the corpse of a scout in Inquisition uniform, and almost before it registered they were in the final room before the gateway, where they had seen the memory of Corypheus and the others standing beneath the archway that looked like the jaws of a dragon.
Hawke drew in a sharp breath.
There was carnage here. The vengeance demon’s attention had not, it seemed, been all for Hawke. Many Inquisition soldiers lay among the fallen bodies of the long-murdered slaves. But Fenris did not see anyone he knew. No sign of Merrill or the rest of Lavellan’s companions. Nor of Lavellan herself.
And then they heard once more the dire rattle of steel. Fenris turned and saw the revenants. One, two, three - no, four - converging on them from all directions. The spirit came to rest beside them. Her staff was in her hand. “Keep going,” it said. “Help the others. Seal the gate.” Its features blurred a little, as if it was losing its grip on its shape. “End it,” it said, and then it turned to Hawke and seemed to settle as Bethany again. It reached out for him with faintly glowing hands. “I loved you,” she said. “I’m just a memory. But I know I did.”
But the spirit turned away. Another of those pale spidersilk barriers appeared, halving the room, and the spirit stood alone on the far side with the four revenants around her, and Hawke and Fenris were on the other side.
The monsters showed no mercy. Hawke would have watched; would have watched the whole, white-faced under his beard, if Fenris had not dragged him away. They stumbled together down the obsidian stairway inside the dragon’s jaws. Hawke stopped and leaned against the wall for a moment. “Well,” he said. “Thank the Maker Carver wasn’t here for that.”
“Are you well?” said Fenris.
Hawke laughed tiredly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Fenris mind was full of a day that now seemed very long ago - of Hawke at his shoulder as he stared down at Varania, whose face meant nothing to him. Hawke’s urgent words of restraint. Hawke, to whom family mattered more than anything. “You just watched your sister get killed,” he said quietly.
“She was only a spirit,” Hawke said. “She wasn’t real.” He made a face. “She turned up once Nightmare was gone and started following me around. I don’t know why she imprinted on Bethany. I talked to her sometimes, because believe me the Fade is miserably lonely if you don’t talk to the spirits, but that doesn’t mean she… I mean, it doesn’t mean I…”
He fell silent.
Fenris had seen that empty look on his face before. Hawke had turned to him with that same shadowed distance in his eyes on the night his mother had died and said, is it my fault? And Fenris had done his inept best to offer comfort, knowing full well that Hawke was barely listening.
“Only a spirit,” Hawke murmured again. His mouth twisted at the corner in something a stranger might have mistaken for a smile. “Well. As usual, everyone I love gets killed,” he said. “Surprise, surprise. Let’s go. They’re going to need us down there. Assuming anyone’s still alive.”
And then he was running down the obsidian stairs, and Fenris followed. It was easy - it had always been easy - to follow Hawke. Hawke had a way of making it easy to listen to him - easy to go along with what he said - easy to -
Fenris stopped short as they entered the great cavern at the heart of the temple. There was the altar, the gate, the high spikes of red-tinged rock that Merrill had made with her spell - half of them blasted to rubble now. There were the piles of corpses, seeming barely diminished for how freely the demon had been making use of them. There in the midst of all was the mighty and ghostly form of the vengeance demon, assaulted on all sides by what remained of the Inquisition forces. Varric was there, and Aveline; Lavellan, Solas, Merrill; half a dozen others whose names Fenris did not know; he barely saw them. The dead woke to aid the monster, fell around it; it shrieked and roared its ancient anger; Hawke was two steps ahead of Fenris already lifting his hands to summon a firestorm; and Fenris was thinking of - of the boy in the Fade, who had listened twice over to the story of his mother’s murder and then said I would never let that happen.
“Hawke,” he said.
And Hawke heard, and turned back towards him - despite it all, Fenris thought, despite everything. Hawke turned towards him. Hawke had burned Knight-Commander Yseult to cinders when she nearly killed Fenris, and then smiled when he said goodbye. He had barely been able to look at Fenris when they met in the Fade. He had kissed him like it hurt in the empty taproom of the Hanged Man. Memory after memory fell into place as the pattern unwound itself in perfect clarity. Fenris stared at him in flat disbelief.
“What?” said Hawke. “Is there something on my face?”
“You fool,” said Fenris, barely aware of the chaos all around them. He stepped forward, once, twice, and then his hands were in the fur at Hawke’s collar, knotted tight in growing rage. “You unspeakable idiot,” he said. “You coward.”
Chapter 15: Inferno
"I - what did I do?"
"I don't believe you," Fenris said. "I don't believe anyone could be so stupid." But he did believe it. It made perfect sense. He was furious.
"Fenris -" Hawke began placatingly.
Fenris said, "Tell me why you left."
Hawke's mouth dropped open slightly. Behind him, the vengeance demon threw an Inquisition warrior across the room like a rag doll. Fenris did not let go of Hawke's fur collar. "Um," said Hawke. "Now? Really? Now?"
"Now," said Fenris.
"Because I don't know if you noticed, but -"
Fenris swung him round and backed him up against the pillar by the doorway. A carved dragon snarled directly over his head. Hawke was wide-eyed. "You are going to explain yourself," Fenris said, low. There was shouting behind him; there was screaming. The voice of the vengeance demon, a sound that was not sound, was shrieking somewhere in his head. But all of that was background noise to Hawke's rapid breathing. "You are going to do it now, Hawke, because if I am not mistaken then later will be too late. Tell me why you left."
Hawke hesitated for a long moment. Then he rolled his eyes and in cheerful tones quite at odds with their dire surroundings he said, “Come on, Fenris, you were there.”
Fenris glared at him.
“There was a war breaking out!” Hawke said. “Everyone in the Free Marches was looking for me. I needed to lie low and we weren’t exactly easy to miss -” The noise of battle was growing and he had to shout the last few words over the shriek of a corpse dying for the second time. “It made sense! You know it did!”
“Because you are always so sensible,” Fenris snarled.
“What do you want me to say?” Hawke shouted over the sound of crackling lightning arcing across the battle behind them, one of the other mages at work. "What am I supposed to say here, what is going to make any difference -"
"The truth, Hawke!" Fenris yelled, and it fell by chance into a momentary lull in the combat, a quiet instant, so that the words rang across the cavern. Heads turned towards them. Hawke winced.
"The truth," Fenris repeated quietly.
It was not just the mortal half of the battle which had stilled. The corpses had left off their endless assault for a moment. they lied, whispered the demon. they made promises they never kept. they told us we mattered. they lied. mages always lie.
Hawke would not meet Fenris's eyes, and Fenris knew he had heard it too. He did not know what else he could say. He let go of Hawke's collar. Hawke was still looking down. Fenris swallowed hard. He knew - he thought he knew - but he could not force Hawke to say it. Nor did he want to, not to force him. Fenris knew too much of being compelled to ever want that kind of power. But still in the back of his mind were Solas’s words - you must be Courage - and he felt a kind of sick fear, a fear that was stronger even than his anger, because Hawke might yet destroy himself, and if he did then perhaps it would be Fenris’s fault.
But there was nothing else he could do.
He closed his eyes. He felt the demon’s satisfaction, its smug vindication. lie lie lie lie lie, it chanted, low, murderous, eternally certain in all its hatreds and prejudices, liars and betrayers every one. we hate - oh, how we hate. you know how well he deserves our hatred. He felt once more, as he had the first time he entered these tunnels, the familiarity of the rage and misery clawing for a foothold in his mind.
“I am sorry for what was done to you,” he said quietly to that blind ancient anger. “But Hawke is not like them. And I could never hate him.”
The demon did not understand. It could not. It wailed and lashed out in a dozen directions - the battle reawakening, the Inquisition forces better placed for the moment’s respite - and Fenris stepped away from Hawke. “If you will not, you will not,” he said. “We are needed.”
“Oh fuck me,” said Hawke fatalistically.
Fenris blinked at him. Then he looked down, where Hawke’s hand was suddenly tight around his wrist, and blinked again.
“Do you have any idea what you do to me,” Hawke said. “Do you - are you doing this on purpose? In the Fade and in the tavern and now here, how am I supposed to keep my mouth shut, I’ve never been any good at keeping my mouth shut -”
“Hawke,” said Fenris.
“- I am trying to do the right thing here. I am - excuse me, this is a private conversation -” this to an approaching corpse, which Hawke crisped with a casual fireball, “ - what was I saying?”
“The right thing,” said Fenris, eyebrows high.
“Right!” Hawke made a passionate gesture which would have worked better if he had let go of Fenris’s wrist first. “So I’d appreciate it if you stopped making impassioned declarations and stopped volunteering to stay in the Fade and stopped offering to die for me, because the whole thing is completely pointless if - if - “
“If?” Fenris said when Hawke seemed unable to go on.
Hawke breathed out hard. “Nothing has ever been as hard as walking away from you,” he said. “But I had to. I had to.”
Fenris jerked his wrist out of Hawke’s grasp. “You had to,” he repeated flatly.
“Yes!” said Hawke, glaring. “Because I love you and you were going to get yourself killed!”
Fenris had not the faintest idea if the feeling bubbling in his chest was joy or rage or some unholy union of both. He could have kissed Hawke and he could cheerfully have murdered him, and one seemed as reasonable as the other. Hawke flinched when Fenris moved as if he was expecting the murder, and then he was wincing because Fenris had a hand twisted in his hair and was dragging his face down - not for a kiss, no; it nearly was but Fenris had too much to say. “You are a fool,” he hissed, their faces close enough that he could feel the heat of Hawke’s breath. “What did you think I would do, Hawke?”
“...Not get killed?”
“I was not made for a quiet life,” Fenris said. Hawke’s hair was thick and coarse; he knotted his red-marked fingers tight, fixed his eyes on Hawke’s, and did not let go. “When you left me I travelled alone. I spent a year hunting the slavers who were preying on the Marches. I taught them to fear me. Tevinter knows my name. They began to hire more guards - great merchant houses set my bounty as high as it ever was when Danarius sought me - so tell me, Hawke, would you have preferred to receive a letter detailing when and how I got myself killed without you?”
Hawke looked horrified. “No, you idiot, of course not -”
“It’s what you did to me.”
Hawke’s eyes widened and his breath caught, but he did not answer. Somewhere unimportant there were shouts and the clash of metal and an echoing booming crash which probably meant part of the ceiling was coming down. Fenris did not look round. Hawke still said nothing. A part of Fenris wanted very much to hit him, but he would not. He settled for yanking hard on his hair, which at least made Hawke wince and yelp. “Fenris -” he began, but he did not seem to know what came next.
“I am a free man, Hawke,” Fenris said. “I choose to fight for you because I love you. You cannot stop me. You have no right to stop me. You can send me away if you do not want me - if you grow tired of me, if there are others - you can send me away, and I will go. But if you send me away because you are afraid, then you are a coward. And we both know you cannot afford to be a coward.”
Hawke stared at him. His lips moved but no words came. Fenris supposed he should have been proud of himself for managing to shock that glib tongue into silence. “I -” Hawke managed at last, “Fenris -” and then, heartfelt, “fuck.”
Somewhere behind Fenris Varric shouted, “Whenever you’re ready, Hawke! Don’t mind us, we’re just having a battle here!” There was another boom and crash, and a screech from the demon.
