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The Traveler

Chapter Text

People like to believe, when poised at the beginning of a story, that they will eventually reach a happy ending. That the conclusion will justify the many turns that they had taken to arrive there. They hold on to that hope through the ups and the downs, through the endless grind in the middle, through the tragedy that shakes the very chords of their hearts. They reach for that blessed light as they blink away their tears, assured in their belief that when the words stop and the last page has turned, all the people they met on this grand adventure will have found their own version of peace.

This is not a story for the believers. 

*

What had he done?

The world exploded. Color and light splintered, fracturing against the thunderous sound of the very air dividing. Souls split down the center, hearts shredded through the middle, his hands burning with the force as though he were the one to tug it all personally. Perhaps he was. He ’d planted the seed, he’d fed it with tumult and fury. This was the harvest which he and all those that remained would sow.

His vision swam. He was blind but for blurs of vibrancy and chaos, battering him with guilt as much as magic. Everywhere he turned there was more, the colors of the rainbow bleeding as though they, too, would be sundered. A blot of dark brown and black, coiled in tendrils. Raven silk spilled across tempered olive furrows. Frenetic yellow like the summer sun mingled with smooth tan, then pale snow. Lustrous brunette flipped around dappled pink. He turned from them, trying to find a direction, any point for which he could orient himself.

The red caught his eye and held it. A smear of molten fire bowed over a verdant green, like the bodice of a hummingbird flitting away from him too fast to glean its shape. He had always liked hummingbirds, their song silent but the volume of their beauty vast as they darted across any honeyed sky. If they yet lived, perhaps magic would, as well. Perhaps there were fractures through which hope could hide.

He reached towards it, choosing that as his focus, stumbling in the hopes that it would be the way out of the storm. Red, the color of fire, the color of blood, the color of life. He would choose the hue of a heartbeat and hope it led him to the new shape of the world beneath the barrier he ’d crafted for it.

*

Through the vast oceans of time he could see the rise and fall of a hundred empires. Each blink that flicked across his gaze brought change, the waves of the years sweeping over the edge of the fade. All shifting from one era to the next like one pool of ideas, interconnected and dependent upon one another.

It was better to look out on that ocean rather than to view the bitter records that lingered in his head. The fade held few memories of the time before it had been walled, and so he was not forced to watch the summation of his pride destroy the world. Unless he wanted to.

He blinked again and let the anger drain from him, banishing it to the dark places within himself, where he could keep it hidden and safe. He wished not to let it bleed through these pools of time, so that perhaps their waters could be clear. That besides, he wished not to let it bleed through his own presentation. No one could see him in this land of imagination and insanity, but his sense of decorum kept him from ever letting the facade lapse. He was what he was, a symbol to the people, a figure that could stand tall against the insurmountable odds, and even when all the eyes of the world had been shut, he would remain as they saw him. A habit formed of duty that he would continue in honor.

Yet he was not the man who had both won and lost a rebellion. Here, now, he was nothing and no one. He was unknown even in the thoughts and dreams of the people, a fleck of history lost in the wash of time. It was better that he remain forgotten. Better that they know only of the skewed legends and keep their malformed beliefs. It was a relief for him, to step into the unknown, to wear the mantle of anonymity as easily as he wore the collar of his cloak. He could return to his roots, to the self that had been buried by the cause, and remember what it was that brought him joy.

He never wanted to be the leader again. He never wanted to wake up and feel the weight of the world hanging around his neck, pressing into his temples as the eyes of those who followed his footsteps bore into his soul. The scar of their regard would never fade, but he need not drag its blade anew. Now, he would become what he wanted to be. He would rest, and he would do as he had always wished to do. He would see the world, he would travel, and marvel at the small blooms of wonder that hid in the corners oft ignored by those with loftier goals.

The would-be traveler let his feet hang over the edge of the bed. It was not his bed, as it was not truly there, but the synapses in his brain told him that the ground was beneath his soles and that the blankets were warm from the heat radiating off his skin. His eyes saw light filter in through windows that didn’t exist, as bright as the sun, unhindered by such realities as a sky or atmosphere to pass through.

He stood and walked over to the chair, upon which rested his clothing. He donned the items, methodically fastening the buttons and smoothing out the wrinkles. It was strange that he kept the habit, even in a world where he could simply imagine himself dressed and it would be so. Perhaps there were some patterns of behavior that could not be unlearned.

Dressed, with cotton robes trailing along his sides, the mint green popped bright against his marble skin, he stepped across the room to the large mirror. He placed his hand along the frame, his fingers trailing over delicately carved designs.

It was rimmed with hourglasses, a plethora of shapes and sizes, the simulated sand within them glittering in the bright light. Around the hourglasses were swirls of different colors, as though each timekeeper floated amongst a rainbow betwixt the clouds. At the top of the frame there was an effigy of a wolf, the only reminder of who he had been, of the title he had worn.

He closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath and feeling the magic fill him. He focused on who he wanted to be, how he wanted to live, and when he opened them again the wolf was gone, replaced with another hourglass, suspended in a ring of stone. It turned slowly as the sand within shifted between the two chambers. Neither up nor down provided sense to the flow, as either direction accepted the passage of the grains. Beneath it rested a small plaque, the word “Uthvir” carved across silvery-smooth stone.

Satisfied with his alteration, he palmed the cool glass. The mirror lit up in response, the surface rippling with green mana that glowed in a pulsing rhythm, matching the beat of his heart. He let it fill him and flow through him, reveling in a connection that seemed so distant and yet so close all the same. Here all that kept such things apart was a thin thread, barely more tangible than a thought, though it was one that never lingered long from his awareness. He would, however, choose not to think on such things, as it led only to circles through which sorrow pooled.

With a half-stuttered breath that barely filled his lungs, he stepped through, and let the Uthvir take him where the energy willed.

As he drew in his next breath, he found himself hit with the chill air of the mountains, icy drops of moisture clinging to the back of his throat as he gasped. He could smell flowers, freshly cut wood, and the smoke of modest homesteads, all drifting on the meandering wind. Sunlight pounded against his eyes, pressing them to a squint to view the sky, a brilliant blue that hung stark against the snow-tipped peaks rimming the valley. Before him stood a small village, clustered in a flat plain, nestled in the middle of what could have been the Frostback Mountains, though he was not certain of his exact placement.

The settlement teemed with life, and as he walked through the well-worn pathways between the quaint houses, he was amused by the simplicity of their lives. They concerned themselves with the general business of day-to-day living, and they pursued that endeavor with a bounce in their steps. In fact, there were few people that he passed that did not have some form of a smile bedecked across their face, draped as decoration that bore no weight and shed no burden. It was fascinating to see such contentment, concentrated around nothing more complex than a place to call home. Or so it seemed. Had he not known that the world was never so simple when it came to bliss, and the fleeting taste of sweet smiles was often shorter lived than deserved, he might have accepted it at the value of its face.

It should not have come as a surprise to him, then, to see a spirit flitting between the people, hovering near one of the village girls. He watched the creature, spun of pink so delicate it bore no competition to a blossom’s petals, guide the villager towards a young man who was stealing glances of the girl from behind his work. His nose was red from the cold as it poked over the top of a fine wood carving, the glint in his eye a soft yearning that would outlast lust, patient enough to rekindle fires long after they’d dwindled.

The spirit was unseen by the people around them, content to work from within the confines of the fade rather than breaking through to impose its will on the town - whatever that will may have been. Eventually, the spirit was successful, and the girl stopped and turned just as she passed the young man, her eyes looking him over with curiosity. She struck up a conversation with him, and after some stuttering and the inept fumbling that came easy to the young, the boy was able to gather her interest completely, so they became immersed in one another’s company. The spirit, satisfied with its work, fluttered off from the couple, dashing into the woods beyond the edge of town.

As he watched it fly away, he was surprised to lay eyes on someone else watching from the feet of the forest. She was tall, with graceful horns curving out of the back of her head and a strong jawline framing a rounded face. Her cheekbones were swallowed by soft tissue, making her less severe in appearance than most Qunari he had seen, and her mouth was tilted in a warm smile that was uncharacteristic for her people. She had silver pigtails, braided into neat ropes, which were draped across either shoulder.

She noticed him then, their eyes locking together, and he was surprised again at the brilliance of the blue within them while they widened in shock. There was no preamble before she turned and ran, darting into the forest behind her like a startled halla. He followed at an immediate pace, his curiosity captivated by the girl that didn’t belong in a village in the mountains, lingering in the spaces he had expected only himself to tread. 

She was adept at fleeing, but he had become adept at giving chase over the years, and he used his quicker footfalls to drive her path until she had run into a mountain wall, no escape available without turning and crossing his pursuit.

She rounded on him, and he expected her blue eyes to be full of fire and anger, a cornered animal ready to tear him apart for threatening her space. Instead, he saw only wary apprehension as she stood motionless, watching him. She watched him, and he stood and watched her, neither of them making a move in any direction. This impasse had the temerity to drag out, stretching across all of time, or as much of it as the waves in the fade would spare. It was ludicrous, the amount of silence that hung between them, and his curiosity was burning a hole through the back of his mind that would drive out his sanity if it was not sated. He refused to break the stand-off, however. He was determined not to speak first.

Finally, after they had lived and died a thousand different lifetimes in their own heads, her impatience got the better of her. “Why can you see me?”

“Do you know where it is that you walk?” he offered a question for her question, nonpayment in their social transaction, an escalation in the tension that was more interesting to him than simple answers. Aside from that, he was more curious to hear her responses than to provide his own, a selfish indulgence which he would allow himself, at least for the time being.

She scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “I am not a fool.” She rolled her eyes, and she looked surprisingly vulnerable for a woman several feet taller than himself. Vulnerable and guilty of providing a completely unsatisfactory answer. He raised an eyebrow and extended his hand to prompt her to continue. “It is the fade. I am saarebas, and we walk the dangerous land.”

He rolled the word she claimed for herself around on his tongue for a moment, feeling the unexplored language like a flavor, an unfamiliar dish that he had never before tasted. Saarebas. It was a thick word, seasoned with too much disdain and not enough understanding, tumbling from the lips like a curse rather than a noun. He concluded that he did not much care for it.

The girl, misunderstanding his silence, rolled her eyes again. “In your tongue it would mean ‘a dangerous thing’.”

He smirked at her, amused at her assumptions. “Common is not my tongue. It is lacking in age by around a thousand years. Your explanation serves its purpose, however, and I thank you for it.”

He walked around her in a lazy circle, examining her hulking frame. She was as large as the Qunari he had seen before, but there was a delicacy to the way she stood and a softness to the curves of her muscles that was strange to him. She had large biceps and strong arms, but they felt as though someone had taken away all the edges, rounding her off until she was as a smooth stone at the bottom of the sea. She scowled at him, and where the majority of her race would appear threatening, she merely managed to appear afraid. He may not have cared for her language, but he found her incredibly interesting, and so chose to lean into this encounter.

“You are a mage. It seems you can travel the pathways of the fade quite skillfully, at that.” He tapped a finger against his chin, playing the part of the scholar. “Tell me, have the Qunari changed their customs and embraced magical discovery?”

“No.” The word was as flat and bitter as a leaf from a poisonous vine. 

He clasped his hands behind his back, rolling onto the balls of his feet. “Then how would a Qunari such as yourself become so adept at traversing the realm beyond the veil?”

She broke eye contact, her gaze darting away to the sky above them as a sparrow caught an updraft and sailed into the sapphire heights. “It is the place where my feet are free. I learned to walk in my dreams and stand still when awake.”

He did not usually care for the Qunari, and he actively detested their current belief system, driven by fear and cruelty that marred the citizens it would presume to protect. Yet this girl, with her sky-bound eyes and her softer words, had managed to surprise him in a way he had not thought possible. She was made of a different mettle, yearning to be free of the bonds imposed by her people, and this spoke to a deeper part of him, a part that often drove him onward to seek new and exciting ventures for himself. Or make greater mistakes that could never be undone.

“Why walk here?” he looked through the forest, towards the village, finding peace but not necessarily what he would consider freedom. “Why this place, at this moment in time?”

She looked in the same direction he had, and her expression shifted into one of such longing that it was sweet wine pouring from her eyes. “They do not work for the Qun. They work for themselves and their happiness. The Matchmaker works for this, too. I like to see this. I like to see a different way.”

He blinked, taken aback by her answer once more before his mind caught on one particular phrase. “The Matchmaker?”

“The spirit, the one that helps the girls find love.”

“Was that her task?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Do not mock me, elf.” Her scowl returned, this time with more ferocity. “You have not been here before, but I have walked these streets many nights. I know what the spirit does to them. I would have intervened if it were a demon.”

“And you know so well the difference?” he was highly amused at her response and charmed that she had not jumped to conclusions, like so many of those of her kind. Like so many of those of any kind.

“I know what pain looks like. The Matchmaker does not create it. Demon or spirit, I will not intervene if it causes no harm.”

“Fascinating.”

Her brow furrowed as she glared at him with no small amount of indignation. “Don’t believe me? I’ll show you.” She grabbed his hand and took several long-legged steps forward, dragging him back to the village.

As they went, she threw up her free hand, a simple flick of her wrist producing a ripple in the fade, which they subsequently stepped through. The ripple transported them through a minor breath of time as they continued on through space, taking them to the village at night, late enough that most the villagers would be heading to bed. He watched her look around, from one darkened window to the next, until she located what she was looking for: a window lit from within, a soft rose glow coming through the glass and shedding warmth into the cold air beyond. If it was from a candle, it was unlike any candle flame which he was familiar with.

She dragged him onward, pulling him to the window, and after a quick gesture of invitation from her, he peered over the windowsill alongside her, two sets of eyes observing the scene within. He watched as the spirit from before floated above a young girl’s bed as she slumbered peacefully, an image of her dreams flickering in the air around her head.

The girl was walking through the forest in her dream, alone, and feeling it intensely, wishing that she had someone at her side. The girl’s subconscious began to respond, to create a companion that she could stroll with, and it was then that the spirit interfered, creating the visage of another boy from the village and placing him at the girl’s side. The spirit then guided the pair of them through the woods and onto a life full of love and bliss, of weddings and children, none of which was marred by the curdled toxicity of affection dried too soon.

It was a sweet dream, and the girl smiled in her sleep, giddy with the ideas that had been planted there. The spirit, content with its service, floated out through the window, sending a wave of greeting to them as it passed.

“She shows them love, so that they might avoid unhappiness.” The Qunari’s explanation was quite unnecessary, as he could have pieced that much together on his own.

“How kind of it.” He could think of nothing cleverer to say as he watched the spirit fade into the night sky, taking its warmth and glow along with it.

“I want to believe that it is successful, and that this girl will find her happiness with that boy.”

The idea formed before his sense had caught up with him, and he was asking the question before he could assert any kind of will over his tongue. “Would you like to know for certain?” he didn’t look at her directly but watched her out of the corner of his eye. It was satisfying when her face lit with uninhibited hope.

“Yes, very much.” Her silvery braids bobbed as she nodded.

He tilted his head in the direction of the Uthvir before walking that way, allowing her to follow at her own pace. Her legs were far longer than his, but still she trailed three or four steps behind him, trained to keep her feet at a respectful distance. The eluvian recognized his desire to locate it before he had actually recalled where he had left it, and he could see it begin to materialize some paces before them. He heard the girl suck in a breath behind him as she saw it, and he smiled to himself at her wonderment.

As they arrived, the mirror lit up, welcoming him in with its intense green radiance, and he paused in front of it, bowing and extending an arm to indicate that she proceed in first. She waited for only a moment before she balled her hands into fists and strode purposefully forward, passing through the portal and into the beyond she so clearly found daunting. He grinned, the most genuine smile he had felt in some time, before he followed in after her.  

The chamber within was simple. His bed, rarely used, lay against an unadorned wall, a chest of keepsakes closed and locked at its feet. He had little need for furniture, as he rarely returned here for longer than it took to think of a new place to travel. The Uthvir had thoughtfully placed an extra chair in the middle of the room, both now on either side of a small table currently exhibiting a tray of cookies. He was somewhat miffed at the offering, as the mirror had never welcomed him home in such a fashion. He turned and glared at the unassuming eluvian, and it responded by placing a teapot and two steaming cups of tea next to the cookies. He couldn’t decide if he was amused or further irritated. 

“Where is this place?” the girl was looking at the cookies with equal parts trepidation and hunger.

He picked up the plate and handed it to her as he spoke. “It is technically another location in the fade, though you would not be able to access it by normal means. Are you familiar with the eluvians?” she shook her head, crumbs lining her lips as she listened intently. He sighed, disappointed in spite of his more realistic expectations. “No, I suppose you would not have heard of them in your time, nor your culture. You can think of an eluvian as a doorway, a portal into a land which the elves of old had used to get from one place to another. These roads were far shorter than those on land, and so it allowed them to move freely across the world, sometimes in the blink of an eye.”

“That’s amazing.” She picked up a cup of tea, sipping it gingerly to avoid burning her sugar-coated tongue.

“Indeed, it was.” Memories clawed at the back of his eyelids, but he pushed them down, ignoring the clamor in favor of the numb fortitude that the present provided. “This eluvian is unique, however. The eluvians that the elves used for travel were all physical objects. This one is not. It exists solely in the fade, and it serves to transport me any place - and any time - that I wish to travel within it.”

“Can you not do this without the eluvian?” the word sounded strange on her tongue, the vowels dragged out farther than they should have been, but he was still impressed with her pronunciation.

“A good question. While it is true that, theoretically, one can travel anywhere within the fade, it is often not so simple as thinking it and then making it so. Most have found that in order to see a place in the fade, they must have seen it physically first. There are exceptions to this rule, obviously, as you have found your way to a village in Ferelden, and I would assume you have not been there in the flesh.” She shook her head again, validating his assumption. “It takes a great deal of effort to go where you have not been, but with this eluvian, it takes only enough concentration to imagine it.”

She walked up to the surface of the mirror, touching an hourglass as though afraid she would break it. “Uthvir.” She drew out the ‘U’ sound, and her mouth curved heavily around the ‘R’, but he was again impressed that she could read it.

“It means ‘the endless way’.”

“It is a good name.”

He tilted his head to the side, regarding her as his error in courtesy dawned on him. “Speaking of which, I believe it is past the time that I learned yours.”

Much to his surprise, she blushed and ducked her gaze to the translucent floor. “I am…they call me Evastaarit.”  She knew the truth of the name she had been given, and it shamed her for its lack of individuality.

“And if my cultural information still stands correct, that is not a name, but a title? A rank if I am not mistaken.” He gave her a warm smile.

“It means ‘the beginner that rises’. I am an apprentice at the bakery.” She fiddled with the hem of her shirt, frayed and suddenly dusted with flour as her mind recalled the reality of her world whenever she awoke.

“That is almost a pun. I’m surprised the Qun would not deem it too amusing and vanquish it to the void with the rest of the fun they’ve encountered in the world.” He sniffed for effect and was gratified when she giggled, clapping a hand over her mouth to stymie the reaction. “Well, I don’t feel that it suits you.” He trailed his knuckles against his jawline, rubbing the stubble-free skin as he considered the problem. “How about Eva? I believe that shall do wonderfully.”

Her eyes lit up and she smiled wider than he had yet seen. It felt like a greater victory than he had achieved before, and he could not keep himself from returning the expression.

“What is your name?”

It took him half a heartbeat to decide that he did not want to tell her his name, another half a heartbeat to feel guilty about it, and an entire pulse of the blood in his veins before he came to an acceptable name to give as a replacement. When he did, he felt as though it fit better than the titles he had been given by others. Nothing would ever wear so well as his original name, but this moniker would serve when he could not provide that.

“Call me the Traveler.”

“That is not a name.” Her frown was slight, but irksome in its severity.

“I have revoked your title and given you a name and taken for myself a title to revoke my name. A fair trade if you ask me.”

“You are a strange man.” She eyed him suspiciously for a moment before she shook her head, dropping the topic like a stone in a well, to be fished out later when time and interest could provide. “You seem to mean well, so I will call you as you wish, mysterious Traveler.” He knew she would have more questions, eventually. He knew he would never have answers that could satisfy her. For now, however, they had reached an accord, and he let himself feel pleased with the peace that settled between them.

He nodded his approval before he stepped back up to the mirror, placing his hand on the unassuming glass. He turned his head and smirked at her, raising an eyebrow. “Ready?” it was as much a challenge as it was a request for affirmation. She chewed on her lower lip for a moment before she nodded her own head. He didn’t give her a chance to change her mind, and he sent rivulets of energy through his fingertips and into the Uthvir.

When they stepped through the glowing surface, they again found themselves in the village. Time had altered the sleepy town, but only marginally. There were a handful of new houses, and a large tavern had been built on one of the tallest hills. It still held an air of quaint happiness, however, and the pair of interlopers indulged in the feeling for a moment, breathing in the quiet comfort that could only come from a place so many considered ‘home’ with the sincerity that could only be had if it was true.

Eva’s hand tugged at his shoulder, featherlight. He turned, and she pointed towards one of the houses on the edge of town. He just caught the retreating form of the Matchmaker as it went into the house, the glow trailing behind it like the rainbow lights that danced in the southern sky on the coldest nights. They were off after it moments later, their footsteps leaving no prints in the undisturbed snow. 

When they reached the home, they peered in through the window, and their eyes were greeted with a warm scene, lit by the light of love as much as the fire simmering on the hearth. A bed was pushed up against the far wall and laying within was the girl that the spirit had pushed.

For Eva and himself, it had been mere minutes, but for the girl in the bed it had been a lifetime. The years had sunk into her face, one wrinkle at a time, painting laugh lines around her mouth and the feet of smiling birds at the edges of her eyes. She was surrounded by the fruits of the Matchmaker’s labor, the kind faces of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, all bearing resemblance to the girl she had been, combined with the boy she had met.

As they watched, the woman passed in her sleep, her spirit slipping from the grasp of her mortal trappings to travel where no living being could follow. Those around her hugged her and wept and wished her well on this final journey. Above them, the Matchmaker hovered, glowing with pride and happiness, seeing her pupil off as she had reached the end of her story. She had lived happily ever after, a rare gift in a world that afforded little happiness to anyone.

He turned, to comment on the rarity of the moment, but his tongue was stilled as he looked at Eva. Her blue eyes were brimming with tears, rivers of sparkling beauty pouring from them and cascading down her cheeks. Her dark skin was an ashen sky, a storm that could never break because of what was in her blood, but her tears…her tears were pieces of sunlight, stolen from the heavens, torn straight from a heart that was too good by half for the fate it had been given.

She was, in this moment, a beautiful representation of what was lost to the world, of what could never have been and never would be. She was defiant of the things he knew and defiant of the things he had thought she should be. She was real, and here, and weeping with joy for another girl’s happiness, and it was a bittersweet drug that made him dizzy with regret.

He guided her back to the Uthvir without speaking, because his words were heavy and useless against such a moment. The unspoken was more powerful here, and so he let it work its magic, sharing between them things for which no words existed. When her tears had dried and his regret had subsided, he sat in the chair across from her, studying her face. It had returned to her previously stoic expression, but the memory of the tears was still fresh in his mind, and he could not unsee the softness gathered in her eyes.

“Have you ever traveled beyond the village? To other places across the fade?” He hated to break the silence, but his curiosity ate away at him like a wasting sickness, and if he did not indulge, he would disappear.

“Some, but not many. It is difficult to imagine the places outside of the Qun.” She sat with her toes pointed towards one another, her fingers clasped in her lap. Utterly contained, as the world had taught her to be.

He wanted to show her how to stretch her soul and be as large as she wanted to be.

“Would you like to? Travel further, that is.”

“Yes!” her enthusiasm took him off guard, and their twin smiles of elation could not be suppressed. Then she flickered, like light being bent by the branches of summer-heavy trees. “I need to go. It is time to wake up, I can hear them coming to fetch us.”

“Go, and try to find some joy in your day. I will find you when next you sleep.”

Then she was gone, and the chamber was empty once more. He stared at the teacup across the table, drained of its contents, the echo of her hand still warm against the handle. He had never before been so sad to see something lacking in tea.

Chapter Text

Her hair was free from its braids, and it whipped around her face in the savage wind. It was like moonlight, woven into cords, unbound for the moment so that it could reach towards the twilit plains and remember the feeling of the night sky. She was never allowed to wear her hair loose when she was awake and had never before felt the breeze lift it from her scalp and brush it against her horns.

There were many things she could not do when awake, but this thing she would long for the most. Feeling the wind, truly feeling it, was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. It was in the fade, and it was imagined, or remembered, or however many ways there were to describe something that was not real, but it was as tangible as she would ever get, and she would cherish it for what it was.

They had perched themselves atop a large hill, overlooking a valley with a massive road carved through the middle like a gash upon the landscape, white cut through velvet green and bleeding crumbled stonework into the dirt below. It was paved with large pieces of granite that looked like they had been impossible to move, each block as large as the modest houses in Par Vollen. She didn’t understand how people could make such a thing. What had it taken to construct something so grand? A hundred people? A thousand people?

 Magic?

She shied away from the word, even in her own thoughts. It was better to hide from it, always, than to risk slipping into too much comfort during the day. To be comfortable meant to be careless, and to be careless meant to be caught. She did not like to think about what it meant to be caught.

The Qun was supposed to make her strong, to bring her peace in the knowledge that she was part of the whole, a piece of a network that could not be broken. She knew the day her fingers had melted the sweets she had stolen, singing the sugar so that it smoked against her palm, that she was not part of this whole. She was an imperfection, a mismatched cog in the machine, a wart that should be removed the moment it was to be discovered.

She was nothing and no one, a mere baker who longed for the privilege to bake something other than bread. She was not important to the army, she did not hold up the pillars of her society like the tamassrans. Yet still, they would come for her if they knew. They would bind her, more than just her braids, and she would be a baker no more. She did not want that, not ever, and so she made herself smaller, day by day, so that she could slip through the gaps in the Ben-Hassrath’s vigilant gaze.

Here, though, she was not a baker. Here she was a mage, standing tall and proud next to her Traveler. Here it was not the middle of the night, but the first brush of dusk, and they were free atop the hill as they waited to see what was in store for them. He had promised that the Uthvir never failed to take him someplace interesting, and so they waited, enjoying the peace for what it was. She drank it in and wondered if she would ever taste something so sweet again.

They heard the song before they saw the people. It was at first a whisper, something caught in the breeze and whipped past her ears too quickly to tell if it had been real or created in the depths of her imagination. A figment of the wild, nothing more. Gradually it grew, as a buzz and then as a hum, the rhythm pounding across the plains to announce their arrival. She stood, leaning on her tiptoes and squinting in the direction it seemed to be coming from, desperate for a glimpse of the source. Like ants they marched over the curve of the horizon, and with each step closer she felt as though she were shrinking to make them bigger, rather than their approach increasing their size.

There were hundreds of them, humans beyond counting. They marched at a steady pace, keeping rhythm with a song that put fire in her blood and indescribable hope in her heart. Their faces were grim and determined, holding as steady as the ranks that they kept, their eyes full of battle and rebellion. She had never seen such passion in a Qunari, not ever, and it made her yearn for things she could not explain. Emotions echoed in person after person, the light in the depths of their souls emblazoned as mirrors that reflected at each other, building in strength with each new iteration. To see it was like watching a pyre burn the flesh from bone, like feeling the last of a person leave the world in the embers that floated to the stars.

It was not their march that stole her breath away, though. It was not their passion, nor their determination. What made her gasp and still her lungs was the woman in the front, who opened her mouth and created a sound that could not have been mortal.

 Her hair was fire, wild waves of red bound back with a band of silver and gold, to match her brilliant armor. She marched at the front of the horde, and though she was easily the shortest one there, she seemed larger than even the mountains. She was enormous, vast, and she filled the world with sound that was so sweet, and so miraculous, that Eva felt tears begin to build in her eyes. The men and women behind her joined their sound with hers, creating a harmony that echoed across the aubergine sky. She called, and they answered. That simple exchange created music that stirred the hearts of the world.

As the tears rushed across her face, Eva saw others join them in their vantage point, spirits blinking into existence out of thin air and pulsing with the rhythm of the march. They clustered around the army, a barrier of light and admiration, and she wondered if any of them felt their presence, if the humans knew the help that they had in their shadows.

The veil was a fog obscuring them from one another, separating them from the ranks of worshipers who sought only to be closer to the melody of war. The spirits wept trails of glitter and light, yearning to be with the humans, longing to aid their cause. For the humans it meant nothing, a soft draft of air when the wind was still, a glimmer of light when the sun had gone and no more. For Eva, it meant a riot of color and sound that made her feel so plain, and so very lonely. Only in dreams could she stand next to such grace, and always locked away in the prison of her mind.

She wiped her eyes, taking a bracing breath. “I have never heard a human make such beautiful sounds.”

“Nor have I.” The Traveler began striding forward at a languid pace, his hands clasped together behind his back. He was tall for an elf, and far more regal compared to the viddathari that lived in Par Vollen. His jawline was cut from stone, and he had hands that were soft in most places, with callouses where his staff had made them hard. By Qunari standards, he would be considered too thin and frail, but Eva still found his presence imposing, as though he took up more space than he did.

Of all his features, though, she liked his eyes the best. When he spoke or smiled, it was not his lips that held the message, but his gaze. His eyes were blue like the storm-drowned seas, but they held kindness and wisdom, unlike any she had seen before. She had not known him for long, but from watching his eyes as he spoke, she knew that he was kind and that he liked to teach. She fell into step behind him as he ambled down the hill and smiled to herself as he began lecturing her again while they shadowed the army as it crossed the plain.

“This human is a special case.” He smiled faintly as he spoke, and she strained to divide her attention between his information and the battle hymn. “There has not been a woman more legendary for song than was Andraste, not before her time and never again after. Her voice lifted a rebellion out of the hearts of people who had been trodden on for centuries, kindling flames that had been cold for too long.”

Rebellion.” She whispered the word to herself, feeling something terrifying and desirable in the handful of syllables.

Eva had spent her life trying to blend in, to flow with the tide so as not to be discovered. She wasn’t sure she understood what it meant to rebel, nor what it would take to lead so many people in the act. She was afraid, often of everything, but hearing the woman’s song, Eva would have liked to think that she would have followed. If she had heard such a voice in her time, she would like to think that she would have left the dough un-kneaded and joined in the ranks of those that marched.

In a dark, quiet part of her mind, a voice reminded her that she would not have. She would bow her head and obey, as she always did, because Eva had no courage for such things. The song would pass her by, and she would find her end with all the regrets of a woman who did not have the bravery to sing.

Night sank deeper around them, and as the last of the sunlight faded, the army lit torches, their fires popping beneath the hymn on their lips. Something about the fire made it feel like something more, like the song’s spell grew stronger as it fed on the flames. The night met the orange glow of a hundred points of blazing defiance, a handful of stars stolen from the sky to guide them in their holy purpose. Eva had never believed in such a word, had never felt that the world had anything so wonderful as could be considered holy, but in this she could see why people thought such things. In this moment, she, too, believed.

“Where are they going?” she kept her voice low, afraid to disturb the air despite the fact that she knew she could not be seen. Not by them, at any rate. The spirits gathered around them, playfully waving and darting across their paths. The Traveler nodded his head to them in greeting but did not offer more interaction than that.

“Andraste’s history is not a peaceful one, I am afraid. The reward for rebellion is freedom, but the cost is far higher than many can know.” He paused, and Eva worried that she had offended him somehow as his brows knit together above the bridge of his nose. The wrinkles in his face told a story, a story that did not look like it had a happy ending as he changed before her, turning to a bitter man whose shadows ran deeper than could be measured.

Before she could ask after it, he was himself again, smiling with even peace and leaving her feeling as though the moment had existed only in her head. “I believe they are marching to one of the larger battles that her followers faced on their way to overtake the Imperium.”

Eva stumbled over her feet at the mention of her people’s bitter foe. “The Imperium? You mean Tevinter?”

He nodded sagely. “The very same. Andraste, moved by the plight of those kept in chains in the Imperium, revolted against them, gathering a legion of rebels every step of the way.”

“I have heard stories of Tevinter. Of how many men they hide in their towers, like rats.” She looked out over the expanse of the army, and it no longer seemed as vast. “I am thinking this army does not look like enough to exterminate them.”

“It is not.” The admission was flat, with the faintest notes of sadness hidden in his eyes, and Eva felt her heart sink. “History would see that Andraste received more aid before she was through, but at this moment, their cause is all but hopeless.”

She stopped, halting in the middle of the road and sending a spirit careening in a tailspin as it avoided her abrupt change of pace. It made a strange sound at her, like the chiming of a broken bell, before disappearing within the crowds of the now receding horde. 

“Why do they still fight? If it is hopeless, why would they march into battles they cannot win?”

He turned from her, gazing at the people fading into the night, some of whom might not make it to see the day if he was correct. “They believe it is the right thing to do.”

Something in his voice broke her heart, and she hung her head. “They will die for their cause, and then there will be no one left to fight for it.” She felt his eyes on her, but she didn’t meet his gaze.

“There is wisdom in that, Eva.” His approval was apparent, but it did little to cheer her spirits. She sighed, letting her eyes drift back to the march, watching the firelight blink out in the distance, one row at a time. It was beautiful, to see such a group with her own eyes, to feel their song stir things within her she had not thought existed. It was also tragic, to know something so wonderful could be destroyed so easily.

*

He knew that there was little he could do to waylay the heartbreak in his new friend’s eyes. She had seen something that the strongest of magics could not replicate, and she had learned of the cost they had paid for such beauty. Many of Andraste’s forces died on the morning of the battle they had just watched them march to. Andraste herself had escaped, and she had gone on to win many more victories, but ultimately, she had paid for her faith. Her faith in whatever spirit she thought a god, her faith in people, her faith in those that she had loved the most. These had been her downfall, in the end, as betrayal had seen her thrown to the flame as penance for her brazen belief in freedom. The world was not kind to the faithful.

The suggestion to leave was warm on his lips when the words stilled, halting as his breath ceased, his heart faltering. Eva lifted her eyes up to the sky, brimming with tears that she would not allow to fall, filled with sorrow and admiration that was only afforded to those that had so little in life to lose. She closed them, and with the starlight bathing her face in silver softness, she opened her mouth and began to sing.

It was a whisper, at first, her lips moving around the unfamiliar words with an accent that was strange yet sincere. As her heart felt the melody, her throat filled with sound, spilling Andraste’s hymn into the air with as much passion as the soldiers of the rebellion. Her voice was sweeter than he would have thought possible, honey and amber sugar, warmed by the fire and served with a blossom’s first bloom.

It called to the spirits around them, drawing them from the ether of the fade, and they materialized in the remembered moonlight, echoing her notes with their own bright keening. He was amid the stars and the firefly dances of the spirits, and he reveled in the sound, in the sweet memory of a rebellion that did so much and so little for so few and so many. Eva, the blushing mage with a fathomless heart, paid homage to those that were lost for their faith.