Hawke grabbed hold of Fenris’s shoulders. “I love you. I love you. I was terrified,” he said. “First the Gallows, and then Wycome - if you’d seen how you looked after Yseult took you down, I really thought - and - actually, I’m still terrified, just on the evidence of the last twenty minutes you haven’t improved at all at the whole self-preservation thing. I - I love you, did I say?”
“Twice,” said Fenris. He raised his eyebrows. “In fact, three times.”
“I do,” said Hawke. “I don’t know how to stop being scared for you.”
“Do you think I don’t fear for you?” Fenris said, but he was not really listening to his own words: instead he was watching Hawke’s eyes, where flecks of golden light were gleaming among the brown. His hands were still in Hawke’s hair, not gripping, now, just there, holding, and Hawke stared down at him and licked his lips and said -
liar liar mage and murderer thrice-cursed monster pride and slaughter!
Hawke rolled his eyes hard. “Someone needs to shut that thing up,” he said.
Then he glanced up and froze.
That made Fenris look up too, and he found he was looking not at the ragged black stone and red lyrium crystals of the cavern wall, but instead into a foggy shimmer of blue light that was over them and all around them, blotting out the rest of the room. They could neither see nor hear the rest of the battlefield. No corpses with blazing eyes, no armoured horrors approached. There was only the light over and around them that was, Fenris slowly realised, the body of the demon itself, the gigantic half-manifest creature of spirit that puppeted all the dead. It was the creature that had heard the cries of murdered innocents long ago and crossed the Veil in answer, which had drunk deep of their anger and grown into this swollen and poisoned monstrosity; it was huge and old and hateful, and it was crouched over them like a wild beast hunched over its kill.
They were not dead yet. Yet might be all.
Fenris stared up into blue and the demon spoke to him. little wolf, little kinsman, it said. why have you turned against me?
“I have not,” Fenris said. “I was never yours in the first place.”
I can give you the power to destroy your enemies.
“I did not ask for it.”
I can hurt the people who hurt you.
Starting with Hawke, no doubt. It was not a being that understood complexity. Or mercy, Fenris thought. Or forgiveness. He said nothing.
The voice of the demon turned desperate. you are like me. you are one of us!
“I was once,” Fenris said. “No longer.”
how? it demanded.
Fenris reached without looking and found Hawke’s hand. He held it tightly. “I suppose I changed,” he said. He looked away from the blue haze and met Hawke’s eyes instead. “I chose something else. It was not easy. But I do not regret a single day.”
“What did I tell you about the impassioned declarations,” said Hawke, smiling crookedly. Fenris shrugged.
then die! the demon howled. die with your master, traitor! It sprouted a dozen spindly blue arms and reached down towards them with clawed, ghostly fingers. Fenris had to let go of Hawke’s hand to draw his sword. The blade went straight through the nearest reaching arm without affecting it in the slightest, and then it made a snatch for him. There was a sizzling sound in the air as it moved. Fenris just barely dodged the grab. He suspected he did not want to know what would happen when it touched him.
“Right,” said Hawke suddenly, “that’s enough.”
Fenris had to dodge another grabbing blue hand before he could turn towards him. He was expecting Hawke’ signature blaze of fire and lightning, expecting battle magic, and Maker knew it might work better than anything else against this creature -
He felt nothing in his markings. There was no shimmer of raw magic waking the lyrium, no hatefully familiar tingle of pain. Hawke had dropped his staff and apparently forgotten about it. “I have not,” he yelled, head tipped back though the demon did not appear to have a face in any particular location, “been to hell and back for this! And I am not even a little bit afraid of you!”
The demon hissed. A sizzling blue hand swiped at Hawke, who jumped quickly out the way. “Okay, maybe a little bit,” he corrected himself.
“Don’t try to argue with it, Hawke!” Fenris shouted, exasperated.
Hawke gave him a sudden wild grin. “I’m not!” he called back over the demon’s howling and the sizzling in the air. “You were right - I need to stop being a coward!”
“I love you! Did I say?”
“Four times!” Fenris yelled. “What are you -”
But he never got the rest of the question out. The demon seemed to understand what was happening before he did. It left off attacking Fenris and all of its dozen spindly arms snaked towards Hawke with murderous claws outstretched, more sprouting from its blue body to join them, the huge body itself seeming to condense and shrink into something heavier than mere blue haze as if the demon meant to physically throw itself onto Hawke. Out of the corner of his eye Fenris saw but barely registered the battlefield reappearing where the blue retreated, the Inquisition forces locked in combat with a ring of corpses that surrounded the spot where the demon had them pinned.
He was staring at Hawke; Hawke who was visible even through the mad confusion of the demon’s frenzied assault, because his eyes were burning with gold fire. Then the golden light threaded itself through his skin, blazed through his clothes, until nothing remained where Hawke had stood but the burning shape of a man, and then that burning shape began to change.
The demon’s grasp did not touch it; the blue claws seemed to slip away from it. The demon hissed and chattered in fear and confusion. There was some shouting behind Fenris, surprised and relieved; he glimpsed the puppeted corpses beginning to collapse as the demon drew power back into itself. The golden flame-shape that had been Hawke grew and grew. So did the demon. Both of them reached nearly to the high cavern ceiling. The demon was still desperately seeking to entangle the thing that was Hawke in its many slender arms. Fenris heard its cry of triumph as it managed to get hold of him, and he could hear his heartbeat loud in his ears as the golden light flickered - dimmed - went out -
Four massive clawed feet slammed down hard on the stony earth, one after another. They set off a shockwave that knocked the staring people off their feet and sent dust and rubble flying. There was an ear-splitting roar, and then the great shape swung itself around hard and the momentum sent the giant ghostly figure of the demon flying into the far wall. A blast of bright fire went after it. Fenris was aware that his mouth was hanging open.
“Well,” said Varric, coming up beside him with Bianca still loaded, “that’s a dragon, all right.”
Fenris nodded. It was, indeed, a dragon.
“At least it seems to be on our side. Where’s Hawke?”
Fenris did not trust himself to speak.
The battle raged on against the cavern’s far wall. Great rents and tears were appearing in the demon’s insubstantial blue flesh as the dragon’s claws ripped through it. The claws were golden. Most of the rest of the beast was red. Varric followed his gaze.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he said.
The demon seized hold of both of Hawke’s forelegs at once and wrenched him sideways. Hawke balanced himself by beating his wings; the massive movement set off a wind that blew the scent of dust and death across the room. He spat another stream of fire at the demon, and it burned a hole through what seemed to be roughly the creature’s midriff. The stink of death in the air was overwhelmed by a strong sharp smell like a lightning strike.
“I don’t believe it,” Varric said. “Andraste’s ass, look at him go! Where did he learn that?”
“Courage,” said Fenris softly. He did not know whether the tight feeling in his chest was fear or pride. Some of both, perhaps. Hawke was winning. Some of the Inquisition forces were exchanging looks, slowly lowering weapons, poking cautiously at fallen corpses to see if they were likely to move again, but most had simply stopped where they were to stare at a monstrous vengeance demon locked in a losing battle against a dragon with golden eyes. This had been the price of Hawke’s survival, Fenris thought, when he had faced the Nightmare in the Fade. It was terrible. It was magnificent. He could not tear his eyes away.
A pale flicker in the air heralded Solas stepping out of nowhere beside them. “Quickly!” he said. “While the demon is distracted!”
He gripped Fenris firmly by the shoulder and only the hum of awareness in Fenris’s markings warned him of what was coming. He had seen mages use magic to move swiftly many times; it was thoroughly uncomfortable to be dragged along with one.
Solas had brought him to the ancient altar where they had first found the orb. It was looking rather the worse for the wear. Merrill and Lavellan stood by, one holding the arulin’holm, the other the orb. The orb was pulsing dully with dark magic to Fenris’s senses; the waves of wrongness rolling off it set his teeth on edge. He could not understand how Lavellan could bear to hold it.
“We must act swiftly and with precision,” Solas said. “The orb will act as a primary focus; your mark should serve to balance it, Inquisitor. The spells are prepared as I told you?” This to Merrill, who nodded. Solas turned on Fenris. “Strip,” he ordered.
It was most definitely an order. Fenris was very familiar with the tone. He folded his arms.
Solas sighed. “If you would prefer to continue being slowly consumed by the Blight, that is entirely your affair. It would in fact immensely simplify the complex magics I mean to attempt here. Otherwise, strip. I need to see the extent of the infection.”
“Solas,” said Lavellan. It seemed to be something in the nature of a warning, or a reminder. Whatever it was, it made Solas pause and close his eyes.
“If you please,” he said.
Fenris did not look at any of them. He removed his gauntlets one after the other. The lyrium that marked his hands was lurid in colour now, and the skin around it looked puffy and bruised. It did not feel as bad as it looked. Fenris remembered the numbness that marked the change and suspected that was no good sign.
He kept going. Belt, breastplate, leathers, undershirt. “Oh, your back!” Merrill said. Fenris could see the curl of red on his right shoulder. The infection on the left was not so far advanced, halting halfway up his bicep. He was still clothed to the waist. He looked at Solas. “Should I continue?” he demanded.
“That is sufficient,” Solas said mildly, as if he had not heard Fenris’s tone.
He walked around Fenris, examining him. He touched him three times - forearm, collarbone, shoulderblade. He took one of his hands and investigated the markings on his palm and fingers, turning the hand over and forcing Fenris to spread his fingers apart. His hands were stiff, Fenris thought. He had not been imagining it. It was taking a great deal of effort to stand still for this. It was too bitterly familiar to have a mage turn that cool inquisitive gaze on his markings - as if the body that wore them were mere uninteresting canvas, a convenience for transporting an interesting work of magic.
“A remarkable achievement,” Solas murmured, and possibly never knew how close he was to having his heart ripped through his ribcage. Fenris gritted his teeth. “The infection is further advanced than I hoped, but less than I feared. Let us begin. You -” he looked at Fenris and frowned. “There. On the altar.”
“A slave on the blood mages’ altar,” Fenris said. “How appropriate.”
“I am forced to work within the parameters of the spell which originally created this gateway,” Solas said. “Like all blood magic it lacked both subtlety and elegance. I grant the symbolism is unfortunate.”
Fenris sat where Solas had pointed him. The three mages took up their positions around him - Lavellan behind him with the orb, and Solas and Merrill in front. Fenris shivered a little and told himself it was the cold. Merrill mouthed it’ll be all right! in his direction. He looked away. Hawke-as-dragon was still battling the vengeance demon on the far side of the cavern. It seemed to be going well. There were signs of a betting pool of some sort breaking out among the Inquisition forces.
The three mages began their spell. He felt the prickle of pain in his markings as magic rose around him. In such close proximity, and with all three of them working with all their strength, he could even feel the differences between them; Merrill’s familiar slow gathering of power like a growing tree, Lavellan’s magic coming strange and sideways and distorted by the mark on her hand, and Solas, strongest of the three by far, with power cold and uncompromising as the depths of winter.
“Focus through the orb!” Solas cried, and Fenris closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders as magic flooded past him. Solas was still speaking, calling instructions and warnings to the other two, but none of it registered with him. He wished, if he had to be in this situation at all, that one of the three could have been Hawke.
“What?” he heard Merrill say, somewhere that felt very far away.
“I said do it now!” Solas said.
Fenris opened his eyes just in time to see Solas snatch the arulin’holm from Merrill’s unresisting fingers. The wicked blade sat comfortably in his hand. Fenris stupidly did not understand what he meant to do with it, and then Solas seized him by the hair and stabbed him through the shoulder.
Fenris yelled and twisted away as pain erupted from the wound, and then he felt the paralysis spell catch and settle - Solas again, keeping him where he was, stopping him from fighting back. Fenris could not move, could not speak, but he felt his breathing speed up. Suddenly he was not seeing the cavern anymore, but an elegantly appointed workroom in Minrathous. Once again magic restrained him head to toe (even the slightest movement will quite disrupt the process, he heard someone say) and there were the two expressionless Tranquil, and there was Danarius calling out instructions, all of that and pain, pain, pain -
“- just do that!” Merrill shouted, which jolted him back to the only slightly less unpleasant present moment.
“Trust me!” Solas shouted, and pulled the elven blade out of him. Fenris gasped weakly. Blood flowed from the wound in his shoulder. “Inquisitor, now!”
Magic upon magic, magic all around, and suddenly it was not flowing past Fenris but through him.
All his markings, blighted and otherwise, blazed into life. It hurt, and then it went beyond hurt and just was: magic pouring through him as if he were barely there, a net made of cobwebs strung across a mighty river, and there was scarcely enough of him left to cry out. He thought his eyes were open but he saw nothing. He only knew the spell of paralysis was gone when he felt his knees hit the floor and realised he had fallen. There was some dark and dreadful current in this river of power, some black undertow; he grew aware of it slowly and then was not sure how he had missed it. It would have swept him away, but something held him pinned by the shoulder. Instead the shadow poured past him with the rest and was gone, leaving him drained, panting, and in agonising pain, as he knelt on the floor by the altar.
“Use the mark! Close the gate!” Solas cried over his head. Fenris did not try to move. His shoulder hurt. He turned his head and saw the bloody mark where the arulin’holm had sunk in deep. It cut across the pattern of his markings, obliterating the line. He touched it with his fingertips and felt the tenderness of a fresh scar.
The lyrium markings on his fingers were white. Fenris took deep heaving breaths and looked down at his hands. Then he turned them over. Not a trace of the blighted scarlet remained.
He both heard and felt the thunderclap which rolled through the cavern when Lavellan sealed the rift. It was done, then. The magisters’ gate was destroyed. He did not try to stand, but he turned his head to look for Hawke. He was just in time to see the red dragon rake four long tears in the demon’s spirit-flesh with its claws and then set it ablaze with a blast of its fiery breath. The monster fell apart into a misty cloud of spirit-stuff, and then dissipated into nothing.
Done. All done.
“And the orb, Inquisitor?” he heard Solas say somewhere over his head.
“Clean, I think. See for yourself,” said Lavellan.
“Fenris? Are you all right? Do you need any healing? I can try…”
Fenris blinked a couple of times to bring Merrill’s worried face into focus. “I’m fine,” he said.
“No you're not,” said Merrill. “Let me see your shoulder - oh, it’s -”
“Fine,” Fenris said. He had never felt more tired in his life. He wanted to sleep for a week. And - “Where’s Hawke?”
“He - oh my goodness,” Merrill said, and Fenris blinked at her a few more times and then registered that there were some very heavy footsteps over to his right. He had just about managed to put that together with dragon and then a very large scaly snout came to rest on the ground just short of his knees.
Fenris looked into the golden reptilian eyes. The dragon that was Hawke made a whining sound - or tried to. The noise echoed around the cavern.
“You are much too big for that,” Fenris said. He reached out carefully. The dragon’s scaly hide was warm to the touch, and not so rough as he had expected. Hawke huffed out a hot sulphurous breath. Fenris ducked his head to hide a smile.
“Something funny, Chuckles?” he heard Varric say somewhere behind him. Fenris did not bother looking around to see where. There was no need. Hawke was here.
“I - no,” answered Solas. “A passing thought only.”
Chapter 16: Ruined
Lavellan was cheered through the streets of Kirkwall. And people shouted Hawke’s name too, Fenris noticed vaguely. Champion. He was theirs.
They went back to the viscount’s keep. Fenris slept through the day. When he woke, towards nightfall, it was mostly because of how unnaturally comfortable the bed was. It took him a moment, blinking up at slightly moth-eaten hangings and a large portrait of Viscount Dumar with his wife and son, to realise where he was. He did not quite remember getting here. Someone must have steered him into a bedroom.
An elven serving girl poked her head around the door. “Will you be joining the celebrations, ser?” she said.
Fenris groaned inwardly, but he nodded. Dressed. It was not hard to find the party: he just had to follow the noise. The great hall was full of tables heavy with food, and the doors of the keep had been flung open: the party was spilling over onto the steps and out into the ruins of Hightown. He looked around for faces he knew. He could only see Merrill. She was sitting in the shadow of a great pillar with her nose in a book, frowning and muttering to herself.
“Did you fail to notice the celebration?” Fenris said, standing over her.
Merrill startled hard and dropped the book. “Oh!” she said. “That was very sneaky, Fenris. You’re not normally sneaky.”
“I was not ‘sneaky’,” Fenris said. “You were not paying attention.”
“Are you feeling any better now? You look much better. Is your shoulder all right? Do you need me to look?”
“I am fine.”
Merrill subsided. “Oh. Oh, well - good!” She bent and gathered up the dropped book, the scattered torn pages that had fallen from it, a quill that looked like she had been chewing on it. When she saw Fenris looking she held the whole mess up to show it to him. Fenris looked at the meaningless scrawls, and looked at her, and said nothing. Merrill blushed. “It’s the code from Sundermount,” she said. “I’ll come to the party in a minute, I promise. But I’m so close. I can feel it.”
“Leave it, Merrill,” Fenris said. “It has waited centuries. It can wait another hour.”
She blinked at him. “Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”
“That was almost you being nice to me.” She gave him a dimpled smile when he scowled. “I saw Hawke earlier. Why don’t you go and look for him?”
Fenris kept scowling at her.
“Did he really turn into a dragon and kill the demon because of the power of love? That’s very romantic.”
“That’s how Varric was telling the story.”
Fenris said, “I am going to murder that dwarf.”
“Broody! Good to see you! How are you feeling?”
“Murderous,” said Fenris. He dropped into the empty chair at Varric’s side.
“But normal for you murderous, not red lyrium murderous, right? Have some Antivan brandy. We were just talking about you.”
Fenris tried a sip of brandy. It was good. He gave the various Kirkwaller and Orlesian noblewomen who made up Varric’s current audience a dour look. It seemed to have no effect whatsoever. “Did you really risk everything to seek your true love in the Fade?” one of them said. “How perfectly beautiful!”
“How beautifully perfect!” said another.
Fenris turned the dour look on Varric.
“What? It’s a good story,” Varric said. He took in Fenris’s expression and said, “I’ll tell you the rest later, ladies.”
The women took the hint and disappeared into the crowds. “That glower!” Fenris overheard one of them say as she turned away. “I could swoon!”
“My admiring readers,” said Varric. “Aren’t they lovely?”
“Is there any chance at all that you will not write a book about this,” Fenris said.
“None,” said Varric, and gave him an affectionate pat on the shoulder.
Fenris sighed. “Pass the brandy, then.”
There were worse places to be at a party than in the chair next to Varric with a bottle of fine brandy on the table behind you. “Funny when you think about it,” Varric said. “This is more or less how we began, isn’t it?”
It took Fenris a moment to realise what he meant. Drinking in Skyhold for Hawke’s death: the fine wines from the Inquisition cellars, and the slow-gathering fury that had led to him storming up to Lavellan’s tower.
“Turned out better than we could have hoped, really,” Varric said. He held up his glass. “Here’s to Hawke. Alive and kicking.”
“Hawke,” Fenris agreed, and clinked their glasses together.
There were speeches. Fenris rolled his eyes a little. The Inquisition’s chief diplomat gave a graceful eulogy for the dead, and Commander Cullen stood up and spoke some awkward platitudes about Kirkwall and his own history and the great achievements of the Inquisition, and Hawke fell into the chair on Varric’s other side just as Lavellan got up to speak.
She looked very small after the two humans. The sudden hush made her expression flicker, for a bare second, to a grimace. “Didn’t miss anything, did I?” whispered Hawke. He caught Fenris’s eye over the top of Varric’s head, ducked his head, and grinned - that old familiar flirtation, which had no right whatsoever to still make Fenris’s heart turn over in his chest. Fenris took another sip of brandy to hide his expression. He did not think Hawke was fooled.
“Just a bunch of diplomatic wittering,” Varric said. “Poor Curly, he’s not cut out for this.”
Lavellan finished and everyone applauded. Varric leaned back in his chair. “So, Hawke,” he said, steepling his fingers. “You’re a dragon now.”
The grin that split Hawke’s face was infectious. “Not right now,” he said.
“No, no, I can see that. But you were a dragon. Great big dragon.” Varric chuckled.
Hawke paused. “Where are you going with this, Varric?”
“It was a big dragon, wasn’t it?” Varric said to Fenris. “Biggest dragon I’ve ever seen.”
Fenris covered a smirk as he realised what Varric was doing, and replied in more or less the same tone, “I have never seen a larger.” The dragon-Hawke’s head had been bigger than Fenris’s entire body. He had kept his hand on the warm scales for some time, watching those golden eyes the size of dinner plates watch him.
“I’ve seen a couple about as big. Nesting high dragons out in Emprise du Lion. But most drakes don’t get above a third of that size, do they?”
“If that,” said Fenris.
“What we’re saying here, Hawke,” said Varric, “is: what’s it like being female?”
“It’s fantastic, thanks,” said Hawke. “Would you like to see me breathe fire?”
Fenris snorted. Varric slapped Hawke on the back, grinning. “Good to have you back, my friend,” he said. “Glad you’re done being an asshole, by the way. That was painful to watch.” Fenris observed Hawke’s whole-body cringe with interest. “I’m not in the habit of giving relationship advice, because what do I know, but let me say it once,” Varric said, “because it’s worth saying: when you’ve got someone you love, and that someone is prepared to stick with you, only an idiot walks away.”
“Varric,” said Fenris. He remembered the illusion of a handsome dwarven woman in the Fade, and the bleak expression on Varric’s face as they turned away from a dream he had never believed in for a second.
“No, I’m done,” said Varric. “I’m done. Don’t give me that look, elf, I’m not the brooding type. The more I see of life the more sure I am that whatever the hell this story is, it’s never been a tragedy. And I have another book to write. My editor isn’t going to believe half of it, but shit, he never does.” He picked up the bottle of brandy. “Did you see where Daisy went? Someone ought to remind her that this is a party.”
“By the pillar,” Fenris said, and Varric walked off whistling.
Fenris met Hawke’s eyes. Hawke said, “Well, now I really feel like an asshole.”
“As you should,” said Fenris.
Hawke winced. “Listen -”
“And now,” cried an Inquisition functionary at the front of the room, “a few words from the ruler of Kirkwall!”
There was a long awkward silence.
Fenris looked over as Lavellan stood up again. “Who is the ruler of Kirkwall?” she said.
“You?” shouted some wit in the crowd.
“No,” said Lavellan firmly. “Come on. I know the seneschal was killed in the invasion, but someone has to have been running this city.”