It was painful to know that such beauty yet stirred in this world that often felt shattered. His silence, its own song that filled him to brimming with restless doubts that could find no stillness, stretched out before him as he listened. He was not yet sure what he would do with his quiet and the knowledge of this beauty. Nor was he sure if the directive could be found, as perhaps it would remain a question whose answer was myriad and incomprehensible. What he was sure of, with a certainty that changed the way he viewed the world through eyes that had seen it take too many forms, was that he was very glad he had invited Eva on his travels.

Chapter Text

A loaf of bread, partially scalded from the disastrous state of the oven, sailed past his head as he slipped into the welcoming green pool of the Uthvir. Eva skidded to a halt inside the chamber beside him, followed by a cracker of some sort that exploded into a shower of crumbs against the wall. She hunched over, breathless and laughing, tears of mirth streaming from her eyes. They heard the dour baker scream something in Qunlat that sounded venomous and filthy before the Uthvir closed, ending their connection to the ill-advised encounter with the bakery.

Eva’s smile trembled around the laughter still shaking her sides. “I did not know that we could be seen!”

He grinned at her, his own breath strained as he recovered from their flight. “If it is a memory, we cannot, except by spirits that watch the same records. If it is a dream of our making? Anything is possible.”

“So that was a dream?” she collapsed into the chair next to the table, slumping her shoulders and letting her long arms hang over the edge until they brushed the ground.

“Yes. It was primarily your imagination, although I may have…assisted in certain areas.”

She blinked up at him. “I dreamed that?

“I may have enhanced the oven’s capabilities somewhat.” He glanced at her sideways, resisting the urge to smile wider. “The rest was owed to you, and your rather mischievous notions.”

When she laughed, the whole world seemed to shine, enshrouded in sunlight that poured out of every corner. He had not thought that such simple pleasures existed any longer. Not all the joy in the land had been sundered, after all, and it was a greater relief to him than he knew how to express.

She affixed him with a stern gaze. “You are a terrible person for doing that to that poor man.”

He recalled the way she had cowered in front of the other Qunari before he had helped things along. “It was rightly deserved, from what I have discerned, which does much to alleviate my guilt.” He sniffed, turning up his nose at the idea.

He felt rewarded when she laughed again in response. “I cannot disagree with this truth.”

He stood next to her chair, smirking down at his friend as her breath finally came in an even cadence. “So, where would you like to go next?”

She pushed herself out of the chair with a groan and walked up the Uthvir, gazing at herself through the mirror’s surface. She frowned as she looked at her features, her eyes taking in the great horns atop her head and the broad shoulders beneath her neck. He knew that she was seeing only flaws, every crack and misplaced notion of beauty standing out in her mind like stark drops of oil against the surface of a pearl. He would have liked to show her how her flaws made her perfect, how each imperfection was a thread in a tapestry, holding strong against one another until the vibrant picture could be seen.

She was too young to see the bigger picture, too stunted in her ability to see beyond the small walls of her world. It was not her fault that this was so, mired in a culture that prohibited free thought and treated imagination as a disease to be purged. She was more than that, and more than what she believed herself to be, but her eyes would be closed to that until she learned to be free. If he were able to impart any piece of knowledge to her, any bit of the wisdom that he always professed to possess, it would be to teach her how to be free even when chains wrapped around every limb.

The mischief that filled her gaze was encouraging in this regard. “Surprise me.”

He laughed, feeling the chains wrapped around himself loosen just a bit as he did so. “Hm. Perhaps a surprise would be palatable to us both.”

He strode across the room in two easy steps and placed his hand on the Uthvir, willing the magic through his fingers without calling any focus to his mind. The eluvian reacted in an instant, pulling them through with a fervor that he found slightly suspect. His companion’s enthusiasm had no such qualms, however, and she strode through the murky green light without a flicker of hesitation. He followed, and the moment he passed through, he was consumed with darkness.

*

It took her eyes a moment to embrace the severe lack of light, but after blinking away the remnants of the glowing magic that clung to her pupils, she was able to make out shapes in the shadows. She could smell the lingering smoke of fires, recently extinguished, wafting through the chilly air. Long shapes towered up into the sky, and gradually the boughs of ancient pine trees and heavy brush came into view as her gaze adjusted. They were at the edge of a forest, in the dead of night, the scent of a nearby village thick on the wind.

She looked up, breathing in the chaotic freedom at the edge of the woodlands, and she was astounded at how many stars hung in the sky above them. It was like someone had spilled grains of silvery sugar across a black canvas, millions of specks of light winking against the void between them. It stole her breath away, and she felt suspended in time as she stared, all her body held sway by their magic.

“Do you see the stars often where you live?” his voice was quiet, low, as though he was aware he was intruding on her bubble of timelessness. She did not mind, however. He was welcome wherever she was to go. He had shown her more than she had ever thought possible, and she would be grateful for that until her days had been counted and summed.

She sighed before she answered, loathe to remember the reality she knew she would have to return to. “I must be indoors, asleep, long before the stars come out.”

He frowned at her, disapproving. “Have you never stayed up, even once, to catch a glimpse of the night sky above your very home?”

“It is forbidden.” Everything was forbidden. The stars, the individual, the imagination, and the heart. Herself.

She was forbidden to exist, her very life in defiance of the ideals that were supposed to protect her. It was sad to think that she had never seen the stars because she followed rules that would see her dead for how she had been born.

She waited for the Traveler to ask more, as she knew he inevitably would, but before their conversation could continue a gust of wind whipped across her face, the temperature dropping in moments. She sucked in a breath and felt it freeze at the back of her throat, and the smell of thunder and ice filled her as the wind escaped the horizon. It rattled her bones and made her teeth chatter as the sky above them filled with clouds that were blackened in the lightless night.

The storm had arrived, and Eva stood tall within it. In her world she was afraid, and she was small, a lowly evastaarit. She felt the electric anger of the boiling chaos above, and she made a decision. Here, she would not let her fear rule her. Here, she would be tall. Here, she would be Eva, and be so much more than she could be in life.

*

On the edge of the wind, he sensed something. It was as intangible as smoke, slipping through his fingers as he tried to examine it, tried to call up its purpose and meaning. He lacked the ability to understand it, but he felt it all the same, a chill deeper than the sudden storm amassing overhead, deeper than the ice that held firm beneath the rocks below their feet. He did his best to ignore the inexplicable unease as they made their way away from the woods, towards the modest huts of the settlement nearby.

The village was humble, nestled against the forest like a treasure, cradled on one side by trees and the other by mountains. Fire pits dotted the pathways winding between them, the embers winking out of existence as the sky opened and dropped sleet in their midst. Wind howled as it passed through the little homes, shaking them to their foundations as the wood flexed and groaned beneath the onslaught.

Eva ducked into one of the shelters as he followed, and he found himself in a dim, circular room that was unremarkable, save for the slumbering occupants at their feet. Two little girls, in matching bedrolls. One with curls of gold peeking over the furs, and one with curls of crimson.

Eva recognized her immediately, even before he was able to see the resemblance, and she smiled at the sleeping form of Andraste. Her hair was askew in inventive directions as her lips parted with long, easy breaths. She was so small, her frame thin and willowy, barely disturbing the covers draped over her. She had never become a large person, from what he had seen of her in his travels, but she looked particularly petite beneath the weight of the night and the storm.

She must have been young, though he could not place her age accurately. She was the size of a toddler with the face of a child, giving her an otherworldly appearance that defied definition. Eva’s face was suffused with warmth as she watched the little girl, her hero-worship turning into something softer and more maternal as she gazed at the would-be revolutionary.

A blue glow washed through the hut, filling it with gentle light that rippled across the walls, casting eerie shadows across the tiny faces. Eva turned and looked on in wonder at the creature now gracing the doorway.

As he saw her, however, he felt his heart fill with acidic ice that burned even as it froze him in place, rigid with dread. She was lit up from within, casting sapphire energy across them all, engulfing them in her aura as it bled through the air. She was a reincarnation as much as a ghost, a memory and a remake given form and purpose.

It was before she had found the woman yearning for more power than she could handle, and so she strode into the room with feet of lightning and mana, incorporeal and yet more real than any that stood before her. He longed to reach out to her, to speak with her, and in equal measure he wanted to run, to take Eva and flee from this place before he became consumed by the folly of his past. Where she went, fate turned, bending to her will and snapping when it couldn’t. If she was here, in this moment, then he did not want to see what events were to come next.

Then his mind went blank as Mythal looked directly at him, nodding in quiet greeting before she made her way to the center of the room.

Terror, real and all-consuming, raced through his mind, lit powder beneath the fires of a fuse. They were in no mere memory, nor could this have been a dream, his or otherwise. The shift in the wind and the darkness made sickening sense to him as the reality of their situation sank into his bones, ragged jaws that sought to rend away his flesh and leave him nothing.

She had seen him, and known him, and he knew then that they had crossed some threshold, past the barriers that should have existed, shattering the rules that kept the world in place. They were, beyond all reason and logic, within this moment, separated from the slumbering future savior by no more than the treacherously thin armor of the veil. They remained tucked away in the folds of the fade as something vastly important was about to unfold, and he found himself longing for more distance. We should not be in this place.

He reached across the few feet dividing them and grabbed Eva’s hand, pulling her towards the door. “We must leave.”

He could feel her trembling beneath his palm, but still she pulled away, squaring her shoulders. “I do not like this spirit.” Her eyes darted to Mythal before returning to meet his gaze. “I will not leave the girls with it.”

Mythal’s silent amusement swept over him, and he shuddered to the depths of his soul. “It could be a great deal more dangerous for them if we remain.”

Eva didn’t understand. He could see it in her eyes, in the way she clenched her jaw to keep from scowling, in the way she balled her hands into fists to keep from shaking. Her defiance, bold and beautiful as it had every right to be, was born from a place of misunderstanding so profound that he didn’t know where to begin in dispelling it.

“I will not abandon them.” Her bravery was astounding, a leap of faith into the unknown that proved she had come so far, and in so little time. How bitter that it should come in the one moment he needed obedience, at the one point in time when he would prefer the bashful girl with no free will.

His mind spun, a thousand thoughts fragmenting across a frozen landscape as he tried to grab at one that would help. They were here, in this moment, and he had no idea what kind of repercussions that would have. Certainly, they were in the fade, unable to touch the living world any more than the spirits that clustered in the shadows. Yet this was not supposed to be possible, and he had no surety that they would not continue to accomplish the impossible. Every moment that stretched out in this place was an eternity of mistakes; limitless possibility for errors that could breed tragedy after tragedy until they crumbled the world.

Events marched ahead without him, moving too quickly for his panic-stricken mind. Mythal had awoken the blonde girl, raising her from her bed with a lullaby that brought wisps of light through the air as she sang, her voice lifted in a song that was not there and yet lingered everywhere. Mythal stepped back, and the little girl stepped forward in kind, her half-lidded eyes reflecting the light of the song and the spell. She continued, leading the girl out of the door and into the storm, where her hair was thrown in every direction by the wind. The gold was drenched in icy darkness, and her pale form seemed diminished in the vicious night.

“No!” Eva’s voice wavered with despair. “She will kill her, I know it!” she gripped the side of the door, calling out to the retreating pair. “Please, wake up, little human! You must wake up!” When her calls elicited no response, she turned, facing Andraste as she slept soundly in her bed. “Andraste, you have to get up, you have to help her!” She sought out her hero even before she had been summoned to be one, and it was too much for him to watch.

He stepped in front of her, taking her hand once more. “We must go, quickly, before something happens that cannot be undone…”

“I don’t understand what you mean!” Eva jerked away from him, tears in her eyes. “I don’t understand why you will not help them!” 

“I do not have time to explain!” he grabbed her shoulder, pushing her away so that she was forced to take a step back. The hurt that bled into her eyes as they filled with tears was like a knife across his gut, but he steeled himself against it. If he did not end this soon, it would be beyond his control. Eva was his responsibility. He had brought her here, and his only task was to see her out of it again, unharmed. He would examine all the reasons accounting for how and why this had happened later. For now, his primary concern was Eva.

She hung her head, defeated, broken by his will as he exerted it over her own. Her defiance was born out of compassion, and it had barely unfurled its fragile wings before he had cut them off with his impatience. He was everything that he had never wanted to be to her. He was enforcing rules upon her that she didn’t want or understand. He was insisting that they were for her own good even as they cut her soul to pieces.

Her conscience screamed to do the right thing, and she was convinced that the right thing was to stay, to face the storm and the fury and protect those smaller than herself from danger unknown. He could have all the knowledge in the world about why that was not the case, about why fleeing was the smarter course of action, but he couldn’t share it, and so he had no hope to sway her heart. He could only crush it beneath his own.

She sang the words before he could stop her, first humming and then whispering a softer version of Andraste’s hymn. He was blinded with tears as he listened, struck by the beauty as much as the pain, and he felt part of himself crumble away as he tried desperately to conceive of a way to repair the damage that he was doing here. He would make this up to her. He would find a way to show her that this was for the best.

Yet he knew that once they were on the other side of the Uthvir, there would be no turning back. He could undo this moment no more than he could undo any other mistake from his past. He could see the trail of sorrow lying before him, and he was helpless but to keep walking, pushing forward because the alternative was unknown, and undoubtedly so much worse.

Eva raised her voice, calling out a final line as she gave in to his will, turning towards the door. The song seemed to echo all around them, more moving than Mythal’s ethereal lull, louder than the fury of the storm, and more profound than the echoes of history that clung to this place. He felt it in his soul, summoning courage where none had been before, reminding him that he had earned her trust, and he had earned the right to demand it from her. They would leave, they would survive, and everything else could be damned.

And then Andraste sprang awake, and he lost control to the oncoming storm.

Chapter Text

Green pools were swallowed by inky black as her pupils dilated, Andraste’s eyes wide with terror as she sat upright. Her spine was as rigid as her knuckles clutching the blankets beneath her chin, listening to the wind lash against the outside of her home. Eva saw her tremble, paler than ivory, and she wished to hold her and keep the fear from her heart.

Still, there was an urgency in the air that made Eva as tense as the child, and she flexed the muscles behind her shoulders trying to keep still, to absorb the moment she had hoped would arrive. She wanted her up, she wanted to give chase to the other child, to at least have someone who could protect her from whatever danger awaited. Andraste looked around the room, the tepid fog of sleep clearing from her gaze in slow seconds that stretched on for hours across Eva’s nerves.

“Halliserre?” her voice was a silver flute piping through the guttered winds, and it could barely pierce the fearsome gale. She clambered out of the layers of fur encasing her, stumbling on spindly legs and unsteady courage. “Halliserre?!” She stood still for a moment, her impossibly small hand poised against the base of her throat, her features overshadowed with doubt and fear.

“The door!” Eva whispered to her. She did not think that she could be heard, but she could not stop the words from coming.

Andraste blinked, tilting her head to the side as though listening for a single drop of water amongst the torrent outside. She shook her head, disoriented, and then made her way to the doorway. Eva turned with her, ignoring the Traveler’s scowl of disapproval, and the two girls gazed as one into the storm, where the girl called Halliserre was just disappearing into the arms of the trees, following a blaze of light that held steadier than the lightning from above. The child did not hesitate, as Eva would have, were she in her place. She rushed into the icy rain and sleet, in bare feet, kicking up mud as she fled after the other girl.

Eva gave chase before the Traveler could stop her.

Her heart was racing as she followed. She felt as though she had lost all reason, but the drive to protect this girl, made of twigs and messy red curls, was maddening. She knew, without a shred of proof, that it was what she was meant to do here. She was brought here by the Uthvir to stand watch and keep the humans’ prophet from being corrupted by that creature

The moment the spirit had arrived, Eva had felt something change. The air of the fade had shifted around her, burning even as the storm formed ice along the tips of her horns. This spirit did not feel like the Matchmaker had, it did not feel like any spirit had, and Eva didn’t trust it. She would not let it harm these girls.

As she fled into the darkness, stumbling after the blur of red in a pale nightgown that darted through the trees, Eva could hear the Traveler calling out to her, but she wouldn’t listen. Nothing mattered but saving the girl who would become the leader of the most beautiful rebellion in the world.

She reached a clearing, stopping half a pace behind Andraste, and the wind was tearing through the trees like a pack of rabid wolves. The branches above them snapped in its jaws, pine needles pelting into the ground in volleys. It snarled and howled and drove away the warmth in their blood, and made a fitting setting for the scene laid beneath the feral clouds.

The spirit floated above Halliserre and the tendrils of magic were coalescing around both of them, weaving a cage of whispering ill omen. She could feel something unknown in the spell, something old and decidedly forbidden in the mana as it brushed against the air. Eva’s gut clenched in fear, worry for the girl overcoming all her other senses. Distantly, she felt different magic start to seep into her veins, the raw energy of the fade slipping through her seams until she felt as though she were made of fire and fury. She was a force of nature, a mage sent to counter the storm and shelter the weak with the elements that huddled dormant beneath her skin.

She stepped forward, in tandem with Andraste, and they both rushed in front of the spirit.  They spread their arms, blocking the incorporeal mass from its access to Halliserre, a protective barrier of child and mage to keep harm from the other girl. Eva felt her magic swell, her instincts swallowed as the need to save them became sharp and painful, cutting her like the shards of ice descending from the storm.

Then the fires of the void broke the dams in her mind, and Eva lost control.

*

He gave chase as quickly as he could, but he lost them as the wind and sleet crashed against his gaze. He stumbled, feeling the sting of unforgiving rocks as they blunted against his knees, bruising him to the bone. His pain escaped his lips in a cry as bitter as it was broken, but the sound was felled by the storm. He shoved himself away from the ground, rising and continuing his pursuit, hoping that it was not too late. The scale had been tipped to the other end of favor, their very presence here too much to place luck on their side, but he hoped all the same that they could prevail. He could get them home. He must.

He arrived in the clearing just as Eva and Andraste were rushing forward, flinging themselves into the path of danger with all the fervor of the brave and naive. The magic in the air was so thick that he could taste it, could feel it tainting the clouds above them like poison in a well. He watched with mounting horror as whatever spell had been intended for the blonde child engulfed Andraste and Eva.

Their eyes filled with an ethereal blue light, their heads tilting back as the magic consumed each from within. Arcane rivers flowed from Mythal and into them, crushing their auras with the overwhelming dominance of her every whim. They had intervened and inserted themselves into fate, crashing through the boundaries of time and logic and space. Now they filled with their folly, tempered in a forge of unknown fires, forever destroying the fragile threads of destiny.

There was a moment where everything seemed to still as they stood. The rain halted in midair, the wind fell to a pause that left their lungs wholly empty. He had an eternity before him, to count the seconds they had left, to count the seconds he had wasted when Mythal had first appeared, to count the different points of light in Eva’s eyes, like the stars had all gathered within her head to witness what threatened her dwindling seconds.

The moment was stillborn, its death determined even before it began, and he could see its doom rushing towards them even as his life halted and derailed. He existed in that moment for a thousand years, and still he could see no outcome less dangerous, and so when he blinked, and time returned, he knew that it was the beginning of the end. Then chaos ruled his attention, and he could think of what came next no more.

Mythal was thrown back, the shockwave of force pouring out of Eva enough to summon the storm around them, churning the billowing masses into a frenzy. The spirit form of his oldest friend crashed into the trunk of an oak, scattering splinters in every direction that became caught in the tumult in the clearing. Eva’s outstretched hands sparked, then ignited, and raw devastation began pouring out of her palms.

The air and the woods around them filled with molten heat, and the trees caught fire despite the rain and the wind. So excessive was the fire, so out of control, that his skin was dried in an instant and the sleet above them melted before it ever reached the ground. Steam rose from the tops of the trees before being smashed in the fury of the storm, and a pocket of conflicting forces formed around them, a tomb of intangible death.

Halliserre, behind them, screamed once, a bloodcurdling cry that broke the stars, before she was swallowed by the inferno and fell sickeningly silent.

He could see Eva straining under the force of her magic, every muscle bulging as tornadoes of blazing orange carved wandering circles around them. Her silver hair was ignited at the tips and her eyes were still filled with the hideous blue glow that masked their natural color. Andraste was pressed against her, mouth open wide and pouring silence into the world, her own eyes duplicate points of sapphire.

They were mirrors of each other, twins of different sizes frozen in the same pose as they were ravaged by forces far beyond their control. While Eva had become fire, Andraste had become ice, and wherever the two touched, smoke hissed from the point of contact. He could see the blue building up beneath the girl’s skin, frost filling her veins and hypothermia thickening her blood despite the heat that licked the air around them.

He turned to Mythal, who had righted herself and was staring at the destruction with impassive detachment. She seemed curious, perhaps surprised, though he had not the patience to wonder what it was she had intended in the first place that led to this from their interference. He cared only for one thing, and so only one thing he would focus on.

“You must help! You must save her!”

Her face was devoid of features as she turned to him. “Into the fire she walks, over and over again.” Her voice was flat, champagne without the starlight to bring it life, a dead echo of the woman she was and still would be. “Her song will shake the ground and the mountains will carry her tune.”

He grit his teeth and closed his eyes. “Not Andraste! Save Eva!

She looked at Eva, and her face flickered once, lightning across the uncracked plains of a glacier. It was not an emotion, but a calculation. A decision made in half a heartbeat, without consideration of anything more than the greater purpose that she served. When she turned back to him, his heart was already broken.

“There is no salvation for the damned.”

Then she left, fading into the woods like nothing more than fog, and he cursed under his breath. It should have been him. He should have been the one rushing to the rescue. He should have taken it upon himself to protect Eva, and that had meant protecting the children.

Instead, he had been a coward, yearning to flee the scene lest he be forced to face pieces of his past. What was the cost of the lives of two children compared to the ancient malice of his conscience? What did he care if the timeline was sundered? He had wanted to take his treasures and hide them away, burrowing from any real responsibility before it thrust him into action.

This was his fault, as surely as it was the fault of the wayward magic, as surely as it was the fault of the luck that had brought them here. His belief that he had been right, his eternally damnable pride, had been the cause of this brutality. Halliserre was dead because he had failed to act accordingly. Andraste was full of magic she was not strong enough to withstand because he had tried to hide from reality. And Eva. Sweet, innocent Eva. She was being consumed by powers she had barely had a chance to understand, and it was because he had refused to help her.

He turned, throwing caution to the boisterous winds and leaving behind his worries over the repercussions. He rushed forward, reaching through the impossible heat to place his hands on Eva’s shoulders. Her skin was as freshly forged metal, silver and scalding and hard, and it seared through the pads of his palms. He ignored the pain, blinking away the sweat that was cascading down his brow, and did his best to examine the situation. He let his magic swell within him, cooling pools of mana keeping away the torrents of hot misery pouring from his friend. If he could think, and think calmly, then he could always find a way.

There. He could feel it, feel the enormity of the crescendos of magic around them. She was trapped. Trapped in a loop that fed in on itself, a fluctuating tide of pushing and pulling that tore apart the conduit that it used.

She was absorbing the power of the fade, which was pushing all the strength within her out in gouts of flame, which only left room for more energy to rush in. The fire raining from her fingertips was her body’s attempt to expel all the excess, a physical manifestation of the overwhelming power that consumed her. He needed to break the loop, to sever her connection with the fade and give her magic time to equalize.

He lifted his hands and placed them on either side of her head, closing his eyes to seek focus in the dark peace. The red fury still shone through, bright shadows amid murky depths. He found the chain within himself and pulled it upward, bringing forth the powers that he kept dormant in his slumber. He pushed his magic into her, trying to slow down the flow, to interrupt the rushing waterfall of energy that fed the cycle of their doom. 

It was like adding kindling to a burning building, a small detriment that barely dented the disaster already in process. He was in the fade with her, too close to the source and too similar in composition, and his power was not enough. She was a conduit between the past and the inscrutable time beyond the veil, throwing fire into reality as she was being devoured like prey in the jaws of a worldbreaker. He looked around in desperation, seeking anything that could break the chain, anything that was within this moment yet removed from the center of the storm.

He realized there was only one other thing in this chaos, and it was the only solution that he was likely to find. He grabbed Andraste’s hand, Mythal’s spell stinging his skin like nettle as they made contact. He pressed into the magic, spreading his own power on top of it, filling the little girl’s heart with layers of ice upon ice. He could feel her body shrivel with the cold even as her skin boiled from the heat around them. Her lungs became a tundra, her pulse slowing to nothing more than a murmur, but he pushed her further still. He was close. He just needed a little more. 

Her lips were blue when he finally lifted Andraste’s other hand and pressed it into Eva’s. They screamed, all three, pain flooding through them from one hand to the next, magic snapping and fizzing in their veins and in the air. He felt his blood seethe with energy that was not his own, energy that was a confusing jumble of too many people. The icy touch of Mythal, the fiery disaster from Eva, and a lilting echo from Andraste. For one horrible second, he thought he had somehow doomed them all. He feared that through the cacophony of energy he had created a link that would escalate, ramping up until they took down the very threads of the world, destroying everything from within the folds of the past.

Then the connection broke and Eva collapsed on the ground, her eyes closed and blessedly darkened. Andraste slumped against him, her small cheek frost against his arm, his own limbs going numb from the loss of magic. He went to move her, and she jolted upright, her green eyes flecked with sky blue and as wide as the fullest moon.

She looked at the burning woods all around them and screamed, fleeing from them into the deeper parts of the forest, leaving behind nothing more than a pocket of cold air that faded into steam. He watched her go and knew that he had marked her forever. She would feel the cold in her bones for the rest of her life. He had frozen her heart, with fear and with magic, and she would never be the same again.

He looked around at the fire-kissed trees, at the Qunari mage hovering outside the reach of consciousness at his feet. Behind her, Halliserre’s remains were charred to the ground. The heat that had devoured her had been so great that it had melted her bone, leaving behind something that looked tortured and only partially recognizable as human. He turned from the sight, fighting the bile that sought to rise from his throat.

Keeping his eyes firmly in the other direction, he lifted Eva and draped her across his shoulder. As he limped forward, one agonizing step at a time, he saw the Uthvir begin to materialize just ahead. He pulled Eva along, bringing her through as gently as he was able, and then the eluvian snapped the portal shut behind them. He laid his friend down across his bed, her eyes fluttering as she struggled to regain her senses. He slumped into the chair, his bones feeling older than time.

They should not have been able to change what had happened. They should not have been able to interact with the past, but somehow, they had. Somehow, they had not just visited the memory of the place, but the actual place, converging the spot in the fade with the point of time where it had been marked.

Had they always been there? Had she pulled them there? He had trouble deciphering what was meant to be and what was folly. The history he had known all connected to that moment, and so mustn’t they always have been there to help create it? There was so much mystery around the early days of Andraste. That night could have happened just as it was meant to, or they could have forever changed the face of Thedas with one errant trip. If they had not intervened, would Halliserre have been the darling of the rebellion? Would she have been more successful than her sister? The golden warrior instead of the redheaded rogue? 

Eva sat up, blinking, and he didn’t have the strength to smile at her. He waved his hand, expelling what little energy he had left, and she flickered and blinked out of sight as she awoke in the real world and returned to her time. He knew that she would find him again, but for now she should not linger in this place. He needed time with his thoughts and his doubts, and the monument to his guilt that had built across the city in his mind. 

He looked at the eluvian, feeling cold and alone, and thought that it must have been affected by the magic they had used to open it. He looked down at his hands, the palms full of ash and char, bloody and raw from his injuries. He wondered if his magic was changing, if it had altered the mirror’s purpose somehow. Or was it Eva’s presence? Was she responsible for this sudden twist in the tides that had never meant to churn so? 

If he were a wiser and stronger man, he would never interfere with her again. Letting her go, letting her wanderings in the fade dwindle to solitude as he ought to have carved into his own, was the objectively correct course of action. The thought of it cinched his heart in a vice that could crush him more viciously than even the weight of all the regrets in his past. Try as he might to convince himself that it was the higher path, he could not bring himself to swear off meeting with her.

Instead, he concluded that in the future they would need to be more careful. That he needed to be more careful, and he would need to remember this well. He did not want to imagine what cost he would pay were he to forget.

Chapter Text

It had been a week. Seven long days, marked by her empty sleep, dreamless as the dark, black void. Each evening she crawled into bed determined to find him, and each morning she had greeted the dawn with disappointment. He was avoiding her.

At first this had made her sad, made her fretful, to lose her new, and only, friend. As her days drew longer, lacking the mental respite that she was used to in the night, she became angrier.

What right did he have to lay claim to her dreams? What right did he have to banish her from the fade because she had not obeyed his command? He preached so much about free will, but only when it pleased him.

As her anger grew, she resolved that she would not let him slip away, not without an explanation. She was owed that much, she felt. He had showed her wonders, and then horrors, though the latter was not on purpose. He had given meaning to a world that had lacked focus before, and it was unjust that he showed her what could be only to take it away. Had he simply removed himself from her life, she would have been upset, but he had gone one step further, taking away the fade completely, as though she were a child that he no longer trusted with a dangerous toy. She deserved to be able to confront him on those counts, to vent her feelings so that he knew what he had done.

On the seventh night she went to bed, her mind stretched thin and taut, yearning for the freedom that she could only find in dreams. Her life felt like a smaller prison without the release of the fade, and even if she did not find the Traveler that night, she hoped that she could at least find escape. When she closed her eyes and was greeted by a riot of color, Eva heaved a sigh of relief, standing taller as she felt the fog-riddled air brush against her face. Finally.

She was not in any place in particular. She stood in the shapeless in-between of the fade, not in memory or dream but somewhere outside the realm of both. It was like a cloud, swallowing her and the sun from somewhere outside, refracting all the colors so that they danced in the filtered skies. It was beautiful, and she wanted to weep to see it, to remember the brightness that existed in the world outside her small corner of it.

She was not surprised when the Uthvir materialized through the fog beside her, as she had expected that he would know of her arrival. It did summon a swell of nerves within her as she stared at the hourglass figurehead, the realization that the time was at hand making knots of worry tie themselves around her stomach. She had waited for this, had hoped for this, but now that the confrontation had arrived, she felt her heart stutter.

Was she still angry? Did she truly want to yell at him? Her relief at being allowed back in the fade had dulled the edge of her indignation, and she wavered in her resolve. Yet, that thought illuminated the importance of the matter. She had been allowed back. He had come into her life and then taken something from it, and he had no right to that power. He had no right to dole out pieces of imagination as though he held the one and only key. If he wished not to see her that was one matter, but to dull her dreams completely was a step too far. She had to make that clear, lest he feel that he could take them again.

She walked up to the conspicuous mirror, looking at herself in the reflection as she took a deep breath. She could see the hesitation in her eyes, and she frowned. Her shoulders were slumped, her hands clasped together in front of her. She looked like she wanted to run, and while that was true, she didn’t want it to appear as such.

She forced her face into an expression that she felt was imposing, and she threw her shoulders back, holding her spine as straight as she could. She let go of her hands and balled them into fists at her side. There, she thought. This was a woman that should not be taken lightly. She looked like the regal ashaad that she had seen sometimes, marching through the streets on some higher purpose. This was the face she wanted to show to him, to show him that she could not be trampled underfoot, no matter his reasons.

She lifted a hand to activate the Uthvir, and it flared to life before she was able to touch it. Reminding herself to breathe, Eva stepped through the eluvian to face her friend for the wrongs that he had done her.

*

He could not count himself surprised when the Uthvir rippled with pulsing green behind him, interrupting his dour pacing. The spell he had cast was never meant to keep her away forever, and he knew that the magic would dwindle and allow her back to the world that he knew she longed for. He was surprised to find her angry when he turned to greet her, and the brittle, shaken indignation on her face rendered him speechless.

“You have no right!” She declared, stomping towards him and standing tall, her graceful horns casting shadows across his eyes. “You had no right to force me awake, and you had no right to keep the fade from me!”

“Eva, I only did -”

“It does not matter.” Tears shimmered in her eyes, and as she blinked, they escaped their confines, rushing to meet the floor from the perilous edge of her cheek. The blush along the bridge of her nose told him that she was ashamed of this, and he knew that she had thought long about this moment and that it was already not going as she had intended. “It does not matter what you meant to do. You broke my trust, and you took something from me that didn’t belong to you. I have a right to the fade, and you took it from me for your own selfish reasons.”

He broke at the implication, then broke again at the truth they bore. He had banished her from her one bastion of peace, leaving her with nothing but the hollow shell of her day-to-day life. This crime would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances, but he had carelessly inflicted it upon her after a terrifying experience. She had needed his support and his comfort, his guidance above all else, and he had scorned that duty in favor of hiding.

He had become so jaded from his burdens that he fled from the thought of more, not realizing that it was already too late to escape them. She had become his responsibility when he had chased her in the memory of the Ferelden woods, and in light of their fateful encounter, he had realized the true scope of that charge. It had shaken him, more than the tears that they had strung across time, more than the implications of what they had done. What had terrified him was that her life had been in his hands, and he was afraid that through his stumbling he would lose that, too, as he had lost so many others.

He cleared his throat, meeting her eyes and forcing his sincerity to the surface of his own gaze, so that she could see it and know its extent. “I am sorry. You are correct, I have behaved as a childish fool, and in so doing I have treated you unfairly.”

She swiped at her eyes, her silver braids bobbing as she removed the tears from her face. “Promise me you will not do it again. Do not keep me from my only freedom.” Her anger dissolved into pleading, the stark wall of ire melting into pools at her feet, what little courage she had flowing with it.

She was Eva once more, meek and scared, clinging to the few threads of joy that she was allowed in life. Still, despite the compelling glaze to her eyes, he could not do as she asked. He could not vow that he would not do the same again if he thought that it would save her. If she was his responsibility in the fade now, so too was her access to it. He would not relish taking it from her, but he could not know if it would ever be necessary.

Though he had made such decisions before, and he hoped that he had learned from them.

He dismissed the idle thoughts of the past and focused on her gaze. He chose his words carefully, bracing for her refusal. “I promise I will never take such things lightly again.”

She nodded, accepting the offer without a flicker of resistance, and he could not decide whether he was more disappointed or relieved. He longed to see the fires of the rebellion in her, longed to see her rail against the shackles tied to her soul by her people. He had seen those sparks, the very first flashes of possibility being born within her, but they had come in the midst of a storm that he could not control, and through his carelessness, through his fear and his craven response, he had extinguished them. He had doused her spirit, and that was perhaps his worst crime of all.

Her smile was a flake of frost on summer-drenched stone, but it was there, nonetheless. “So where will we go tonight?”

He raised both his eyebrows at her, surprised. “You still wish to travel with me? After all that has occurred?”

“I never want to stop.” Her vehemence was overwhelming, and heavy against his conscience. He had given a gift to her when he had taken her with him, a gift he could not take back, nor could she keep it for as long as she might wish.

Time would pull them apart, eventually. He could, at the very least, see to it that what time they did have was what she deserved, and so he nodded towards the Uthvir, smiling openly. They stood before their reflections, and he thought of someplace far from where they were, far from the reaches of history. He thought of places older, of things forgotten, and willed the Uthvir to show them the way.

The mirror flickered into life, bathing them in the green glow of its incandescent magic, and Eva lost the last of her sadness and anger as she stepped through. He followed, hoping that this venture would provide wonder and safety, and that time and the events scattered across it would remain unscathed by their passage.