Hawke caught Fenris’s eye, shrugged, grinned, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Guard-Captain Aveline!”
It took a moment, and then the other people took up the cry. “Aveline! Aveline! Captain Aveline! Aveline Vallen!”
“She is going to kill you,” Fenris said as the people sitting nearest Aveline forced her to her feet and cheering broke out among the drunken crowds of Kirkwallers.
“It was her or Merrill,” Hawke said. “They have been running Kirkwall. Do you think I should have gone for Merrill?”
Fenris did not dignify that with an answer.
“You can’t do this!” said Aveline.
Lavellan paused and turned to her ambassador. “Can I do this, Josie?”
“There is precedent. The historical Inquisition often settled inheritance disputes,” said the ambassador. “Even those regarding heads of state. I believe the Guard-Captain is the daughter of an Orlesian chevalier and her husband is Kirkwall born. Both of them were instrumental in the defence of the city during the Starkhaven invasion. The endorsement of the city’s Champion is also a strong recommendation.”
“Perfect.” Lavellan pointed at Aveline. “You seem competent and everyone likes you. Congratulations, you’re a viscount.”
“Three cheers for Viscount Vallen!” Hawke shouted, mischief sparking in his eyes. “Hip hip -”
“She is really going to kill you,” murmured Fenris under the roar of the cheering.
“Worth it,” said Hawke. “Aveline’s good for Kirkwall. Always has been.” He leaned closer, reached for Fenris’s hand. “But I probably ought to make myself scarce for a little while,” he said.
His fingers were intertwined with Fenris’s. Hawke had big, warm hands. Not so warm as the dragon’s hide: that had seemed to shimmer with the beast’s inner fire. Hawke had his inner fire too, Fenris thought. He was, after all, a mage. His thumb rubbed across Fenris’s wrist, and where it brushed a no-longer-poisoned line of lyrium it set off a little sizzle of reaction, magic answering magic in a way that was not exactly pain.
“Come with me?” Hawke said.
Fenris allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Threading their way out through the crowds felt like getting away with something. People occasionally tried to stop Hawke and talk to him - Champion! I heard you were dead! - and Hawke blithely ignored them. His grip on Fenris’s hand stayed firm. It felt almost dreamlike. The crowds around them meant no more to Fenris than the foggy formless emptiness of the Fade, but there was Hawke ahead of him, one real thing, a fixed point, turning back to catch Fenris’s eye and smile.
They emerged from the keep into a crisp late summer evening, the first autumn chills just tangible in the air. The sky was streaked pink and purple as the sun set. There was a bonfire flickering merrily in front of the stairway up to the great double doors, and long tables set with food along the partially smashed colonnade. Some musicians had set up next to the biggest space clear of rubble, and people were dancing. Most of the crowd were Lowtown people, dressed up in their clean-but-worn Chantry best. Fenris caught sight of a few alienage elves among the dancers.
“Nothing quite like total destruction to bring out the heartwarming displays of togetherness,” Hawke said. He was not towing Fenris along now, but he had not let go of his hand. They walked side by side.
“Or no one in Kirkwall can afford to turn down free food.”
“Or that,” said Hawke. “Do you know, I still don’t know what happened to my house. Let’s go and look.”
The Amell estate was a ruin, of course. "Wow," said Hawke, as they contemplated it. "That demon really didn't like me."
Fenris looked away.
"Hey," said Hawke. "It's only a house."
"It was your home."
"Not really," said Hawke. "Not for a while, now."
"The demon disliked you because I was angry with you," Fenris said.
"Well, you were angry with me because I was an arrogant ass," said Hawke, "so it looks like I have only myself to blame."
Fenris huffed out an amused breath. "True enough."
"Are you still angry with me?" said Hawke. He didn't look at Fenris as he said it. He was still gripping Fenris's hand.
"Yes," Fenris said. "Extremely." Hawke's fingers flexed as he tried to let go. Fenris held on. He was trying not to smile.
Hawke stopped trying to pull away after a moment. "So, um... how much crawling do I have to do? Roughly," he said. "A rough estimate."
"How much are you prepared to do?"
"As much as it takes," Hawke said at once.
Fenris gave him a sideways look.
"I mean, not weird weird. I mean..."
Fenris raised an eyebrow.
"Anything you want," said Hawke in a helpless rush.
"Are you offering to fulfil my most perverse sexual desires in exchange for my forgiveness?" Fenris said.
"Well, no, when you put it like that it sounds awful," said Hawke. "And I would actually really like to fulfil your most perverse sexual desires anyway?"
“You’re enjoying this,” Hawke complained, red-faced.
Fenris snorted. “Only a little. Here to Skyhold," he said.
"Here to Skyhold. That should be enough crawling."
Fenris glared at him. "No, you idiot."
"Well, that's a relief," said Hawke. "These are my favourite robes." More quietly, he added, "You're joining the Inquisition, then?"
There was quiet.
"I need to find out what happened to Carver," Hawke said. "The mess with the Wardens was... pretty messy, at the end."
"I have to go north," said Hawke.
Fenris bit down his immediate, instinctive take me with you and said nothing.
"But the Inquisition might also want to know what's going on with the Wardens..." Hawke said uncertainly.
"Or might already know," said Fenris. "Their reach is long."
"Inquisitor Lavellan owes me. I could ask," Hawke said. He glanced sidelong at Fenris.
"You could," Fenris agreed.
Hawke made a frustrated noise. Fenris turned his head inquiringly into what turned out to be a kiss. He made a startled sound, and Hawke tried to pull away. Fenris grabbed his hair and pulled his head down.
The kiss went on for a long time. Hawke was as vocal as Fenris remembered, moaning when Fenris pulled their bodies flush together, making eager hurt noises in his throat at the feeling of Fenris’s teeth in his lower lip. There was a breeze springing up, blowing dust through the ruins of Hightown, chilly now that the sun had set; Fenris felt the cold touch of the wind on the back of his neck, his arms, but between the two of them there was a pocket of perfect warmth which more than compensated.
“Is this your way of telling me I need a haircut?” Hawke mumbled against Fenris’s mouth eventually.
“You had to ruin it,” Fenris said.
“I ruin everything. It’s part of my charm.”
Fenris snorted. His hands were still in Hawke’s too-long hair. He probably did need a haircut. Fenris pretended he was not stroking it, and did not move away; it would have ruined that warm space between them.
“I missed you,” Hawke said. “You have no idea how many desire demons pretended to be you. It was terrible.”
“And you were not tempted?”
“None of them were cranky enough.”
“You have peculiar tastes, Hawke.”
“You’ve ruined me for other people, that’s all.”
Hawke laughed. Fenris could feel his chest vibrating with it. “There were three whole years I could have slept with Isabela anytime I felt like it and I didn’t. If that’s not ruined I don’t know what is.”
Fenris smiled. “Didn’t you?” Isabela had made the odd pass at him too during those three years. He had turned her down, eaten up inside with how he felt about Hawke, and she had accepted it cheerfully. Kindly, even, with a wink, a smile, a friendly touch on the arm; he might have changed his mind, had it not been for the strength of his longing for Hawke. It was strange to imagine Hawke doing the same thing, for the same reasons.
“I did cry on her shoulder once,” Hawke said. “Drunkenly. While she laughed at me.” He touched two fingers to the tip of Fenris’s ear, stroked around the curve. It was a tender, unHawkeish touch. Fenris leaned into it, turned his face into Hawke’s hand. “Ruined,” Hawke said again, eyes gone dark as he watched, and Fenris rested a hand on his hip and thought about other memories. Hawke, still dressed, thrusting against his thigh; Hawke laughing at himself as he struggled out of his clothes; Hawke shuddering underneath him, eyes open, reaching up, smile changing from wicked to delighted. They would have that again. Fenris would have that again.
“If you keep looking at me like that I am going to get down on my knees and suck you off right here,” said Hawke, like a threat. Fenris gave him a look and then a smirk even as his body registered that idea with a hot flare of interest, a sharp twist in his stomach and warmth pooling between his legs. There had been no one since Hawke. It had been a long time since Hawke.
“Is that so,” he said.
Hawke groaned at his expression. “You think I don’t mean it but I really do,” he said. “Fenris.”
“Fine. Prove it,” Fenris said. Hawke’s eyes widened and then he started laughing; after a second he leaned down and pressed his laughter against the side of Fenris’s neck, hot hitching breath in between biting kisses that made Fenris’s pulse jump. Hawke steered them both backwards into the shadow of a still-standing wall and fell to his knees among the rubble, hands either side of Fenris’s thighs. When he looked up his face was flushed, his eyes bright with challenge and something else.
Fenris leaned back against the ruined wall and licked his lips and managed to say in a voice that was almost dry and almost steady, “This is not quite what you promised, Hawke.”
“Oh, you are asking for it,” said Hawke, and he might have said more, but Fenris glanced up for a moment. Then he reached down without looking to push Hawke’s head away from where it was resting against his thigh, because they were being watched.
“What?” said Hawke.
“A public thoroughfare bare yards from the road to the viscount’s keep might not be the best place for this,” Fenris said.
He said it without looking down, though he kept his hand on Hawke’s shoulder. It did not feel safe, somehow, to look away from Solas’s lean, ragged figure. He was a dark silhouette against the dusk, paused and looking at them from several yards away, and it was only the slight animal gleam of his eyes that Fenris had seen. Hawke scrambled to his feet. Fenris took a deep breath - his body still feeling hot with fading anticipation, a few seconds behind the sudden change of mood - and stepped forward.
“I apologise,” said Solas. There was a slight smile tugging at his mouth: amusement, Fenris thought, though his tone was courteous. “It was not my intention to interrupt you.” He nodded politely at Hawke, but it was Fenris he was looking at; Fenris he was interested in. He was dressed for travel.
“You are leaving,” Fenris said.
Solas nodded. But he did not move. His eyes glittered, reflecting all the dim light that was available - like the jewelled eyes of Tevinter dragons; like the opal eyes of the statue of Mythal.
“What is it?” Fenris said. “What do you want?”
“You were not mistaken about Arlathan,” Solas said. “For many - too many - it was a vile place.”
“You were staring creepily at us just to say that?” said Hawke, but Fenris put a restraining hand on his shoulder and he fell silent.
“The humans came as thieves and scavengers to the ruins of a great civilisation. They took our crimes for their model and shaped their empire after ours. The best was lost,” Solas said, “and the worst endured. It should not have happened that way.”
“That is hardly your fault,” Fenris said.
Solas shook his head. “A beautiful work of magic may also be ugly - in intent, in consequences. It would have been better by far if the slave markings had perished with the empire that made them. I am sorry for what was done to you.”
“The mage responsible for what was done to me,” said Fenris, “is dead. I killed him. I do not need your pity.”
“Not pity,” Solas said. “I could still remove them, if you wish.”
Fenris made himself think, properly, made himself consider. To get rid of them - to eliminate every trace of Danarius on his skin -
But it was not on his skin that Danarius had truly marked him. He had known that even before the vengeance demon had seen it in him. And trying to fight without the powers granted him by the blighted markings had felt crippling. He was too used to them, had used them too long. There was Hawke to think of - Hawke who could never stay out of danger for ten minutes together, even before Courage. Something else nudged at his memory too: Merrill on the mountainside, touching her own marked face in horror, and then changing her mind. But that’s not what they mean now. We changed it.
“No,” he said.
Solas said nothing else. For a long time he only looked at Fenris while Fenris looked at him. Finally he closed his eyes and bowed his head, once - a valediction - and then turned and walked away.
There was a long moment of silence.
“Well, that killed the mood,” said Hawke finally. He put an arm over Fenris’s shoulders, warm and heavy; it was a comforting anchor to a world that had briefly seemed unreal. “Do you think we should tell him he’s going the wrong way?” Solas had left in the direction of the Lowtown markets; he was more likely to end up wandering the maze of the lower city than actually leaving Kirkwall.
Fenris shook his head. “Forget him,” he said. He felt a moment of pity - sympathy, rather - for Inquisitor Lavellan. But it was hardly his place to interfere, and he doubted anything he said would make a difference. In his own way Solas was as fixed and unbending as Anders had been.
“Well, in that case - where were we,” Hawke said, not a question, more of a challenge, voice full of smirk as his arm tightened over Fenris’s shoulder.
Fenris snorted. “On a public thoroughfare, Hawke.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” said Hawke. “There’s probably a law. You know how Viscount Vallen is about her laws.”
“She is still going to kill you -”
Hawke kissed him, hard, and pushed him back a few paces. Now they were among the ruins of the Amell estate; in fact, Fenris rather thought they were standing in what was left of the entrance hall. “There we go,” Hawke said. “Private property.”
“Hawke, your private property has no walls.”
Hawke dropped to his knees. “Be honest,” he said, “how much do you really care right now?”
“Hawke,” said Fenris, but he did not stop Hawke’s hands at his belt. He tried to help, in fact, which slowed matters down. Hawke kept abandoning his purpose to kiss Fenris’s fingers. Fenris, his blood beginning to pound again, had no attention to spare for anything else, and he did not notice the small figure running down the steps from the Keep until she started calling out to them.
“Fenris! Fenris! Hawke!”
“Kaffas,” Fenris muttered, with feeling, and shoved Hawke away again.
“Twice in three minutes,” Hawke said, rueful, laughing as he got to his feet.
“I told you we needed walls,” said Fenris, and then Merrill stumbled to a halt among the ruins. She did not seem to have noticed what they were doing. She was shaking, and desperately pale under her markings. Hawke’s brows drew together in concern.
“It’s him,” Merrill said, “it was him all along, and now he’s gone -”
“Merrill, what is it? What’s wrong?” said Hawke. “Calm down and-”
“He wrote it all down, he wrote it all down, I’m so stupid - din’an solas dar’athim - it wasn’t a riddle, it was just the truth -”
“Merrill,” said Fenris sharply. “What are you talking about?”
She caught her breath and looked up at him with wide eyes. “Solas,” she said. “Have you seen Solas?”
“We saw him just a moment ago,” said Hawke. “Do you want us to go after him? He was heading into Lowtown, so he can’t have got far.”
Merrill sagged in relief. Fenris caught her arm as she stumbled, and so he felt the instant when she froze again, all the muscles in her arm stiffening as she whispered, “Lowtown - the alienage. Oh no, oh no.” She tore herself out of Fenris’s grasp, expression wild. “The arulin’holm - the orb - the eluvian - they’re all in my house - Tarly’s there!”
“What is it you think he’s going to do, Merrill?” Hawke said.
“He’s going to destroy the world,” Merrill said.
“What? Really? How do you know?”
“Because he did it once already!”
She was already turning away as she spoke, starting to run; green light shimmered around her and tree roots erupted from the uneven ground to throw her along at speed. Fenris and Hawke exchanged a single look.
“No sex today, then,” said Hawke.
“Get Lavellan,” Fenris said, and went after Merrill.
Chapter 17: Behind Mirrors
Kirkwall after nightfall was the ghost of a city, dark shapes of crooked houses casting overlapping blocks of shadow across the narrow streets. Once the distant noise of the celebration in Hightown faded behind Fenris it was deathly silent. No prowlers accosted him, no prostitutes called out to him. Lowtown was emptied. Somewhere an alley cat screamed. Fenris ran, head down, teeth gritted, along the path of churned-up cobblestones that was Merrill’s trail. She had cut straight through some of the most unpleasant slum districts, taking the fastest route to the alienage.
He was unhappily aware that he had no weapon. He had not thought to carry one during the celebrations. The autumn wind picked up, blowing chill into his face as he ran, along with smells that did not belong to this night and this city: salt wildness of the open sea, something old and green like the forested foothills of Sundermount, and the sharp ozone scent of magic. Fenris tried to ignore it. He ran.
He arrived at the top of the alienage steps just in time to see Merrill blast the wreckage of the vhenandhal out the way as she half-ran half-flew towards her own front door. He threw himself after her. Inside the little hovel there was wreckage. It was not the usual chaos of Merrill’s absent-minded scholarship and poor housekeeping, but true destruction. Books were scattered among tumbled furniture, and the door to the bedroom hung off its hinges. Merrill had halted just inside the door. Her apprentice Tarly lay collapsed in front of the fire, pale and terribly still.
Merrill seemed unable to move. Fenris went to the boy mage and knelt. Frost rimed the tips of the young elf's fingers and glittered in his eyelashes; it was melting, though, in the fire’s heat. He was still breathing. Fenris glanced over his shoulder and saw by the broken door the icy pattern on walls and floor that showed where the blast had been. Tarly had not fallen here. Solas had stopped and carried him to the fire after freezing him. Fenris remembered the strange perception he had had in the midst of the gate-sealing ritual, of that old, cold, terribly strong power. Solas could certainly have killed Tarly. He had chosen not to.
Merrill had not made a sound, but there Fenris could feel her eyes on him. He glanced up. Her mouth was trembling.
“He lives,” Fenris said. “He is breathing, Merrill.”
“I should have been here," Merrill said. "I'm the elder. Keeper Marethari would have been here. I should have been here."
Fenris turned his head away from the dreadful look on her face. So much horror deserved at least the dignity of privacy. But he could not help thinking that if it had been Merrill, Solas would have had to kill her. She was far too strong a mage to be disabled like this, especially once she resorted to blood magic. Pointless to consider it. He ignored the queasiness at the thought of what might have happened - finding Merrill small and still and terribly cold on her own floor when Hawke inevitably dragged him along to visit the hovel in the morning -
Merrill was a blood mage and a danger to all who encountered her and a murderess. Fenris shook the boy’s shoulder, and watched his eyelids flutter, and tried to forget the picture his imagination had conjured.
“Oh,” said Tarly when he opened his eyes. “It’s you. The Champion’s…” His eyes closed again.
“Where is he?” demanded Fenris. When there was no answer he tried to modulate his voice. Kindness did not come easily to him. “Tarly,” he said.
“I tried to stop him,” Tarly said faintly, without opening his eyes. The melting frost looked like tears dripping down his face. “He took them - the focus, the arulin’holm. I tried to stop him.”
“Oh, Tarly, you didn't have to,” said Merrill
"I did, Keeper - I tried -"
“Where?” said Fenris.
But Tarly did not answer; his breath evened out. He was exhausted from fighting a battle he could not possibly have won. They would get no more from him.
Fenris stood. His fingers twitched for an absent weapon. “What now?”
Merrill looked ill with fear and grief and anger. “He’s taken the orb,” she said.
“What can he do with it?”
“Anything!” She looked around wildly and her gaze caught on her unconscious apprentice. Her lips tightened with anger. Then her eyes widened and she breathed, "Oh." All of a sudden she was running again, straight past Fenris; he caught at her arm as she passed and grasped only air. He turned after her and was just in time to see her throw herself through the eluvian in the bedroom and vanish.
The ancient mirror had been broken when they returned from the Fade. It was not broken now. The eluvian shimmered like water, alive-looking, bright with magic. To Fenris’s senses it hummed. He grimaced, though there was no one there to see. Some small part of him whispered that this was no concern of his. This was a thing of magic and ancient memory. Its uncanny humming made him feel faintly sick just from being near to it.
And what purpose would he serve beyond the glass - one ordinary elf, unarmed, in this conflict of witchcraft which he barely understood? He was not Hawke, to throw himself wildly into madness simply because it was there. He remembered the wash of magic pouring over him as he stepped through this thing last time, and he knew he was afraid.
In the next room Tarly coughed.
Fenris had sent Hawke to get help. He had run after Merrill himself. He had not thought twice about it. He pictured Hawke and Lavellan finding him here, standing helpless before the eluvian, unable to go on.
Who knew how long the door to elsewhere would stay open?
He had faced worse looking for Hawke - faced it and never trembled. It had been easy. It had been for Hawke. But Fenris was a free man; he knew that. He loved Hawke, but he did not live for Hawke only.
Merrill knew more of the orb and the mage who had stolen it than Fenris did. She was a blood mage and a danger to all who encountered her and a murdreress -
- and a friend.
Whatever Solas was, whatever he intended, she should not face him alone.
Fenris swore, braced himself as if he were about to dive into cold water, and ran into the mirror.
He half-expected the formless dreamscape of the Fade, the wide still lake where they had found Hawke. But the mirror did not lead the same way twice. He stumbled to a halt after a few steps and stared. There was no sign of Merrill, still less of Solas. He stood alone in a courtyard filled with mirrors - a hundred mirrors, a thousand, man-high; some stood apart on high plinths, some were arranged in groups or circles, and none of them reflected anything. Their frames were varied. Some were finely carved stone after the manner of the Sundermount ruins, others elegant golden metalwork, and others still looked like ancient rough-hewn masonry; a few, even older-looking, seemed to have simply grown from the ground where they stood. They had the appearance of twisted trees.
Great stone owls and wolves watched over the place, peeked around the edges of mirrors or perched stony-eyed above them. Magic permeated the whole courtyard, rippled over his skin like a thin film of oil; his markings glistened, lyrium singing softly under his skin, painfully familiar and yet totally strange. Not even the Fade had felt like this. No place Fenris had ever been had felt like this. He stepped forward, and felt the alien air move around him as if it were alive. There was a terrible aliveness here. It felt as though something was looking out through every dark mirror; and that something, whatever it was, had noticed him.
He shuddered and kept moving. There was no obvious way to go, but the shape of the courtyard was not completely open; the curved lines of the standing mirrors made a kind of avenue, and though the sky was a uniform unearthly grey, towards the stony horizon there was a pale glow, like a promise of dawn. After a moment Fenris summoned the lyrium in his skin to life, and saw the blue-white light reflected here and there in golden mirror frames. There was an odd and bitter satisfaction to it, even to the pain; it was the true pain that meant the markings were functioning as they should, not the numbness and agony of the Blight. He had changed what they meant. He could have chosen to get rid of them and he had not. They were his markings, not his master’s.
He had not been walking long when he heard a voice. “Stop!” it cried, high and thin.
He ran towards the cry past banks of dark mirrors. It had come from a high circular structure - hardly a building, only a domed roof set on delicate columns that rose in the distance. A mighty stone wolf guarded the stairway up. Fenris darted past it, and its twin at the top of the steps, and there they were.
Merrill and Solas faced each other across the open circle beneath the dome. The floor beneath their feet was paved with tiny fragments of gold in a great mosaic. Solas stood half-turned, interrupted in whatever he had been doing: Merrill's hands were flaring with the faint shimmer of magic. Fenris stared, and did not even notice he had let the markings fade.