*

The thunder rolled over the purple plains, but no lightning struck the barren ground. Clouds boiled in angry, violent chasms above their heads, and through the gaps a mockery of stars, pale and poor imitations of the real thing. Eva recoiled from the sight, but he placed a hand on her shoulder, his fingers reassurance and bravery where her own would fail.

It was the fade. It was deep in the fade, in the far reaches where he rarely lingered, in the areas that existed for the oldest spirits who could claim memories that reached long and ancient, twisted roots woven in the web of the world. He avoided such creatures, avoided minds that were stale from the years, receding further into their lairs rather than lifting from the mire to explore what bloomed ahead. The stories they told were always the same, and he had heard them a thousand times. He traveled to find things new, things unknown to him, things to ease the loss and sorrow tattooed across his heart. Such spirits stood brazenly against that goal, wishing only to remember what was, to will the old days to rise out of the past and live again.

Which bothered him most of all, because he shared the sentiment, and he hated the mirror that they held up to his heart.

Eva had not seen such things before, and so her feet tread lightly on the unfamiliar ground. Her eyes were wide, and they reflected the lavender bog before them, rolling hills drowning in midnight waters, wind that howled but stirred no blade of grass, nor branch, nor leaf. It was beautiful, and scarred, and carried an indescribable sadness that permeated the atmosphere, a physical presence that wrapped around the interlopers with a forlorn caress.

He could tell that she was reluctant to explore further, reluctant to lose sight of the Uthvir and lose herself in the landscape of sorrow and oddity. He was less uncertain, however, and choose to amble forward with confident strides, leading the way deeper into whatever adventure the Uthvir had provided them. His path gave her legs encouragement, and she followed matching his pace, her shoulders relaxing. By his cue she was able to have her fear drain away, replaced with awe for the sight of something ethereal and intangible.

They found the spirit near a sea of amethyst snow that mirrored the frozen wastes that would be near the outside of the veil. She was a shimmering form of lilac and white, humanoid in shape but not in essence. Curled in on herself, seated at the very edge of the cold and empty wasteland before her, her arms wrapped around legs that flickered as candlelight in the wind. Knees supported her chin, and her featureless face stared at the nothing, drinking it in so that she was filled with it, shadows chasing shadows beneath the living light of her skin.

A lilting song drifted through the plains, emanating from within her. Chords of tragedy spun with harmonies of abandonment, weaving together music that pulled at his heart, unraveling the strings to leave him open and wanting. He had felt sadness, and he had been covetous and full of desire, but he had never felt yearning of such magnitude. This creature, at the end of the world by herself, had known loss almost as great as his own, and she felt it more keenly, felt it so strongly that it overpowered who she was and left her stranded in the wastes of her own soul.

“She’s so sad.” Eva’s voice cracked as she gazed at the spirit.

The song stopped, falling to a murmur, then a whisper, then disappeared beneath the hush of the ghostly wind.

“I am alone.” The spirit lifted her head, glancing back at the pair of them, and Eva jumped in shock.

Her regard was not cold, nor was it warm. It was lacking, as though she looked through them, seeing eternity through the passage of their eyes, eternity that was not a part of them but beyond them, long out of reach. He pitied her, and her gaze, and the song that she sang to the silent shores. He could see Eva reflecting that same sentiment, her wish to help plain on her sweet features.

Eva swallowed and took a stuttering step forward. “Would you…would you like some company?”

Darkness swallowed the place where the spirit’s face would be, and she tilted her head to regard them. “I have driven away my companions. You would run, too.” The darkness drained away, leaving the marbled lilac untouched once more. “I am alone.” She repeated.

He could feel more meaning lurking behind the puzzle of her words, a thousand things left unsaid between the stuttered lines that did not say enough. She had tales to tell, but no tongues to speak them, and so her skin flickered, and she said what she could, never quite revealing the truth.

He walked past Eva, moving carefully to the edge of the tundra before sitting next to the spirit, crossing his legs and facing her. “Who were your companions?”

Colors burst across her face, all of them muted and dark, shadowed versions of a brilliant rainbow, tainted by her grief. “The people who lived here and built homes out of snow and fur. They were once all around me, light and dark and alive. Now they have gone.”

Eva found her courage and approached, sitting beside him gingerly, finding it difficult to fold herself into a comfortable position due to her longer legs. She settled for stretching them out in front of her, using one hand to brace herself against the ground for balance, the other playing nervously with the end of her braid. She was rapt as she looked at the spirit, hanging on the edge of her too-few words, drinking in the eerie presence like an oasis.

“We are at the edge of the southernmost wastes,” he told Eva. “It is likely the people she speaks of were the original Alamarri before they moved north into the Ferelden plains.”

Eva nodded, her brow furrowing as she contemplated this. “Why did they leave?”

The spirit’s voice seemed to meld with shrieking wind and hollowed howls, blending into something that inspired terror as much as tears. “Alone, lonely, withered and weeping. Companionship.Her face bloomed with black splotches, ink spilled on the surface of a purple pond. Then in the blink of an eye it vanished, and she was as a placid lake once more.

“Why would companionship drive them away?” Eva frowned further as she tried to understand, tried the grasp the riddles and turn them over to reveal the solutions.

“Not all companionship is the same, not all wants are equal. A relationship is not always both sides.” The creature looked out into the void beyond. “Some relationships only take, and the loved is left broken and empty.”

Unequal love, spread between those tangled in the mess without care or compassion. It was strange to think how one-sided relationships could feel, and how lonely one person could be despite being claimed by another. Sometimes that loneliness was the most bitter of all, and ate away at the soul like acid, one drop at a time, until how it started was forgotten and all that was left was the husk of resentment. Trapped on the outside of something promised to them, something they were to be a part of but were then banished to the fringe, yet still, they clung to the promise as though it meant something. He had seen countless hearts break this way, falling to the wayside of selfish whims. He had felt that at times, himself.

Sometimes it felt as though the people that he dedicated himself to were more wrapped up in the world than in what was in front of them. Grand causes and brave speeches, flags held high against the staunch darkness of the night. It was worthy, and he had fought for it because it had been worth fighting for.

He had never loved Mythal, but he had followed her, he had cared for her in ways that others had not stirred in him. It was admiration that had driven him, but it had always been met with calculation, with purpose instead of reciprocation. Still, he would have done anything to aid her, because he believed in her. He believed in what she stood for, in who she was, and so her will had always surpassed his own. It was why he had been so bereft when she had gone.

The spirit sang her empty song, and he wondered if he had been in the wrong. So much broken, so much lost. Perhaps he had been the prey that hadn’t run, had been swallowed for companionship and given only loneliness in return.

Or perhaps it was betrayal to think such things of the person so enmeshed in his past their fates had been one in the same.

“They don’t remember.” The spirit said, a haunting echo of his own dark thoughts. “They left in trails of frost and blood, beyond the edge of the snow. They trekked through mud and mire and murk, and I remained. Alone. Their stories forget the shadow goddess. They forget the hunger and my song. I am forgotten. I am alone.”

He understood, then, what she was and why they fled. A spirit of loneliness, seeking out love, a hunger that could never be sated. She would always be alone because that was all that she could be. A bastion of tragedy in a world that passed her by.

“I could remember you.” Eva offered. He could see by the set of her shoulders that she understood the danger, that she knew the creature that they faced was not to be taken lightly. Still, he could also see the compassion that she had for it, as pure as though she were a spirit herself. Even knowing that this was a beast that would kill those that tried to love it, still she tried to reach out, to offer what she could, an olive branch across a chasm that could not be crossed. Sweet, naive Eva, sat between the clouds and the ice, offering to remember loneliness if it would ease her pain.

Shadows ran rivulets down the spirit’s face. “You will know much of me before the end of days.” She spoke, but she did not speak to Eva. The spirit’s hallowed light was directed at him, piercing him with prophecy that bore down with ill intent.

“And I, too, shall remember.” He told her.

The clouds rolled over the false stars, and an oil-slicked rain began to fall from the sky. Small points of blackness spread across Eva’s skin, seeping into her hair and draping her in ink. The spirit flickered and disappeared, off to find an empty part of the tundra to continue her wandering, to carve her path of weeping steps across the landscape.

Eva stood, holding her hands palm up to the sky, catching the ebony drops and cradling it between her fingers. Were it anyone else, they might have been afraid. Were it anyone that had seen life and death, light and darkness, they would know to mistrust the rain as much as they would the sun. Those who experienced life lost their ability to see wonder, bit by bit, until everything bred fear and caution until proven otherwise.

Eva had seen little, and she had been emboldened by his own focus, her fears forgotten as she followed his lead. She had seen restriction, she had seen her bakery. She had seen the measured cups of flour and salt, she had seen the mixing bowls and ovens. She had seen the shadow of her empire, but she had never seen black rain. She tilted her head up to sky, laughing as she spun around in it, reveling in the strangeness, in the otherworldly event that she would never see by day.

Even he had lost that sense of wonder, and he mourned that loss as keenly as the others.

She took a deep breath, her laughter abating as she smiled down at him, teeth white against her tar-stained lips. “I should be going back. It is almost morning.”

He nodded, standing, his robes sodden with liquid gloom. He crossed his arm over his stomach, bending at the waist to give her a low bow. “Then I bid you good day, and I shall see you when next you dream.”

When he stood, she was no longer there, and he looked out across the abyss and wondered if loneliness would break him.

Chapter Text

He waited at the edge of his seat with bated breath, hitched in his lungs with gleeful anticipation.

Their travels had been fraught with trials, moments filled with as many grains of sadness as they were beauty. He was glad that Eva had seen them, gladder still that he had been able to share them at her side, but he longed to show her something that did not bring tears to her bright, blue eyes, like clouds filling the sapphire sky as a storm of stars fell from the brim. She was beautiful when she cried, but he thought that perhaps she might be more beautiful when she smiled. Not the smile of surprise, not the smile that was a mechanical reflex born of routine and courtesy, but a true, genuine smile that came from the light in her soul as it met the threads of her heart. He wanted to show her something that would move her to this, to bring out a piece of her that she did not believe existed. He had made her cry more than he had made her laugh, and this was a grave injustice that he would set to rights.

It had taken him some time, but he had finally found the perfect place, and now he waited with the glee of a giddy child, trying to be patient as he watched the unmoving eluvian for her arrival. He had set out with the wish to show her wonders, and tonight he intended to live up to that unspoken promise. Wonders specific to her, wonders catered to the person that she was, or the person that she wanted to be. Soft, warm, as sweet as the first sun rays on a spring-laden tree branch.

When the Uthvir finally whirred to life, he stood from his seat, unable to contain his excitement within the confines of his muscles. The Eva that stumbled through the threshold, however, was not the one he had expected.

She shuffled her feet as she walked, and her shoulders sank low below the base of her graceful neck. The smile that she turned to him was drawn, each muscle of her face strained as though they had been trapped too long in frowns and grimaces to remember other ways. She made her way across the room, slumping into the chair beside the little table, and the Uthvir very kindly supplied a steaming pot of tea and a tray of intricately frosted cakes. He sat back in his own seat, leaning on the table as she served herself, the smallest tremble in her fingers making her teacup clink as she held it.

He placed his palm flat on the wood, feeling the table that didn’t exist as though it could brace him against the weariness in his friend’s eyes. “What troubles you?”

She sighed, a rush of air that stirred the snow on the coldest mountains, churning hearts so far away they knew not why they ached. “There was an accident, in the bakery. One of the other evastaarit tipped over a tray, and it knocked the coals out of the oven. The fire spread very quickly, and everyone was rushing out of the building and crying.”

“Are you alright?” he could see with his eyes that she appeared to be fine, but this was not her body. Somewhere in a bed above a bakery, her real body lay beneath the covers, and he couldn’t see that one for himself. He needed to know that she was unscathed, needed to know that she was still whole, hidden behind the comforting sheer of the dreaming veil.

“I am uninjured, but tired. I made a mistake. I was careless…” she stiffened her shoulders, frowning at the memory as her large fingers cradled the dainty teacup, gentle even as each other ample inch of her seized with repressed fears. Shadows dominated her gaze, haunted memories that were still fresh and raw, oozing disquiet into the back of her mind. “There were people trapped in the storeroom. The fire was already at the door. I could hear them shouting that they couldn’t get out, begging for help. I…I didn’t think. I only wanted to save them.”

“You used magic.” It was an unnecessary observation. He did not need the nod of her head to confirm his assessment, had not needed it from the moment she had said others were in danger. His experiences with her thus far had taught him that her caution and her sensibility were thrown to the wild wind whenever other’s lives were held sway. He loved her for it, he was exasperated for it, and he could not change it for her own good even if he wished. It was a simple and pure impulse in a world that destroyed such things, and guaranteed to be her downfall were she not careful.

“I froze the door. I tried to hide it, and I threw a bucket of water on it after, so that the ice would melt. The fire was gone, and so I helped everyone out of the closet. They were safe. The Ben-Hassrath had thought it was suspicious, however. They have been questioning me for hours.”

His fingers clenched together, shaking with the effort that it took to still his face, to keep his expression calm even as a living fear wrapped around his heart. “Are you safe?”

“Now, yes. I finally convinced them that I had just acted very quickly, but I am very tired from their interrogation.”

Uninjured, and safe. Those were the things he could attribute to the soft mage on this evening. She was that and more, and he wanted to sit and talk of all those things, too. To tell her all the things he saw within her, struggling to bloom like the buds of fresh, new life, reaching from the ground as weeds choked the fragile roots. She was a child, a sapling, struggling to grow into anything resembling the shape of outspread petals, but all her eyes could scan were fences containing a dying garden.

He worried for those things that she was, and all the things that could be counted in between, but he would not press the issue. Tonight was a night without tears, as he had vowed so solemnly to himself. Now, more than ever, she would need the assurance that their destination would provide.

He rearranged the expression on his face, pushing back the doubts and the concern so that an amiable smile could break through, only half so false as the denial of his past to become the person that he wished to be.

“I hope that your ordeal has not soured your sense of adventure.” He stood, placing his hands behind his back and rocking on his heels. “I have a very particular place in mind tonight.”

One of her smoky eyebrows lifted upwards, the matching side of her mouth following. “Oh? I thought you liked to see where the magic took us.” She affected a stern and scholarly voice as she spoke and giggled when he scowled in response.

He turned his back to her, smiling as he took a step away. “Well, I had intended it to be a gift, but if you would rather let the fade will us once more, I could hardly - ”

He heard her chair topple as she shot out of her seat. “No! I would love to see whatever you had planned!”

He trailed a finger down the surface of the eluvian, cutting a path across his own smiling face being reflected out at him. The thrum of magic whirred to life against his hand, and the soothing green of the Uthvir’s talents filled them. With a gesture he urged her onward, through the portal and into the night that he had meticulously planned for her.

In the middle of the Free Marches, there was a little town. It was a town of no consequence, hardly large enough to have a name, though the people that built their lives upon its back referred to it as Wild Hollow. It was near Wildervale, and so borrowed inspiration from the larger village.

Wild Hollow borrowed little else from its namesake, however. It was a town unlike any he had yet found in his travels, and when he had stumbled across it in his infinite rovings, he had known that it was made for Eva. Quaint houses with rough, thatched roofs and crooked fences dotted the single road through the center, and at the end of the way was a building taller than the others by half. This building was the crux of his treasure, the reason that he walked with long, confident strides to the broad, white doorway.

Behind those doors stood a library. It was not the largest that he could recall in his living memory, nor was it the most impressive. It was small, and it was quiet, and it held a humble beauty within the tidy shelves and worn book covers that spoke of long nights by the fire, words kindling the imagination. It was softly elegant, and innocently wise, and it evoked echoes of what he saw whenever he looked at Eva.

He threw open the doors, spreading both of his arms wide to encompass the entrance, presenting it to the hovering Qunari behind him. She peered around his shoulder, blue eyes wide in wonderment, mouth ajar as her breath drew slowly into her lungs. She was besotted with it at once, he could tell, and he smiled to himself further, for he knew that it would only grow as their stay went on.

For what drew him to the library was not the ledges of well-loved books, nor the worn chairs or the redwood tables. What brought them through the wind-dusted arches above the ivory door was a weekly event, scheduled on warm, lazy afternoons. On these days, when the sun was doing its worst across the world-weary sky, the people sought the refuge of the shade, and the children of the town gathered in the library for story time. It was this that brought his feet to the ragged rug at the end of the room, standing tall and proud, as though presenting her with the finest ballroom in which he expected her to dance.

Eva, for her part, was sufficiently impressed. Were she a less kind soul, or a more learned soul, she might have wondered what the fuss was about. She might have chided him for being a silly old man who loved books too much, until the time would be at hand and the children would gather. Instead, she gaped at the timeless tomes and the storied shelves and the dust upon half melted candles, and she assumed that it was all there was to his gift.

“Traveler, this is amazing.” She breathed out the words, each one dipped in awe and rolled in the sprinkles of gratitude, a thanks so sweet that were it real would have burned his teeth to chew it.

“I agree, though this is not all we’ve come to see.” His grin was irrepressible, feeding off the look of incredulity that she turned to him.

He could not have engineered it more perfectly if he had tried, and he had, in fact, done just that. At the exact moment that her lips dipped open to give form to the question behind her eyes, they were interrupted. He did not turn but watched her face carefully as they were engulfed in a tide of giggling monsters, small hands and feet capering about in jubilation that knocked the dust from the rafters. They ran in circles, a swirling sea of joy, demanding that the room fill with colorful sunlight at the enchanting beacon of their little voices.

Eva’s eyes lit up like the fiery sun, too bright to look at, as she was swept away in the bliss of the moment. She spread out her arms and stood up tall, making herself as large as she could to exist in the moment, broadening through the space so that she could absorb every drop of hysterical beauty that flowed from the innocence around them. Her head tilted back, and she laughed with them, deep and rich over their lighter tones, dozens of flutes serenading a lonely cello. She was enthralled by them, swallowed by them, as happy to drown in their fervor as he had ever seen her yet.

For one still, shining moment, he forgot the years of regret, and felt hope, strange and new.

A door near the back of the room opened, and a woman with dark brown hair tied back in a rounded bun behind her head entered into the perfect chaos. Her eyes were a light hazel, and they crinkled at the edges as she watched the children, despite her apparent youth. She carried with her a lute, a master-craft of mahogany and cedar, strings vibrating with potential from the mere breaths of air that brushed through them when she walked. The children reacted immediately, scampering around her and chattering her name, hands pawing at her simple dress.

“Now, now!” she said, her voice lilting in a song without intention, so used to rhythm and music was she that she could not separate it from her normal speech. “If you do not calm yourselves, I cannot begin my tale.”

The children shrieked with delight as she used her arms to chase them away, each laughing in turn as they settled into a weekly tradition, the endless roll of routine easing them through the process of calming. They stilled all around the area, some of them laying on the carpet, draped upon the bookshelves, hidden under tables and chairs and taller children. Eva watched them, eyes aglitter, and he touched her elbow lightly to garner her attention. He nodded his head, indicating a clear area on the carpet, and Eva smiled. They took their seat amongst the crowd of burgeoning curiosity and awaited the singer’s performance.

A precocious child with pigtails much like Eva’s raised her hand, though she did not wait to be acknowledged before she spoke. “Mistress Maryden, what will you play us today?”

Maryden settled into a high-backed chair with fabric so worn that it was a kaleidoscope of pale red, the dye fading unevenly through the years of studious use. She twisted the knobs at the top of her lute, one ear turned to the minute sounds that they made even as she smiled at the girl.

“I think today I will tell you the story of the greatest knight of all.”

A little boy with freckles made of dirt grinned. “Ser Michel Lafaille?”

“No, he’s stupid.” The girl with pigtails replied, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

The boy crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at his counterpart. “Is not. He saved Kirkwall from the Qunari!”

“Yeah, a thousand years ago.” She stuck her tongue out at the boy, small and pink and brazen in the face of his defiance.

A small girl with raven hair twisted her mouth to the side. “My mum says Kirkwall would have been better off in the hands of the darkspawn.”

Maryden frowned to hide the laughter that evoked in her. “Now, Estelle, that’s not a very nice thing that your mother has said. Kirkwall is full of people, and not all of them are bad, I’m sure.” She strummed a chord on her lute, filling the room with luxurious sound, and the children ceased their bickering. “No, today I’m going to tell the tale of Ser Aveline.” She plucked a succession of notes, an intricate ditty that evoked something inexplicably honorable as the sound padded against the leather-bound legends on the shelves around them.

Gasps of awed anticipation filled the room, the multitude of tiny lungs purging their breath as they watched, wide-eyed, waiting for the tale to begin. He was thrilled to see that Eva mirrored the reaction, leaning in closer as though she did not want to miss a single word, as though she could catch them in the palms of her hands and hold them close to her heart for all time.

As smoothly as he was able, he removed the hidden pouch from within his robes, handing it to Eva. She looked from him to the pouch speculatively before unwrapping it, revealing the dozen cookies that he had brought for them to share. Her eyes were the crystal blue summer sky as she smiled at him, taking one of the morsels and popping it into her mouth. She shuddered with delight, and he, in turn, was happy.

Maryden began plucking the strings in a rhythmic cadence, the music a low, secondary accompaniment to her sonorous voice. It was not a song she sang, but a melodious story, chased by the echoes of music but not quite overcome with it.

“Once upon a time there was a poor, bitter farmer.

He lived with his family, near the lands of the elves.

He was selfish, and cold, with eyes that were dark, and bones that were old.

Our story starts when his wife became pregnant,

with another of their many children.

When his wife bore the child,

he looked at the babe and felt only disappointment.

She was too thick, and too round, her nose too crooked, and her mouth too proud.

He looked at the red-orange curls on her little head, and he thought that red meant bad luck.

Because he was selfish, the farmer didn ’t want to care for his newest daughter.

Because he was cold, he did not love her.

He did not see her beauty, because his eyes were too dark.

He did not feel her promise, because his bones were too old.

And so,

he took her to the woods and left her there,

hoping she would be no more.

The children bristled, indignation in their precious eyes. The girl with the pigtails booed, and the rest of them followed suit, throwing their grimy hands in the air to present thumbs aimed down at the trodden ground. Maryden allowed them the moment of participation before she blithely continued the tale.

“When he left, she did not cry.

When the wind blew, she did not cry.

When the wolves howled at the silver moon, still she did not cry.

The farmer had hoped she would die,

but he had left her near the woods of the elves.

A hunter, strong and true, was scouting the forest for food to bring back to his clan.

He happened upon our young hero,

slumbering peacefully in an old, fallen oak tree.

He picked her up and held her, and still, she did not cry.

The hunter saw this and was impressed.

She was thick, and round, with a crooked nose, and a mouth that was proud.

He saw her red-orange curls, and he thought they must be lucky.

He took her back to the clan, and they agreed to raise her as their own.

To them, it did not matter that she was too thick, or too round.

They liked that her nose was crooked, and they thought it was good that her mouth was proud.

Her red-orange hair was a beautiful gift, a fire to warm them on the coldest nights.

An older boy sighed wistfully, leaning on his chin. “I like red hair.”

Maryden gave him a knowing glance but did not cease her story.

“They named her Aveline, the prettiest of the human names.

As she grew, she got thicker, and her muscles rounder.

Her nose stayed crooked, and her mouth curved prouder.

Her red-orange curls grew long and wavy.

She was trained in the ways of their warriors, in dueling and archery.

She learned to wield a dagger and a blade,

and to hit a target from all the way across the rivers.

She learned to hunt, and fish, and gather food.

The Keeper of the clan saw how much Aveline liked her training,

and she thought that she might enjoy the tournaments that the humans held.

She encouraged Aveline to participate.

Aveline had never trusted humans after she had learned that her family had left her.

She thought they must all be selfish, and cold, with eyes that stayed dark, and bones that grew old.

She did not need or want them,

for she had all the family she could ever desire in her clan.

Still, she heard stories of the battles held at the tournaments,

and she dreamed of the crowds and the banners,

of the clash of steel and the noble knights.

She wanted, more than anything, to participate in the tournaments,

but she thought she never would.

Long ago, it was forbidden for women to be knights,

and only knights could enter the tournament.

Aveline was laughed at when she had tried, and she had run home to her clan,

hurt because they had told her that she could not fight,

and that she was too thick, and too round, her nose too crooked and her mouth too proud.

Even though she was hurt, still she did not cry.

A girl with hair so pale that she appeared as a ghost frowned fiercely. “That’s mean.”

Maryden nodded somberly, fingers flitting across the wound copper strands of her song. “It is.”

The girl with pigtails grinned impishly. “I bet one of the mean knights was stupid Lafaille.”

“Nuh uh. He would have let her fight!”

“Quiet, will ya? I wanna hear the story!” the girl with raven hair stared them down, and they nodded meekly.

Maryden continued. “Her clan told her she was beautiful,

and bade her hunt for them,

so that she could feel strong and skilled, as they knew she was.

As Aveline went to hunt, the clan met together,

and they decided that they would show the humans how wonderful Aveline was.

They worked together, and they worked late into the night,

and after many hours they had made two gifts that would let her pursue her dreams.

When Aveline returned,

they presented her with a beautiful suit of gleaming armor, with a beautiful, gleaming helm.

Aveline was moved, and knew that she could never repay them,

but they insisted that they needed no thanks, only to see her smile.

She tried it on, and it fit perfectly.

She no longer felt too thick, or too round, and her helm covered her crooked nose, and her mouth that smiled so proud.

As she wore the armor, her clan presented her with the second gift:

two beautiful daggers, carved of ironbark.

The older boy screwed up his face in a scowl. “Hey, I thought she took a sword.”

Maryden strummed a quicker succession of notes that scaled upward in pitch. “Many people tell it that way, but I know the truth of it. She was trained by the Dalish and taught as a duelist. She fought best with two daggers, a great and tall redheaded rogue.”

The children sighed, and Eva sighed with them, crumbs adorning her tilted lips.

The raven-haired girl looked at the lutist with stars in her eyes. “You know so much, Mistress Maryden.”

She laughed, a melody in its own right. “Well, I do know the rest of this story. Shall I tell it?”

A chorus of agreement met the question, Eva crying out her own note of encouragement and nearly spilling the cookies from her hands in her excitement. Crumbs rained like glittering dust into her lap, adorning her with the same sweetness that filled her smile-swept soul.

Maryden nodded and continued. “Aveline now had everything she needed.

She thanked her clan a thousand times and told them how much she loved them.

Then she left, to enter the tournament, and make them proud.

This time no one laughed at her, and she was able to face the other knights.

She fought many battles, and she did very well.

The crowd cheered for this mysterious knight,

who wore a beautiful, gleaming suit of armor, and a beautiful, gleaming helm.

She was the happiest she had ever been, and she was nearing the finals of the tournament.

Her next opponent was Prince Freyan.

He was very tall, and very proud. His eyes shone bright green, and he was loved by the crowd.

His black-blue hair was like velvet in the sun.

He shook her hand before battle,

and he was the first man that had smiled at her.

They fought, he with a blade and she with her daggers.

They were well matched, and equal blow to blow.

 For a time, the crowd grew hushed as they watched,

and Aveline and Freyan thought that they might end in a tie,

as neither could seem to best the other.

Just when she thought she could go on no more, Aveline was given her chance.

She leaped in the air, and with a great, sweeping spin,

she knocked the prince to the ground!

She leaned over him, the tip of her dagger pointed at his throat.

Her red-orange hair curled out of the bottom of her beautiful, gleaming helm.

She met Freyan ’s eyes, and they both smiled.”

The girl with pale hair let out a gusty sigh. “They’re gonna get married.”

Maryden didn’t pause to smile this time but continued on blithely. “She dropped her blade,

and offered him a hand up.

He took it and stood,

and peered into her beautiful, gleaming helm as he rose.

‘You are different than the other knights.’ He told her.

Beneath her beautiful, gleaming helm, Aveline blushed.

She tucked her red-orange curls away,

and shook her head, unable to speak.

The prince, still smiling, shook her hand again.

‘I hope you win.’ He told her.

Prince Freyan returned to his seat,

and as he went Aveline thought that he was tall, and proud.

She noticed his eyes that were bright green, and how he was loved by the crowd.

The older boy grinned. “They’re totally in love.”

 Eva sighed wistfully with a number of girls in the crowd, and he could not help but smile in turn at their naive hope.

“Perhaps,” Maryden told them. “But that is not how the story ends.” With a nod and a flicker of fingers on strings she continued.

It was time for Aveline to win her final fight.

The Knight that stepped into the ring was the emperor’s own,

and had won many fights with violence and anger.

He was rough, and loud, with angry eyes, and a wicked crown. 

Aveline was not afraid, however.

She fought the knight, and as they fought, he grew angrier.

He could not push her, because she was too thick.

He could not dodge around her, because she was too round.

He didn ’t like her crooked blades, and thought her armor was too proud.

As he grew tired battling Aveline, he also grew impatient.

He waited for the right moment,

and when Aveline was not prepared

he thrust his foot out, tripping her.

She toppled to the ground,

her beautiful, gleaming armor being knocked askew

and off flew her beautiful, gleaming helm.

Tension fluttered through the throng of children, hanging on the allure of what consequences might befall such a turn of fate. Several clasped their hands together, unable to contain the energy of the unknown, and he watched as Eva set the sweets aside to toy with the hem of her shirt in nerves. He wondered if perhaps the joy of this gift would be too tempered by this tale, yet he was powerless to choose the story and even more so to change its end.

Maryden swallowed, the notes of the song matching the tempo of the moment until she drew in breath to ease their impatience.“The Knight, and the prince, and all the crowd

grew silent as her red-orange curls had spilled on the ground.

They could see that she was a woman, and that was not allowed.

The Knight was ashamed that she had almost bested him,

and so, he turned to the prince.

‘I demand she be disqualified. Her fight should be forfeit.’

The crowd, however, had seen her fight.

They had seen her skills.

They did not care that she was so thick, or so round, or that she had a crooked nose, or that her mouth was proud.

With her red-orange hair beneath her beautiful, gleaming helm, she had won over their favor,

no matter where she came from, or who she was.

The crowd booed the angry knight,

and asked the prince to let the match continue.

The knight ’s frown was rough, his fury loud, with angry eyes turned low beneath his wicked crown.

Prince Freyan stood, holding up his hands for silence,

and the crowd and the angry knight grew still.

He smiled at Aveline, and said:

‘The match will continue, our mystery knight may still fight!’”

The children clapped and cheered as though part of the ancient crowd that had lived the legend. The girl with the raven hair bounced where she sat, energy and life bursting from her diminished stature.

Maryden let the noise die down before she went on. “Aveline smiled up at him, glad and relieved.

They looked at each other,

and she thought that she liked that he was tall, and proud, and that his eyes were bright green, and that he had listened to the crowd.

The angry knight was not so pleased, however.

His curse was rough, his footsteps loud, his eyes dark and angry, beneath his wicked crown.

He took up his blade, and lifted it high,

and he struck down Aveline before she could rise.

The cheers of the children fell silent, the song sliding into a still hush that filled his ears. Wide eyes, all of them rapt, all of them dismayed, looked to their bard, pleading with her to make it not so. She gazed around the room, her mouth a thin line as she drank in the grim turn of their moods.

Then she struck a minor chord on the lute, punctuating the next part of the story with discord and sorrow. “’No!’ The prince cried, and he leaped from the stands.

He ran to her side and held her in his hands.

Her wound was too deep, and far too long.

With her blood on the floor, where it didn ’t belong.

‘Thank you,’ she told him. ‘I’m sorry that I was all wrong.’

The prince smiled down at her, with tears in his eyes.

‘You’re perfect,’ he told her. ‘For what you are, never apologize.’

She smiled, and he thought he had never seen anything stronger.

‘What is your name?’ he asked.

‘Aveline.’ She told him, and then her eyes fluttered closed.

To her last, she had not cried.

Aveline died in his arms,

and he placed a gentle kiss upon her forehead.

He thought that she was beautiful.

She was thick, and round, with a cute, crooked nose, and a mouth very proud.

Her red-orange hair shined in the sun, and he thought that it must have been lucky for those that had known her longer.

Maryden played out a few more sad, lingering notes that haunted the back of his mind like the ghosts of mice skittering in the evening strangeness. Silence filled the room once more, and she let it fall, controlling the world with a strum of her lute, power behind the absence of the tale she wove from the threads of words and winds. When she resumed, ending the stalemate between bated breath and lonely solitude, her rhythm had returned to what it was, the same noble cadence from the beginning of the song.

“The prince was sad, and angry,

and he stood and turned to the knight.

He drew his blade and slew him where he stood.

He turned to the crowd, and said:

‘I hereby declare Aveline the winner of the tournament, and the strongest Knight today.’

They cheered as they wept, for they had loved her too.

The prince returned home, and he mourned for her loss.

He declared the next day that any woman who wanted should be allowed to become a knight,

and enter any tournament that they wished.

He hung her beautiful, gleaming armor with its beautiful, gleaming helm in his palace,

with her ironbark daggers beside it.

And that is the tale of Ser Aveline,

the greatest knight of her day,

a redheaded rogue who was too thick, and too round, and had a crooked nose, and a mouth that was too proud.

For a time they sat mired in shared sorrow, each child mourning the loss of the hero, slain at the height of her tale. Too many stories ended that way, robbed of the sunsets and years of smiles, leaving discordant notes wherever they fell. The strings of the world’s lute had broken, and it could now only play the ragged cries of death and fear. He had seen to that himself, raining down silence as though he had a right to the song, as though he could judge every person the way he had judged the few.

What choice had he had?

The little girl with pigtails sniffled. “That’s not a happy ending.”

Maryden sighed, setting her lute down beside her and folding her hands in her lap. “Not many stories have happy endings. The hero does not always live to see another day. But if good things come from their actions, then sometimes the sadness was worth it.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

Maryden’s response was not aimed at the little girl. Instead, she looked up, and though he knew it could not be possible, she seemed to stare through the layers of the veil, through the years of time and the heavy laws of the way things were, and looked right at him.

“Fair will be her skin and hair, but never again her fate. Fair was lost when history changed, her love understood too late.”

He swallowed, the ground beneath him heaving as he looked into eyes that seemed to penetrate all that he knew to be true, to see something inside him that he did not acknowledge, that did not exist. She evoked memories that he didn’t have and lessons that he had never learned, the shores of time obliterated by her brazen defiance of what was possible. Her riddled omen sank itself into his heart, still beating as it tried to navigate the maze of meaning, to pursue the truth beneath the strange tidings and misgivings. He was trapped, reaching for something that he felt was there but could not be touched, intangible and unnamable and immutable.

Maryden smiled, and it was not the smile of the lovely librarian, or the smile of the bard to her audience. It was the smile of a being who knew more than she should, who brought secrets to bear on strings made of prophecy.

“You will remember enough.”

As though the world had been stilled by her gaze, she blinked and it resumed. The children, their story ended, began clambering about one another, laughing and playing as they had before. Maryden watched them, seeing him no longer, and no one reacted as though it had happened at all. Including the bard herself, no more moved by her display than a mote in halted air. He watched Eva out of the corner of his eye, but if she had seen the frightful exchange, she did not acknowledge it. Instead, she ate the last of the cookies, grinning from ear to ear as she watched the humans exemplify the freedom she so idolized.