Seven mighty mirrors stood beneath the dome in a great arc. They were old mirrors, tall and arched, with frames of twisted heartwood. Before each mirror, unreflected in the dark glass, there was a statue. They were so like the statues in the tower under Sundermount they might have been wrought by the same hand: seven elves in ivory and gold, each with pale opals for eyes. The work was extraordinarily fine. The ivory robes each elf wore had been carved so deftly they seemed to drape like silk.
Each of the seven gods - they were gods, beyond a doubt they were gods, the same gods that Merrill so often swore by - was crowned with a jewelled circlet. The faces beneath the crowns were carefully distinguished from each other. Some ancient unknown sculptor had known exactly what he was doing when he gave this face a half-smirk, that one a frown; made this profile a little sharper, and those cheekbones slightly tilted; carved in crow’s feet around the eyes of the central figure, and softened the severe mouth of the statue on the far left. Yet there was a similarity between the seven carved faces. All of them were proud.
And Fenris looked at Solas standing in the midst of the mirrors, and suddenly saw again what he had half-seen on Sundermount when Solas had taken the amulet from the statue of Mythal. He had not seemed out of place there; he was not out of place here. His face was like theirs. Not just in its stillness, its paleness, its resolve, but also in - there was the line of a cheekbone, and there the shape of a long nose, and there the sharp jaw -
No wonder Fenris had missed it. Beneath Sundermount, surrounded by magic and codes and frescoes like painted riddles, he had sensed some hidden thing and assumed it must be complicated. But this was simple. He thought - as he had not thought in years, had tried not to think - of his encounter with Varania. How strange it was to look at someone else’s face and see yourself reflected, your own familiar features looking back at you, your own blood, your family.
“They are your kin,” he said. His voice echoed through the open space and seemed to jolt both mages. They turned to stare at him. Merrill looked more surprised than Solas did.
Solas only glanced at him. “That is a slight oversimplification,” he said - lightly, a polite correction. “My clan, perhaps, would be closer to the truth.” He nodded to Merrill. “Though we are otherwise very little like the Dalish.”
“Where is Mythal?” said Merrill. The goddess from Sundermount was not included among the seven.
“Not here,” said Solas.
“And where are you?” Fenris challenged him.
Solas tilted his head slightly, fixing Fenris with a considering look that felt like being speared. Then he said, “Behind you.”
Fenris glanced involuntarily over his shoulder. There was nothing there but the great stone wolf that guarded the stairs. He looked back at Solas, who raised one eyebrow and then smiled a tight, secret smile. He had the wicked blade of the arulin’holm tucked through the belt of his ragged robes, and his staff in one hand. He reached down into the folds of his overrobe with the other and came out holding the orb. At his touch it flared with pale light, dim over most of the surface, bright along the lines of the faint carvings, forming glittering words in some ancient unknowable alphabet that Solas no doubt knew well. Fenris could feel the magic buried in the thing even through the ambient magic that pervaded this place: quiet but deep, as if the orb were the opening of a well dug down to some strong secret spring of power. The flare of light was reflected in Solas's eyes. At least, Fenris hoped that light came from the orb.
“I can’t let you do it,” Merrill said.
“You do not even understand what I intend to do,” said Solas. “And I could hardly explain it to you.”
“You’re the Dread Wolf,” Merrill said. “You destroyed our people. You betrayed the gods."
Solas grimaced, shook his head and turned away. Green light flared between his hands, the orb growing brighter and brighter as he fed magic into it. Fenris felt the greasy air of this unearthly place growing charged with power. Green light flickered and arced between the seven mirrors, and was reflected in the opal eyes of those seven still faces. Proud faces, cold faces; unpleasant faces. Fenris remembered the vision he had had in the Fade of Danarius standing in Solas’s place, speaking with his words, bowing in festival robes, and understanding struck him with white fury in its wake. Let them call themselves what they pleased. He had spent enough time in the company of mighty mages to know better. They were not gods, these seven. They were magisters.
He summoned the lyrium burn to life again: here it seemed stronger, as if all the magic in his skin was singing. Merrill aimed a bolt of spirit magic at Solas’s back. He batted it aside with a casual gesture, without looking away from the orb, without even turning round. Fenris thought of every time he had seen Solas in battle. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he had been holding back.
Still, Fenris had been a magister’s bodyguard. No less than a southern templar, he had been made to kill mages. He had no sword, but he did not need a weapon. He was a weapon. The lyrium sang through him with bright familiar pain. He sprang forward.
Solas hurled another casual blast of power backwards; it slid sideways off the shield that was the markings and what little remained of the spell barely touched him. Then Fenris was slamming into Solas at the shoulder and reaching through muscle and bone for the orb -
A wave of magic flung him back sharply, and only the sudden blue curtain of a barrier stopped the blow being worse than simply painful. Merrill recast the shield even as Solas dispelled it; Fenris expected him to turn on her, but Solas did not seem worried by her presence. He kept his eyes on Fenris, no longer casual, staff in one hand, orb gleaming with dim green light in the other. Fenris regained his feet and kept moving, feeling without looking for the ice mines that Solas was silently casting around his feet, watching the mage watch him. Solas awkwardly shrugged the arm that Fenris had thrust his hand through. He had thrown Fenris off before there was any real damage, but now he was wary.
Fenris snarled and sprang at him again. Ice and cold fire bloomed around him and were gone. The lyrium brands glowed brighter, burned colder, throwing glinting reflections into the corners of Fenris’s vision, and then the world seemed to slow and Fenris could see every twitch of Solas’s fingers, every arc of light that darted around his staff. Haste - Merrill’s doing. Solas’s mouth tightened and he gestured to dispel. It gave Fenris enough time to see the way that the golden mosaic was rupturing at his feet, stone humping itself up into a boulder; he ducked beneath the stony fist, a missile hurled faster than any mere catapult could ever manage, and heard the boom and crack as it struck a pillar behind him.
Then he was on Solas again, using all his weight and momentum to drag them both down together. They rolled across the golden floor. Solas’s staff went skittering out of his hand. He was hanging on grimly to the orb, which still glowed Fade-green. He had thrown up a barrier to prevent Fenris forcing his ghostly hands into his viscera, but he could not stop Fenris from punching him in the face.
A crack: Solas’s nose started bleeding. He bared his teeth in rage. Fenris felt the stirrings in the greasy air that were the gathering beginnings of another spell. He punched Solas in the face again. The mage’s head snapped to one side, and his spell died unborn.
Fenris knew how to do this. A powerful mage at range was a force for pure destruction, an unstoppable weapon, near-indestructible. But a powerful mage close up was only a man not wearing enough armour. It was hard for even the strongest wizard to cast a spell when he was distracted by being wrestled to the ground and punched repeatedly in the jaw. Solas struggled underneath him as blood dripped from his nose and mouth. He could have struggled more fiercely if he had not been clinging to the shining orb. There was some strength in his narrow body, and he knew what he was doing; Fenris could keep him down, but he could not pin him. He could feel in the way Solas fought him that he had once been trained for this kind of combat, as if magecraft were not fearsome enough. He was formidable now, but some long-ago young elf had been truly terrifying.
Fenris was younger, though, and stronger, and Solas was too used to relying on magic for his edge. Oh, Danarius had been a genius, no doubt. They scuffled on the dustless ground and the markings blazed and flared in answer to Solas’s stinging, vicious spells, spells meant to freeze and burn and paralyse, and some which Fenris had never felt before. The markings protected him from the worst of it, but even so if it had not been for Merrill’s steady stream of strengthening spells and healing magics, the barrier after barrier she dropped over Fenris, he would have been in difficulty. Solas clearly knew it. When he broke loose from Fenris’s hold for a bare instant he used it to conjure one of his fearsome blizzards in Merrill’s direction. Fenris leapt on him and wrestled him back again as icy winds began to blast between the mirrors and statues.
They ended up against the base of the central statue. The proud cold face seemed to be looking down on them as Fenris pinned Solas against the statue’s base with his whole body’s weight and seized his wrist. He twisted as he forced Solas’s arm back.
The orb fell out of Solas’s grasp and rolled across the golden mosaic floor. Its greenish light flickered. “No!” Solas cried.
It rolled to a halt at Lavellan’s feet as she mounted the last of the steps.
She stood in the shadow of the great wolf statue, Hawke on her left, Varric on her right. Solas froze. The blizzard flickered out of existence, leaving shocking quiet behind it: the quiet of this ancient magical place, where there was no wind and no sky and no living thing to break the old silence. Lavellan stooped and picked up the orb. The mark on her hand flared briefly as she touched it.
Solas stared at her, silent, blood on his face. He seemed barely aware that Fenris still had him pinned against the statue’s base, his hand twisted up behind his back. Lavellan looked at him, and at Fenris, and Merrill; and then her cool considering eyes took in the columns, the mosaic, the seven mirrors, the seven statues. Fenris saw her eyes dart back and forth from Solas to the mighty figure above them. “Elgar’nan,” she said.
“Yes,” said Solas.
Lavellan looked at Fenris. The orb was a dim star in her hand. “Let him go.”
Fenris did it, and stepped back, but not too far away. Nor did he let the lyrium fade. Varric had raised his crossbow, a bolt ready; Hawke, grim-faced, shifted to the open stance of a battlemage, staff angled. Fenris felt Merrill settle another barrier around him. Only Lavellan did not seem to think this was a battle. She looked at Solas, and looked, and he said nothing.
“The statue of Mythal we saw,” Lavellan said eventually. “Was it a good likeness?”
Solas swallowed. “Yes,” he said.
“I thought you must be older than you looked,” said Lavellan. “After the Temple of Mythal. I thought so.” She looked at him some more, and at the seven gods arrayed behind him. The contrast was stark. Seven golden idols, and one living elf, thin and ragged and bloody.
“And the other statue,” Lavellan said at last, when the silence seemed near unbearable. “The broken one. Was that a good likeness too?”
Fenris was still close enough to Solas that he could hear the quick intake of breath before he answered, “Yes.”
“Did you know it would be broken?”
Lavellan looked at him consideringly. “You didn’t think we would find it.”
“But you knew we might.”
Solas was still, and then he nodded, once.
“And if we had found it,” Lavellan said softly, “that true likeness of Fen’Harel, unbroken, in that place, what would you have done?”
There was quiet, and then Solas said, “I suppose I would have had no choice but to explain everything and beg your forgiveness.”
Silence followed the admission.
Lavellan's mouth twisted. “So was it a game to you, Solas? A bet you made with yourself? To see what would happen?”
“No,” said Solas. “Not that. Never that.”
“Were you afraid we would find it?” Lavellan demanded.
Solas said nothing.
“Were you hoping?”
Fenris’s eyes caught on Varric, who was clearly having a hard time containing himself. Bianca was aimed and ready, but behind it he was pulling extraordinary faces, mouthing questions. But Hawke was still grim and steady. In moments like this one Hawke could be relied on.
“Why did you join the Inquisition?” Lavellan said.
Solas closed his eyes. You who love the truth, Fenris remembered. “For the orb,” he said.
“How did you know Corypheus had the orb anyway?” said Varric. “Where would a darkspawn magister even get something like that?”
“I gave it to him,” Solas said, opening his eyes to meet Lavellan’s gaze again. She did not react. Hawke’s brows were drawing together thunderously, and Varric was openly boggled, and somewhere over to Fenris’s right Merrill let out a gasp. But Lavellan only watched him.
Solas flinched under that cool merciless gaze. “It was a mistake,” he said.
“No kidding,” said Varric.
“I never meant for this to happen.”
“Well, I’m glad to know that giving the darkspawn magister an artefact that let him tear a hole in the sky and unleash a horde of demons on the world was an accident,” said Hawke. “That makes me feel much better.”
Solas did not even seem to hear him. He was focused on Lavellan. “I never meant for this to happen,” he said again, and this time he gestured as he spoke, a sweep of the hand that might have meant the silent ruins around them, or else might have been Solas gesturing at Fenris, and Merrill, and Lavellan herself. “It was my mistake. Please, Inquisitor. Let me put it right.” He stepped forward and held out his hands, both of them, a wordless plea.
Lavellan looked down at the orb she held and said, “You want to bring them back."
Solas inclined his head.
“What would it change?”
“Everything,” said Solas. “For the elvhen, everything.”
Lavellan looked at the orb, thoughtful, considering. Fenris heard Solas breathe out and felt the hair rising on the back of his neck even before she looked up, smiling a little, and said, “All right. What’s one more world-shaking decision?”
Chapter 18: The Dread Wolf
Fenris did not decide to speak: the word just boiled out of him. Everyone looked at him, and it was a shock, somehow; even now, even after all this time, there was a part of him that did not expect to be listened to - not in a company like this. But they all looked, Solas impatient now, Hawke with a sharp nod and Varric with his rare serious expression, Merrill big-eyed, and Lavellan - calm. Calm, though there was a fey gleam in her eyes, and the beginnings of a wild fierce smile hovered about her lips, and the orb glowed in her marked hand.
Fenris moved forward to put himself in her way. She would have to go past him to give Solas his prize. She would have to go through him. At least he knew he would not stand alone. Hawke and Varric would help him, he thought - not Merrill, no, not for this, but let two be enough. (It would not be, not against three such mages. There was no question what Merrill would choose here.)
He met Lavellan’s eyes and did not look down. He had thought that cool look showed a steady heart, and it was true. She would be as steady about this madness as about anything else. Lavellan looked and Fenris glared, and finally she raised one eyebrow.
“Well?” she said.
“I said no,” said Fenris. Magic flashed through him; the lyrium in his skin flared to life again.
Lavellan tilted her head slightly. “I don’t want to fight you,” she said.
“You already made your choice,” Fenris said. Light flickered, reflected oddly from the golden mosaic floor, the dark glass of the seven great mirrors. “I will not let you carry it out.”
Lavellan looked at him a little longer.
Then she said, “Why not?”
“Inquisitor,” said Solas.
“No,” said Lavellan, and some of the wildness was gone from her expression, replaced with a more familiar calm curiosity. “I want to know.”
Fenris swallowed. He had not expected that. If he had been in her place - if it had been Hawke asking madness of him -
“Make your case,” the Inquisitor said. “I’m listening.”
“You already know,” said Fenris. “You should already know. If you meant what you said on Sundermount - if you were listening to me then - you should know. Look at them. Think.”
“He does not understand, Inquisitor,” said Solas. “Not through any failing of his. He cannot understand - none of them can - it is the nature of this world - but you are different -”
Lavellan said, “Solas,” and then there was a flicker of a smile. “Or do you prefer your other name?”
“Solas,” Lavellan decided. “Please. Let me think.”
Fenris did not expect Solas to subside at that, but he did. He suspected he did not understand them at all, these two mages, thousands of years apart and yet somehow one in mind: he did not understand them, and they understood each other all too well. Hawke and Varric were taking advantage of this opportunity to silently position themselves for a battle. Keep them talking, Hawke mouthed at him. Fenris could not see Merrill at all, which was worrying. He could not help but feel he was the wrong person for this role. He was no maker of easy speeches. Hawke should have done it - or Varric - but Fenris was the one who had spoken, and Fenris was the one Lavellan was looking at.
Solas stood silent and watchful close by. His eyes as he looked at Lavellan were hungry, and Fenris could not have guessed whether the hunger was for the orb or the woman. He had to speak. He had to keep them talking. Perhaps there was a chance.
“Look at them,” he said again. “I beg of you. Look at what they are, not what the Dalish dreamed them to be. Look at him.”
Lavellan looked for a long moment.
“We were immortal,” she said, after a moment. “We were strong. We had magic, and cities of our own - homes of our own. We weren’t attacked every time we stayed too long in one place, we weren’t hunted and hated by the humans - our people weren’t stuffed into slums in their cities, or kept as slaves in their empires."
Solas bowed his head.
“Why not change things? Anything would be better than this. In Arlathan we were beautiful,” Lavellan said, looking up at the carved proud faces, ivory and gold. “In Arlathan we were free.”
“They were free!” Fenris snapped. “They were the ones who were strong. They were the ones who possessed all the power you dream of. Do you want to be one of them? Do you aspire to godhead, Inquisitor? No doubt your lover would be pleased to bestow it on you. You heard him: you are different. You are special. The great Inquisitor is nothing like the rest of us.”
For the first time Lavellan faltered. “I -”
“What difference is there between them and the magisters who made the Blight?” Fenris demanded. “What difference is there between him and Corypheus?”
Solas coughed. “For one thing, we succeeded.”
Lavellan’s eyes went wide. Fenris opened his mouth and then closed it again.
“I don’t know about anyone else, but for me this conversation is raising a lot more questions than it’s answering,” Varric said. His crossbow’s bolt was trained on Solas’s head. Out of the corner of his eye Fenris could see that Hawke was covering Lavellan.
Solas’s eyes narrowed. “This is not a conversation,” he said. “This is a waste of time.” He turned to Lavellan. “Vhenan, I have not deserved it from you, but still I must ask you to trust me. Everything I have done, I have done for the elvhen. For all of us. For our people.”
“Everything?” said Lavellan. She nodded to the seven mirrors. “Even this? This was you, wasn’t it - the Dalish did get that right at least.”
“Yes,” said Solas. “Even this. It was a mistake I made with the best of intentions. Do you think I do not know how we have suffered for it? There is no one who knows what we have lost as well as I do.” His face twisted. “In my pride I set out to change the world and instead I destroyed it. You must believe me! This - this cracked, spiritless reality - this was never what I wanted.”
“That’s what happens when you set out to change things,” said Hawke, softly, dangerously. “Things change.”
Solas barely seemed to hear him. “I will put it right. I am the only one who can. And you are the only one who can help me. Please.” He reached out. Fenris stiffened, but the mage did not try to seize the orb. He was reaching for Lavellan’s arm, a pleading touch.
Lavellan said, “So if destroying everything created this world, would bringing it all back destroy this world?”
“Yes,” Solas said. “Of course. But for the better - infinitely better -”
“How do you know?”
“What about the people?” Lavellan said. “The elves now - the ones living in the clans, and the alienages. The slaves. What would happen to them?”
“And the dwarves, the Qunari? The humans?”
Solas let out an exasperated breath. “Don’t you see it doesn’t matter? None of this is real, Inquisitor. None of this was ever meant to happen.”
“But it did,” Lavellan said. “It has.” She looked down at the glowing orb, and then back at him. “Do I matter, Solas? Am I real to you?”
Solas stared at her. Fenris could see the agony on his face.
“Is there something unique about my spirit?” Lavellan said. “I remember you asked. Maybe you reached a conclusion. Tell me the truth. Am I special? Am I different?”
Solas’s voice shook. “I don’t know.”
Lavellan looked at him until he looked away.
“Yes you do,” she said sadly.
The gleam of the awakened orb winked out in her hands. Fenris could no longer feel the terrible power it held. Lavellan looked at him. “Thank you,” she said.
Fenris nodded once.
“No,” said Solas.
Fenris was expecting it. He was not the only one. A crossbow bolt whistled past Solas’s right ear and a blast of fire dissipated on his sudden shield as he lunged at Lavellan, snatched away the orb. Fenris saw the look of pure shock flash over her face when he shouldered her out of the way of her lover’s assault only an instant too late. The three of them had expected it. She had not.
Fenris turned to face him, this mage who had made himself a god, who in the pride of his power had then broken a long-ago world. Solas bared his teeth. The stolen orb was already starting to glitter in his hands. “Those markings are an abomination,” he said. “You should have let me set you free.”
I already freed myself, Fenris did not bother to say.
Solas was better prepared for his attack this time. If Fenris had been seeking to overpower him he would have failed. But he did not waste his time; not against this foe. He only forced his ghostly hands through and around Solas’s and held on. Their hands were interlocked around the orb, Fenris’s wrists forced through Solas’s, the magic of the thing pulsing and growing between them. Fenris could extend the power of the markings to the things he touched; it was how he kept his weapons, his armour, when he ghosted. Solas snarled as he tried to pull the orb away and a spell like nothing Fenris had ever felt moved around them both, pinning, canceling.
Fenris felt the magic his markings flicker and die, for all but those which kept his wrists ghostly where they were interlaced with Solas’s flesh and bone. He was trapped. They both were. He met the mage’s eyes and saw the sweat beading on his forehead; even for him, this was no easy witchcraft. Fenris took a deep breath, braced both feet, and pulled.
They were already barely balanced. The sudden movement sent them both crashing to the ground. Solas clung doggedly to the orb as they rolled tangled together. His was face twisted in a grimace of effort; the spell which canceled the markings was clearly taking almost all he had, and a glinting barrier that shrugged off crossbow bolts and fireballs was taking the rest. He could do no more to defend himself - not without letting go of his prize. No more could Fenris, of course. But he did not need to. He locked his thighs around Solas’s hips, rolled them both over, got a bare glimpse of his furious expression and already-broken nose, and then in quick succession he jabbed an elbow into Solas’s belly and headbutted him hard in the face. The mage gasped; his fingers flexed unconsciously; the orb flew from both their sweaty grasps, and in the moment of shock that followed Solas lost control of his entangling counterspell and Fenris was able to pull away from their macabre double hold. He threw himself back onto his feet, prepared to run after the rolling orb: he saw Lavellan grasp for it, Varric and Hawke both turn after it, and then -
- then the golden mosaic cracked and shuddered, tiny bright tiles buckling. One thin strip of the revealed ground beneath reshaped itself into a smooth stony slope, along which the orb rolled cheerfully straight into Merrill’s waiting hands.
She straightened up and looked at them all with wide guileless eyes.
“Merrill,” said Hawke warningly.
“We could learn so much from this,” Merrill said. The white light of magic was around her hands. She was feeding it into the orb. Fenris despaired. Lavellan had listened to reason, but Merrill never listened to anyone. And Hawke and Varric would not be so quick to attack her.
Solas got slowly and painfully to his feet. “There is much I could teach you, hahren,” he said. “There is much you do not understand.”
Merrill cocked her head. “But I do, you know,” she said. “Understand, I mean. I really do.”
“The half-truths of the Dalish -”
“Oh no, not that. You,” said Merrill. “I understand you.”
A brief pause. “That is impossible,” Solas said.
“But I do,” said Merrill.
“How could you possibly understand me?”
Merrill said, “I made a choice and I was the only one who didn’t pay for it.”
Solas opened his mouth and no sound came out. Fenris stared at her. She was small and dishevelled and she looked exhausted. She met no one’s eyes. Her voice shook. But there was steel in her.