When the parents came to collect their young, Eva watched this closest of all. Her eyes lingered on the hugs and the excited greetings, on the discipline and requests to calm down. The little ones were ushered home by arms that would love them until the end of days, and Eva was mystified by the procession. He could see it in the tilt of her head, in the way she pulled apart the threads of her braid. In the way she smiled as though she had seen a far-off friend, someone she was not sure she entirely knew but was drawn to like the moth to the candle’s stuttered flame.

When they had left, and the lanterns had been extinguished, they stood in the darkness together.

“Children are the most wonderful thing you have shown me yet.” She told him. There was something dark and sad about a girl that loved children, born of a culture that did not have parents and so could not, in turn, make her into one. He dismissed the thought, and in one dismissed the others. They had seen enough light to drive away the shadows for days yet to come, and he would not let them linger.

Eva sighed, a gusty breeze that still echoed with joy and mirth. “I should be going soon, morning is coming.” He felt her hesitation like a weight on his chest, filling the moment with unspoken need. Finally, bravely, she decided against being timid, and she pulled him into an innocent embrace. “Thank you for this. I needed it.”

“Anytime, dear Eva.” He smiled, and then he watched her fade, sinking into the dark like smoke swallowed by the night sky. He turned, and the Uthvir was waiting, rippling green magic there to beckon him home.

He went in and felt the crushing loneliness at hearing his footsteps on their own. What could not stay would always wound him, it always had, though he felt weak at the knowledge.

He wouldn’t let the darkness take him this time, however. He settled into his chair, pulling the small green book from his pocket, pilfered from the library so that he could steal a piece of their day to carry with him. He smiled as he pried it open, flipping to the first page. It was a copy, a ghostly replica that the fade could provide, but it held the story all the same. He relaxed, curling in on himself, indulging in a way that he had not in years, and let the words on the page paint a picture across the canvas of his mind.

Chapter Text

It had been a fluke, and nothing more.

Many nights stretched between himself and the disastrous foray into Andraste’s past, and with each iteration of exploration and meaning, he had dreaded the chance of reliving the experience less and less. Whatever magics had been brought to bear to break the rules of the fade on that eve were no longer lingering beside them. It was a perfect storm of fate and misfortune, and the winds that had ushered it onward had dispersed themselves into the translucent air. There was no more threat to the past than there had ever been, and he hid the ache in his heart as that truth destroyed a hope he would not name. There was no way back, not now and not ever.

It was with this arrogant certainty that he had allowed their path through the Uthvir to be steered to the alleged prophet and rebellion leader’s history once more. Eva had been very emphatic in her wish to see more of the heroic figure, and when faced with her large, blue eyes, he found that whatever reasons he clung to in opposition faded as smoke in the fog. Her exuberance was his reward, and as they strolled through the green mist and into the past, his trepidation was hindered by the brilliant smile on her bold face.

He wished that what she sought was a happier tale.

They found themselves among tents, arranged in rows across the trampled ground. A military camp, established with all the haste and urgency of an army at war. The stars above stood silent sentinel amongst the darkened shelters, masked only by the torches scattered across the area, soldiers of fire that were rigid against the midnight hour while their breathing counterparts sought the ease of unburdened slumber. As they walked through the crooked rows and leaning fabrics, he could not help but wonder what dreams the soldiers found on the shores of the fade. Did they visit the future and know where they would tread? Or did their minds stretch out to the brink of the past so they could gaze on the bright remnants of his mistakes? There was not a single set of eyes upon them, and yet he felt as though all the world was watching, judging the cost without ever having known the bargain.

The commotion was subdued through the short distance, but his ears pricked at the sound of a scuffle, muffled through the layers of covers and tent flaps. It was a mere step away, and now that the sound had announced it, they could easily see the shadows as they danced against their fabric backdrop. Eva recoiled from the feminine cries of anguish that came from underneath the flickering candlelit haze, swirled with all the doubt of comfort ripped from a drowsing breast.

The tent flaps were thrown open, and their once glittering hero was dragged from within, barren toes trailing in the mud as her legs struggled to find purchase. The sheets were still wrapped around her slender form, leaving modesty where dignity was taken. Two guards, wearing the garb of their lady’s husband, held her elbows between fingers of bitter rage. She struggled, her red hair loose and tangled, flowing down her back as a crimson sea whose tide brought fire and light, stolen by interlopers who cared not for its power, only to douse it.

Eva clapped a hand over her mouth as they dragged Andraste to a larger tent at the end of the lane, her eyes brimming with shock. She followed in a halted pace, feet seeking the same divots of Andraste’s own, too large and solid to match the path.

For his part, he glanced back at the tent, gaping as the pale figure there gripped the flaps. He could see a hand with long and slender fingers clenching the fabric, knuckles white as he trembled. When he looked upon his face, however, there was only visual noise, static that rang in his ears and forced him to blink, like tears filling the rims of his eyes with no moisture and no calling. It was as though the memory of the man did not exist, as though it had been plucked from the march of time and laid in a forgotten corner, unseen and unheard as the years left it in their wake. A pale shadow, watching a woman he had lain with be dragged back to her husband. He could feel the anger, even around the man’s impassive stance, and the cold regret that lingered in those fingers trembling as clear as the dawn across the velvet dark. It was a ghost, who had left behind only that one action, the only symbol of his emotion before he released his hold and stalked off into the night, a moon seeking the bitter shadows amongst the stars.

He turned back towards the path that Eva walked and saw her peering through a gap in the larger tent, her shoulders hunched with tension that flowed across her back in rivers. He abandoned the lost memory and followed his friend, reminding himself that there was worth in the present that was observing the past. The mysteries of the fade hiding history could be unraveled at another time, in another moment where Eva was not poised to break her own heart at the story she wanted so desperately to see. He was, after all, here on her behest.

He placed a long palm against her back as he ducked his head beneath her shoulder. He could not peer over her, for she had too much height to allow such a feat, but he could see through the gap in the tent well enough beneath the broad expanse of her elbow.

Andraste had been tossed onto the ground like a common wench, discarded to be dealt with by the man that laid claim to her life. Maferath towered over her, his impotence matched only by the stench of ale that soaked through his clothes and breath. His armor was dark, a prophecy that foretold of all his jealousy and failures, each piece of molded obsidian an omen that history would fail to heed. A great cape of ebony and wine flowed from his shoulders, a backdrop for the stage of his tragic treachery, the curtain drawn to reveal act one, all the players bound to the scene with chains of love and blood.

His lip curled as he looked at his bride. “Do you mock me?”

Andraste clutched the filthy sheets to her breast, her hand matching the man’s she had been torn from. “What is the meaning of this?”

“You are not three tents down from me. You are the figurehead of this army. And you are my wife.His anger was bearing down on her like an avalanche, crushing the air in the room as the shaking of his eyes consumed the world. “You would lay with him even now?”

Her mouth fell open, staring up at him with an incredulity that had more depth than all the songs she had ever sung. In a flash she was on her feet, her hand abandoning the sheets so that they dropped open, draping across her shoulders but bearing her chest. The Traveler turned his eyes away, something in the barren rebel bringing an ache to the back of his heart that he did not as yet understand and did not as yet think he wanted to.

“Since when has this been the nature of our relationship? Since when have I been the wife you wished to dote on?”

“He is an elf.The word was an accusation, a listed crime for which no punishment was cruel enough. Eva’s eyes flicked to him, a furrow knitting its way across her brow as she reflected upon the venom in the fact. She would not know the prejudice that filled the air wherever the elven dared to tread. The Qun would mask all individuality, and as they sacrificed all the beauty and glory that came with that, they gained uniformity that allowed no such bigotry. Alas, beyond the confines of the oppressive regime, being elven was the greatest crime so many committed across Thedas, born of a people that had never deserved the fate they were handed and yet had earned it by abandoning backbone in favor of simple stories.

“They fight alongside us every day, do not pretend you don’t see their worth and honor.” Her voice shook with rage, and it was a sweet melody when it poured from her lips, each syllable a poetic justice for all the wrongs her soul had seen.

Maferath took a step towards her, dwarfing Andraste like a wilting lily. “I will not pretend that it is not an insult to hear you moan his name while I fight your battles for you!”

 “Then take your ears elsewhere, and while you do, remind them that you do not fight my battles for me, dear husband.She tossed her hair behind her back, strands of red and orange the branches of autumn leaves crowned atop her head, fighting off the winter chill that would ever threaten to drown her, long past the summer that could have saved her. I have taken my blades against as many foes as you. I have led as many men as you.”

Footsteps behind them gave them the barest second to scamper out of the way before a man in shining armor threw open the tent flap, just as Maferath had raised his fist against his wife, hand still poised in the air as the newcomer gaped at the frozen scene.

“What fool behavior is this, Maferath?” he shook his head, walking to stand in front of Andraste, as though his armor could repel the fury that would drive the man to madness before the story’s end. “You would raise your hand against the bride of the Maker?”

Maferath lowered his arm but never his gaze. “She is my bride.”

“Aye, and her bed is one of many you have frequented.” The man placed a hand on Maferath’s shoulder, pushing him towards the door. “Go cool off in the night air, before whatever it is you’ve gotten in your head consumes you.”

Maferath waited for a moment, an anxious expanse of time that dragged across the titling sands of the hourglass, hollow and dangerous as it tumbled amongst its brethren. One amongst the million, it could barely be counted as it was swallowed by the rest, but it stood in the present with enough power to stall the process, lightning breaking across the sky and leaving remnants behind their blinking eyes. Then he swept his cape aside, moving from the room like a roving storm cloud, harsh and violent and seeking to unleash himself upon the slumbering world.

Andraste sank into a chair beside her trembling legs, wrapping the sheet around her to keep out the cold that was not from the air but her bones, seeping into everything as deep shadows settled in her eyes. “Havard, what have I done?”

Havard knelt before her, clasping his hands around her own. “Hush. You have done nothing that you should bear guilt for.”

“Why does everyone desire to limit my heart? Why can I not love him as I love the Maker, as I love Shartan?” Her eyes filled with glistening pain, and she looked so much smaller in that moment, a ruby on the ocean floor swallowed by the sand and the tide. So pressed beneath the pain she bore that it constricted her size, pounding her into a delicate package that yearned to disappear, to hide from those that would seek her guidance.

The eyes of the world had seen a legend, and she had only seen her mistakes, counted in the tears of those that she had tried to love. It was so easy to forget that before she was a rebel, before she sang songs that touched the would-be gods and broke the chains of slaves across the world, Andraste was a sick little girl who had been lost in the woods. She was, before all the things that she was, still human, and that gentle fragility hovered in her eyes as she stared at the place where her husband had left, stared in the direction of the lover who had let her be dragged from their bed. Betrayed to the last, and the Traveler knew well how the story ended, and knew well that it would never end. The flames would eat her bones and still betrayals would sway her fate, even her memories used to further the gains of selfish men and sadistic wills. While her songs were remembered through the endless ages, her heart and all it held was forgotten.

Havard cleared his throat, a man of battle providing his heart to peace. “People are selfish and unwilling to share the things that bring them joy. The blame is not yours that they cannot overcome this.”

She smiled then, a whisper of promise that was too often missing from the world, broken against her lips, as no woman who held what she had held should have been able to make such a face. “That is something that I am fighting to change. The Maker has shown me that life can be so much more.”

Her serenity and faith were the last that they saw as the world dissolved around them, the colors running as though all that they saw had been a canvas left in the rain. The emptiness of the fade surrounded them, the Uthvir standing proud a few feet away, surface dark and awaiting their return. Eva shook her head and swallowed, her emotions swimming at the fore of her soul so that he could see them through the windows of her blinking eyes.

“I admire her so much. She fought against so much because she believed it was right to do so.” Her hand hovered just above her collarbone, a trembling bird alighting on a branch. “I wish I could have that kind of courage.”

He frowned, looking for words that he did not have in the face of such a brazen lie. “You do. You fight in your own ways, as best you can. There is pride that should be found in that, not shame.”

Eva’s braids tumbled across her chest as she shook her head. “I am not like that. I am afraid of what would happen if I fought. I would hide from her song if she sang it to me.”

“Not everyone can lead a rebellion, Eva. A rebellion needs warriors of all sizes, and all of them are as important as the last. Whether the figurehead that leads the charge or the lonely page that records the conclusion. None of it means anything were they not all a part of it.”

Her smile was one that bore gratitude without warmth, the placid lake of disbelief. “That is sweet of you to say, but I do not believe you.”

He thought of all the world, and how it had fallen, and he returned her smile with his own, as full of meaning as he could provide. “I hope in time you will.”

Whether he believed himself or not was another matter, better left to be examined when he no longer ran from such an identity.

Chapter Text

“Once more. Only once more, and then I promise I will let you tell me the rest of the stories.” She had her fingers laced together beneath her chin, a child in spirit if not in stature, begging her patron for one last favor before bed.

He was doomed against those eyes, so full of hope and wishes, so full of things that had been long dead in his own for ages untold. “Very well. We will bid the Uthvir to find her story one last time, and the rest will have to be from books and words alone.”

She spun in a circle, wrapping her arms around herself in an enraptured hug that was as warm as if it had been for him, bouncing on the tips of toes that were too large for the shoes that bound them. He smiled, and it was not the smile of a courteous man, nor the smile of one who had been taught to do so through routine and repetition. It was the smile of a prideful father, watching his beautiful daughter dance with glee, watching her grow before him and bloom beyond his wildest dreams.

He painted the image of her boundless youth across the back of his mind, willing himself to remember every sentimental second, every laugh and every spin, each blink and braid and blissful bounce. No matter what was to come, he wanted to remember this. To remember her, and the starry-eyed wonder that she had rekindled in his soul, awakening things that he had thought were put to rest where no being could reach them.

She taught him to breathe when there was no air, and he would owe her an eternity of wishes for that simple fact alone.

He laughed as she settled, standing next to the Uthvir so full of energy that he could feel it bleeding into the fade around them, filling it with the yellow tinge of delighted excitement.

“Come, before you reach morning and miss your chance.”

He placed his hand on the cold mirror, and for the barest fraction of a second, he saw something in her eyes, something that was not joy or beauty or glee. Something that he felt pull at the edges of his recognition like the last thread in the tapestry, threatening to unravel him at the seams if he looked too long. It was gone in an instant, birthed and stilled in less than a second, so small was the blinking span that he doubted that it had ever been at all. Her smile was perfect when he looked again, no trace of anything undue or unwarranted, the hint of shadow obliterated by starlight. She was the simple mage, with a heart of naive hope singing in the curve of her lips, and nothing marred that flawless reflection.

The mirror bathed them in a flickering green fog, and she took in a deep breath. “Now?”

“After you, lethallan.” He bowed, and she afforded him a decorated curtsy in response, her fingers lifting the edge of her plain skirt as she crossed her legs at the ankle. He laughed again as she skipped through the eluvian, and his disquiet was vanquished at the click of her heels. What doubt could live when faced with unbridled optimism, as bright as song and sun?

He followed her through, and the tide turned within him as the air of war drowned his floundering smile. It was more than the smell of fires, more than the smell of mud churned beneath too many boots, all pounding with tension and fear. It was more than the tang of metal that stuck in the back of his throat, the spark of steel meeting steel turning the wind to the ill born bastard of a forked lightning charade. It was the smell of battle, of blood boiling beneath the heart’s bitter beat, of lungs full of air that would dispel into contentious cries that cut the silent song of solitude. It was war, ugly and gritty and full of gore, and it was filling the world around them as Andraste’s army swept down the hill, their rhythm the drum that would herald their cause, the roll of thunder that would usher in the storm.

The sky above them hung pregnant with the promise of fury, and he knew that it was wrong when he felt the drop of rain plummet into his cheek, rolling over the bone and across the edge of his jaw. He felt it, and as he brought a trembling hand to his face to smear it away, he knew that it was not the recollection of rain, was not the ghost of a storm that had bitten into the battle. It was water, from a thousand years ago, falling from the sky and into a space he should not be, hitting flesh that was never there but now inexplicably was.

It was wrong, and he counted the sins of his pride and soft heart as he numbered the dangers he had brought them to.

“We need to leave. Immediately.”

Eva, standing at the cusp of the hill, her hair a silver bird that toiled against the wind, turned to him with disappointment tattooed in the depths of her eyes. “Why?”

He walked towards her, stalling himself just short of taking her by the shoulders and shaking her to impart his point. “We should not be here. We should not be able to be here.” She bit her lower lip as she considered his words, and he cursed his inability to provide a straight answer. He couldn’t begin to understand what had happened enough to fathom the reasons that they stood outside the laws of time, even less so to explain it, but he did not want to do what they had done before. He would not allow them to alter Andraste’s timeline further, would not allow their meddling to change the course of history from what it should have been. He had much on his hands, but he did not want this, he could not bear this burden. His infractions were already uncounting. “This cannot happen again.”

“I do not want to go, but if you feel it is right…I will not argue.” She nodded, punctuating her words with decisiveness that filled him with more relief than he could express.

He took her hand, turning to lead her back to the eluvian, back to the safety of their corner of the fade. He would repair the disappointment with another journey, he would spin a tale of the joys he had seen, and pull a smile from her face despite his colossal failure to live up to her wishes. He should have guessed that he would be found wanting in her eyes, an inevitable red mark on a list of things that had betrayed her spirit. It was too much to hope that he could have left his past behind, too much to hope that he had become someone who could succeed at the things in which he endeavored. Too much to hope that he could change.

There was always too much hope, and now he remembered why he kept it locked away.

*

His hands were shaking in her own, and that frightened her more than she wanted to admit. The look in his eyes was damning, condemnation for their trip, for himself, for her, all of it darkening his already shadowed gaze. She wanted to tell him that it was okay, that she could live without seeing whatever happened next. She wanted to promise him that they could try again tomorrow, but she knew better than that. She lied too much in the real world, she did not want to lie to her only friend in the only place she could be herself.

She was distracted by her own turmoil, and so it took her a moment before she realized that they had already walked farther than they had come. She stopped, her halt dragging the Traveler back with her, his weight not enough to pull them both forward.

“Please, Eva….”

“It is gone.” She blinked, noticing the edge of the darkened woods more keenly than she had before, seeing the shadows stretch farther than they had, noticing the empty air where their doorway once was. “The Uthvir is gone.”

His eyes widened, and she felt herself fill with an eternity of ice as she realized the naked fear she could see within them. “That’s not possible.”

“We have walked farther than we came before.” Her voice was empty and flat, a monotone to keep it from trembling, a hollow knock to keep her own terror from crushing them with its tremendous volume.

He dropped her hand, taking three lurching steps in one direction, his eyes darting across the horizon. He abandoned the path, doubling back and trying another, his toes sinking into the mud and picking up filth as they went. She heard him whisper the denial, over and over again, under his breath because he must have hoped the wind would not carry it to her ears. No, no, no, no, no, no. She heard it, and her heart beat with it, picking up the chant until it thrummed in her veins and sang in her nerves. He dropped his staff in the muck and mire, his fingers curling into fists that shook as he paced in a circle, white knuckles telling the story that his carefully masked face would not. That he could not make the mirror return, that he could not control this journey.

He stopped abruptly, straightening and looking at her with so much calm that she knew it was a lie. “The magic wants us here. The Uthvir wills us to view some moment of this battle. We will wait, and watch, and then we will leave once more.”

“Of course.” She mumbled the words, her own attempts to hide her frayed nerves not nearly as successful as his own.

The slight dip in his lips belied his frown, and his brow creased while his eyes swam with regret, concern, a hundred things she did not want him to have to feel on her behalf. She didn’t want to worry him. He tried so hard, so many times, to bring her places that she asked, or take her places that gave her something to remember as she kneaded bread and watched her demise loom over her shoulder. She was alone, all day every day, and he sought to fill her heart with people and things that would keep her company. She never wanted to worry a man capable of such kindness.

His smile was as false as her hopes of freedom. “Come, let us see another chapter in Andraste’s story.”

He turned, and with steps that were almost as graceful as they normally were, he tread along the rise of the hill, following the path of the army before them. She had to skip to keep up, making her way across the mud faster than she would have liked, lengthening her stride to reflect his frenetic pace. When they reached the bottom of the hill, they hovered in the shadows, near enough the army that she almost felt like she was a part of it, another of Andraste’s disciples come to aid her cause.

That was when she saw her. She was standing above them all, haloed by a ring of crimson hair, whipped by the wind that bowed to her presence. Eva had seen before that Andraste was not a tall woman, nor was she broad or ungainly like Eva was herself, but in this moment the prophet seemed larger than life, larger than the history she had forged, larger than the legend she had become. She rose up against the clouds, the crown of her helm scraping against the limits of the sky, her eyes fierce as she gazed at her army. Her army. Not her husband’s, not her lover’s, not the mage’s or the slave’s. Hers. The people followed her song, and it had led them to this night, to the mud and the storm and the sizzling air, and they waited with their breath held for their leader to speak, to sing to them the notes that would fill their hearts with courage.

Andraste raised a fist, and the world hushed at her command. “You have come far, to stand before me today. You have marched the long road. The hard road. The bitter road. Yet you have made it, to this moment. This single spot in time that will disappear in a blink, another drop in the endless rain.” The stillness around them was suffocating, but Eva could hardly notice. She stared at the red lips forming the words, at the bold green eyes that shone even at this distance. She stared at her hero, at her boldest, at her brightest, despite all those that would tear her down. She stared at a star, plucked from the heavens and gifted to the mortals, to save them from the darkness that plagued them.

“We have longer yet to go. We have trials that we must pass, to defeat those that would abuse the Maker’s children, to strike down those that would worship false gods and empty whispers. In this moment, though, your drop of rain will be felt. In this moment your thunder will be heard. Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just. Tonight the Imperium will feel us, they will hear us, and they will know what it means to fight for the will of the Maker.”

She thrust her arm in the air, her fist a beacon that drew the screams of the crowd, a thousand voices lifting in faith and song, in devotion and allegiance, in love and courage. Eva screamed with them, her own dedication scraping through her throat, her own fist flying into the air, her fingers feeling the wind as it battered against her skin. She was with Andraste, as much as this army that had been from the start, as much as the storm and the thunderous roar of her cause. Tonight, Eva was rebellion, made real and whole and given a voice, one that she would use to match the song that the queen of the downtrodden sang.

She rebelled, and she had never felt more real or alive than she had in that moment, and she never would again.

Chapter Text

He could not will it into being. He was on the other side of whatever trickery the eluvian had delivered, beyond the comforting fingers of the fade, the caress of his magic barred beneath the prison of his own making. No matter how much he called to it, the Uthvir remained lost to them, hiding along the edges of the pocket of time where they could not reach. The veil rubbed against the power of his magic, creating a friction that fractured the back of his mind, splitting what he was and what he felt, splitting him from waking and dream as though the two were truly separate. He felt the absence of it, of imagination and knowledge, a hole in his heart that grew with each stuttered breath. He was hollow, like the world he had made, a monster within a nightmare, feeding on the scraps of what was left.

He was disgusted with his own skin, clinging to his bones without the spark of life he so remembered, without the magic living in his lungs like fire and light that spurred him forward. Hew knew they yet lingered in some form of the fade, for it was unconscionable to be otherwise, connected and yet delivered through the shores of time. Whatever magic had broken the bars of the prison to deposit them in the throes of the moment was not strong enough to destroy their true reality, but it did impose the limits of the world that they had been dragged into, the limits of the time in which they tread. The veil was imposed upon him, even in his reckless slumber, even in his endless flight away from it. He could never escape the burden of truth.

Stilled and temperate, he wore his face as a mask of calm, the only shield he could cling to under the waves of panic and dread. He let none of his thoughts show beyond the limited window of his eyes, and even that he tried to wall away, to hide from Eva as she stumbled at his heels. She trembled as the wind whipped the shouts of marching rebels back across their ears, frightened and elated and intermingled in the moment. His terror for her was deep, barbs of simmering poison reaching from the blackness of his aching mind, raking across his temerity and leaving bleeding, wretched scars. He ignored them, or put forth a valiant effort to do so, refocusing himself on the time at hand, on the army and the clash that was about to begin.

Andraste’s forces had arrived at the line, a legion of Tevinter soldiers barring their path, chess pieces rigid atop a broken board. The time for speeches had ended, the time for hope and faith thrown to the howling wind. Now rose the minutes of blood, the hours of grit, the little pieces that would knit themselves together to form the great battle that would begin to turn the tide of war. They were marching with the army that would claim victory, but how many of their number would live to see it? How much life would leak into the loamy ground, feeding the grass with the milk of the blade?

The birth of the war was sudden, both sides breaching the calm to tilt towards one another, screaming until their throats bled with the ferocity of their dedication. The thrum of feet pounding against the ground shook the air and sundered the soil, footprints filling with frigid rainwater as the sky opened up to join the fray. He blinked against the water pouring from the heavens, trying to see where they could flee, where they could crouch in safety and await the end, fingers crossed that the scourge of rebellion would pass them by and leave time unscathed by their presence.

He should have known it was a broken hope before his bitter heart believed it, but he was a stubborn man and never learned to let the silver lining leave him.

The arrow sailed out of the darkness, barbed and barbaric, true to its mark with a tenacity guided by fate and vengeance. He saw it with no more time to move than there was to shout, his eyes widening as it struck him in the chest, burrowing to the fletching between heart and shoulder. His scream was venom against his tongue, shocked and torrential as he choked on the rainwater, blind and pained as his body wrenched to the side. Blood soaked the mint of his robes, draining from him with the fervor of a shattered dam, painting a badge of reality upon his stuttered breast.

Lost in time, forgotten, impossible; none of it mattered. It was real. His blood and his pain was as real as his thoughts and his regrets, and the wound that he bore was the proof of it. He could not only be damaged, not only be struck, but seen, and if he was all those things, then he was also in peril, for his death would be just as tangible as the searing pain wracking his body.

Eva

He staggered upright, hands covered in mud from a fall he hadn’t remembered taking, knees bruised from an impact that had been overshadowed by the arrowhead grinding within his wound. He snatched his staff from beside him, leaning on it with the weight of his pain as he looked through the chaos, searching for the one person that mattered to him in the midst of the void. They had been surrounded, Tevinter soldiers rushing between the cracks of the rebellion, filling the air with foul magic that smelled more of blood than the arrow in his chest. She was not far, and he thanked a thousand silent stars for that small blessing, her eyes finding his over the heads of a small group of Imperium madmen.

She reached for him, a singular grey arm stretching across the endless abyss, coated in rain and pleading. “Traveler!”

The men around her turned, and he realized his err as he saw their faces pale beneath the lightning licked sky. His faulted hands and Eva’s heart were intruders upon a book that had been closed and shelved, never intended to receive new chapters beyond the words that wove the ending. It was not their time, and that was truer than it had ever been, but more so it was not her time, and as the mages screamed in Tevene he wanted to crumble the world to keep her from seeing the hatred in their eyes. She didn’t understand the words, but she could feel the intent behind them as surely as she would feel their blows, and he watched in helpless turmoil as she recoiled from the ferocity of their loathing.

Demon.

“Eva, they have never -”

His words were ripped from his throat as the butt of a staff struck his middle, the air wheezing out of his lungs and scattering to the uncaring wind. The soldier in front of him snarled, his eyes tempered with fury as they were fear, and plunged forward with his weapon again, this time coaxing fire around the edge, beneath the storm and the smothering embrace of the veil.

The Traveler’s vision swam with orange as he lifted his feet, dancing the counterpoint to the steps of the doomed man and his doomed lunge. The fire-licked iron whipped past his head, and he felt the kiss of heat brush against the tip of his ear, nerves alight with warning as his skin tinted from the boiling air. He turned, his movements smooth, a poetry that his muscles hadn’t forgotten no matter how he tried to abandon the memories. The way his spine bent was nostalgia, the way he twisted to the side a mark of familiarity, stamped in the lean of his waist and the rigid swing of biceps.

He thrust his arms through the air, parting the veil like fingers slipping between a lover’s lips, gentle and insistent below the rushing sighs. He felt it fill him, power coming home to the veins in which it belonged, bound to his command and his will, and given purpose by his fury. Spears of ice, long and jagged, jettisoned from his palms and into the heart of his foe as it beat the end into the frosted wound.

He didn’t wait for him to fall, shoving him roughly to the ground and stepping over the fading corpse, his eyes boring into the place that he had last seen Eva. She had been driven to the top of a hill, the men and women around her chanting different names that all meant the same thing to the frightened heart trembling beneath their weight: Wrong.

In all his careful considerations, he had never noted that the people of this era would not have known a Qunari. The children of the Kossith had not descended onto the mainland until several hundred years closer to the present, and when the participants of the rebellion looked on the mottled flesh and spiraling horns, they made an assumption that she had tumbled from the fade, much like the creatures they compared her to. They never stopped to see her fear, to see the tremble of her lower lip as she cried out against the terror and the battle lust clinging to the air in her chest. They saw her height, with no patience for her heart, and thus they would condemn her without ever knowing her wonder.

She had no quarter, and an enthusiastic soldier thrust the tip of his blade towards her back, hitting her upper shoulder with a glancing blow. It caused no harm, no more than a rain-salted scratch, but as she flinched from it, she changed, her posture contorting in reaction to the blow.

She screamed, and he saw the world fill with fire around her, and the Traveler bent his head and raced towards the hill, begging fickle fate that he might arrive in time.

*

It had been more frightening than painful, but the scream that ripped its way out of her throat contained more than the reaction to the cold tip of steel against her shoulder. She screamed and was filled with the fade, filled with the feeling of every pair of eyes that had judged her in the streets, every slight she had suffered under the oppression of the Qun. She summoned fire in the palm of her hand, as hot as the coals of the largest forge, and she thought of the Ben-Hassrath’s hands around her neck, trying to squeeze the secrets from her empty lungs.

Saarebas. A dangerous thing.

She had never wanted to be this, never wanted to become the thing that they feared her to be, but as she let loose the blaze from betwixt her fingers, she knew that she was the dread that dawned in the night, the unknown and the terrifying that wore the skin of a baker. The fire engulfed one of the soldiers, and his screams scraped against the curve of her ears, filling her with his dying breaths as the flames ate his flesh. This had been what Andraste had faced. This had been the days of her life, fighting and fleeing, fire and final farewells. She had walked the roads of rebellion, and because of that her life had been death, one heart after another ceasing its senseless drumbeat against the will of her cause. This was what rebellion was, and Eva had become it, raw and ravaged by the forces that she could not control.

Sharp and narrow, the blade that cut across her back ripped apart her skin, warm life running down her muscles as another shriek of pain clattered out of her chest. She rounded on her attacker and felt the pulsing beat of her magic thrumming outside its prison, free from the chains that she kept wrapped around its throat. A dog, loose from its leash, rabid and starved from a lifetime of neglect and resentment. She raised her arms, and with the motion the ground rose too, ice blackened with mud climbing to the sky at the feet of the fool who had maimed her. He was swallowed, face frozen in a scream that would never be given air to sound, silent and empty as the light of his eyes was dimmed.

This was not what she wanted to be.

Magic was not meant for this. She stumbled backwards, looking at her hands, feeling the two lives she had taken like weights latched to the bottom of her spine. Magic was beautiful. She had seen things that brought her to tears, things that had lit up her imagination and promised her that there was hope in the world, things that had made her smile even as the whips cracked against her shoulders at the start of the day. She had pressed her hands to burning wood and with ice and determination saved the lives of her comrades, and now she had turned the same power to destroy the futures of men from the past.

She was what they feared, and she had liked it. She had felt the fire and the drums and succumbed to the madness, and now she had marked history with death. Her contribution to the world had been to subtract, to take away all the good that the men could have done, good that had been sacrificed in the forge of war and could never be returned beyond the flame. All for the sake of her own life, which was an empty promise that held no hope of being kindled beyond the few small sparks she had left.

She felt someone press against her side, and she looked down to see the Traveler, his pale face washed with the tears of the sky, his eyes like the sea churned by sorrow. He lifted his staff and twisted it through the air before sinking it into the mud with a grunt of exertion. Silver forked trails of destruction whipped outward from the crystal at the tip, seizing a group of soldiers bearing down on them and rending them with electricity. They shook, and they fell, and the death count climbed ever higher as the war raged all around them.

Water dripped from the base of her horns, rivulets that stung the edges of her eyes and chilled her cheeks. She turned, and she saw the sword point leering at her with just enough time to throw out her hand. Agony flickered through her as her fingers wrapped around the edge of the blade, tears stinging the rim of her lashes and escaping into the torrent that fell from the sky and untangled her braids. As the silver sword cut away the callouses in her palm, she gripped it and lifted, flinging it away from her with all the force that she could muster. She threw the blade, and the soldier went with it, crashing into a tree hard enough to summon a sickening crack more meaningful than thunder, and she prayed to whatever powers would listen that it had been the tree and not the man.

Red blurred at the edge of her gaze, and she looked across the battlefield, spotting her hero at the very edge of the woods at the bottom of the hill. A dozen men encircled her, their steps driving her into the murk behind the branches, into a darkness that meant death and dismay, failure for the rebellion at the low cost of Andraste’s life. Eva turned in time to see the Traveler drive his staff through the middle of a mage, twisting it before he yanked it back out, the savagery of the move sending blood spraying in a wide arc against the crush of the storm.

“Traveler!” she could hardly hear herself over the din of death, but he must have had better ears, for he heeded her call, turning to meet her gaze. She pointed towards the curve of the forest line, and his eyes followed to watch as Andraste pulled her long weapon from her back, her footing firm as she braced herself against her enemies.

Instead of shoving it at the men encroaching into her space, Andraste took it and snapped it over her knee, breaking what had appeared to be a spear into two separate blades that she hefted in her palms. She shouted at her foes, lips wild and eyes wide, hair dripping with the wind and the storm. She called out the name of the Maker, loud enough to cut across the chaos, a clarion bell to summon his will, and then her blades erupted into daggers of inferno, blazing brighter than any star hidden behind the cloud’s frantic cover. Eva looked at the Traveler, but his eyes were filled with as much shock as her own. She had heard so many stories, through her travels at night and even in her smaller existence by day, but none of them had ever mentioned that Andraste, leader of the rebellion, chosen of the Maker, had also been a mage.

They both heard the strangled scream that ripped the prophet’s throat as the daggers were doused by something more than the storm. Andraste sank to her knees without ever raising an attack against the men around her, trembling in the mud as though beaten without having been touched. The soldiers grabbed her, lifting her limp and useless form with hands that snatched and jerked, and then they dragged her into the winding woods beyond the sight of her people.

Eva found that what she was didn’t matter anymore. Dangerous, soft, murderous or compassionate. The things that she had become were words next to her name, as empty as the wells of the endless desert. She had been Evastaarit, and she had been Eva. She had fought, and cried, killed and saved, and so much more that would never be remembered. She was the sum of her parts, every second stacking to the sky until it took her form, building her into a hundred million little things…and none of them mattered. She was doomed and lost. She had known it when she placed her head against her pillow all those hours ago, and she knew it still as she watched the one woman that inspired her get taken into darkness. Eva didn’t matter, but Andraste did.