“They all died. My whole clan died because of me,” she said. “I was so sure. I was so stupid. If I could put it right - I would do anything. I would do anything.” She swallowed. “Except I think sometimes maybe you shouldn’t do anything? I mean, not that, not don’t do anything. But there are some things you shouldn’t do.”
Solas seemed to pull himself together. “You know nothing of -”
“I think maybe when you choose something, you choose what comes afterwards as well,” said Merrill. “Even if it’s terrible. You chose it. You chose. You have to live with it. Or else - or else you learn nothing. I would do anything to undo what I did. But I did it. I learned.” She looked at the orb again. “We could learn so much from this,” she repeated, sadly.
White light spiderwebbed between her fingers, arced around them, arced around the orb. Its strange alphabets lit up in bright colours and faded again. The light grew, running twisted threads across its ancient surface. Some of the patterns it formed were familiar to Fenris. They were the patterns on his own hands.
Then they fell apart; and as they did, the orb cracked. It was a soundless destruction. Merrill brought her joined hands apart and each hand held a fragile, jagged half. It was hollow. Fenris had not expected that; had felt the weight of the thing too often for that. But there was nothing inside; and now it was broken, he could sense nothing of the magic it had borne, no sign of that deep secret wellspring of power.
Solas made a low painful sound that was not a word.
“I’m sorry, harellan,” said Merrill, and she dropped the broken pieces on the golden mosaic floor.
There was quiet.
Varric broke it. He had lowered his crossbow. “You know, Chuckles,” he said - gently, of all things, but then Varric had travelled with this man, called him a comrade - “this is just a suggestion, and Maker knows I don’t have a lot of experience with ‘god of a dead empire’ as a lifestyle choice, but have you ever considered that instead of focusing on everything you’ve lost, it might be worth taking a good long look at what you’ve got?”
Varric barrelled on. “It’s not so bad, this world. Sure, it’s not perfect, but we get by. Most of the time we even enjoy ourselves. Right, Hawke?”
“Reality has its moments,” Hawke said. “I’d say it’s worth it.” He gave Fenris a sideways look, a little smile. Fenris tried not to react too obviously to the implication. Hawke’s smile broadened and his ears turned red, so he had not succeeded.
Solas only stared blindly at the broken orb.
Lavellan said tentatively, “Solas?”
Then he turned. Then he looked at her. Lavellan faltered before that look. Fenris saw it too, the wild misery in Solas’s eyes. It was the rage and despair of a trapped beast; or else the helplessness of a drowning man. It was a look Fenris had worn himself. It was a look he had seen Anders wear in the last weeks before he started a war. Solas’s mouth worked but he said nothing. Everything was very still. The seven still statues looked down blindly on the scene, all unaware. Somewhere behind those seven mirrors, Fenris thought abruptly, were the statues’ originals: seven more elves like Solas, his kinsmen and friends, eternally imprisoned for his mistake.
Lavellan held out her hand. “Ma vhenan,” she said. “If you want me.”
“I do,” Solas whispered. He swallowed hard. “I cannot.”
Magic bloomed around him suddenly, and then he was gone, transformed. It took Fenris a moment to comprehend the beast that had appeared in his place. It was a wolf, but no ordinary wolf: it was gigantic, long-legged, heavy-set, larger than any natural beast, ghostly pale - a creature out of nightmares that seemed barely contained by the canine shape. Its claws looked fierce, its jaws deadly, but before Fenris could think of attack and defence it took a running leap towards the stairway - past the great wolf statue that was itself - and was gone.
He ran after it - felt Hawke beside him - and reached the top of the steps just in time to see the wolf’s tail disappear through one of the countless mirrors that littered this place. The mirror cracked behind it, glass shattering into pieces, frame collapsing. There would be no repair for this. The others drew up around him: Hawke and Varric and Merrill, all staring at the twisted remains of the mirror. Lavellan was there on his left, breathing hard, silent.
“Gone,” Fenris said. “And we have no way to follow.”
It was a subdued group that passed back through Merrill’s eluvian and into her home.
“Is there any way to lock that thing, Merrill?” said Hawke.
“I’ll think of something,” Merrill said. Fenris shuddered at the thought of what was possible. The mirror could lead anywhere. Anything might come through.
Tarly was still unconscious, though there was more colour in his face now. Perhaps they should have gone back to the Keep, spoken to Aveline, allowed Lavellan to report to her advisors on what had happened. No one seemed inclined to do so. Lavellan was very quiet. Fenris carried Tarly to Merrill’s bed, and Merrill checked him over, and seemed satisfied. Then there was nothing to do; but no one wanted to go. They were all trying not to turn their backs on the dark mirror in the corner.
“I’m sorry it’s such a mess in here,” Merrill said, though her house was no worse than usual if you discounted the signs of battle.
“It’s always a mess in here, Merrill,” said Hawke. “Don’t worry. We’re used to it.”
“But you should all be able to sit in chairs, at least -”
“It hardly matters,” said Fenris. He made his point by sitting down on the floor by the fire. After a moment Hawke dropped down beside him and leaned their shoulders together. The flames were warm on Fenris’s back, and Hawke’s body was warm all the way down his side.
“Well, if you’re - oh, by the Dread Wolf!” Merrill darted over and rescued some ragged books from a chair that Lavellan was about to sit in. “I’m so sorry, I -”
Lavellan put her hand over her mouth. A sound escaped her, low and choked. Merrill reached out. Lavellan twisted away, dropped into the chair, and buried her face in her hands, shaking.
“Inquisitor,” said Varric, concerned -
Lavellan looked up and she was not weeping; she was laughing. She laughed dreadfully, wild-eyed, helpless, and then she swallowed hard and said, “By the - by the Dread Wolf -” before she went off into unhappy hysterics again.
“Oh,” said Merrill faintly. “Oh dear.” She paused. “And I think I said it in front of him as well. Oh dear. I hope he wasn’t embarrassed.”
“I should have known,” said Lavellan. “I should have known - I should have known - I’m so stupid -”
“Well, I know my first thought when I meet a stranger is always whether they might be secretly a demigod,” said Varric. “Or at least, it will be now. What’s next, Paragon Aeducan striding out of the Deep Roads? Andraste comes back to pay us all a visit?”
Lavellan said nothing.
“Come on, Inquisitor,” said Varric. “I’m not that up on my elven legends but Fen’Harel’s the trickster, right? It’s a pretty good bet he’s had a lot of practice telling lies. How were you supposed to know?”
“I should have known,” Lavellan said again, and then she did start to cry.
Merrill went and knelt by her chair and took her hands. Varric kept talking. It was uncomfortable to watch all that calm control finally break. Fenris did not think he should be seeing it. He quietly stood, and pulled Hawke to his feet behind him.
It was a cool Kirkwall night outside. The alienage was empty, washed in silver light; the moon was high; the sky was clear but for the smoke still rising from the foundry district on the other side of Lowtown. Fenris did not think they had not been in the place behind the mirrors all that long, though it had felt like an age.
Hawke stood behind him and hooked both arms around his shoulders. After a moment Fenris leaned back, resigning himself, and Hawke rested his chin against the side of Fenris’s head.
“You are not that much taller than me,” Fenris said waspishly.
He felt the movement in Hawke’s belly as he chuckled. The laugh ended with a sigh, warm breath against Fenris’s ear.
“I’ve been stupid,” Hawke said.
“That was never in doubt.”
Another warm huff of laughter, like the dragon shape’s hot breath. “Thanks.”
“I do not love you for your brains,” Fenris said. “Which is fortunate for you.”
Hawke laughed some more. Fenris reached for one of his hands; Hawke entwined their fingers. It was an awkward position, leaning against him, reaching back. Fine threads of stray magic thrilled against Fenris’s markings. He felt no inclination to move.
“Do you know what I was thinking in there?” Hawke said, and then answered his own question: “Idiot. Coward. When you’re lucky enough to have something - to have someone - you don’t just give up. You don’t run away.”
Fenris held his hand a little tighter.
“I’ve been stupid,” Hawke said again. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” said Fenris. Hawke twisted a little to kiss where he could reach; Fenris felt the brief warm press and prickle of lips and beard high on his cheekbone.
They were quiet for a while. The moon moved across the sky. Inside the alienage hovel, Merrill and Varric were comforting one of the most powerful women in Thedas - a woman who was not that much older than Merrill’s apprentices.
“Um,” said Hawke eventually.
“What is it?”
“I - never mind.”
Fenris pulled away from their embrace. “What?”
Hawke looked fidgety and suspicious but said nothing. Fenris folded his arms and raised one eyebrow.
“You don’t have to,” Hawke said. “I mean - I’d like it if - but I understand if you don’t - I don’t want to -”
“Hawke,” said Fenris. “What are you talking about?”
Hawke reached into his shirt and brought out a scrap of ragged cloth. In the washed-out moonlight it was hard to see the colour. Fenris did not need to see it to know. He knew it already, just as he knew every tear and fray in that piece of cloth, the hole once ripped by the spike of a careless gauntlet, the unravelling thread at one end he had had to force himself not to pick at. He had worn it for years, even when he had believed there was no hope and no future for them; he had worn it freely, proudly, until the day at the crossroads outside Wycome when Hawke had demanded it back.
“You kept it,” he said.
Hawke began to answer - of course I -
Fenris was barely listening. He stepped forward, and forward again, their bodies so close there was barely a space left between them. He snatched the cloth from Hawke’s uncertain unresisting hand. Hawke stopped talking. Fenris wrapped the red favour three times around his wrist. He used his teeth to hold the knot in place as he fastened it. Hawke was just staring at him now. Fenris favoured him with a glare.
“...right,” said Hawke faintly. The moonlight just revealed the slight darkening flush on his cheeks. “So you do want it back, then.”
“You are an idiot,” Fenris informed him, and he kissed Hawke’s blooming smile.
They kissed for some time under the eaves of Merrill’s hovel, and Hawke had begun breathing hot suggestions between kisses (“My place - no - yours? - no, demon - Hanged Man?”) - gasping all the while as Fenris nuzzled at his throat and licked and bit the soft skin beneath his jaw. Fenris might even have let himself be persuaded by one of the suggestions - they could hardly stand out here forever, pleasant as it was to be kissing Hawke under the Kirkwall moon, only a few feet away from the spot where they had first met - but they were interrupted.
Lavellan came out of the hovel, Varric at her side, Merrill behind them in the doorway. Her face was blotched and tear-stained, but she seemed to have regained some measure of her calm. Hawke and Fenris pulled apart as she turned to them.
“There should be rooms for both of you at the Keep,” she said. She smiled, impish. “Or a room. If you prefer. And I need to wake up my advisors. Shall we?”
“I take it something’s up,” said Hawke.
Lavellan nodded. “He won’t stop,” she said. “I know him. He can’t stop. Not now.”
“So the Inquisition’s stopping an ancient mage - monster - god - whatever the hell Solas is - before he destroys the world,” said Varric. “Again. Must be Tuesday.”
“I need to look after Tarly,” said Merrill. “Then I’ll come and help. I promise. As soon as I can.”
“Will you join us?” Lavellan said. She said it to both of them, but she was looking at Fenris. Hawke’s hand slipped into his, thumb brushing against the wrapped cloth of the favour. He did not speak. He was letting Fenris give their answer.
Fenris said, “Yes.”