“We have to help her.” She clenched her fist and felt the water-slick skin slide against the cuts along her palm.

“No, this was never supposed to happen this way…” he was sorry, she could hear it in his words, count it in the tremor behind his voice. He was always sorry.

She turned on him, throwing a hand out in the direction that Andraste had been taken, in the direction of the abyss, calling her name in the whispering wind. “This is why we are here! This is what the Uthvir wanted!” she took a step towards him and placed her hand over her heart, holding her own life beat to remind herself to count all the moments she had left. “I will not go without meaning something.”

Then she turned, walking down the hill with more purpose than she had ever felt in her life. She heard his footfalls following her own, and she wanted to tell him that she loved him for letting her go. He did not stop her, and it was the greatest kindness he had shown her yet.

She would not go without meaning something.

Chapter Text

The mud stuck to the bottom of his feet, rain churning it into slick misery that welcomed his toes with sucking fervor. Water ran in bitter rivers down his neck, curving along his spine as the pair of stranded fadewalkers raced towards folly and fate.

It could have been, indeed, what the Uthvir wanted them to do. It could have been what had always happened in the thunder-shaken plains, on the eve of a battle where life was kept or lost in equal measure and without reverence or devotion. Blood was black in the darkness and screams were stilted beneath the patter of water against the ground. It was the sound of uncertainty, of a chessboard laid out before him whose pieces disobeyed the rules, obscuring the steps that he could take to survive. In chess, he could protect the queen to save the day, grace and wit his arsenal of choice, but in this game, he had lost his ability to identify her.

Who played that role? Who towered above the pawns as the most precious and lethal tool? Eva, with her heart full of desperation, needing to save a woman who had died a thousand times over before the flames had devoured her flesh. Andraste, with her heart full of love, so much so that the world had been unable to hold it all and had used it as fuel for the propulsion of change. Did he have it in him to save them both? Did he have this boon of luck tucked within his chest when he had saved nothing and no one all other times he had tried?

The world was scorched with his efforts, and again fate would ask this of him.

Trees enveloped them at the end of the hill, their leaves bearing the muted cushion of silence, dampening the sounds around them so that he could hear the vivid beating of his own heart, the shallow breathing of the Qunari in front of him, and the wet slaps of their feet against the ground. The shadows were thicker than the boughs above them, and even he struggled to see the way forward. Eva slowed, stalling as she tried to discern which direction the Tevinter soldiers had dragged her heroine.

He could see no further than several paces ahead, but he didn’t need eyes to see the way. He could smell it, poisoning the air, draping every breath with candied sapphire that stuck to the back of his throat and burned his lungs, tears crushing the corners of his eyes as his senses begged to be rid of it. He should have known, should have predicted, and yet in all his appreciation of history he had neglected to note this unsavory development.

It was better to ignore the horrors in this shattered world, better to pretend they didn’t exist so that he would not feel compelled to face them. Yet here it was, man’s early triumph with lyrium, one of the first oppressions of a mage that ripped what little contact with the fade they had out of their mind, severing the last vestige of purity that they could cling to. Temporary, fleeting, but devastating, nonetheless. It was the first draft of the templar order, the beginning of oppression that would fill a world with the cries of those condemned to it. He had seen its scars draped across all of history, until he had been unable to bear it and turned away, turned from it like all other unsavory findings that chased his conscience as he ran from the truth.

In this moment, treacherous and sliding through the cracks of time, he could not tolerate such a crime. Anger filled him, white-hot and forking through his veins, bleeding into the edges of his vision so that the darkness shuddered in turn. What right had they? What right had they to take something so precious, fragile as the feathered whispers of a dream, and rip it from the grasp of a poor girl who was loved only for her ideals?

He had done worse. He knew the hypocrisy even as he strode forward, leading the way into the woods where the withering winds would guide them. He had committed more sins than could be counted, which was why he could levy judgment on fools who sought to crush the fire of freedom to further their own personal gains. The Uthvir could be damned, fate could be damned, even Eva could be damned. He would right this wrong for his own sake and cast a flickering light of redemption against the mongrel shadows that dogged his heels. It would never be enough to light his path, but even the stars held little hope against the empty night. That never stopped them from shining.

Barked laughter rippled ahead of them, and he crouched closer to the ground, his ears turning as his gaze sharpened, searching for the source of the sound. His steps stuttered, crawling along the root-swaddled ground at an imperceptible pace. Eva matched his speed, though not his grace, her own shoes still thumping against the ground, now slowly, dropping to every fourth or fifth beat of his heart.

There, several feet ahead of them, between the brush of callous thorns, stood five men, towering above Andraste like columns that trapped her between steel and ill intent. Their lips still glowed with streaks of summer sky and silver frost, tongues coated in the blood of the stone. Lyrium shoved itself against his senses, tingling along his spine as though it were the slow march of a colony of ants, feet of needles lighting up his nerves. Eva coiled next to him, her eyes narrowing as she looked on, the telltale blue enough to alert her to the ability of their foe. Her pupils dilated as she sucked in a withered breath, biting her lip to suppress the nerves and the loathing he could see huddled behind her expression. Even the Qunari had learned the high cost of lyrium. A cost the grinning villains before them had paid gleefully, to quench the insatiable fire of a woman they could not find the strength to best otherwise.

The storm and the forest swallowed the sounds of their footfalls as the two interlopers crept forward, intruding on the scene of abduction. Andraste had not stirred since being thrown to the ground, the smear of brackish soil on her armor a brand decrying her unceremonious treatment. Tendrils of fiery crimson hair trailed into the puddles around her, soaking up the mire and staining deep brown, slaking their thirst and desecrating their color.

Something about her lying abandoned and alone struck a chord in his heart, and he had a ludicrous image flash through his mind of lifting her from her downward spiral and carrying her, clutched against the cold safety of his chest, to somewhere far away where this war could not find her. The idea was gone as soon as it had been born, stilled before he could even summon enough breath to laugh at it, but the disquiet that it left behind lurked beneath the anger that kept his eyes on the scene, below the rage that was an arrow waiting to be lofted at the lyrium-addled monsters before them.

The trees above them caught and held most of the water pouring from the heavens, but every few moments an errant drop would plink against the armor of the unconscious leader, or against the obsidian plate of the men who had stolen her away. It afforded an odd, off kilter cadence against the low, grinding chuckles of the cowards that presumed themselves victorious, grinning spectral smiles that stretched wide to reveal the skeletal structures beneath their pockmarked flesh.

It was overpowering, the reeking lyrium that thrummed in their veins. Each one had a heartbeat that was chaotic as it banged against their ribs, a rhythm that made him grit his teeth as he tried to ground himself under the onslaught of power. Energy, raw and furious, reached out from their fingertips, seeking its mirrored opposite so that it could smash the image, break apart the magic that spoke of a time when things had not hurt so badly. The lyrium called to the past, as he did in his darkest dreams, and when it found the pieces, it sought to kill them, so that no reminders would evoke its pain again.

“I say we cut her hair off. We can use it as a banner when we carry her filthy head back on a pike.” the man spat the words as he glared at Andraste, his voice gruff and loathsome. They were always gruff, the voices of the templars. The beautiful tenors of the chantry songs were scraped away with the flow of cerulean control, throats left ragged and raw and full of pain that they never asked for.

Ah, but that was not yet this time. Here and now, those that toiled with the virulent poison were gruff at the onset, selfishness stealing the sweetness of youth so that no sound of joy could escape from their lungs once they reached adulthood. These men had never sung hymns beneath the stained-glass lights of a towering temple. They had never gathered as innocent youth to be herded into profession, pressed into armor until they were shaped like perfect soldiers with the song burned away from their hearts and ripped from their lips. He pitied the templars as much as he resented them for what they proselytized, consenting or not.

“Beat her face black and blue. She can’t be a figurehead if nobody can recognize her.” This gritty drudgery that masqueraded as a brute’s wit earned a chuckle from those surrounding the prone prophet.

These men were not templars, and he felt no pangs of sympathy for them.

He lifted his hand a fraction of an inch, fingers twitching as his muscles responded to the familiar pose, raised to call forth the energy he would need to rend the fools asunder. The magic halted in its infancy as movement to the right shifted his attention, pulling it from his targets and onto his idiocy. So focused had he been on the elemental villainy of the men and their lyrium lips, so focused that he had forgotten to watch the one precious thing that he carried with him on this journey, and she had slipped away, full of ideas that were hers and damnably obstinate in the face of his own.

Green, dipped in the black of night, hung heavy from the branches above her, and Eva hunkered below their cover. Her blue eyes darted between the men and the rebel, frantic with fear and vivid with determination. She caught his gaze, and he shook his head, as emphatically as such a simple motion could be done. She blinked. Not a frown, not a denial. There was no screwing up her courage or summoning of her nerve. Her response to his request, no, his silent order, was to blink away the sight and move on.

He lifted his hand the rest of the way into the air, chopping it downward in a clear demand to cease and desist. This earned him a denial, at least, her braids swaying to and fro as she shook her head. She pointed to Andraste, then pressed a thick finger to her lips, as though if she did not request it, he would spring forward and sing the steps of her simple plan for all the army to hear.

She crept further forward, keeping to the edge, inching towards the rebel with eyes on the bindings around her hands. He watched, and felt every muscle in his body clench, tightening with a sense of dread that surpassed even his anger. He could try to cast around her, to smite the fools before they could notice the fair child in their midst, but he was not confident that he could be fast enough, was not assured that he could be accurate enough. He could kill them all in one fell swoop, but to choose who felt the sting of eternity and who did not required more dexterity than he currently possessed.

Damn him for wasting his strength on the world when a single girl needed it so much more.

Every inch she gained was a thousand years as he watched, rigid, terrified. He had lived and died with every step, with every breath, with every patter of rain against armor, positive that each iteration would be the last, that it would end before he could save her. Yet still, she moved, still she progressed, and somehow, she reached Andraste.

She leaned over her, brushing a filthy lock of crimson hair from the side of her face, grey skin lingering against white. Eva’s eyes glowed with yearning that filled the world, pouring from her until he was drowning in it. It was greater than the storm, greater than the war, greater than any that he had ever tasted against his own bitter tongue, and the glittering green knife of jealousy sliced across his heart. He had never known such yearning himself, never looked upon another with such a sense of devotion that nothing in the world could keep him from it, and as he watched he could not help but wonder what it would feel like to have something so pure. Undiluted, raw, and beyond the comprehension of those that would look upon it and see it only as a downfall.

It was that, though. In Eva’s case as surely as it would have been in his, because it had led her to the feet of peril, perched upon a cliff’s edge as she reached across the chasm, trying to grab hold of the one thing that was worth such a sacrifice to her. It was agony, but it was beautiful, and he wondered if he was even capable of such a thing.

Eva reached across Andraste’s head, over to where her hands rested in the small of her back, and slipped her fingers around the dainty wrists, bound in coarse rope, the knots thick and tight. She tugged at them, prying them loose with the same speed and horrible tension as had been her path towards her charge. Again, he waited, fingers digging into the centers of his palm, poised on the balls of his feet like a beast on the verge of the hunt. The scent of doom filtered through the filthy lyrium haze, and he knew it was a matter of moments, seconds, an instant and she would be caught and murdered out of misunderstanding and ignorance. Then the ropes were gone, and Eva slid her arms beneath the prophet’s shoulders and slowly, achingly slowly, she began to drag her away from her captors.

It was subtle when it happened, a low sound that should not have been heard over the din of the living woods around them, but it was strange against the metallic rain and the rustling thistles. When Andraste turned her head and groaned, the glimmering beginning of consciousness emerging like a sunrise in her fluttering eyes, the sound drew the gaze of the Tevinter soldiers, and time stood still as they saw her.

They saw her and that which held her, and the moment of stealth was gone.

Chapter Text

The men were frozen in shock and awe as they looked at their prisoner, coiled in the arms of a grey-skinned creature that they had yet to name. Slack-jawed, they gaped at her muscles, her horns, her height curled around the precious charge that she so desperately sought to save. She had gone from the blissful darkness of anonymity, of the undiscovered, and been thrown into the blinding lights of the soldier’s perception, their gaze blaring as her chest heaved in mounting panic.

He did not wait for their shock to wear off before he sprang into action. The next harried seconds passed as though they had been filtered through a sieve, slowed and stretched so that they had to trickle along the riverbed of time at an agonizing pace. He stood, pushing brush and thorns out of the way with one hand while the other climbed skyward, deft fingers ripping apart the veil as his mind called power from wherever it would be willed. The fade, the storm, the thunderous beat of the titans that slumbered at the behest of their crimes, it felt as though each answered his plea, filling him with might and magic that could sunder the world again if it were his wish.

As his first footstep out of hiding carried him into the sight-shattering glare of a bolt of lightning above their heads, the Tevinter men started to move, fingers raising as the shouts of accusation leaped from their foul lips. Eva shuddered, once, and then his vision was consumed by the drunken energy devouring his veins. He raised his hand, showering one of the men with electricity that snapped at the air, jaws of energy passing through his armor and skin and muscle into bone, searing him with the rage of a man passing his judgment.

The fool fell, twitching on the ground, a mass of nerves lit up like the swarms of fireflies on a fate-forsaken evening, buzzing beneath the folds of his skin until his eyes rolled back in his head. Spell cast, he stood over his victim, a visceral pleasure clouding his vision as the lyrium in the man’s veins boiled with his blood, soothing his fear even as his survival instincts tried to drag it back to the surface. A gurgling sound slogged through his lungs, bubbles of his last breath wheezing through his throat like the tepid vapors of a rancid swamp.

Eva’s voice drew him from his reveling, her sharp cry of pain enough to fill him with rage anew. His hand seized, sucking more power from the thin and wasted air, drawing every ounce of what the world had to offer into himself. He was alive, despite all the horrors, despite all the trials, despite the sacrifice of his soul on the altar of salvation. He was living in this moment, and he was angry at all the slights, against himself, against the world, against those not good enough to take the weak beneath their wing.

He turned and saw, as though a bird watching ants on a hill, the Tevinter soldier’s boot connecting with Eva’s temple. Glorious anger, delicious as it pranced against the icy walls of his heart, flames licking at the dead and dried brush that were all that was left of his desires as an individual. Eva rolled to the side, a grunt of pain slipping out of her with each brush against the ground, the tears in her eyes his fuel. He pulled force from the fade, a fist of gritted pain and hatred, and placed it between the attacker’s ears.

He didn’t even scream before he fell, earrings of blood bedecking the sides of his neck as his brain leaked from its moorings.

He raced to Eva’s side, the mud sliding beneath his righteous feet, and she looked up at him with daze in her eyes. She blinked as he extended his hand, and when she took it her fingers were trembling against his own, moths trapped against the glass of the lantern, wings fluttering as they tried to soar free. When she stood she stepped away, eyes over the cusp of his shoulder, and a bloom of fire erupted from her palm before she thrust her arms outward. It sailed over his head and into the man leveling a sword at his back, his goal of catching them off guard dissipating in the screaming flames as they ate through his armor and into his bone. Eva widened her stance as she stood over Andraste, the bold and brazen protector against the remaining two men that glared beneath the gloom of the storm.

One of the Tevinter soldiers pulled out a vial of glowing blue, ripping to cork away with his teeth and downing the contents in a single swallow. He wavered on his feet, and the Traveler sneered at him, a fool trying to wield power which he didn’t have the capacity to appreciate or comprehend.

“Poisoning your blood will not save you from your fate.” The Traveler felt as though his smile were lined with fangs as he grinned at the man, though his threats had little effect on him. Fools never saw the danger of the wolf until he had already slaughtered all the lambs, and then it was always too late.

The man placed a finger on his forehead, summoning the will to draw forth the wave of anti-magic that would stifle their powers. His smile broadened, and he could feel his face twisting with the expression, deadly glee morphing him into the feral creature that had savaged wars and sundered empires. He stepped forward, green mist curling around his fingertips, the fade boiling the air around him so that he parted the threads of reality and burned the tapestry they created.

He grabbed the man’s wrist and ripped it away from his head, leaning forward so that his nose was an inch away from the face reeking of lyrium and deficiency. The smite was cast, and the hideous surge of power crashed around him. His fury sustained him, his unholy desire to tear the unworthy to shreds keeping him held aloft in the sweet arms of impenetrable power. The smite had failed and rolled away, as useless as the worm it had crawled out of.

“You are too weak. You have always been too weak.” He twisted the man’s arm, feeling bones snap and grind between the thin lining of his skin.

The soldier screamed and fell to his knees, his cries shredding the air like the talons of the hawk, descending into the fires of war to pluck the trembling mouse and end its misery. The Traveler didn’t need to turn to feel the presence of the other soldier behind him, lurking like a starving mongrel, and he required no sight to send a volley of ice in his direction. He felt him freeze, his body dropping the temperature of the air by several degrees as the ice solidified and then cracked, tumbling into a hundred pieces that were no longer filled with the soul of a man.

He released the wrist of the wretch in his grasp, and with a flick of his fingers he parted the solid soil and stone beneath the soldier’s feet. The man tumbled into the waiting arms of the frigid ground, and when the Traveler was satisfied with how far he had sunk into the muck and mire, he closed the opening, crushing the hapless cretin beneath the weight of the world. A single trickle of blood worked its way through the cracks, disappearing in the violent smattering of the rain.

He turned, flooded with triumph, exultant in the glee of inhibitions discarded, and he met Eva’s eyes across the glade. She was pressed against a tree, and the sweet, saccharine blue was swimming with terror.

The power drained from him, dissipating like fog beneath the savage glare of the morning sun. He felt empty, hollow, scraped clean of everything that had made him whole and leaving only the husk of a monster in its tracks. His crimes were uncountable, they numbered more than the silent stars, and each day that he allowed himself to continue living he added more to the tally. He hated the way that she looked at him, hated every moment of his past and every stubbornly continued minute of his future. He was foul, and if the world were kind, it would have ended him before he had ever had the temerity to think that he could help.

A feather light groan from below disturbed the moment, and they broke their gaze away from each other to stare at the woman on the ground between them. Andraste was beginning to wake, and he realized that there was no time for apologies if they wished to save any shreds of the timeline that should have been. He rushed to Eva’s side, extending his hand but stopping short of grabbing her own, having the decency to recognize an unbidden touch could be dangerous for them both if she now feared him as much as she should.

“Eva, we need to leave before she wakes. We cannot be here when her eyes open.”

“No, but I would like to tell her…” she trailed off, pressing her lips together as she watched her hero rouse, considering what it was that she would want to say. He knew well that there were no words that could be shared, and he took another step to take her hand, sensing that she needed the contact and would not spurn him for his crimes.

“She must never see us. We have already affected the stream of time too much. Andraste never spoke of seeing a horned creature save her life, and so she must never see your splendor.”

Eva nodded, her eyes filling with tears. She allowed herself to be led to the edge of the clearing, where they ensconced themselves in the thick darkness of the bushes and night. They watched as Andraste rose from the mud, pushing her hair from her gaze as she took in the lifeless bodies of her captors strewn around her. She pressed a palm to the base of her throat, her eyes wide and full of regret, and he felt a deeper sorrow for the gentle soul that had only wanted to love and in turn was given years of war. She shifted from her prone position, posing on her folded knees before clasping her hands in front of her face.

“Maker, thank you for this salvation. Thank you for the gift of my life so that I can live to continue my cause.” Her words were musical as she spoke them, as though she couldn’t make sound without also making melodies.

He felt his blood still in his veins when something answered the girl praying in the mud.

It was not something that they could understand, words that were too abstract to be discerned by anyone but the intended listener. It was a song, the notes of the tune drifting at the edge of their consciousness, haunting their minds without ever fully forming. The crescendos were a whisper, the rhythms out of order. It echoed through the clearing beneath the drumming of the storm, and when it stopped and faded Andraste tilted her head to the side, confused in different ways than himself or Eva.

“It wasn’t you? Then who has saved me?” the music filled the space after her words, and the hair on the back of his arms rose in response. “Who is the…bad wolf? Is that elven? I don’t understand that word.”

Fear coiled in his gut, and he grabbed Eva’s hand and began pulling her away from the clearing. She spared a single glance back at her hero, but she did not struggle as he started rushing through the woods. He needed to be away, far, far away, a thousand years of separation from this moment would not be enough to end the horrible sensation that he had blooming in his heart. When the Uthvir finally appeared before them he was grim and terrified, shocked by the follies he found himself capable of and the truths of the world’s mysteries that entangled powers he thought too asleep to enact their will.

They walked through the glowing blue of the cheeky mirror, and then stood in speechless wonder in the relative safety of his room.

When she finally turned towards him, the elation in her eyes was so innocent that he couldn’t bring himself to be grim and severe in response. She had seen only wonders and could not comprehend the wrongs that they had perpetuated. She did not understand the voice of the Maker, or the portents of a wolf saving the cherished prophet. She knew only that she had played a hand in history, saving her idol to continue her work, so that her stories could be passed down to inspire a single baker in a foreign land.

“Thank you, Traveler. That was wonderful.” She smiled, and there was a sliver of something tragic in her gaze.

He could distract her with light, as should be his place, and he bowed and offered her a gentle grin. “It is, as always, my pleasure. Perhaps tomorrow we can venture somewhere a bit drier, however.” He lifted the edge of his robe with a dainty pluck of his fingers, expecting her to laugh as the remnants of the rain ran onto the floor. The desired sound of mirth never came, however, and he returned his gaze to her, frowning at the expression on her face.

“I…” she swallowed, and he saw the tremor in her hands, such strong things to quiver so quietly, leaves on the wind and not anvils for the fires. “There will not be another night.”

Her sorrow evoked something in him that was older and deeper than even his regrets, and he had to blink away the burning behind his gaze. “Have I done something to offend you?”

Her eyes widened, and she held up her hands. “No! No, of course not.” She smiled, forlorn and lonely, and he knew the answer before she spoke it, though he wished there were another truth held on her tongue. “I have been said to be doing strange things in my sleep. I will not be able to hide much longer if my dreams are so bright, and I am too afraid of death to continue.”

“There must be something that can be done.” He was stricken, unwilling to let her go even though he could see the wisdom in her words. All his power, all the energy of the fade at his command, and he knew that he was worthless in the end against the loss of something he had grown to hold closer than his own life. “There must be some way that we can get you to safety.”

She shook her head, and even his futile hopes were dashed against the ground by the look in her sad, blue eyes. “I appreciate this, but I could not leave my people. I am not the leader of a rebellion. I am not brave.” She sighed, a breeze that brushed against the beauty of all the stars. “I will rebel in my own way. And I will never forget all that you have shown me.”

“Nor I.” His words were horribly inadequate, and he looked at the ground, closing his eyes against the overwhelming sense of loss that filled him.

“I have to go. It is morning now. Goodbye, Traveler. Thank you. For everything.”

He looked up, reaching his hand out, a million denials on the ends of his lips, but she was already gone. The room filled with her absence, empty and small, and he sank to his knees as he realized what it was that created the most pain in the chambers of his damaged heart.

The loneliness summoned the tears, and he wept for the loss of the gentle girl whose rebellion had been too beautiful in a world full of horror.

*

The Qunari flit around him, going about their day without seeing the slender elf that walked in their midst. He was on the other side of the veil, beyond their reach, and so his quiet footsteps made even less sound than normal.

It had taken him weeks to find the bakery, and then longer to muster the courage to attempt to enter. Today he found himself standing in front of the entry, a weed amidst the sturdy oaks of the horned people around him. He felt small as he walked through them, small as he slipped past the threshold of the door, and small as he gazed around the warm simplicity of the room. The smell of bread invaded his senses, and he let it remind him of happier times and safer harbors, closing his eyes and envisioning a world where that smell could repair the damages done by bitter and reckless meddlers.

He walked over and perched himself on the edge of a counter, waiting for the bakers to walk down the stairs and begin their day. It was early enough that some of them had been roused from their slumber, but not the one that he wished to see. Evastaarit.The beginner who rises’. It was a clever name for a baker. He did not give them enough credit for that, or for the creation of a singular soul that had moved the broken pieces of an old fool’s heart.

She entered the room, and he felt his eyes fill with tears. He did not allow them to fall but kept them in check as he watched her begin the tasks of her day. She gathered her ingredients and laid them out in an orderly fashion along the counter upon which he sat. When everything was prepared, she stood next to him, unknowing of his presence, and began to prepare the bread. She measured, she mixed, and when she had assembled the dough, she began to knead it. Her hands were strong, and firm, and her concentration impeccable as she set to her duties. He watched as she glanced around the room, checking to see if she was being observed, and then saw her steal an extra pinch of sugar between her forefingers, placing it in the very center of the lump of dough. She folded it into the mass, a small smile of satisfaction crossing her face as she strayed from the approved and commanded recipe.

The smallest rebellion could bring the greatest joy to those that needed the fire the most.

He reached out his hand and placed it over hers, and she paused her ministrations, her eyes losing focus as she stared into the far-off nothing, a wistful glow filling her face.

“Thank you, Eva. For everything that you have shown me.” He released her, hopping off the counter and walking out the door, making his way back to the Uthvir and into his solitude.

Still, he had learned much from her, and he made a vow to himself that he would remember those lessons until the last of his days. Not as much had been lost as he had once thought, and perhaps one day he would put his powers to use and aid the world in the liberation of sweet souls such as hers.

Goodbye, Eva. Live long and live well.

Chapter Text

He had once thought that the fields of the fade were limitless, full of charm and intrigue. Full of wonder. Full.

Now, he roamed them wondering how he could have missed the emptiness. It was never-ending, stretching out beyond the edges of imagination to consume everything that passed before his gaze. Monuments of souls long dead and crumbled, buildings wasted on the sides of mountains as the elements devoured them. Even those places where people lived, thriving in the best ways that they could - even those places were empty. The did not know it, did not understand the mockery of life which they would mimic. They could not know it, for they were beyond the wells of knowledge and reason. It was not their fault, not their choice, not their will, but it was the state of affairs all the same.

He walked forward, the ground dim and cold beneath his feet. The Uthvir appeared before him, offering an escape, but he stepped around it. It sensed his pain, keening with it, and dutifully sought to ease that agony. It would conjure a place of light and livid laughter, whisking him away to where the sound could drown his thoughts like miserable rats in a balking ship. The Uthvir was constructed to do such things, to provide safe harbor from his own melancholic ambling, but today he would deny it of its purpose.

The fade played tricks of time as he passed through the spindled trees, stuck in mud as swords from a forgotten battle, roots clinging to the mired soil without much hope but everlasting temerity. The marshes had a way of forcing everything into impermanence, the water erasing passage and purchase. What laid beneath the murk told no tales, hiding the secrets of the woodland so that none could glean its demeanor. The fade and the spirits within could remember, however, and they re-enacted those stories in flits of light and shadow, in bursts of sound that fell in the dead air like ash.

He ignored them, marching his path as the water rose around his toes, the prints filling and disappearing moments after he passed. He trekked through the mud until he reached a hillock, poised as a dam at the edge of the sludge. Upon this hill he climbed, rising to the top to gaze at the small scene beyond.

Like the roots of the trees and the footprints in his path, time had become impermanent in this swamp. It passed around the small hut like a swarm of flies, wings covered in amber so that they could not stray much farther than the rim of the yard. Ghosts of those that had come to this place before traced their own steps, the visitation repeating in an endless loop as the spirits clamored to understand its import.

The hut itself would have been unremarkable had anyone passed it by outside of the fade, and that lack of uniqueness would have made their unease all the stranger. They would see it and know that the rickety wood held no secrets, that the moldering floorboards hid no treasure. The closed door and unmarked windows would not welcome them in. The tilted roof and faded chimney would not promise them shelter. It was an abandoned shack in the woods, not even worth a second glance, and yet they would stop and stare.

The hut, it would seem, would arrest them and stare back. It would be then that the savvy might wonder why weeds did not grow across the yard, why moss had not built castles across the steps. The perceptive may have marveled at how no animal lingered beneath the awning of the porch, no refuse was left by the lives of creatures that flitted from the tips of the skeletal trees above their heads. The birds did not perch on the rooftop, the rats did not skitter over the floor, the spiders did not crawl across constellations of webs in the windows. Nature wanted nothing of this hut that had been left to it, and the wise passerby would do well to note this and then keep well away themselves.

He watched time come and go, tagging the air like a shy child at play. Figures came and went, speaking with a woman that no spirit dared emulate. A man with golden hair arrived with a dour-faced friend, remaining at the homestead for a time. As he stayed, shadows crept across his gaze, weighing down the hollows below his eyes. He left, and behind him trailed unhappiness that he brushed away with laughter that was too loud. The dour man remained dour, his own path as curdled as cream in a hot spring.

When they had faded, they were replaced by a child, dark hair floating like silk around her cheeks. Her eyes were bright, but as she walked, she grew, and as she grew the brightness faded. She held a mirror, cracked and worn, and when she dropped it, the water did not stir around it. When she faded from view, it seemed a song wished to follow her, though it withered to silence. Notes wrapped in gold held fervor and fierce hope, doused in the murk as much as anything so pure that tread this way.

For moments he could not count and did not want to, he stood there and watched the spirits pose their theater. Gradually, without notice if one was not watching, they slipped away, leaving silence behind as the memories faded. Then there was nothing; an empty hut, a threadbare yard, a darkness that whispered of things that could not have been seen by any eye.

The hut stood exactly as it had from the moment she’d left it, not a mote of dust out of place. The world, it seemed, dare not stir it, for fear of the reaction should she return once more. In that it had become a shrine of emptiness, stark against the passage of time and life, ignorant of change as no real thing should be.

It was Mythal that had emptied this hut, but he held the blame in his own heart all the same. It was a carryover for all the blame he felt on behalf of the other emptiness in the world. Empty minds, empty hearts, empty libraries with books that no soul could read any longer. It was his path that had sundered the world, his blade that had pierced the barriers of life and ripped the threads to tatters. He had slumbered, and again he had made the world empty, picking up a friend like a stray dog and abusing her trust for companionship. His emptiness had dragged her down, showing her wonders that were then snatched away. His emptiness had spilled from his gaze like tears, infecting the very seams of reality so that time swayed around their passage.

He had lost control, he had lost the moment, and then he had lost Eva.

Righteous anger boiled in his chest, forcing him to suck in a breath as his fingers trembled. The emptiness, his fault or fate’s, filled him with fury that made him yearn to strike something down. He closed his eyes and imagined, carefully and meticulously, dissembling the hut with fire and lightning. Smashing through the wood with axes set ablaze, sundering the ground with currents that split through to the heavy stone beneath. He imagined a dozen different ways to destroy the hut, to destroy her memory, to destroy the empty way that she had looked at him when he had begged for Eva’s safety. In his mind, nothing was left, no grain of sand nor dust-drawn speck, no lingering sense of import that pervaded history so deeply here that time lost meaning. He gave it what it had given to him: unrelenting loneliness.

When he opened his eyes, the hut remained, untouched by his wishes.

He spun, stalking off the hill as bile rose in the back of his throat. The Uthvir rushed to meet him, and this time he did not dodge it, walking through the magic and back out to another location. He did not think, he did not ask to be taken anywhere, but the Uthvir knew its job. Now he allowed it the purpose it craved, deliverance from his thoughts and emotions, salvation from them before they became a storm. He would not let the clouds of his turmoil break, not again. Not after the consequences of last time.

He had taken several long, rushed steps before his ears tingled at the tips, the stifled air of the indoors sinking into his skin to alert him to the change in location. He slowed, consciously dragging a deep breath into his lungs, forcing his steps to be measured and silent. Then he let the storm of emptiness recede, driven from his thoughts by the soft nibble of curiosity.

He now found himself in a great palace. The walls were carved of marble, the tiles gilded with gold. Were he outside, amid the thorny arms of reality, he knew that the palace would be in ruins, stonework crumbled and picked clean by Antivan vultures who had relocated the history they cherished to buildings in less disrepair. The fade, however, ignored such a state, rebuilding the grandeur through an illusory dream.

His feet were silent as they pressed against the cool floor, his robes rustling so slowly that not a whisper came from his form. He looked to the ceiling, splendid with art. Paint curved to depict the glories of Andraste, dashed against the plaster with the skill of passion. He gazed at her face, shaped like a pale almond and nestled in hair that was the wrong color.

History, he knew, could never quite discern what their savior had looked like. Orlais had deemed her blonde, and so that became the common visage that the chantry commissioned. Here she had ashen brown curls, as though they had once been red but were robbed of their color by the heat of the flame. He had seen many iterations, each one holding its own charm, but in the end he decided he preferred the truth. The red hair suited the mistress of rebellion that had been seduced to her end by the blaze.

A bubble of laughter interrupted his reflection, in good enough time to prevent his thoughts of wandering towards the younger singer and the folly he and Eva had wrought with her. He stopped walking, leaning forward to peer around the waist of a column, and he found that he wasn’t alone in this dreamscape of elegance.

Two figures strolled down a hallway lined with purple carpet and adorned with framed art. The pictures depicted imagery from the fourth blight, which had extracted heavy tolls from Antiva during its course. The interlopers, young human mages if his assumptions were correct, gazed with reverence at the works.

The shorter one pointed, her drab robes sinking to her shoulder, revealing a frail arm. “You see, there.” Her finger angled towards a picture of the archdemon, poised above a town that was ablaze below. “Somewhere down there is my father’s estate.”

“Someone should get him a pail of water, then.” The young man snorted, chuckling at his own joke as the woman slapped him in the chest with the back of her hand. There was no malice to the action, however, as her laughter chased his own.

She sighed, placing her hands on her hips as she examined the image. “It’s sad…all that destruction. All those people…”

She stepped towards the painting, raising her hand. Her fingers were angled and delicate, flower stems lacking only petals with which to bloom. She fluttered them, small sparks of magic building within the motion, drifting along the edge of her skin until they grew and cast light that spread across her face. She had round cheekbones that caught the glow with ease, delivering enough of it to her angled eyes so that she, too, seemed to illuminate the hall.

With a flick of her wrist, she sent the balls of light towards the painting, their magic sinking into the colors on the canvas and bleeding through the edges of the shapes that they formed. He watched, fascinated, as the artwork began to repaint itself, erasing the scaled and craggy form of the archdemon. The fires faded and turned to lanterns, the dragon a great tree strung with lights and gaily colored flags.

It was not the colors or the alteration that took his breath away, however. Magic had been many things in his lifetime, and he was old enough and seasoned enough to have seen its multi-faceted forms. He was arrogant enough to assume that he had seen all that it would have had to offer, that every permutation had been sought, produced, and conquered. There were no final frontiers when it came to spellcraft, or if there had been, they existed no longer.

It was this belief that made what happened next all the more wondrous, stilling the air in his lungs and broadening the gaps between his lashes as his gaze absorbed all that was before it.

The lanterns flickered, first so faintly that it could have been no more than his imagination, a wish in his mind’s eye that longed for such a realness. Flickering once more, he then could see that they burned, as real as any fire, with a life to them that the dull grey world had not seen in a thousand years. The people at the base of the tree began to dance and sway, moving in the light like shadows transposed from beneath the curves of music notes across a page. In one blink it was a silent tableau, drifting across canvas and eluding logic, and in the next the quiet was broken.

It was a hymn that held no words, a tune that carried a melody so old and unspoken that no human could have known to create it. It was a song that lay dormant in the timeless stones of the mountains, held in the spaces between the fabric of the world as it was propelled forward. The air did not lift it, as music with such ancient heritage could not be borne through something so fickle as to be littered with breath and clouds. It was something deeper, something stronger, and something that moved the edges of his eyes to fill with the burning prick of tears that would not fall.

As the harmony filled their bones, shoots of green and violet dripped from the painting, stretching into the space around them. They grew and unfurled, becoming flowers of light, whose petals sloughed to the ground in a drizzle of delicate velvet. The young man standing beside the painting stared up in awe, his eyes reflecting the lights as they multiplied and carried music over his skin. She turned to her companion, taking his hand, and all the beauty that the world had ever known passed between them.

The spell faded, and the pair strolled onward, the music drawing into the lilt of her laughter and then existing no more. He lifted his own hand, holding it in front of his face. He reached across the fade, urging his fingers to grasp things they never had, longing for something he had never known. Green filled the caverns of his fingerprints, energy pulsing through the veins below the cusp of his skin, but there was no song. The spell produced a single bud of emerald dew, hanging at the edge of a wilted flower, soundlessly dying against his palm.

He had not wrought beauty before, it would be foolish to think that he might begin now.

His steps were winding around the column before he could rightly stop them, skipping down the hall toward where the interlopers had vanished. He found them again beneath an arch, hanging as a declaration for the entrance to a garden teeming with foliage and gentle wind. The young man was plucking a flower from a branch, dusty brown lips titling in a smile as he folded it into the charcoal hair above her ear. The movement spoke of softness that would, if left uninterrupted, turn to bated sighs and flesh upon flesh, heartbeats matching tempo to a cadence uniquely their own. It was a lover’s tryst that had brought them here, and it would be selfish of him to intrude.

Selfishness had never been a vice he’d mastered to his control.

He stepped forward, allowing sound to follow his foot, and the pair jumped apart as they turned to face him.

The young man raised a hand, fire billowing in a ball of fear around his grip. “Who goes there?”

“I mean you no harm.” He held up his own arms, hands in front of his face, palms outward in supplication. He looked at the girl, whose eyes held the burning temerity of curiosity rather than fright, so that he knew her for a kindred spirit. “I did not mean to intrude, but I was audience to the spell you cast a moment ago. I would, if you would be so kind, like to know more about its casting.”

Her dark skin filled with a rosy blush, the delight in her gaze exhuming the gold flecks in the roasted amber. “Oh. Are you…a mage, as well?”

“I believe your society would label me an apostate.” He bowed his head and smiled, dropping his arms to his side as he sensed the immediate danger had passed. “Tell me, where did you learn such a spell?”

“Lira, don’t say a word.” The young man stepped in front of her, glaring and stubborn as a bull entrenched in mud. “If you’re an apostate, then we want nothing to do with you.”

“Roman!” the girl, Lira, grabbed her companion’s shoulder, forcing him to lower one of his hands.

Roman glanced back, scowling. “Don’t look at me like that! He could report us, or get us possessed, or who knows what else.”

She rolled her eyes. “Report us to whom, you daft nug? We’re in the fade, not the gallows.”

“No, we’re dreaming. We’re still in the circle, which means that he’s likely nearby. Assuming he isn’t a demon.” Roman turned back to him, jutting his jaw outward. “Leave us be, we don’t want any trouble.”

Roman was stout and sturdy, ready to protect the precious tenderness that was welling in Lira’s eyes. She held fear there, yet there was still more, the whisper of pleas, beseeching for a reason to continue. He could guess as to why - trapped in a circle, shackled to one place and one life no matter what her wishes may have been. Souls that yearned for discovery would crumble there worse than a flower breaking through too late in the fall, the chill of that life draining their vitality no matter how strong their will to live.

“Would it ease your caution to know it is not likely that I am near your location? Nor would I report you to any authorities, even if we were at this moment in the same room.” He bowed again, keeping each word soft and even. “I am but a Traveler of the fade, in search of the things most interesting in this world, and her spell is far more beautiful than many I have seen before. A conversation is all I ask, nothing more. After, you are welcome to leave me and never cross my path again.”

Lira blushed again, taking the compliment like a drop of water takes the tides. Roman didn’t yet allow her to respond, however, his right hand still coursing with flame. “If you’re not in the circle and you’re not near it, then where are you?”

“It has been a long time since I have dared to rise from my dreams, so my location is not one whose name you would know. I am nearer the shores of the Venefication Sea than not.” He placed his hands behind his back, leaning onto the balls of his feet.

Lira mouthed the name of the sea, then her eyes grew wide. “That’s…that’s all the way out near the edge of Antiva!”

He smiled. “I am not positive on the borders of the country.”

“So, what, you just sleep all day?” Roman plowed through her excitement to press his interrogation, not an ounce of trust leeching into his countenance.

“More than just. I dream. I walk the ways of the fade to visit places across the land.”

“So, you’ve seen other places like this?” Lira gestured to the splendor around them, a palace that was almost certainly crumbled in the world outside their imaginations.

He nodded. “Yes, that and many more.”

“But you’ve never seen a spell like Lira’s.” Roman was skeptical to the highest degree, his eyebrow creeping upward as he linked his arms across his chest. The burden of fire had left his hand, however, a trail of smoke dissipating behind it.

“I have not. Have you?” he quirked his own eyebrow, a gentle challenge that he knew the lad could not meet, the pink along Roman’s nose belying that he’d rather be wrong than belittle his love.

“No, never.”

“Most spells are heavy-handed, a show of brute strength and power as the peacock preens.” He turned his attention back to the young woman, weighing her with his gaze as though that alone was enough to pry apart the workings of her craft and glean its riveting secrets. “Yours was lovely, like a fresh lily. You show exemplary ability, Lira.”

She giggled, self-conscious and proud in one bubbled sound. “Well, I mean, I haven’t had much opportunity to practice since coming to the circle, but I try to at least remember the basics.”

“So humble, too.” Roman deadpanned, glancing at his companion with a small amount of irritation which he was pretending to be more substantial.

“Your abilities do not seem lacking either, Roman. Your quickness in reacting to my presence was admirable if a bit misguided.”

The young man blushed, which made him look far more youthful than he had moments before, the smattering of freckles on his dark cheeks standing out now that the blood was coloring his skin. Rather than boast, Roman opted to dig in further to his stance of suspicion, narrowing his jade eyes. “I don’t trust you.”

“As is your right.”

Roman frowned at the response, as though he had expected more. “You know our names. What’s yours?”

He bowed low, this time without hesitation, having the answer ready since he knew that it was inevitable that they ask. “Call me the Traveler.”

“That’s not a name.” Roman’s frown grew deeper still, a canyon of displeasure marring his features.

Lira huffed behind him, a flash of agitation welling in her sharp gaze. “Will you stop being such an arse? If he wants to be called Traveler, just call him the damn Traveler. We’ve been standing here long enough that if he wanted to attack us, he could have.” She sniffed, stepping around Roman and ignoring the guffaw that suffused his face. “It’s so rare we get to talk to mages outside of the circle, so I’d like to see what he has to say.”

Roman bit his lip, looking towards the ceiling full of painted saints. “I want it on record that I’m against this plan.”

“Duly noted.” She smirked at her friend, then turned back to him, her smile a hundred watts of the sun distilled into pure congeniality. “Now, as you were saying?”

“I would very much like to know how you cast your magic.” He folded his hands behind his back, his posture straight but not overbearing, careful to keep his shoulders at a height below the line of command. He sought knowledge, he sought adventure, he sought the thrill of what little life was left in the hidden patches of light beyond the edges of the devastating storm. He did not seek to order, and this posture reminded him of the humility that he wore in remembrance of where it should have been donned before.

Lira’s lips parted in a radiant smile, white teeth flashing between them to paint her demeanor with charm. She held up her hand, exposing the center of her palm like a stage, and with the smallest furrow of her brow she let it sing. A swirl of effervescent lilac curled upon itself, reaching through the air with the delicate tap of a dancer’s toe. It shaped itself as her lashes fluttered closed, becoming a blossom that unfurled into prisms of violet. Again, though there were no singers nor instruments in sight, a soft song hovered at the edge of his mind as he watched veridian leaves sprout below the bud.

She exhaled, and the image burst like seeds at the end of a dandelion, sparks spreading through the air to dance around them. She dropped her hand, grinning as he gazed at the lingering light, satisfied with her presentation as she sensed the tide of awe she’d pulled from him.

She placed her hands on her hips, an eyebrow quirking skyward. “Now you try.”

The challenge brought an upward twitch to the corner of his mouth, awakening a sense of foolish competition that he had thought impossible to find once more. He raised his fingers, trying to remember the tune of the tuneless song, drawing from the magic trapped behind the veil and urging it to his will.

A leaf, orange and brittle with the keening death-knell of fall cracking its shape in twain, worked its way from his hand. It drifted to the floor, canting at an unnatural angle as it dropped, as though the form was carved of foam that would not behave with the beckoning winter breeze. When it contacted the ground it popped, leaving behind not light but dust, charred as ash that dissolved into nothing more than a smear of disappointment. He frowned, cowed by not only his failure to duplicate what he wished, but his failure to rise to her prompting, a stacked misstep that irked his sense of damnable pride.

“Well, it was a good try.” She giggled at him, slapping her hand over her mouth to hide the mirth, though it still showed in the rising apples of her cheeks. He gave her a withering glance, as ill-tempered as his misguided spell, and she sighed with a patient smile. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. Relax, you’re not the first one to mess it up. Look here,” she stepped forward, lifting his hand and sending fizzing jolts of feather-light magic through his skin, “Do you feel the difference?”

He frowned, his brows joining one another above his nose as he focused. “Yes, it is markedly changed from my own. It is…weightless, as though you have taken the essence yet removed the mass.”

“Er, something like that, I think. You have to keep yourself open as you cast, rather than just pinching from the fade and ducking out.” She dropped her grip, taking a polite step back towards Roman. “It takes some doing to get the feel of it, but if you’ve a mind, I’m certain you could get there.”

“On his own time, preferably.” Roman muttered the words under his breath, sulking at the edge of their conversation, but neither of them missed the sentiment.

Lira smiled warmly at him, taking his hand and lacing her fingers with his own. His dour countenance thawed, the glacier of resentment cracking to reveal a warm summer’s eve beneath. When Roman looked at her, he was purged of unhappiness, molded of sunshine that flowed from his chest to tease the air around him into temperament. When she looked at him she was the sculptor, the sun itself filling a vessel with a bounty of sentiments that knew no bounds or end. She was belonging and love to all she beheld, granting a serenity that only the most unguarded of hearts could provide.

Seeing them and their exchange of light seemed familiar, though he could not recall from what. At the back of his mind, in the distant and forgotten places that he no longer thought to give names, he thought that he could half-remember a girl that had taken his hand and smiled like that once.

He could no longer remember if he had smiled back.

He cleared his throat, uncomfortable with his thoughts as they clung with cloying irritation to the edges of his chest. The pair of mages looked at him, Roman bashful at their exchange, and so he did not let the hesitation in the air hang for any longer.

“I thank you for the lesson, despite my woeful performance as your pupil.” His lips quirked, the idea forming before he had even completed his declaration of gratitude. “Would you allow me to repay the kind favor?”

“Nope.”

“Certainly.”

The replies, opposing in both meaning and tone, came from the pair of them at once. He pursed his lips as they shot irritated looks between themselves, Roman crossing his arms and Lira pressing her hands into her hips. They remained that way for a moment, unmoving and unspeaking, and he had to resist the urge to laugh at the theatrical subtlety of the display. Whatever passed along their gaze was silent, a wordless exchange that meant much to them and little to himself, but it was an entertaining display all the same.

“At least hear him out.” Lira said, at last breaking the standoff. Roman rolled his eyes, but nodded in his direction, indicating that she proceed.

“Please, let this offer bear no burden of obligation.” He spread his hands, recalling his earlier humility and letting the shroud of it fall across his features. “I seek only to extend an invitation, and unlike the spirits of ill intent you might encounter in these halls, this one comes with nary a string attached. Accept or decline as you please.”

“An invitation?” Lira bounced on her feet, her excitement already palpable in the glitter of her gaze.

He snapped his fingers, and the Uthvir obediently materialized beside them. “I have a way to explore the fade that is unlike any other. You’ve made mention of the circle, and so I know that your experience of the world beyond those walls may be limited. I offer to take you beyond that, into the vastness across continents and seas, into wonders even further than that. I can show you places that no person can go in the waking hours, places beyond the dreams of most. If you like, you may travel with me, and see the splendors that await.”

There was a voice in his head, a part of him that still had sense and self-control, that spoke of the folly he knew he was committing. Everything that he had done with Eva had been ill-advised in the end, a mistake that had compounded into nothing more than pain and separation. Yet he could not bring himself to stop, could not halt the unwieldy way forward, because foremost in his mind was something else. It loomed large, erasing the regret at their strange affectations on time, erasing his doubts over his control on his impact, erasing his ability to sort logic and reason from the rest. What he was left with was a maw in his chest, abandoned there when he had left the bakery and its flour-dusted memories behind. He could ignore his conscience in favor of appeasing this new beast, because now that it had been awoken, it would not be sated by mere travel alone.

Loneliness had an appetite he could not suppress, and so he held out his hand.

Lira glanced at Roman, and now even he looked tempted, his eyes wide as they took in the painted fringes of the mirror. “Is that…an eluvian?”

“Have you heard of them?” he found himself surprised that the stuffy boy possessed such knowledge, and indeed held enough of it to look on in awe.

“In a book, once. There was a picture…” he stepped forward, reaching for the reflective surface though he was still too far to have touched it. “I could never read much of the elven writing, and my friend - he was Dalish, before the templar found him - he was taken away before he could teach me. But the book said these used to be part of their culture.”

Lira nodded, making a decision that both men were instantly aware they could not come back from. “So, nothing to worry about, then. He’s Dalish, not a demon.” She strode forward, flicking the edge of her robes aside from her footsteps. She reached him and grabbed his hand, accepting it as she closed the distance between herself in the mirror, standing before it with a chest full of excitement and purpose. “Show me everything, Traveler.”

He smiled, and the mirrored glass flooded with light, distorting the image as the portal opened. In they stepped, Lira dragging the dazed-out-of-reluctance Roman, and he watched them go, smashing the voice of worry down with the elation of burgeoning adventure.

The loneliness grew quiet, and that satisfaction urged him forward.

Chapter Text

They were bathed in light of soft jade as they emerged from the dulcet mirror, pale fingers of the magic within the Uthvir stretched to caress their skin before they had stepped away. He watched as the pair of humans he had collected took hesitant paces into their surroundings, their eyes as wide with wonder as with caution. Lira’s cheeks were draped in the colors of a rosebud dawn, her skin a dusky backdrop that warmed the hues to reflect the excitement pricking the light in her eyes. She was alight and alive in ways that delighted him, and he was further pleased in his decision to ferry them all into the unknown.

They found themselves in a hall of ruined splendor. It was a counterpoint to the delicate Antivan memories they had left, the once-rich magnificence of the building they traversed now crumbling. The state of dress was not the only difference between the two, however. Antivan architecture whispered of floral undertones, of influence from lurid wines that perched at the back of the throat like a waning sparrow.

This new location had more weight to the designs chiseled into the walls. As he looked at the ruins of bronze and gold molding, he could imagine the hands that would have made them, stout and sturdy, with callouses that belied their love of craft. The angles and edges divined the shape of stone, calling to the arms of those that had held it or shoved it into place from where it had once been. Dwarven designs always spoke of both bowing and bending to the elder mountains, children of the living rock upon which they slept who would obey and rebel against their parents in turn.

Roman’s shoulders had dropped, his brutish resistance fading in light of intrigue, his head turning not to the sights before them but the mirror behind them.

“I didn’t know eluvians could do that.”

The Traveler smirked, quickly hiding the slip and resuming his poise so as not to make the human think he was mocked. “Ah, mine is not what you would consider…average. It has special capabilities.”

Lira drifted over to a pile of intricately embossed rubble, leaning forward to inspect it and ignoring the gentlemen's conjecture behind her. Roman raised an eyebrow. “Special dispensations, eh? I’d love to know where you found such a thing…and how you learned to use it.”

The question was loaded, brimming with accusation as much as curiosity. Roman had dropped his guard somewhat in his fascination, but he made clear with his careful tone that he had not yet unburdened his heart to trust his new companion. For his part, the Traveler did not take offense, instead focusing on the mirror and keeping his movements slow so as not to spook the young man.

He reached out, trailing a finger along one of the hourglass carvings on the edge of the shimmering glass. “It was…a gift. As for how I learned to use it, I simply can. It listens to what it is I wish, and I find myself where I need to be upon stepping through.” He grimaced, remembering the Uthvir’s apparent disobedience on earlier ventures, or its will to dance around the law of his own wishes and will. “Though, the Uthvir and I do not always agree on the interpretation of what I wish.”

Roman snorted ungracefully. “So, it’s about as temperamental and obscure as all the other old elven artifacts, then.”

The smile he cracked at that was genuine, the summation of their empire amounting to nothing more than vexing artifacts scattered to time something entirely too amusing to him, if somewhat bitter. They deserved so much more, yet so much less in one. “A fair assessment, I suppose…from a human.”

“Don’t be fooled by these short ears, Traveler. They can still listen as keen as you like.” Roman smiled, easing the mild threat of his words to no more than a jest. He returned with a grin of his own, enjoying the subtle spar in their conversation more than he’d a right to. More than he’d expected. More than should be present within the timid and awkward lad.

“Whoa.” The hushed exclamation departing Lira’s lips turned their attention from the banter toward her path, which had taken her to the edge of what they had taken for a cliff. She stood, wind swirling the loose ends of hair and fabric that clung to her shape, a silhouette of movement above the stillness of her stance.

Alarmed, Roman rushed to her side, questioning her with a delicate touch to her elbow. It was met with silence, her gaze transfixed upon the distance with the rapt wonder of someone seeing something unexpected and grand. Roman’s eyes darted to the side once, then again as he processed whatever was seen. The boy’s mouth fell open, expression matching his lover’s as he took in the view. The Traveler, his own curiosity piqued at their entranced reactions, made his way to them with haste, feet padding softly around the broken cobbles and rubble that lined the path.

He reached the edge and surveyed the valley below, a sharp drop leading to a crater that was far too vast to have been wrought from above. The ground itself would have given way, sinking into a divot like sand escaping cracked glass, leaving behind a city that was never meant to touch the sun. It was a Thaig, or had once been. Much of it had been destroyed in whatever event had spurred the ground to shift, knocking walls asunder as the ceiling dissolved to become floor. Still, columns remained to show the ghostly bones of what had been, enough that he could have drawn a map to where each room and hall had led.

“Lira? What’s wrong?” Roman’s voice broke the silence, worry tainting its tenor as he glanced at the girl. Her eyes were full of too much, and he could all but see the emotion building in her throat as she placed a hand there, licking her lips.

“There are…people.” She murmured, unfathomably sad.

He looked again, narrowing his eyes as though it would sharpen his gaze, and now he could see them. The bones of the buildings were not the only skeletons that lay before them. Amongst the rubble and debris there were fragments of people - dwarves, one could presume - crushed and mangled as the Thaig had been. Armor and weaponry perched as gravestones near each body, nameless markers to tell the tale of how they’d fallen; in strife and fear, most like.

He glanced to the side, spotting a path that sloped down the edge of the cliff that would lead them into the crater. He didn’t bother urging them forward, preferring to leave the choice to them whether they wished to proceed into such a grim tableau. He used his staff as leverage to work his way down, the slope being steeper than was easily traversed. For a moment his mind called out with a pang of panic, urging him to turn and beckon his companions forward for fear of losing the presence he had just broken his own vows of solitude to obtain, but he needn’t have worried. After he was several paces into his trek, he heard the scuffle of their feet chasing his, gratified that they would not abandon their journey so soon. It was true, he did not wish to pressure them, he did wish to leave them the choice of steps they wanted to take, but that did not mean he had no preference for their choosing.

Once below, they fanned out quietly, working across the expanse of destruction with the appropriate somberness to take in the moment. He was cautious with his steps, taking care to avoid treading upon the living bones or stones, knowing well that the ground had a penchant for holding a grudge and not wishing to tempt it into movement once more. His stomach churned like curdled butter as he looked over the wreckage, realizing now that he was close enough to examine things that the bones of dwarves and buildings were not all that laid in waste. Darkspawn were scattered between them, their tainted bones agitating his senses as though he could still smell them, though the flesh had long decayed to little more than dust.

Was that what had prompted the earthen upheaval? A darkspawn battle that had angered the very stones, cracking them into action to demolish the skirmish in the middle of its violent climax?

An ache worked its way around his heart, thick and slow, as he wound his way back towards his human charges. He could feel the horror baked into the rocks, battle cries turning to screams turning to spatters of blood and ichor, the dance of failure coming to a tepid close with defeat that had crushed them all. Pain was all that lived in its wake, dull and throbbing, a sunken heartbeat clouded in mire.

Lira and Roman had found their way to the edge of the wreckage, hovering near each other without banter or query. They must have sensed the devastation, the memory left here a scar that not even time could heal. Their faces were couched in grief, mourning souls they’d never chanced to cross paths with, lives who could never bear change upon their own.

At his approach, Lira looked at him with a question in her eyes, though she did not voice it. He could not parse precisely what it was she wanted from him, nor discern an answer he could provide amid the tumbling chaos of their combined grief, and so he fell to the familiar standby of knowledge.

He glanced at the top of the rise they’d just left, leaning on his staff for support. “It appears we stand in one of the dwarven Thaigs lost to the current age. There were many that fell to the initial rise of the darkspawn hordes.”

He walked, heading over the dusted path of what may have once been the grand entrance hall, and his charges followed dutifully, without sound of protest. “Based on the architecture and the designs therein, I would say this was part of the old dynasties built by the dwarves, home to the longest standing bloodlines that could recount the history of their people. A history largely lost to them now, as I understand it.”

“The craftsmanship of this time, however, still holds up, if it has been left undisturbed by looters or more chaotic natural disasters than this. Many of the ways used by the original dwarves to carve stone and bend metal were lost, though recent generations have adapted well enough to achieve similar effects. Still, there is a certain mysticism inherent in what was left behind of old that bears whispers of the magnificence to their techniques, if not also a presence in imagination and creativity that is lacking of their besieged and world-weary descendants.”

They passed a wall still tall enough to rise above their heads, and Lira reached out a thin hand to trail her fingertips across the stonework. A carving remained of a dwarven countenance, squared away as was in fashion for art at the time, imitated by the modern age but never replicated with enough exactness. The simplistic lines indicated the features of the face and the layout of the beard, the shadows between them aligning to appear as additional details no matter which direction they were viewed from. It was quite ingenious, the way the light was used as part of the piece, the way direction was a tool to enact change in the viewpoint but not the work.

Lira gasped abruptly and jolted her hand back against her chest as a translucent figure emerged from the effigy, a spectral dwarf striding out and past her into the hall beyond.

“Traveler!” Roman’s call was a request for help as much as it was an accusation, as though he had summoned it to haunt startle the doe-like mageling.

He smiled, shaking his head as the ghost stalked past them, meeting with another as yet more appeared all around them. “Fear not. It is the fade, retelling stories of what is remembered here.”

“It can do that?” Lira’s words were barely a whisper as she trailed after another pale figure, a woman in armor marching with the cadence of patrol. The dark girl’s feet kept up with ease despite her leisurely pace, her legs longer than the dwarven figment’s by half again.

“It remembers.” He stated plainly, following her at the same easy pace. The spectral dwarf met with another, the pair of them saluting one another before marching down another hallway, the three living observers tracing their steps. “If one knows where to go to see such re-enactments, one can learn a great deal about the way events took place.”

“You mean, like, the truth of what happened?” Roman didn’t turn his head from the dwarves as he asked his question, and the Traveler got the impression he would only pay half of his attention to whatever answer was offered.

Nevertheless, he dutifully responded. “Hardly. The fade remembers, however, as with any memory, the truth is often obscured by bias. It recalls the emotions of those that lived such times and can show us that individual’s memory of events. Because of this, the recollection is often scattered, split between as many viewpoints as there were eyes, and so it is no easier to parse the ‘truth’ of the unfolding than it would be from reading an account.”

They were ambling closer to the center of the crater now, where a multitude of shades coalesced, and the apparent destination of the pair they had followed. Roman jumped as all the figures suddenly stumbled, knocked askew as though the ground beneath their feet had bucked them loose. Their own feet remained motionless, the re-enactment failing to move the physical representation as it did the spectral. Roman straightened, sheepish, and Lira cast him a smirk before returning her attention to the historical scene.

The faces of the dwarves changed. What had been serious and determined now kindled with the spark of alarm, panic jumping from gaze to gaze until the room thrummed with it. They closed ranks, forming a circle around the middle of the chamber, as though behind them stood the beating heart to the city, vulnerable but for the pointed tips of weapons that were drawn as one.

There was no sound provided to this theater, and so it was difficult to tell what happened for several clinging moments. The only warning the observers had to what happened next was the tensing of every shoulder in the room, and then surging from behind them came a wave of darkspawn. He was suddenly quite glad to find themselves without auditory record, as the fanged mouths of the distorted monsters were gaped open in what would have been earsplitting shrieks. The dwarves answered, their own mouths opening with lips shaking as they clattered weapons to shield.

Chaos ensued.

Lira reached out to grasp Roman’s hand as they observed the battle taking place, flinching from the violent crash of body against body that was difficult to untangle with the naked eye once they’d met. It happened quickly, the room filling with foe and then emptying of ally as each dwarf fell in turn. What had been crowded with honor then became cluttered with death, the semblance of blood covering tiles that no longer bedecked the ground.

The soldiers closed ranks again, with each fallen comrade the circle ‘round the middle getting slimmer, starved for the want of aid. This, too, was assaulted, thinned and thinned, battered and battered, until one woman remained, standing with quaking knees, a vicious gash across her forehead that seeped blood into her eyes. Something was behind her that the fade had not fully materialized, but the woman faced the danger in front of her as though determined to protect it. Determined despite the futility as the air around her teemed with enemies.

Then she fell, a broken spear jutting from her throat to deny her even a last cry of anguish, though the observers of her final moment would not have heard it, were it allowed. As her form slumped to the floor it vanished, the other dwarven corpses fading in time so that all that remained was the blurred shape in the middle and the darkspawn encroaching around it. He knew what it was before the sharpness of clarity was provided, wanting to close his eyes and turn away but knowing better than to avoid the truth of it. Not in this. Not when he had brought such innocents to bear witness to such sins at his side.

It was a little girl. Dwarven, stocky, her face still holding the chubby softness of a baby while her legs had sprouted to the height of a child. Her muscles taut in the way of one just beyond crawling, just old enough to speak what crossed her mind. She clutched a stuffed nug, her head bowed so that her chin was buried in the stitched fur, braided pigtails draped across her chest.

The darkspawn approached, and she lifted her gaze, eyes wide and shining with tears. Her lips trembled, but she did not scream, and for all that they could tell of the soundless depiction, nor did she sob. Instead, jutted her jaw in bravery far beyond her years as she placed a rounded fist in a pocket of her dress, pulling out a vial of something too blue to be safe for her. She pulled the cork out with her teeth, downing the contents as the darkspawn rushed to stop her. Too late, it was within her, and it took seconds for her to breathe her last and fall the to the same road as her kin. Then the world caved in around them, a ceiling that was not there dipping low, forcing them to duck on instinct though none of it held tangible weight.

The scene faded, the darkspawn blinking out of view along with the impression of her corpse, and they three were left amid the rubble, as undisturbed as they day after it had fallen.

“There were many Thaigs that fell in such a way. Too many.” His voice did not carry beyond where they stood, the soft murmur of a teacher too struck by what he taught to do much more. “And so, what had been an empire of artisans and craftsmen dwindled, lost from the sparks that made them whole, left to wander without the maps of their forefathers, as they’d breached the contracts held sacred by their kin.”

He had said too much while saying too little, the words coming out to cover his grief. Instead, they expanded it, driving the nails in deeper so that the blood seeped unchecked from the wounds. Lira and Roman seemed not to notice, too caught up in their own mournful turmoil to heed the meaning of his speech. A blessing he did not deserve but would allow to settle around him for fear of what would come if it did not.

After several moments, Lira turned, her face lined with tears and sorrow. “It’s so sad.”

“Much and many are so, yes.” He agreed.

“Is there nothing but sadness in the world?” the question seemed to escape her in a fit of desperation, something beyond this moment haunting her eyes as they looked at him in to beseech a denial.

There were terrors in her memory before this moment, events not yet uncovered by his astute assessments, and he regretted them as much as he wished to know them, to study them, to understand them and what they meant to her. How they had shaped her into the person that could make such lovely magic with such ease. What he regretted more, however, was the accuracy of her fear, and the way his lips cemented when he wanted to lie in answer.

Was there nothing but sadness in the world? Perhaps. It was a truth he bore deep within himself, one he turned from even as he carried it always. Never fully denied, never fully accepted. A chain which held him to one place, tumultuous and miserable. He wished not to admit that to her but could not bring any falsehood forth from his chest.

“Hush, now.” Roman spoke in his stead, saving the Traveler from his dilemma, a soft smile on his face as he gazed at Lira. “There is beauty enough out there. Enough to hope for.”

Lira’s despair didn’t budge as she turned her eyes on him, disbelief clouding the tears that trailed to her chin. “How do you know?”

“You exist. And I think you’ve got enough light and joy in you to prove it for the rest of us.” The conviction of Roman’s assertion drove whatever panic she was clinging to out of her head, and she melted into the compliment. She gazed at him with love, undying and undiluted, and he felt the warmth of it even at the periphery of their moment. He had not known such pure devotion could exist still, standing defiant against the truth of all that was lost to the ages. It surprised him as much as it dulled the edges of his guilt.

More surprising still, however, was that Roman spoke a truth he had not divined himself with all his years of so-called wisdom. Could he condemn a world as full of nothing but sorrow when such light as Eva and Lira could exist? The shadows were long and grasping, but still Eva had shown kindness to strange tidings and opened her heart to what courage she could fit. Lira still could spin a flower from nothing and bid it grow to light the darkness.

What other wonders might lie in the world he denied? What more might he have missed in his tireless slumber?

Lira shook her head, and he recognized it as a sign that they would wake soon. He smiled at them, keeping it calm and aloof, though he felt far less of either than he would admit. “Come, I believe it is time for you to return to the world of the present.”

They turned to walk back up the path, only to find the Uthvir waiting behind them, saving them the climb. He took note of the change, one he had not bid it make, and wondered at the attitude his vessel seemed to have of late.

“Will we be able to meet you again, Traveler?” it was Roman that asked the question, another surprise out of him that gave the Traveler a wry smile.

“If you wish it. I would not be displeased to search for more wonders with company at my side.” He did not mention that he shouldn’t. He did not list the apparent dangers. He did not advise them of the trials he had experienced the last time he had tried as much. His heart whispered that he should, but his tongue refused, clamped tight by the plea in his soul to ebb the tide of loneliness. His prison of solitude had cracked and broken, and his will refused to be caged again. All this despite the guilt of his crimes.

They walked through the glimmering mirror, back into the simple room where he took his rests. There was, in place of the table and chairs, now a comfortable sofa and carved rocking chair. He twisted his mouth to the side in a sardonic frown, looking back at the mirror in judgment. Rocking chairs were for the ancient and wizened, those barely able to keep themselves from uthenara. Or so he had always felt, and the Uthvir was definitely mocking him, as it would know as much.

“I thought rocking chairs were for babies and old people. You don’t look like either.” Roman echoed his own weighted thoughts, prompting a sigh of resignation from his lips and an elbow of chastisement from Lira. “Ow, what? You said the same thing the other day.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, about that horrid thing in the Knight-Commander’s quarters. This one is nice. And it belongs to a nice person.” She preened over what she perceived to be the infallibility of her logic.

Roman met his eyes and they shared a small moment of commiseration over the indomitable spirit which refused to bend, even in light of what it had just seen, as well as the trouble that spirit was like to cause both of them in the future. Willful stubbornness was not confined to the heart of women, whether declared such when born or announced when discovered later in life, but there was certainly a reason the world had built such a thing into a feminine stereotype - likely while being watched by a lady with a threatening eyebrow raised.

“How will we know how to find you again?” Lira asked, blinking rapidly in a way that was betwixt waking and sleep.

He smiled, folding his hands together behind his back and bowing his head. “Dream. Dream with a wish to be here, and here is where you will be.”

Her eyes shone with excitement, Roman’s with begrudging intrigue. If she had more to say on the matter, more questions leaving her eager gaze to grace her lips, he did not hear them, for they faded from view. Waking in their beds somewhere far away, hopefully not too mournful of the ‘wonder’ he had shown them. They had not seemed discouraged by it, at any rate, though he could not decide whether that delighted or worried him.

He glanced at the mirror, the unassuming frame still and quiet, giving away nothing of its intentions.

Perhaps it had been a fluke. Whatever had happened with Eva, perhaps it had all been a mishap of too much at once, too close to the import of history, and that was all there was too it. If he were to avoid such things, to keep them on roads less frayed by the ripples of time, he could avoid such dangers. He could avoid any further encounters that would damage his charges. He could avoid…her.

He shivered, and told himself it was because of excitement, and not the lie that he was weaving to chase his way around the warnings.

Chapter Text

Lira winced. It was a simple stutter to her posture, the pulling of the muscles along her spine as she leaned away from the armored steps thudding across the carpet behind her. Each footfall a strike of muted thunder, the storm contained in tin as a can contains an echo, only for a moment before it would leak between the jagged edges of an opened maw. The templar, if he had noticed her fear, if he had noticed her flinch away from his passage, didn’t stop to comment.

She didn’t sigh because the sound could draw attention. Instead, she let her breath out slowly, inching from her lungs until the emptiness in her chest burned and she was forced to draw again. She stared at the colored bindings of the books before her, as rigid as her posture, as frayed as her nerves. Closing her eyes, she gave herself a moment to gather her thoughts, picking them up like shards of glass from the shattered basin that once cradled her mind. She’d not lost it, but it did feel broken. It did feel sliced and dropped, stuffed into places of shadow while much of her spent the seconds of the hours shrinking away from reality.

Pulling a book from the shelf, she clenched the tome and rearranged her face into something neutral, something passive. It was not a smile, for that was counted as suspicious. It was not a frown, for that was counted as complaint. It was neither awake nor sleeping, stalling somewhere in between.

She felt like a tranquil, but she knew that was the point. Any indication that she might be otherwise would only give them reason to make it true.

There were three-hundred-and-twelve steps back to the corner where she was permitted to spend her time reading. She had counted their number as she strayed from the spot, carefully marking her feet and the beats of her heart in between breaths that she would accept nothing but even equilibrium from. She disliked numbers. She disliked their edges, the way they never yielded in one direction or another. What was one could never be two, what was two could never be two and a bit, for then it would be two and that bit, another thing entirely, though it borrowed from all that came before. She found no beauty in the way they stacked together or tore one another apart, always in the same order without variation or spontaneity.

That was precisely why she counted. Each iteration bore weight in her mind, dragging it down, holding it below the waves of revelation so that nothing could stir it to life. It was easier to control her face that way. Easier to be invisible. Numbers pressed her into a shape that could not be seen, and to be unseen was to survive.

She had, until several nights prior, been wondering for what purpose she bothered with such things. The gallows had not always been so severe, but everything had grown harsher after the Qunari had torn the city apart. Not that it had been dull and soft before. There had never been much joy to find within the walls of their prison, but before the restrictions, she had still been able to find Roman. Before the swathes of distance had been painted between them all, forcing degrees of separation to ensure one of them being seen would not drag down any others. Were she to have arrived at the tower now, she would never have made friends. She would never have found a sweet boy to share furtive glances with between the stacks of words neither of them paid attention to when the other was within sight.

If she had come to the gallows as it was now, she would be dead. Or worse. Perhaps that was what made it okay that she had lived through the decline. She could bear the knowledge of what she had lost if it meant that she’d had time to adjust, to fall with the standards at a matched rate. That was survival, and now, as of last night, there were reasons to cling to such.

Even if such things were never meant to last.

She did not smile as she thought of what might await them in dreams again. She had to bite her tongue to do so, the excitement bubbling up within her as buoyant as birdsong, irrepressible with anything but fear. It was fortunate to that damned survival that she had an abundance of such terror. They all did.

Three-hundred-and-thirteen. Fourteen. She stopped in front of her table, staring at the wood. She had miscounted.

She sat quickly, placing the book in front of her and opening it until the pages laid flat. If she held it up to read, they would wish to check that she had nothing tucked between the pages. If she laid it in her lap, they would demand to know what it was she might have below the folds of her robes. Breathing, carefully and deliberately, she forced her eyes onto the words before her.

There was nothing in the book she’d not already learned a thousand times. No new knowledge was permissible within these walls. Not since the stench of lyrium had grown so thick in the room that her nose perpetually tingled, static clinging to the bits of her that brushed air. They were allowed to review what was already known, until it was rote, until it was instinct. The basics, building blocks that could be used for nothing nefarious, nothing that could be proven dis-faithful, and nothing interesting.

When Lira had been a little girl, she used to make flower crowns in her mother’s garden. The flowers were every color of the rainbow because she willed them as such, and her parents had always marveled at her imagination. She had offered some to the templars when they had come. She hadn’t been afraid of them, then. Her parents had told her that circles were full of other people that could do what she did, and that she would learn wonderful things among all of them while studying to ensure nothing harmful could befall herself or others because of her connection to the fade. They had not been ashamed she was a mage, nor did they hide her and pretend it was not happening.

The templars had tossed the flower crowns on the dirt road after they’d gone far and away from her home, and none of their smiles had stuck to their faces. Lira no longer remembered all the colors she used to make things.

Except now…perhaps they could return to her. In dreams, far from the eyes in the suits of tin that sought to snuff her echoes and shadow her hues. Under the guise of sleep, the one mask they could not accuse as lies, she could make flowers in the palm of her hand and the Traveler could take her to wonderful places in which to plant them. All at Roman’s side.

She used to dread the nights because with each pass of the moon it would draw her closer to another day. Another dawn where she would rise and count her steps and clench her smile into submission. It was exhausting trying not to be in order to continue doing such.

Now the night bore promise, and it was all she could do not to announce herself ready for bed here in the center of the afternoon, marching to sleep all the hours of her life away until there were none left. That was the count she liked least of all, however. The number that dwindled, shoving off pieces of itself into the dark void until it would be singular, then gone.

The saddest part of finding so many beautiful things to live for was that it would never do her any good. Eventually, her equation would be null, and there was no changing its shape or meaning. That was the fate of a mage in the gallows, and it was fate not one of them could escape.

*

Most mages hated working with tranquil. Roman couldn’t find much fault in them for it, either. The dull eyes below branded foreheads were a nightmare made real, the very evidence of what it would look like to remove the soul of a person and bid them keep living. They carried no hopes, they slept with no dreams. They bore no part of the world any semblance of curiosity and moved as the mechanisms in a clock: steady, without err or iteration, until the minutes wound down and everything stopped.

He had hated tranquil at first, too. Then he’d come to the circle in Kirkwall. He had been young, though he no longer remembered his exact age. He couldn’t remember how old he was when he was taken from his parents, could not remember any birthday celebrated in his honor. He could not even accurately measure the years between his imprisonment and the present, the days blurring together with so much monotony they might as well have been shapeless and grey. He did remember his youth when he had first arrived, though, and how that had netted him friends and enemies in one fell swoop.

One of the kindest of those had been a tranquil.

Desmond hadn’t been able to tell Roman when he’d been made tranquil or for how long he’d been that way, much like Roman couldn’t tell him how old he was or how long he’d had magic. For each of them their reality was simply what was and as it had always been. There was no before, nor would there likely be an after. Two mages, locked in the present, forever stalled in terrible stasis as they were sequestered by chantry decree.

Roman hadn’t talked to many people when he’d first arrived at the circle, too terrified of the templars to make more than the required squeaks of obedience when they demanded, but Desmond had sought him out. He had asked him questions not of himself, nor of magic, but of simple things. He had wanted to know if Roman knew how to knead bread. He had asked if Roman had ever learned the way to polish a stone so that the mineral was soft enough to apply a rune. He’d had queries about the work Roman could do with his hands, the skin and bone of them as plain as that of any other child’s, and the answering drew them into conversation that was never a threat to the watchful eyes of the lyrium drowned.

Desmond had died four years ago. He was one of the only tranquil that Roman had ever heard of dying of old age, quietly in his bed with a smile on his face. A smile that Roman had never seen him make in his waking hours. He thought about that smile often. The way the corners of his mouth had naturally fallen into the shape, the wrinkles settling as though the muscles there had been made for no other expression. His cheeks had been sallow in the days before his passing, but in that joyous final face, they seemed full, colored despite the paleness to his heat-fled flesh.

Nobody had gone to stand beside his pyre but Roman and the templars posted to keep guard. As he’d watched the flames, he had still been thinking about that smile. Tranquility stole those smiles from people. It stole the emotions that could cause a face to summon one, but Desmond had found it still before his heart had stopped. Did that not mean that there was hope? That even in the bleakest prisons, even when the light of the sun was so shrouded that darkness seemed impenetrable, still a flicker of brilliance could break through? What man without dreams could gift sweet smiles if he’d no bliss to mold them from? None.

No matter how deep the brand, no matter how long the walls had stood, nothing could erase the spark of a soul completely. Roman believed that they were still in there, those that had been boxed away from themselves. They were not severed, for you could not truly cut in twain a man from himself. You could bury them, beneath lyrium and threats, beneath rituals and a silence so loud it could crush the other thoughts with the weight of an avalanche. Even under all that, even if dormant and difficult to reach, Desmond had been there, and he had come back long enough to smile. There was always hope.

“Apprentice Roman, do you wish to inspect the quality before I affix the enchantment?” the flat voice drew him out of his reminiscing, and he looked down into the dead eyes of the tranquil he was to assist for the day. Roman had never stopped volunteering to aid them. Somebody had to stick around to see the sparks.

He gave the polished stones a perfunctory glance, but there was little need. Tranquil did impeccable work, better than he could have ever hoped to achieve. “It looks perfect, Vanna.”

“Thank you, apprentice Roman.” The elven woman nodded her head, pantomiming courtesy. She smiled as well, but it was the flat, tepid smile most tranquil bore. There was no evidence of life in her, no trace of the soul that must be buried under the rubble of her branding.

She remained in stasis, frozen in the moment from which she had been ruined, the bars of her cage seared to her skin in red. Roman no longer felt so frozen, though. Time had resumed for him. First in the eyes of a sweet mage whom he could never get out of his head, then in the moments between sleep and waking, where they’d been free to fall in love. Now it seemed as though the hands on the clock sped faster, their dreams full of so much more than love.

Splendor. Imagination. Beauty. There was so much in this world that he’d absorbed in books and never known its truth. He could put pen to paper and write down every detail of a mountain and still never capture its essence. He could write volumes about the wind and how it swept through Lira’s hair, yet no tome could approach the summation of her soul. Perhaps that was why they were so hard to erase, so hard to sever. No force could contain it all.

He had not trusted the Traveler when he’d first appeared to them, but Roman had to admit that their wanderings with him brought new joy to his heart that he didn’t think was possible. It was freedom, a draught from a well that was deeper and more refreshing than his parched heart could have hoped. In the daylight he was trapped, crouched in the shadows of bone-white stone and silverite barriers, but at night he was something else. He was perhaps what he could have been if he were not a mage. He was Lira’s love. He was an explorer. He was curiosity borne through the ripple of a mirror, delivered to things that were as satisfying as a banquet yet never enough to satiate his wish for more.

He was thankful that Lira had been so open to the Traveler’s extended hand of friendship. It was another reason in the list of them that could span miles across the sea, each a summation of how much he loved her and how much she brought light into a dark, bitter world.

Her beauty was fathomless, but that had hardly been what caught his eye. Beauty in the gallows wasn’t something a mage learned to seek out. Beauty brought eyes, brought attention, brought inspection and dissection. A man loaded with lyrium had no impulse control, had no morals, and to place beauty in front of them was to discover what it was they truly wanted to do with it, as they would take that act without hesitation. For some, they simply gazed at it. For others, they wished to crush it, unable to stand its vibrancy when they felt none within themselves. For others still, they wished to own it, to control it.

The templars that simply stared were the good ones.

Lira’s beauty was a risk, one she’d not asked to take nor one she could keep from taking, and had Roman based anything upon looks, he might never have turned his gaze her way. What had caught his eye and held it was her spirit. Her fearlessness when the world could show her only threat. Her empathy when the world had given her pitiless examples. Her yearning for more, for better, and her ability to find it in even the smallest, darkest of corners, her smile a song making even dust and cobwebs capable of dancing with love and laughter. Everything with her was an adventure, and it had been that which drew him to her side, that which had earned him whispered conversations that had risked their lives.

They were lucky enough to have formed before the gallows had grown dourer, before the shadows of the Knight-Commander had grown so sharp, before the lyrium in the air had grown thick enough to stifle any breeze foolish enough to grace their windows. Had they met now, they’d never have had the opportunity to know one another enough for love. They’d never have had a connection strong enough to propel them to solutions, to discover ways to meet in the fade when the waking could offer them none.

Perhaps it was that same luck that had led the Traveler onto their path, the man curious at Lira’s magic enough to broker a conversation, and in turn curious enough to offer them miracles. He had distrusted him, perhaps he still distrusted him, but Lira did not, and that was the entrance fee to things that Roman had no wish to take back nor any wish to cease.

“Apprentice Roman?” Vanna’s voice found his ears yet again, and he gazed into her green eyes. They must once have looked like the swells of the Waking Sea in spring, drenched in the foams to temper the blue with mineral hues. They could have still been that with a bit of light, with a bit of spark.

“Yes, Vanna?” he smiled warmly, wondering if she understood the kindness he offered in such things. He wondered if she could see or hear or feel the pull of his own emotions, his wish to draw hers away from the prison of the brand. She hesitated, which was unusual. There was no glint of reason for it, no facial structure that could have explained the cause of her halting gaze. “Is something wrong?”

He glanced down at the rune she had been working on, and the pattern was not one he’d seen her use before. The swirl of the marks had more flourish, their bend and curve taking shapes that seemed to impart more than the simple command of magic that would put them to use. As he looked, it almost seemed as though he could see the storm the lightning would come from, could feel the boiling clouds and hear the whistle of the wind before thunder would crash and the power would come surging between ground and sky.

“Do you think one has to have dreams to make art?”

He held his breath, searching her face. There was no smile, but there was a furrow to the brow, the smallest crease in the muscles that would easily be missed by anyone not examining her to find it. She stared at her rune, as well, still in her unwavering hands, the curves of the storm wrought through her will and painted in precisely the way she must have intended them to be. He wondered if before they had taken her heart, before they had silenced her soul, if she had been an artist. If she had looked at the world with those sea-green eyes and sought to capture the colors forevermore on canvas. Her magic would have been an unneeded accessory, an accident of her birth and nothing more. Yet regardless of her lack of using it or regardless of her talents beyond it, the magic would have become all that defined her. Then, later, it would have been precisely what caused the loss of her.

Roman was thankful to Lira and the Traveler for many things, but it was good to be reminded that there was more in the world capable of beauty. The moments were few and far between, but much like Desmond’s smile creeping across the final twitches of his muscle, in the quiet seconds in between anything that mattered, there could still be found a spark here and there.

“I think art can be made and found in anything that means something to you.” He promised Vanna. She blinked, and though her face reflected no understanding, her gaze lacking focus as though the words had been spoken in a foreign tongue to graze against blocked ears, he knew that she had heard him. He knew that he had imparted that to whatever pieces of her could listen.

She did not smile, but she did set the rune in line with the other finished ones, adjusting it so that it was straighter and displayed with care. She moved onto the next work without ceremony and did not look back at what she had wrought, but Roman did. He wanted to remember that even silenced, even locked in a dungeon within her own mind, Vanna had managed to make art.

He always wanted to remember the proof of hope. Someone had to be there to note it while it passed. To always seek the spark.

Chapter Text

He glanced at the sky, a force of habit not yet broken in the many years he had dwelled in a place for which the sky could offer no information with such a glance. The fade could offer no inkling of time, no warning of weather. It could reflect only mood and past, intermingled and frozen even as it shifted and changed. The world moved forward, leaving behind the threads that should have held it together, the color of their scars marking the land of dreams in the passing.

It was no matter. He did not need the arc of the sun to know that it would still shine over the ivory towers where his friends yet lived. Their arrival would be later, but he’d no wish to stand idle and await their visit when he could occupy his mind with more. Occupation of his thoughts was the wisest decision in any case. It left fewer of them freedom to turn to regrets, to turn to missing all that he had left behind and the sundered care that lingered for it.

The Uthvir had been amenable enough to take him somewhere, and he’d not bothered to form a request. He had no specific wish, no mood in mind, only to be outside of his own head. The bars of his past did not sting so coldly on such a path.

He found himself upon a hill, the path winding down its waist to a gate that promised structure and order beyond the reach of the sun. It was easy enough to spot the angles and surety in dwarven architecture. Their tastes and visions might have changed century over century, but there was only so much change one could make to the spines holding aloft the mountain’s backside. The form too altered would summon collapse, and the roads through which the children of the stone crawled would become even more the tomb than time had demanded already.

“You’ve been here an hour and still not smiled. Never did spare those unless you knew someone was watching.”

The voice, high like the notes of a clarinet coaxed through the pressed reed and open bell, startled him to stillness. Beside him stood a woman, draped in the colors of a funeral march with hair the hue of the pyre, skin pale enough to match the reminder of death in each. She held herself tall, poised in a way that promised confidence and surety, the ears below the willowy fronds of her red hair as pointed as blades. She gazed at him through the corner of rich grey eyes, the marks of slavery etched into her face dancing around the smug smile adorning her lips.

He did not know her. That was what his memory insisted, so that was the story his mind could tell. Through all the moments of his life, stacked and counted, he’d none of them to assign to her face or flippancy. That was not the tale his heart told, however, and the disquiet that brought him was deafening as he frowned at her.

This displeasure seemed to amuse her. “Relax, I’d not expected you to remember me.”

“Yet you seem to know me.” He measured her, trying to determine if she were person or spirit. She walked not like the Dalish, she spoke without the weight of a broken people, but with the acrid resentment of subjugation all the same.

“Sh, you’re going to miss it.” She nodded towards the gate, the seam of it opening for a figure to press themselves through.

He turned to watch, setting his curiosity to the side as one sets a dish to cool on the windowsill, intended with surety for later consumption. The figure stumbled into the open, their stature shrinking in the maw of the structure but rising in the light of the sun. They lifted their gaze, shielding their face from the brilliance of the day as though it scarred and scared at once.

The elven woman at his elbow strolled forward, bouncing down the hill with the light steps of someone used to silence and capable of speed. Her cloak, an ebony velvet darker than the un-mooned night sky, fluttered in the wake of her easy gait. He followed, unsure if it was wise to indulge this creature he knew nothing of yet smirked at him with familiarity, while knowing in tandem that he’d never rest to leave such a mystery unsolved.

The dwarven man blinked, the wide blue above him painting light on a face that had never felt such before. It filled his gaze with tears, blind and bewildered, the newness of the sensation too much for him to bear.

“When they lost the sense of the sun it became a villain to them. The threats imposed on their courage to break the darkness bolstered that, of course.” She smiled at him, tilting her head with mischief and secrecy. “Now they have no threat, and for those that dare to wake from the nightmares of old, they find a new world. New truth.”

“Live in darkness long enough, any shred of light would feel a revelation.” He responded, unsure of her point.

She chuckled, rolling on the balls of her feet. She may once have had freckles adorning her sprightly cheeks, now covered in the marks of Dirthamen, etched so deep into the skin whatever graced it before had been crushed.

“Funny you should say.” She stepped around the dwarf, circling him as the tears rushed to grace his chin. It was strange that he did not close his eyes, did not recoil from the sun if it caused such stark pain to make him seep so.

He was surprised to see the dwarf lift his hand, uncurling a fist to reveal a single stone in the center. It was unadorned, without shape and lacking characteristic, no more novel than any piece of rock that might grace the ground at any depth. The gaze that was leveled toward it carried all the weight of the world, longing and love in equal measure. The dwarf brushed his thumb across the surface, tears in his eyes welling bigger and brighter. Then he knelt, laid it upon the ground, and stepped away. He walked past the pair of them, placing steps of distance between his fractured crumb of home and himself, and not once did he turn back.

His tears had never been from the unshielded light. His tears had been for the loss of things grown deep in the wells of his heart, immobile and everlasting. They watched him leave, the silence broken only by the breeze that brushed between them, undeterred by the fact that it existed only in the memory and will of those that observed it. When the dwarven figure was no longer visible, he turned to his interloper, watching her carefully.

He could see now, in the light the fade so helpfully supplied, a facsimile of the sun that had driven the dwarf from his home, that her shoulders were adorned with feathers of oily black. There was a hood to her cape that she chose not to wear, but he’d no doubt that when it covered her crown it would erase her color, painting her in the lackluster emptiness of the abyss.

“You can call me Fenni.” She said, her grin broadening in league with her smugness.

“You say such as though that were not your name.” He made the observation with a flat inflection, unwilling to let leech his burning interest into the conversation just yet.

She arched an eyebrow. “And were I to ask your name of you? You would offer that freely, then?”

“Point well received.” In spite of himself, in spite of his irritation at her unknown familiarity and her uninvited imposition on his time, he smiled. “Would it gain me any ground to ask of you your nature? You do not appear to me as the Dalish, though you bear their marks.”

An ungraceful laugh fluttered through her nose, her eyes darting from his to scan the horizon. “I bear the marks of a prison.” This admission was wistful, broken in a way that could have only been shattered by a bitter past. The truth of years gone cut deep for anyone, deeper still for those with regrets, and he could see such now below the glittering humor in her gaze.

A woman of the people that knew the truth of her vallaslin was rare, indeed.

“So, tell me.” She turned her eyes toward him once more, the inquisition in their depths piercing and true. “You have seen the child of the stone leave one behind. What do you make of that?”

He frowned, the expression feeling overly used upon his taut jaws. “I make little of it. He is a man leaving behind what he knew, gaining sorrow in the distance.”

“And yet,” she leaned forward, raising both her brows as her lips toyed with a smile, “he walked forward, did he not?”

“What direction might he have otherwise gone?”

She stood up straight, laughing loudly enough that the wisps in the false sky scattered from the sound, bouncing in joy and shock in the waves of it. “You should write that down somewhere. Good advice, don’t you think?”

His curiosity was ebbing into irritation with each circle they danced around one another. “Fenni, as you so wish to be called. Why is it that you are here? What is it that you wished to find in lingering in my attention?”

“Why am I here?” she chuckled, and in the next breath switched to flawless elvhen that he’d a surety no one alive should have mastered. “You came to me, wayward wanderer. You ought to question the mirror if you wish the why.”

The first query that paraded his thoughts was to ask how she knew of the Uthvir. The second was to wonder how it was she could speak to him so. Neither of these questions were given voice, both too simple to be of any use in the coiling dance she wished to spin. There would be no information he earned from her without matching her steps, learning her tune, and he was unsure of the risk in such an act.

She rolled her eyes. “You have the paranoia of a man too long at war. I’m not out to cause you harm.”

“Yet that offers no hint as to what you wish to cause.” He stepped to the left, feet grinding in the dust of the trail as she mirrored the movement, twining their paths in an orbit paced evenly. “A mirror cannot so easily be asked its motivations, but a person can. Will we dance upon one motivation at a time, whittling down the possibilities until your purpose is exposed?”

“You seem to like such dances.” Her eyes sparkled, twin storms with shrouded lightning, waiting to strike with force but unknown propulsion. “The dwarf was here as well. Should you not also wish to know why he was brought to your attention?”

Their circles closed distance, becoming spirals that leaned ever inward. What was it that stirred within his chest when he met her gaze? What haunting truth lingered beyond the reach of his mind but thrummed with the strength of a string plucked in his heart? He knew her, though he could not. Perhaps she reminded him of someone, though that too drew blanks in the annals of his thoughts, unable to pin her familiarity to anyone he could recall. Perhaps it was her hair, a shade to match that of Andraste, the fire and dance speaking equally of her song.

“Do you often seek meaning in everything you’ve been shown?” he grinned, falling into her pattern easily enough. It bore the shape of intrigue, the fluttering elegance of politic, and that was something known to him enough to be counted as an old friend, one he could counter and welcome with equal fervor.

“Is there not meaning in everything?” her breath was close enough to brush his face, their pacing having threaded them shoulder to shoulder. “What did the dwarf leave behind?”

A stone was the flippant response. His identity a morose one. He thought, tilting his head as answers were examined and discarded, trying to find one which rang of truth to himself and might offer whatever it was Fenni was seeking. If he could gain her graces, he could perhaps gain her honesty, and that promised reward enough to be worth the effort.

“His world.” He said finally, drawing from the echoes of their earlier verbal sparring, feeling himself clever to pull that thread from their tapestry. The dwarf had wept for leaving all he knew behind, even that one piece of his life clenched in a fervent fist left in the dust of his absence. Nothing ahead of him was known, nothing above him as familiar as what remained below, the world of his making never willing to welcome him back.

She stopped her stepping, frowning at him in a way that wielded disappointment as a blade, the tip driven through his wit to wither its existence.

“His past.” She blinked, a fresh wave of light coating the steel of her gaze, moisture there thicker than the storm and more delicate than thunder could bear. “So much lost. Can you not see what could be gained, as well?”

He knew not how to answer, his chest tight with the change in her mood, unsure of himself in ways that felt foreign and long-lost.

The sigh that slipped through her lips was heavy, her displeasure at his response keen enough that it inspired new threads of curiosity within him. He opened his mouth to voice them, any of them, but before he could speak, she tilted her head towards the distance beyond his shoulder.

“You should go. The past you’ve yet to leave behind will be here soon.”

He turned his gaze enough to see that the Uthvir had materialized behind him, the glow of the mirror casting faint hues to taint the fading mask of sunlight around them. She turned, one foot spinning as a fulcrum around which the world seemed to wind, cape fluttering with a finality and sorrow which he could not explain but hated.

“Fenni.” He spoke her name as a command, the syllables sharp as though he could heft them as blades, hold them to her throat to keep her from leaving.

She did pause, steps halting as she turned her head but not her shoulders, the silhouette of her striking him as a looming bird coyly marking a creature lost and trapped on the ground. “I suppose you have questions. Pick one and see where it goes.”

“Why do I know you?” he blurted the most pressing thought in his mind, worlds tumbling free as his care for dancing and his wish to avoid rejection were thrown to the side.

She turned to face him again, the glow from the Uthvir painting otherworldly shadows across her cheekbones, the tattoos marring her visage thick in the growing gloom of the fading memories they’d stood between. The fade had faded, gone was the gateway and the steps of the dwarf, the stone from his fist no longer in view. Darkness wrapped around them, the color of her cloak, the color of the midpoint in her steely gaze as it pried him apart and hovered in a stasis that promised disaster and revelation. Revelation he knew, without doubt and without reason, that he would feel to be familiar as it passed through his soul.

“What is your name?” the question was soft, lacking hope and point as she stood stock-still, refusing to give him answers that did not riddle and shirk from clarity.

The answer, one which he knew, one which would be so easy to provide were he not who he was and were it not for what he had done, caught in the base of his throat. The air, frigid and faltering, could not force its way to his tongue. He could no more tell her that than he could tell her the answers to his own queries, and perhaps that was answer enough. If he could not bear to bring forth the shape of his name, perhaps she could not bear to bring forth the shape of their connection. Too much was the pain, too sharp was the regret, and too useless were the lessons pulled from the unforgiving grasp of experience.

“Ask again when you can answer, and perhaps I’ll have it in me to explain.” Her gaze flicked to the floor, the mist of the unformed fade swirling around her nimble feet. He saw then the shadows, the ache, the misery that hid behind the tilt of a smirk and the flex of her grin. Her ease, her flippancy, the buoyancy of her humor, were nothing more than curtains drawn across a room filled with blood. Then it broke, the despair crashing like a tide sucked back to sea, replaced with a smile that again spoke of smug knowledge and easy laughter. “Or find me before you’re ready, and we’ll see what trouble that brings on its own.”

She shrugged off the moment as good as the wind, stepping through the encroaching nothing to disappear in the shadows, the billow of her cloak the last movement to mark her existence. He stared at the place she had disappeared, disquiet thunderous as it rattled through his chest. His heart fluttered, much as it had fluttered when they had encountered Mythal, much as it had fluttered when they had destroyed pieces of time, much as it had fluttered when a bard spoke words that made no sense and could never have been received.

Another enigma had found its way to him, and he had not the knowledge or the understanding to glean its shape. Was this danger? Was this folly? Was this yet another meeting that would cinch regret to his bones and blend it with his being?

As he stepped into the Uthvir behind him, he was eager to wash the acrid taste of the unknown from his mouth, hoping that a meeting with companions would be enough to drive the unease from his heart.

Chapter Text

“You were outvoted two to one, you should accept your losses.” Roman grinned at the petulance in Lira’s dusky face, her lips dipped in a frown which foretold her irritation at losing the debate over the flavor of offerings they would seek through the Uthvir that evening.

He found their bickering a handy distraction, the strangeness of his encounter with Fenni flitting to the back of his mind as the rest of his undesirable thoughts often would, tucked in the deepest corners where he’d need not face them nor unpack them. The acrid taste of the unanswered questions still clung thick against the back of his tongue, but it did little to lessen the exuberance he offered when the young mages had donned feet upon his threshold once more.

Lira rolled her eyes. “You’re both such boys, always interested in battles.”

He chuckled as he caught Roman’s eye, the pair of them having come to an accord wishing to see some momentous, action-infused fraction of history. For his own part, he had a wish for something which would stir his blood, to alight his adrenaline, to race with his pulse until both sped by and left unease and disquiet behind. Roman had made the case that it simply sounded exciting, and while the argument offered little in the way of outlandish points of assent, it provided a strong enough summation that Lira had relented faced with their dual agreement.

The Uthvir flickered as though riddled with impatience as much as magical confluence, eager to usher them to the point which it had chosen. He had, when placing fingertips across the smooth glass, requested no more than something which would awaken their sense of honor, of chivalry, of brave stands against the tides of darkness. No specifics were given, though he did spare a stern thought warding against whatever it was that had cursed his travels with Eva, not wishing to throttle any more notes from the natural order of time’s unending song.

“We will acquiesce to your choice next time, perhaps.” He offered Lira, who gave him a smirk that bore not an ounce of smugness, only joy.

He held open his arm, gesturing towards the mirror, and his companions grinned and led the procession through. He blinked as they strode through the magic, the glow giving way to a dimmer scene, and it took several blinks before his eyes could adjust to see where they had landed.

Deep grey, as stiff as steel in the dying dusk, coated the sky above them. It spoke of rain in moments past and threatened to summon moments more, the chill of the wind a whisper against cheek and cloak. The ruins before them staggered upward, perched upon hills and scattered through valleys. The walls had once been white and stalwart, now tilted with the slant of years left alone. They were, however, the most solid thing to greet their intrusion.

Around the ruins, across the fields, streaks of memories swirled around one another. A soldier in gear, face twisted with the scream upon his lips, rushed forward with sword tipped to the heavens. In a flicker that sputtered like candlelight he fell, a spatter on the ground darkening the grass. This pattern repeated with so many of the souls trapped in what had been this battle, their lives given with varying iterations of emotion following them into silence. It was disorienting to see so many, trapped in so many different scenarios, and for a moment he could make no sense of it nor guess where it was they had happened upon.

“Look! That’s Loghain!” Lira’s finger shot outward as she gripped Roman’s sleeve, drawing their gazes as a collective to a figure at the top of a hill.

His impression upon the fade was blurred, several stamps of his existence left layered over one another, each one confusing when viewed at once. He stood bold and proud, determination on his face and regret in his stern gaze. He also leered, glaring at the point on the battlefield where his king had fought, the menace in the set of his shoulders a black pall in the fade’s aura. Another yet showed him grimacing, fear lancing through his core as his fingers trembled. Each one a separate explanation for the actions he had taken that day, each one valid to someone who had witnessed these acts, the fade offering no version of the truth but every version of its perception.

“Ah, we are at Ostagar, the fateful battle which is broadly considered the beginning of the fifth blight.” He placed his hands behind his back, surveying the area once more. Now that he had an inkling where and when they had arrived, it was easier to spot the individuals of import that littered the area.

The late king of Ferelden, Cailan Theirin, stood in a central point of the battle. He was a beacon of light, in one blink dim and tarnished and the next too bright to behold. All versions of his fall ended the same, however, the look of horror on his face tragic to anyone who had viewed it and all who had imagined it. The Wardens beside him could do nothing, their despair and confusion bleeding into the air as navy shadow, the corruption in their veins manifested by inky black twining up their legs.

“It’s so…muddled.” Lira wrinkled her nose, walking forward towards the center of the battle, where the death of many played in loops, the dead picking themselves up to be flung into their end again and again. She glanced back at Loghain, her brow furrowed, her expression a question proceeding its escape of her lips. “He looks heroic, almost. I thought he betrayed the king?”

“Many believe so. Some believe that he had done what was right, or what was necessary. Here we see the reflections of those that witnessed the event, their emotions and memories imprinted upon the record. He appears a hero, yet blink and he will play the coward, once more to mark him the villain.”

He appreciated the nuance of such a display yet disliked it all the same. There was a truth to any situation, a certainty that must remain true regardless of the feelings it evoked. What happened at Ostagar had an objective reality. There was an honest recollection that would prove who the villains and the heroes had truly been. The fade may not have known it, the spirits that dwelled there and clambered to absorb the monumental tragedy that had befallen those here might not have understood it, but there was, still, truth.

He turned his gaze then towards the tower, searching for the sight of the person whom history had declared the hero of this event. It was not difficult to find her, standing in the window with the beacon of flame serving as a mane of gold at her back. He had presumed, after what he had learned of the event and the recounting which he had felt most accurate, that her story marked across the fade would be clearer.

His assumption was correct, as there was no doubt where the spirits lingered in her aura. She was bright, radiating a steadfast light which did not fade and did not waver. Loghain’s actions would be contested for the many months beyond this battle, some still offering questions as to whether he had truly been in the wrong, but none had doubted that the woman who would become queen had undertaken her oaths with the best of intentions. Whether there was fault or not in the fleeing general, the Warden was universally regarded as genuine.

He studied her, never having taken a moment to examine the girl behind the history. She was lacking in stature, slender and young, a face still round with the echoes of childhood and eyes still bright despite the leveling of horror before them. What caught his attention most, however, and what held it in thrall as his heart pulsed faster against the cage of his ribs, was her hair. Coiled in a braid, cast brighter in the lights around her, the red copper was as clear to him as though he were next to it and languished in the sun.

Carefully, he held his face still, avoiding a frown. Looking at the Warden, it was impossible not to find pattern in all that he had beheld in his most recent past. Andraste, with her curls of flame, stubbornly luminous against the darkness which would swallow her. The tale of Ser Aveline, a woman who had changed the course of history for others of her ilk, her hair noted as red in the refrain of her song. Fenni, her red locks the brightest thing about her as she draped the rest of her frame in shadow.

It was a coincidence, nothing more. There was no thread to connect any of the women beyond the color of their hair. They were not the only important figures in history, and Thedas was not drowning in a uniform crown of crimson upon all their heads.

He blinked, as though the briefest pause of vision could wipe the blinding connections from his eyes. For a moment, so quickly that not even his heartbeat could match its speed, he could have sworn the image of the Warden had changed. Dark hair framing a tawny face, or perhaps deep brown skin below flickering white locks. No, it was a trick of the light, perhaps a trick of the fade or the spirits that yet inhabited such a contested space. She remained the redhead, rogue of import tossed to fate upon a tide of tragedy, steadfast in the history she created and the only one he knew.

“I’ve read stories about her.” Roman’s voice was quiet as it drifted from beside him, and he spared a glance to see the young mage adding a shoulder to his shoulder, staring at the very spot upon the tower which drew his focus. “She saved the circle tower. She didn’t know anything about magic, it was said, but she took one look at them and decided that mages were people.” Roman frowned, the furrow between his brows a hollow through which darkness and doubt could nest.

“That she did. It is unknown where her sympathies may have laid prior to her induction into the Wardens, but miss Cousland made clear her stance on mages throughout the blight and after taking the throne.” He glanced at Roman, who continued to grimace, and he failed to understand why the woman’s liberal views would not please him. “Does her stance trouble you?”

“No. Yes.” The young man paused, tilting his head as he examined the rogue from a distance. “I’ve just never met anyone who had that point of view that wasn’t a mage.”

“The Champion isn’t a mage.” Lira tossed the observation to them, feet skipping across a half-crumbled wall with the ease of a bird who could never fear falling for the promise of flight. “But they say that she’s on our side.”

It disturbed him to think of the two halves of those that touched the veil as sides. No matter the race, no matter the origin, the world had sought to divide itself between those that could reach the fade and those who could not. That segregation had not grown gentler with time, the rifts in understanding becoming more vast and impenetrable, until what had been fear became hatred, what became hatred became systemic oppression, and what became oppression descended into abuse with each new kiss of the dawn.

“Maybe.” Roman offered Lira a smile, bright enough that she returned it with one of her own before hopping off the wall to meander towards the tower. She missed the way his expression fell once her back had turned, she failed to see the way the shadows filled his gaze as he glanced towards the top of the tower once more, the copper glow of the Warden filling the reflections.

“Do you disbelieve their sincerity?” he asked softly, keeping his tone low enough that Lira would not pick up the threads of worry and stress that he could see tangled ‘round Roman’s shoulders.

“I believe it. But…” Roman kept his gaze locked on the Warden, the glint in his eyes too bright for the light alone, the building of glimmer that of tears that he blinked to oblivion rather than let fall. “She stopped the blight, and she saved the tower, but not for everyone. It was only in time to stop the tragedies from getting worse, not from stopping them in the first place.”

“Often it takes great pain to reveal the true depth of all that was already suffered.” He swallowed, a ball of unease and lead forming in the core of his stomach, dragging his center and his thoughts alike into the darkness through which all his regrets lived long and lived well.

Too late to stop the tragedy in the first place, only in time to keep it from being worse. Was that the fate of every revolution? Was that the cost that must always be paid before change could crest the scarred horizon and bring a day they could dare to mark better? He looked upon the battlefield, at the wisps that painted trails of lives lost at the feet of destiny. When he had glanced at the grooves in history, he had seen triumph. He had seen a hero rise from turmoil and darkness to bring light and hope.

Perhaps he only saw it thus because it was a better ending than he had spun when tragedy had brokered the purchase of forced change.

“Traveler.” Roman’s voice, the insistence and intensity heavy around such scant syllables, drew him from the wells of his self-loathing and into the moment once more. “If we ever become the cost of change, promise to remember us. To remember her.”

“What?” his heart thundered, his pulse roared, his fingers trembled with worry that perhaps they were no safer than Eva. He had thought, though circles were often little more than prisons, that at least the freedom to be a mage without bindings would have granted them stable ground. “Do you fear such a -”

Roman’s smile stilled the questions in his throat. With that simple flex of his lips, he imparted bravery and courage of which the Traveler could scarcely describe. In it, as well, was the doting favor of ignorance, granted whether it was wished or not, as the mage would not offer explanation for his fears. Indeed, he didn’t need to, for without a word he could imagine what it was that struck fear in the young man’s heart. It was that which struck fear into the heart of each soul thrust into the world with a body connected to the fade, tethered to what had been, what should have been, while all around them spun into fear because they had been blinded.

Blinded by the change he’d forced as tragedy chased his will.

“Come on, we should catch up with her before she finds all the excitement without us.” Roman shrugged, his grin bemused before he turned and rushed to reunite with Lira, the tension in his shoulders snapped and discarded as unnecessary. Instead of dissipating as it ought to have, he found that the same tension and stress corded along the length of his own spine, thick and broad until his back felt taut and rigid.

Change. He knew well the cost of it, but not so well the responsibility for it. Whose hands were made to reach through the tides and sway them to different directions? Who was best suited for such a monumental task as toppling failures to remake them to victory? The Warden had not been responsible for any of the mistakes that had led her to the top of that tower, where the fade so brightly painted her as the beacon of hope. Those that had made those mistakes had paid, in the immediate sense. In the larger sense, they had not. He knew this. He knew this each day that he pretended it was a fact most forgotten.

In a just world, in a world worth turning, would it not be so that those that had done wrong would be responsible for righting such things?

“So much lost. Can you not see what could be gained, as well?”

Perhaps it was a lie that he could not.

Lira’s laughter drew his focus, and he quickened his steps to catch up to his charges, letting the introspection drain into the dust of each footstep that trailed in his wake. There were better things to ponder than himself, and he promised, quietly, sincerely, that he would endeavor to place them foremost in his focus.

If only such things were so easy to achieve by wishing them to be.

Chapter Text

His back pressed against the flat of the bed upon which he laid, gaze locked on the shifting nothing of the false ceiling above its aim. He idled, thoughts ambling in circled paths that wound around one another, each spiral the color of regret and the flavor of doubt. His unease marched with the fervor of a parade, banners held high and horns blaring, the cobbled streets of his soul marred with its passage.

He had no wish for rebellion. He had no desire to place himself at the head of a charge, to fling himself into the path of change so that the power of his hands shaped what it could become. He had seen the damage such a pursuit could cause, had seen the failure it could quickly become. He had decimated the last of his energy to the dregs with no gain but destruction. He had crafted the loss he bestowed upon the world when his intent had been to give.

Yet still, knowing all that, he felt stirred beyond stillness. He felt the urge to lift his head, to open his eyes, and search the world for points which fate could be altered. For himself it meant nothing, his own life already forfeit and his own hopes crumbled beyond salvation. For those he had unearthed in the rubble, however, the sweet souls he found himself now full of care for? What remained of their fate if he kept to himself and offered no aid?

His pondering halted as the Uthvir thrummed to life, the green of the magic filling the room with a glow soft enough he could have ignored it if he wished. He could have ignored many things if he had the stomach for such, turning his cheek and proceeding with the existence of regret and solitude he had earned. It would have been wiser, but he had never been skilled at clinging to that which was wise when that which was clever called to him more.

Or that which was honest.

He sat up, staring at the surface of the mirror and waiting for his friends to come through. It did not rightly seem late enough for their arrival, but perhaps the passage of time beyond the fade had gotten away from him as he mulled over complexities in his timeless home. Even as unsure of the hours as he was, he still noticed when minutes had passed and no one had come through. He frowned at the Uthvir, wondering if he was being summoned rather than visited.

He was about to investigate when a face did emerge through the green, peering into his dwelling as one would peer through the chasm of a door swung wide. Her smirk was unmarred by whatever passage of time had occurred as she leveled it at him, grey eyes alight once more with mischief that was as much a lure as it was antagonism.

“You coming?”

“How did you locate me?” he frowned at her, his mood less inclined to humor Fenni’s eccentricities at present. He wrestled with too much weight to yet have the lightness required for dancing, and with her he was certain there would be nothing but promenades, all of which asked more than they offered.

Her smile grew wide, her long nose shading it like a beak. “I didn’t. And since you’re asking, I’ll infer you didn’t locate me, either. Who arranged this meeting, then, I wonder?” her gaze tilted up in pace with her chin, lingering on the arch of the Uthvir. “Oh, she’s lovely.”

“And willful, it would seem.” He frowned at the mirror as though his expression could serve as admonishment. What manner of spirit had been cradled within that could impose their ideas upon its function? He’d not thought to question this before, but since the aftermath of his travels with Eva, he had queries aplenty. Not so many that he was willing to abandon its use, but enough to fill him with wonder that was not entirely pleasant.

“I’d be curious to know where such a thing was acquired…no, I suppose if you’re not spouting off your name, you wouldn’t be likely to tell me that, either. I’ll not waste my breath.” Her hair, flickering like flame along the threads of a wick, rolled over her shoulder and into his room. This was followed briskly by her hand, waving him onward to meet her where she stood beyond the portal’s glow. “Come on, then, let’s see what she’s got in mind for us. Unless you’ve a desire to sit on that curiosity and ignore it.”

The scowl he leveled at her was one he’d known to send lesser people quaking, but all it spurred from her was a laugh. He could not bring himself to turn away from the curiosity of which she spoke, but he did choose to ignore the smug glean of satisfaction painted on her features as he rose from his bed. She disappeared through the Uthvir as he approached, taking a single, bracing breath before plunging onward into whatever machinations fate seemed to have in store for his immediate hours.

For a moment, he’d thought the location was simply an extension of the murky shadows woven through Fenni’s clothes. The dimness beyond the Uthvir carried with it a still magnitude, far more morose than a storm and far less vibrant than the blackness found within the roads of stone below the sky. He blinked until the undistinguished could take form, the looming shapes of black fading to ashen grey. The hues were twins, brethren wrapping around one another, far from the colors that invigorated the rest of the scale, but there was no mistaking the difference between them. Black was the absence, the missing light through which nothing but imagination could flourish. In grey there was meaning, there was weight, its definition bound as much in its cause as the mood of the observer.

Before them spread a ruin. Uniform in color with shapes yet indistinct, it was obvious that it could be called nothing but, the bones of what once had stood enough to glean that this was little more than a remnant. Buildings had been coated in ash, then aged into stone. Streets had been swallowed by a rain of choking, heated wind. On the horizon, beyond the darkness of the town, he could see what was left of the mountain, the volcano that had split apart to gift an end to all that had lived here.

“Barindur, if I’m not mistaken.” Fenni told him, leaning her elbow against the entombed shape of a person who had been caught in the blast, their death an instant and their last moment enshrined for all time. “Imagine being a human, just out to buy some groceries, and suddenly a mountain drops itself on your head.”

“At least they would have been given no time to contemplate such a demise.” He glanced at a smaller statue, its height telling more tale than he wished to hear, the lingering trace of the innocence snuffed painful regardless of its distance in time. How cruel it was that such short lives could be counted so much shorter in such events. Though, with what he had seen of the world and the pain that anointed its breath, perhaps fewer days spent in it was a kindness. It never felt that way, though.

“Yes, how arduous it would be to contemplate an avalanche as it approached.” Her damnable smirk drifted past her lips more often than the breeze kissed the sky. Coy interest hovered in her gaze, the promise that her words carried a meaning he could not grasp just below the surface of their text. “Don’t let it break your heart.”

He did not rise to the bait that was the arch of her eyebrow, instead strolling past her and further into the ruin. The edge of the town had been flattened, spirits flickering at this end as they lingered in the most virulent memories it held. The destruction of Barindur was hardly the only event of import that had marred this place in Thedas, and that was evidenced by the bright sparks of magic that coiled through the air in each cardinal direction. They swirled as pillars of scarred atmosphere, marking the pull of mana through the veil that had forever wrinkled the entry and exit point. Like his own, that expenditure of energy had bought the world little, though it had also failed to cost it much beyond a further ruined ruin.

“It is said that here was where the Archon of the time faced the prideful souls that had pierced the veil.” He murmured, unsure if he was speaking to Fenni or merely for his own sake. “Defeated them, indeed, striking down their fury to halt further machinations. If only such an act of sense had not come at an hour too late.”

“Defeated, yes.” Fenni skipped back into his view, feet poised atop the strewn rubble as though it offered all the frivolity of stones in a babbling brook. “Such hubris, to pierce that veil. How impenetrable it must have seemed to them until that moment.”

“You disagree?” he raised his brow at her, the sardonic reply losing some of its acid in the humor of the consideration. “You find it so easy to ignore the greatest barrier yet known?”

“Oh-ho!” she laughed, hands on her stomach as though to brace against the mirth. It was a pleasing sound, far less vexing than the smirks, though he had no doubt both were at his expense all the same. “Quite a confidence in the veil. I’ll not poke anymore holes in your theory, then. You’ll find enough of them in your own time.” Her eyes glittered with mischief, taunting him once again with phrases that spun around secrets she would not reveal.

They continued in silence for a time, strolling amid the decay of civilization as though it were a path swathed through verdant garden. The traces of the magic which throttled this spot time and time again were as static against his skin, toying with the subtle imperfections it found there and running unsettling sensations along the length of his spine. They approached a crater that dipped into a cliff, the horizon lifting its skirt to reveal the lavish swells of sea that flirted with the shore. There was naught but ocean for countless miles, unfathomed and unsailed for equally countless years. The horizons they had lost sight of broke his heart, and he wondered how small the world could dwindle before it folded in upon itself in full collapse.

“Are you from near here?” he asked, piercing the silence with the most hesitant of questions in the hopes that she would answer with more than a riddle.

She perched herself at the edge of the cliff, settling in a way that made her look near enough to taking flight that he was shocked her cape did not become wings. “Sort of. I have not been from anywhere for a long time, though.”

“I can empathize.” He said honestly, feeling the truth of it resonate in echoes of pain within his own empty shores.

“For me, my roots were ripped from where they stood.” She huffed a breath of bitterness, though that cursed smile failed to fall from her lips. “My brother mouthed off to the wrong person, and so our fates were sealed.”

A subjugation, then. A fitting fate to match the marks of slavery upon her cheeks, if not a kind one. “I am sorry.” That, too, was honest. As irksome as he found her, he’d no wish for her suffering, past or present.

“I know.” This simple assent carried the most sincerity of anything she had said, and so he took it for an olive branch, settling to sit beside her above the distant waves. “There is much I miss about home. Sometimes it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the wish to go back.”

“Do you have the freedom for such?” she was free enough within the confines of the fade, but that meant nothing when it came to the world beyond the veil. Much like Eva, and now Lira and Roman, their prisons caged them firmly in place. They’d no more room for escape than leashed dogs, though dwelling on it brought him heartbreak and rage that placed an itch across his palms and feet, begging movement.

“No more than you do.” Her gaze was wide as she took in the fade-swallowed sky, blue but for the riot of oil-slick rainbow that crossed the surface. Her words, quiet and simple, plucked at things within himself he kept sacred and dormant, the fear of letting them free too great to see what song they might sing. “My brother always said going back was the safest road to travel.”

“Perhaps.” He smiled, falling short of the chuckle that rumbled in his chest. Returning to what had been always seemed a comfort, for change and the unknown brought only uncertainty.

She leaned back, palms flat to the ground as her hair caught the breeze. “My brother was a damn liar, though.” That he did laugh at, which brought a grin to her expression that lifted her cheeks and lit her eyes. “You’ll never get anywhere if you only go where you’ve been. And if you never go anywhere, you’re just stuck in your own mistakes. Forward is far safer, in that case.”

“An…interesting outlook.” He was unsure how he felt about it. Some days it felt as though the wish to go back, to undo what had been done, to fix what had been broken, was the only thing that mattered. That it was, in fact, his duty, though he could not stomach what it might cost to commit to such an act. Maybe the cost did not matter and should bear no weight in the decision. Perhaps the cost was the only thing worth considering, and whatever it might be was too great in all cases.

The wind lifted from the leagues of the sea, carrying with it salt and life that would never still. He closed his eyes, breathing with the land, swaying with the gentle curve of each bow in the waters and each dip in the earth. Forward. Where was it that forward would take him? He wasn’t even certain that he knew how to find such a direction any longer.

“Your friends, they’re from Kirkwall, right?” Fenni’s voice drew him from his reverie, tugging at both his curiosity and vexation as though the pair were forever intertwined, one in the same. Beneath that twisted fear, the strike of it yellow and sharp along the tightening span of his posture.

“Yes.” He said simply, offering no inclination as to his offense beyond the clipped syllable of his answer.

He was unsure how she could have known about who he chose to travel with, nor what might she do with knowledge of his companions. What could she do? He’d not yet discerned where she rested her head before flouncing into his realm, so it was impossible to know if the young mages were within her reach. Nor did he know what capabilities she had to step beyond that, into the tower which kept them bound. It was unlikely she served as one of their captors, even the modern elves loathe to step to the templars’ drum, but that whittled away only one layer of implied warning.

She stood, sweeping nonexistent dust from her legs before she straightened and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “I’ve something to show you.”

He rose to match her height, examining her every motion for signs of danger, for signs of threat. He knew nothing of her, could say with no reasonable logic that she bore him no ill will, yet he found himself unable to truly fret at her intentions. He again wished to ask who she was, to delve into her past and pick apart the details until he knew what it was that drove her, and deeper than that, why it felt familiar. His tongue remained firmly lodged in place, as statuesque as the poor souls in the city behind them, never to give sound to what it was that came forefront to their heart.

Within her hand she gripped a blade, shortened in the shape of a jagged dagger, the metal of it folded so that the ripples of its molten flow had been recorded in its hue. She drew it through the air, opening a gash across nothing, dark feathers falling from its center until it pried itself apart. Unfurling with lurid theatrics, it soon became a portal much the same size as the Uthvir, a similar shimmer of magic beckoning them through.

He narrowed his eyes at the blade, noting the effigies on the hilt that would match the patron of her tattoos. “What manner of instrument is that?”

“What manner of eluvian is your Uthvir?” she shot back, not an ounce of hesitation before the rejoinder had left her lips. She tilted another smile his way as his jaw settled with tension.

“It…was a gift. An artifact made possible only through its existence in the fade.” He spoke the admission reluctantly, each word feeling like a loss even as he hoped it would gain him ground within her opinion.

The smile she offered in return was radiant, but he held little interest for it unless it was chased with information of more sustenance. She held up the blade, folding her fingers out of the way so that most of it was within his gaze to allow examination. The hilt was adorned with the symbols of the evanuris, that etched across the bodies of ravens that twined together in unmoving flight.

“My brother might call it a gift, as well.” Her eyes caught light and matched the shimmering edge of the dagger, each glinting with playful challenge.

He could not resist a smile in turn. “Ah, but your brother is a liar.”

“Good memory. Some of the time. Glad to know you can occasionally pay attention to someone else.” She angled the tip of the blade near her temple then swung it towards him in a cheeky salute. “I’d call it more a tool of the trade. It was given, but hardly a gift. I’ve always called it Da’boranehn.”

Little lost joy. He chuckled at that, shaking his head. “A bit to the point, is it not?”

“My brother’s is a two-hander, so I call his Boranehn.” She winked, flipping the blade and tucking it back into a sheath he could not see, lost somewhere in the folds of her cloak. “Besides, what’s a blade destined to be but joy lost? And, if you’re using it right, rather pointed.”

He nodded, his laughter bubbling louder though never quite so boisterous that the humor lifted his distrust entirely. He had offered her a detail and she had given one in return, however. It did little to elucidate her identity but did much to set the terms of this game they’d chosen to play. With that rule in place, it was possible for him to form strategies to reach his goals, preferably without sacrificing what he was unwilling to part with. If he was careful enough, choosing words wisely and cautious with his curiosity, he could glean enough pieces to unravel her mystery.

He considered asking where it was the portal would lead, but as he did not feel the information would be given freely, he did not wish to waste a move trying to obtain it. It mattered little wherein the fade he followed, for he could summon the Uthvir from any corner. Presuming, of course, that the eluvian decided to heed his call at the expense of whatever lesson it was attempting to impart with its meddling.

He offered a stately smile as he strolled through the doorway, magic rippling through his nerves and leaving a tingling aftertaste atop the tip of his tongue. Beyond the other side was another city, this one only marginally less a ruin than the one they left. Stone the color of sun-aching sand had been stacked in towering walls, spikes lining the edges that loomed unwelcoming to all but the birds that could perch there. The smell of the sea remained in the air, brushing against the forms of the great bronze statues on either side of the docks to leave salt and moisture that corroded them pale.

Most obvious on the shackled shores were not the effigies of slavery erected by Imperium pride, nor the refuse layered in the corners where the will had been so drained from the inhabitants that cleaning seemed too tall an ask. What was most obvious about Kirkwall was what had been most obvious about it for hundreds of years: the all-encompassing, choking sadness of suffering, as baked into the cobbles as the sun. Even Fenni did not smile as she gazed at the stairwell that would lead to only marginally less dreary neighborhoods, the blood and bones that had passed through them less tortured in privilege alone and little else.

The few details that had been dropped by Lira and Roman were reason enough to dislike such a dreary place, but now that he found his feet amongst the stones that had absorbed so much blood over the years the veil was all but a hole, he loathed it. He loathed the signs of the people that had been brought in chains to be slaughtered. He loathed the effigies of hatred and misery that were still hung upon the walls, as though it sapped even the will to paint over them from those forced to reside here. He loathed the air of oppression that hung thick in each breath, the recent bouts of violence leading to a political turmoil that looked more and more as though it could not be resolved without further bloodshed.

“Oh, that frown. That’s a serious business frown.” Fenni bounced on her feet beside him, her hands clasped behind her back. She grinned as though the world were simply a farce upon which she could paint her humor. “Good to see oppression irritates you as much as it should.”

That caught his curiosity, much as she must have intended if her smug expression was any indication. “That surprises you?”

“No. It’s still good to see, though.”

She strolled forward, gait light and measured, each step a determination made with intent as much as it was a second thought. The way she moved was a curiosity to him as he trailed after her, wondering what it was she wished to share this eve. Every muscle within her lithe frame seemed to be honed to a purpose, as though her body was molded from the stoutest clay to serve as an intentional tool. There was no uncertainty in the swing of her legs, no loss of balance in the arc of her arms, no hesitancy in the roll of her shoulders.

He had seen such graceful calculation before, but never in a mage.

That realization echoed through his head, its brightness as good as lightning that blinded his attention to all else for a moment. His own steps stuttered, though he was quick to keep them from stopping, unwilling to explain a halt just yet. It had not occurred to him, in his many ponderings of who she was and where she had come from, that she would not be a magic user. To walk the fade without such an ability would be unheard of, the veil providing even more certainty of that barrier.

Perhaps she was like Andraste in physique as well as hair. Perhaps she carried magical abilities but chose to hone her dexterity as well. It would have been a wise course to pursue considering the state of magic in Thedas in this day and age. One would not be so defenseless before the templars if they could fight without aid of their spells, though that would also presuppose that they could outwit the pain which came from a vicious smite.

“Shit.” Fenni’s curse intruded upon his thoughts as she ducked around the edge of a building, grabbing his elbow and tugging him along the same path. Her eyes were locked on the center of a courtyard not far from where they stood, and there was so much a feast for his gaze there that it took him a moment to dissect the scene.

Threads of fate in the form of possibility converged near this point. A hundred, perhaps a thousand pathways carved in slowed blurs, as though a picture of someone’s passage had been painted for every step they had taken. The woman that seemed to be the focus of such inspection offered yet another piece of a riddle he’d not yet found all the words to ponder, her red hair marking her as the next iteration in a pattern he couldn’t understand.

Her days seemed recorded for the perusal of hundreds of spirits that crowded in the air, clinging to the destiny that hung thick across the sky. Even mundane things, walking beside friends, lifting a bit of merchandise at a stall, were painted with as much brilliance as those that seemed to hold more import. He could see her running, tears trapped upon her cheeks. He could see her fighting, two blades gripped in diminutive hands, her blood as bright as her curls as it seeped from her wounds. He could see her looking at points of brightness with adoration and yearning, her heart echoing the soft glow to reveal the depth of her love.

The woman - nothing more than a slip of a girl in half the pathways - was not the only thing in the center of the square. He swallowed, his heart beating faster, his breath coming quicker, the thoughts in his head slowing as a counterpoint so that he felt thickened and stretched in one.

Standing in a thoughtful pose, one finger tapping absently against her cheek, stood Mythal. No longer the spirit form that had beset them in the past, now she was in the body that matched the woman whom she had stolen it from. Her eyes, yellow as the spots on dart frog’s flesh, were searching the shape of the redhead trapped in this city, pensive and interested. In the hand not poised against her cheek, she held a chess piece, painted the exact color as the rogue’s hair.

Fenni, whose grip was still cinched around his arm, trembled as they looked on. He spared a brief glance to his companion’s face, noting the tension building there beneath a poorly concealed grimace. Rage, undiminished by her guarded nature, flashed in her grey eyes as though she wished such a gaze could pierce the same as a flung blade.

Fenni knew whom she was looking at.

He glared at her, a shudder passing through him that drew her attention, and she met his eyes and knew what he had seen. He held her attention for only a moment before it refocused back on Mythal a few paces from them, but it had been enough to pass between them a message loud as a stricken bell. He would require answers from her when they had escaped this moment.

For now, he would keep his quiet, huddled in the shadows with a woman who he could scarcely say he knew to avoid the notice of a woman he had known for incalculable years. Did he fear Mythal’s notice because of what had happened with Eva? Did he fear it because he had no wish to be brought into the throes of rebellion once more, anointed her knight and protector? Or was there something more, something unspeakable, that stayed his feet in the darkness beyond the light of her eyes?

He failed to understand it, but he did know it, that feeling of dread at her presence. Whatever the cause, whatever the source, he could do nothing but listen to the instinct, and would take the soonest opportunity to flee. Once he had his answers from Fenni, once he had taken that information and returned to his solitude, he could pick apart his own heart until it spoke a language he could parse.

Then Mythal turned to stare in his direction, their gazes meeting, and he did the only thing he could think of.

“Run!” he hissed to Fenni, grabbing her hand and pulling her with him as the Uthvir appeared before them, the magic readily drawing them in…and not to where he had intended to go.

*

She chuckled to herself as she watched him disappear, hand in hand with a problem he’d not recognized as his own. She, too, seemed to have taken on an aspect to match the theme.

The chess piece caught the false light of the fake sun as she held it up, examining the flawless curve of the carve and the rich hue of the stain. Her gaze darted towards where he had disappeared, he that would fancy himself a simple Traveler, and could not help but smirk. She ought to have known that was how that occurred.

Pocketing the chess piece, she gazed at the girl who would burn all the world just to feel. Her mystery, at least, was solved. A chance encounter, a stubborn spirit, and a plot that would come to no fruition. It must have seemed tragic to those that did not hold a pen to scribe the tale. Her story was all but assured, the blank pages in this chapter running thin. The next tome beckoned, she thought, paper eager to bleed ink and record the rush to import, the rush to change, the rush to cataclysm.

Ah, but while that red had been ascertained, she’d not thought to tally this other. His gaze held much, but not recognition or certainty. At least, not of the kind that would require her action. Still. It was not a thread that could be left loose. She would need to step in soon, of that she was sure. Best to prepare for such a task.

She spun on her heel, marching from the courtyard of Kirkwall and into pathways beyond, intent to ready herself for the next waltz scheduled to occur, the song heavy on her shoulders even as it fell from her steps. She had been waiting for it, though, and was excited that the cusp of history would finally be broached. What small delay this development would cause could not begin to change the course, and that was all she needed to further her story.

The only story that mattered.

Chapter Text

The gentle scrape of chisel upon stone filled the room, the stench of lyrium heavy in the back of his throat. Roman couldn’t remember if the enchantment lab had always smelled as such, if it had always been so cloying that rotten meat would have offered clearer breath, but standing amid the tables and emptiness today felt like bathing in blue. He didn’t remember it bothering him as much before, but that could have been attributed to a number of things. His tolerance shortening, the doses of the templars rising, the experimental lyrium in the next room over, or perhaps simply the untethering of his soul.

It was harder to sit in a room lacking dreams when his own now held so much wonder.

This was no simple displeasure at his circumstances, though. He blinked, feeling as though the world was hazy, a fog of mana clouding his thoughts as sharp as a fever. It could very well have been a fever, as the faint exhaustion in his limbs seemed to tremble, offering unsteadiness at a time when he must be firm.

The number of templars overseeing the lab had been increased. They posted themselves in every corner of the room, blue eyes intently surveying every inch of such a domain. Their distemper was as thick in the atmosphere as the lyrium, and each time Roman happened to catch one in his sight, he could feel their rage and hatred rising to the surface of their minds.

Some of the templars in the gallows had been kind, once. That no longer seemed to be the case. With every day the Knight-Commander oversaw their training, a new layer of distrust and loathing was piled upon them. Lesson after lesson, regimen after regimen, they were built to be soldiers that made an enemy of that which they told the world they would protect.

Metal scraped against stone, reverberating in every direction. The scuff of an armored boot against the floor. The chip of the instrument in Vanna’s hand as she crafted a rune. The thud of his heart against his ribs, each feeling heavier than marble and as fragile as glass. That was better to listen to than the song, though.

He hadn’t told anyone about that. The sound of it lingered in the back of his head every now and then, usually at the end of his days before he left the lab. It hummed, it pulsed, like a drum made of string being struck by a feather. No one else seemed to hear it, and indeed he never felt as though it reached his ears so much as the center of his being. It coiled around places no sound was meant to rest, hotter than his flesh and sharper than his grinding teeth. He could not describe accurately where it went when it reached him, but he could describe accurately from where it had come.

He glanced at the room beyond the lab, the door shut and locked, barred from their entry as much as anyone else. That was the room where they had enchanted the Knight-Commander’s sword, and it had been off limits to all but herself and a select few tranquil since. Roman hadn’t worked with the ones that passed through that door. He was not trusted enough, not powerful enough. He was a shepherd only to the paltry initiates, crafting simple runes to be shuffled off and sold elsewhere.

He didn’t know what was in there that could sing. He didn’t think he wanted to know. He didn’t want to dwell on it, to wonder if it was why the air seemed heavier or the lyrium stronger. He didn’t want to think about what it meant that he was close to the room and felt ill, his stomach rolling as moisture built in the center of his palms. He didn’t want to think about what it would mean that the templars were holding something within, tending to it or utilizing it, and that after each pass the tension in the tower would grow tighter and the hatred from their jailers more tangible.

The scrape of stone had stopped. He blinked, refocusing on Vanna, who had not finished her rune but was staring at it, the barest furrow in her branded brow. He walked over to her, placing a hand on her shoulder to draw her attention. It was gentle, it was the brush of friendship to a person rarely offered such, and though it never made a difference, Roman wouldn’t have been Roman if he didn’t commit to it all the same.

In the moments following, as swift and confusing as they were, he would wonder if it was that touch that would damn him. Was his kindness his downfall? Was it the beating of his heart and the wonder of his dreams that had marked him as doomed? He didn’t think so. Those were the things that set him free and would keep him free, no matter the fate that befell him. In any case, the fault or not, if he had been given the choice, he would have done the same. Kindness might not have been bravery, but it was far, far better than fear.

Vanna jumped at his touch, looking up at him with wide, bright eyes. “What…what’s happening?” she blinked, tears filling the rim of her lashes, that same spark he’d always searched for catching against kindling to become a wildfire.

“Vanna?” he could scarcely whisper her name, unsure of what it was he was seeing. The deadened glaze to her vision was gone, the slack expression in her jaw curving into a terrified grimace. Suddenly the artistry had returned to the sea of her eyes, as bright and blinding as the scales of sunlight caught across the waves.

“What did you do?” her voice was too high, too loud, and already the templars were shifting. Their helmed heads turned as though on axles, pivoting to place the mage and the tranquil in the center of their attention. “Please, don’t put me back. Don’t do it again!”

The panic in her voice killed him, cracking pieces of his heart that had been firm and unbreakable until this moment. She touched the mark on her forehead, as though she remembered the day it had been placed there, feeling its edges like fingertips could discern the passage of time. Her confusion was as bright as her mind, each intermingling to prove one thing true above all else.

He had been right. They were not gone. They were not unreachable.

“What are you doing?” a gauntlet wrapped around his arm, yanking him backwards. His feet lost their grip on the ground, his balance careening away from him as he was thrown to the side. Vanna screamed, the sound high and clear and nothing like the scuffing stone or the haunting song. The ring of steel followed quickly, so fast that he hadn’t even hit the floor before swords were flashing in the flickering candlelight.

“Wait -” he raised his hand, reaching across an impossible distance on instinct and little else. It was useless. It was as useless as his dreams, as useless as his empty hopes, as useless as his love and kindness.

He had never heard the sound of a blade sinking into flesh. He had never heard the sound of blood splattering from the wound, hitting the floor with a wet slap that was so unlike spilled water, so much heavier than a toppled potion. The sound of metal passing across bone, muffled by the layers of skin and meat, was a foreign experience to his ears. Perhaps that was why they picked it up with such clarity, marking each different tone as Vanna’s life was severed and her body dropped.

The sound of death was so much worse than a tranquil’s monotone.

One of the templars yanked him to his feet, and he knew that he had been pinned as the cause. He’d done nothing, taken no action more threatening or impactful than placing his hand on the shoulder of a friend, but that was evidence so damning there would be no defense against it. He had been present and something had gone wrong, that was the beginning and end of the case, and Roman knew that mages had been condemned for far, far less in the spire of bone-white misery in which they’d been trapped.

He knew, too, what his sentence would be. They’d just killed a good tranquil because she’d spent a few moments as herself, and that would cost them in productivity if she weren’t replaced. Convenient that they had a spare between the metal fingers of their hands, rough and uncaring as they dragged him from the lab.

“Inform the Knight-Commander and request the brand.” The templar to his right barked the words to one of those not currently holding Roman captive. Even knowing what his fate would be, still his stomach dropped to hear it mentioned aloud.

The brand. Such an unassuming name for such a world-shaking object. A simple stick of lyrium, molded by tranquil to perpetuate more of them. No longer than the span of a hand, no more conspicuous than a rod of chalk. The mark it left would be far more permanent than powder upon stone, however. It would be warmed, the sunburst spiral that the chantry espoused on the tip lit like the celestial being it evoked. Once hot, once primed, they would press it to his forehead and summon their abilities to drive it home. It would cut to his center, the smoke of his charred flesh lingering in the air as whatever part of himself he could claim his own was crushed.

Would anyone stand beside him in a lab, checking to see if his spark yet remained?

He tried to walk on his own to keep up with the templars’ pace, to retain some measure of poise despite the shaking in his knees and the quaking of his breaths. He was a stutter from a sob at each step, willing himself not to break down. He didn’t know what good dignity would do in such a situation, but it felt as though it was important. Perhaps because he knew in moments he would be dragged through rooms where his brethren would see his face, would note his expression as they noted where it was he would be taken. Did it do them a service to appear brave as he faced their worst nightmare? Did that provide comfort or courage to those left behind?

It had never felt that way to him on the other side, but the ones that fought or sobbed were harder to watch, and maybe taking away that modicum of pain was good enough for a last act.

He avoided the eyes of the mages in the hall as he stumbled past them. He could feel their pity without meeting their gazes, could feel their sorrow and mourning. The fear from their vigil was as thick in the air as the lyrium, and he wished that everything was different. He wished that there were no circles, that the templars had never been conceived. That no one had looked upon mages and thought they were too powerful to keep their souls. He wished that he had the power or the wisdom to have fought for a future that resembled that even if there was no way to change the past.

Tranquility was a horror, a fate worse than death, but as his eyes happened upon a corner of the library, he found that there were things that could make this much, much worse.

Her eyes were made for warmth and joy, but here they carried sorrow. Her lips were meant for laughter and love, but now they trembled and frowned. Her cheeks were made to rise and flush, yet this had drained their color and threatened them with tears. Lira watched him dragged away, every feature upon her face the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and he could count each second that it took for her heart to crumble in his wake.

She was deserving of so much more than a panicked glance across a fear-drowned tower.

He could not tell her that he loved her, he could not tell her that she was his everything, that she had made his entire life worth living. He could not take her hand and promise her that he was okay, that he wanted her to forget about him and be happy. He could not tell her that ten minutes with her would have been worth a lifetime of pain, and he counted himself lucky beyond measure that she had given him so much more. If he gave her words to define any of the things in his heart, it would condemn her as much as him. Her fate would be sealed for a momentary comfort, and even as his eyes filled with tears and his mind reeled with fear that he must go this path alone, he could not be so selfish as to want her to follow.

He turned, knowing that it was folly and knowing that it would make no sense. He did not look at her directly, instead sweeping his gaze across the room, hoping that she knew it was all for her. His entire being was for her, and this was the only message that he could offer in farewell.

“The spark never dies. Never give up on it. Always look for the spark.”

The fist that cuffed his jaw silenced him, but that was all he had needed to say. It was not as much as she deserved, but he had given all he had. If there was any kindness in this world, she would have felt the depth of it even in such a shallow goodbye. He would never know, because he was taken out of the room beyond her sight, and she beyond his.

For good this time.